Continue my adventure of visiting every MRT (subway) stop in Singapore, watching the island change one stop at a time. This trip covered a whopping eighteen stops on the Downtown Line (aka the Blue Line), starting in the downtown area and moving gradually northeast to the middle of the island.
Chinatown was once the heart of the Chinese immigrant community in Singapore, and it is now the largest historic district in Singapore. Each January, it also becomes the center of the island’s Chinese New Year celebrations — and we’re going into the Year of the Rat!
Chinatown has plenty of Taoist and Buddhist temples, of course, including the enormous Buddha Tooth Relic Temple …
… but because it once attracted immigrants of all kinds, it is also home to both mosques and southern Hindu temples:
Chinatown attracts a lot of tourists, so this is a good place to find souvenirs galore:
There are also two amazing hawker centers in Chinatown: Maxwell Food Centre and Chinatown Complex Food Centre, each of which boasts a Michelin-star-earning chicken rice stall.
Just over a small hill from Chinatown, Telok Ayer also has streets lined with historic shophouses …
… and old temples:
The building above, Thian Hock Keng, is the oldest Hokkien temple in Singapore. Before Singapore engaged in major land reclamation efforts, Telok Ayer was all coastal, and this temple was dedicated to the worship of Mazu, a Chinese sea goