Just as cycling gains traction as an alternative mode of transport, bicycle tours are similarly gaining favour in Singapore. This trend is not just seen among tourists, but also among Singaporeans who want to explore the city’s heritage zones and rediscover their roots.
I would know, as making my way through Singapore’s heritage sites and finding out more about our history has always been something that I wanted to accomplish – the freedom, the joy of wandering the city in my own time, even the muscle aches that accompany each ride.
With Singapore making great strides towards being a more bike-friendly city, this was the perfect opportunity for me to sign up for a half-day Historical Singapore Tour with Let’s Go Bike Singapore, an operator of bicycle tours promising a ‘true local Singaporean experience’.
On the day itself, after a brief introduction of the day’s programme, Alfie, our tour guide shared some safety rules and codes of conduct for us to observe, such as: keeping to the left on the pathways, being alert, giving way to the pedestrians and following the traffic rules. Although we needed to alert pedestrians of our presence, we were reminded to be mindful about using the bicycle bell. He shared a tip: “To be courteous, when you’re in a group, only the lead rider should ring the bell to alert the pedestrians. If everyone rings the bell at the same time, pedestrians may find it noisy and rude.” This useful tip was something I felt I could apply to my daily cycling habits.
Armed with a helmet, bottle of water, we set off! Our first stop, a short ride away from Let’s Go Bike’s office at High Street was the Speakers Corner, an area within Hong Lim Park that was known for being the only place in Singapore where protests could legally be held. At the same time, Alfie pointed out to us the beautiful, lush exterior plant-covered balconies and terraces of Park Royal Pickering Hotel, one of Singapore’s first eco-friendly hotel.
What is so magical about exploring Singapore by bicycle? On a bicycle, it was fast enough to see everything in a day without feeling like it was too “touch-and-go”. Having Alfie, who once worked as a guide for bus tours lead us also allowed us to better to appreciate the lesser known sights in Singapore, which we might have passed by otherwise, oblivious to their existence. I felt more attuned to the slight inclines of the city streets and was able to actively take in the sights and smells each neighbourhood had to offer, ones that I would have otherwise overlooked or have forgotten. For instance, as we made our way down from Chinatown past Tiong Bahru, I would have ridden by the Tiong Bahru Bird Singing Corner blindly if Alfie had not pointed it out.
A uniquely but dwindling Singaporean activity – evident by its lack of patrons on the day of the visit – it is a corner reserved for bird lovers and hobbyists to bring their prized pets in nicely decorated cages to hang and admire, while they catch up over a cup of coffee.
Though the terrain was smooth and even for most of the route, the narrow pathways circling the Singapore General Hospital proved to be a challenge to me. On the narrow path, I tried to keep as much as I could to the left and made way for incoming pedestrians. At the same time, I appreciate pedestrians who also kept to their side of the path, giving way as I said “Excuse me” and “Thank you”. Two of the construction workers even bid me to take care as I cycled past them. Who said pedestrians and cyclists couldn’t share a pathway graciously?
After making our way through the three Quays of Singapore (Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and Robertson Quay), Alfie took us through a scenic route past Fort Canning Park, through the Museum District before we broke for lunch at YY Kafei Dian, a local coffee shop better known for their breakfast sets and Hainanese chicken rice along Beach Road. The physical exertion under the afternoon sun was starting to get to us, but Alfie’s exuberance kept us going, from the jokes – “Did you know that Singapore’s favourite pet is the crane?” to stories, interspersed with personal insights – about Masjid Sultan Mosque, the former royal mosque of the Sultan of Johor at Arab Street, housed within Singapore’s ‘Muslim quarter’.
From Kampong Glam, we breezed through City Hall, taking snapshots of Raffles Hotel and the WWII memorial, before stopping for our last break by Marina Bay – a vantage point of the sights of Esplanade, Merlion Park and Fullerton Hotel all in close proximity. After the last parting shot, we were done with our tour. While we moved through each route so seamlessly, Alfie highlighted how the planning took more thought and effort. Each route was customised, catering to the unique interests of the group – from museum lovers to foodies – and a single planned route would usually take multiple trips and refinement. It would take into consideration the human traffic, road conditions or closure, weather and special events taking place – which varies from day to day.
In the generation of Google Maps, the unyielding need for efficiency and being in control of where you are headed to has eaten into the spirit of exploring the intricately connected nooks and crannies of neighbourhoods and the joys when you find different traveling routes or the rewards when you stumble upon a hidden find where you least expect to – be it a bakery, boutique store or even art space.
Once, bus tours were the safest and most convenient way to get around and experience a city. It was comfortable, convenient – but there was always something lacking. When you drive through a city like Singapore, you often let slip of opportunities to fully immerse yourself in the city life and experience only the start and end destinations.
For those who are worried about the heat and humidity in Singapore, bike tours offer the best compromise in terms of speed, convenience and comfort. In under four hours, we covered sixteen pit stops. Being less taxing on the body, less demanding on time and seemingly less sweat-inducing, bike tours allowed me to venture further and see more of the city, as opposed to walking.
The bike tour also served as a safe exercise to familiarise myself with the road safety rules while building up my confidence to ride on the roads. By the end of the tour, I was able to appreciate the island as one large space intricately linked through different histories, businesses and communities instead of multiple, disparate neighbourhoods.
Singapore may be small, but there is still so much more to be discovered. Why not start by planning your own cycling adventure, traffic-free, at the next Car Free Sunday held at Singapore’s Civic District from 8am – 12noon on Sunday, 26th March 2017. With a ready pedal, an open mind and your five senses, you can also discover Singapore the ride way too.