Singapore by MRT: The North East Line

The plan: Visit every MRT (subway) stop on the North East Line (aka the Purple Line) in one day.

The rules: Get out at every stop and spend ten to fifteen minutes wandering around (no more than fifteen unless there’s food involved). Walk up all escalators. Stop only for photos and food.

The goal: See how Singapore changes from the bottom to the top.

The stops:

1. Harbourfront


This is the southern terminus of the Purple Line. The MRT here sits underneath VivoCity, a giant shopping mall that has a lot of stores and not a lot of character (this describes most malls in Singapore). The highlight involves going upstairs and outside, where you can look out over the sea to the island of Sentosa, Singapore’s self-proclaimed State of Fun:


Prescott noted that Harbourfront is an intermodal transportation hub; from here, you can hop on a ferry (it’ll likely take you to Indonesia), ride the Sentosa Express train, or enjoy a gondola ride to either Mt. Faber or Sentosa. If you’re hungry, you don’t have to go anywhere – you can eat at any number of restaurants, including one that features this camel:


Every MRT stop has some sort of station art, and Harbourfront is no exception. For reasons I cannot explain, it hosts this giant foot:


2. Outram Park

Sitting at the southern edge of Chinatown, Outram Park is home to hipster cafes, a police complex, the Singapore Health Authority, and construction as far as the eye can see:


Walk past the block-like buildings, and you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of fun things, from murals …


… to traditional five-foot-way floor tiles …


… to 1920s architecture …


… to these cows (why they’re here, I don’t know):


The Outram Park station is large, dark, and under construction. But like all Singapore stations, it is clean and neat:


As they upgrade this station, they’re adding art (this is Memories III: Medallions, by Wang Lu Sheng, which was inspired by nearby Singapore General Hospital):


Every Singapore MRT has some mix of advertising and public service announcements. This one caught my eye, mostly because I loved the text that accompanied it: “A handsome man you met online declares his love for you, then asks for money to help him out. Don’t fall for his love trap…. Since 2017, internet love scammers have cold-heartedly crushed lovelorn dreams, stealing about $49 million.” That’s quite a warning:


You will find several different pieces of art in Outram Park Station, including these figures pressed into the wall …


… and this giant kimono-like piece:


3. Chinatown

This is by far the most touristy of the stops on the purple line (though a few of the others that follow come close). It’s very active and lively. Just outside the station, you can see all the way to downtown:


The streets in Chinatown are lined with restaurants, renovated shophouses …


… and stores (most of which sell low-quality souvenirs, but a few of which offer exciting goods like Chinese tea and traditional pots):


You’ll find a few Chinatown-themed murals if you sneak through the alleyways:


There are two great hawker centers in Chinatown, though the one closest to the station – in the Chinatown Complex – will be closed for renovations until June 2019. So the food options involve either (1) walking all the way to Maxwell hawker center, (2) knowing which restaurants are actually worth a visit (a challenge early on a Sunday morning), or (3) eating in the MRT station itself (a number of the larger and more MRT stops have restaurants just outside of the turnstiles). In keeping with the spirit of the day, we stopped for an breakfast of kaya toast, soft boiled eggs, and mee rebus at Kopi Express in the Chinatown station. The food was uninspiring, but at least there’s poetry in the station:


4. Clarke Quay


This is another stop popular with tourists; it is very central and provides access to a wide variety of shops and entertainment. You’re most likely to start out in a large mall …


… that will lead you to the Singapore River:


From here, you can take a very long walk up to Robertson Quay, down to Boat Quay, or all the way to Marina Bay. If you want, you can stop at one of the pricey and heavily touristed restaurants along the river.

I like that this Clarke Quay station entrance echoes the prows of the boats on the river …


… and that the station has little faces on the floor that continue this theme:


If you take exit A out of the Clarke Quay station, you will find yourself at Speaker’s Corner, the only place in Singapore where free speech is allowed (under a whole bunch of restrictive conditions, and only if you are a Singaporean citizen). It’s basically a large patch of grass where large groups of people can (but rarely do) gather:


5. Dhoby Ghaut

This is where you go if you want to shop all day, every day. Dhoby Ghaut station leads you straight up to the famous Orchard Road …


… home to one shopping mall after another:


My notes from this stop say, “So many shops! So many escalators!”


Three MRT lines meet up here – the North South (Red), The Circle (Yellow), and the North East (Purple) – making Dhoby Ghaut one of the craziest stations on this particular venture. And Dhoby Ghaut is the largest MRT station in all of Singapore, so it’s no surprise that the whole thing feels a little overwhelming.

6. Little India

The scene changes significantly in Little India – here you find more color, more scents, more crowds, and more grit (not a lot – this is Singapore after all – but it’s a marked difference from the shiny cleanliness of Orchard Road). It always feels a little more crowded and a little louder than the rest of the island.


The streets here are crammed with people and items for sale that spill out right onto the sidewalks, from electronics and toys to elaborate flower garlands …


… to bins of colorful fruits and vegetables …


Little India is great for wandering — and, of course, for eating. The art in the station recalls India’s agricultural roots:


7. Farrer Park


You can think of this as “Little India North” – it’s still very Indian, but it’s mellower and easier to get around. This is where you get off if you want to visit the Mustafa Center (which some say is the largest store in the world under a single roof). This area also has wonderful old shophouses and excellent vegetarian restaurants, should you find yourself getting peckish. Or you can pay a visit to the Sri Srinivasta Perumal Temple:


This south Indian temple has a range of wonderful statuary — few cultures can beat the south Indians for elaborate and brightly-colored deities.


8. Boon Keng

Home to Bendeemer Food Centre & Market, this bustling area just north of Little India has an entirely different flavor. You can buy groceries here …


… or stop for a juice at a hawker stall …


… but everything is under one giant covered roof …


… because you’ve now entered the land of HDBs:


The enormous blocky structures are a sign that you’ve left the older parts of Singapore, which hug the south-central coast, and have now reached the suburbs. But these aren’t the suburbs of the US – you won’t find picket fences and green lawns – rather, these are the suburbs as envisioned by the Singaporean government of the mid-twentieth century. The country’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) eventually built thousands of apartment buildings all over the island. And while they often look very similar, they’re not without a certain beauty:


You also never know what you’ll find when you’re walking around the HDBs – here, we ran into a giant fish tank on the ground outside!


Back Boon Keng Station, there’s loose, cheerful art that makes me smile:


9. Potong Pasir

This is the first place where the suburbs start to feel truly suburban, where the streets are wide and everything feels just a little bit empty.


You’ll find a mixture of condos …


… and HDBs:


I warmed to Potong Pasir as I walked around, largely because the food stalls at the edge of the HDB complex were crowded and interesting. I’m not sure I will make a return trip (my notes from my visit say, “not super fun”), but it made for an good bit of exploring.

10. Woodleigh


This was, hands-down, my least favorite stop of the trip. My notes say, “there’s nothing here. They’re building a mall. They’re building HDBs. Cranes everywhere. Ick. Nothing to see or do.”


This is the newest stop on the North East Line, and there are signs of construction in every direction:


The only redeeming feature of Woodleigh Station was the billboard art featuring member’s of Singapore’s own Thoughtful Family (I’m a sucker for Move-in Martin’s hair):


11. Serangoon

HDBs stretch out in every direction here, packed so closely together that it is impossible to see anything else.


I walked around for ten minutes and saw nothing — nothing — but HDB flats. This was probably my second-least-favorite stop on the line, thought I suspect that there are interesting features hidden somewhere that I didn’t go. At least it was a weekend, which meant that you could look up and see laundry waving from the balconies above.


12. Kovan


This was the the biggest surprise of the trip, the first place in the suburbs where HDBs gave way to two- and three-story landed houses.


I found a mix of single-family homes and HDBs and condos, traditional eating houses and cute cafes (Lola’s was packed, with a line out the door).


You can wander up to the Phoh Kiu Siang T’ng temple, which pops up in the middle of a random side street.


This temple sits in the midst of a fairly wealthy group of houses. I loved their plantings — especially this succulent that appears to have little leaves growing out of big ones:


Kovan is worth a visit, especially if you take exit B. By the way, if you’re wondering what’s around at any given MRT stop, every station has a Locality Map:


HDB flats are depicted as orange block; parks, temples, other places of interest, and streets are all clearly labeled. I generally studied these — but rarely for very long — before going aboveground (this was after I’d rejected my original rule of always using the A exit, which I eventually rejected as being overly impractical).

13. Hougang

Now you’re back to the world of HDBs, but with a twist: in addition to the traditional food stalls at the town center, there’s a small mall tucked in behind the Hougang community hub:


But it’s mostly HDBs, both right in front of the station …


… and far out across this oddly empty field:


And it’s durian season, so there are stalls brimming with this controversial fruit (I’m in the small camp of people who love the smell but are iffy about actually eating it).


14. Buangkok


This stop offered its own surprises. First of all, the HDBs here look newer, which means that the architects have been a bit more creative with shapes …


… and with painting:


You can take a short walk from the station to Punggol Park (this was the one time when I broke my no-longer-than-fifteen-minutes-per-stop rule, though if you walked quickly, you could get to the park and back to Buangkok Station in that amount of time). Punggol Park runs alongside the Punggol River …


… and includes a small, manmade lake …


… and lots of bird’s nest ferns:


You can rent bikes here to ride through the park or along the park connector that leads all the way up to the north coast.

Along my walk, I stumbled on the Puti Buddist Temple (stumbling on temples is easy to do in Singapore):


Buangkok Station has art that features hornbills, which I appreciated:


15. Sengkang

Everyone piled off of the train at Sengkang Station, and I had no idea why. But when we got upstairs, the reason was clear: we were in a giant shopping mall:


This was the biggest mall I’d seen since Dhoby Ghaut Station (though I suspect that I would have found a giant mall at Kovan if I’d been looking). Shopping is a favorite Sunday activity in Singapore, and this place was packed. Sengkang Station is also a hub for one of Singapore’s light rail (LRT) stations, so I’m sure that people were also getting off of our train to transfer to other nearby locations. Outside of the station, you once again walk into a world of HDBs:


16. Punggol


The end of the line! Just outside of Punggol Station, you’ll find a large bus depot, which is crowded with both people and multiple forms of transport.


Other than that, Punggol Station leads you up to a sea of HDBs stretching out in every direction (plus a sprawl of temporary food tents):


I loved my day on the MRT, though it was exhausting — I walked 22,000 steps, climbed 51 floors, and spent nearly six and a half hours on the adventure. But it was fascinating to see Singapore evolve and to experience the MRT itself over an entire line (as a side note, if you want to read some MRT fun facts, this page is great). I’m not yet sure whether I’ll try this experiment on another line; at just sixteen stops, the Purple Line is easily the shortest in Singapore. It is difficult to imagine tackling much more than this, but at some point, it might be fun.

10 responses to “Singapore by MRT: The North East Line

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  8. If you want to see what’s interesting at Serangoon, all you have to do is to take a short cab ride to Serangoon Garden Estate. It’s a village town that has its quirks and charms. No HDBs PLUS it has a very interesting hawker centre called CHOMP CHOMP … and just across the street are bars and desert shops..

  9. Pingback: Sinagpore by MRT, the North South Line, Marina South Pier to Ang Mo Kio | Traveler Tina·

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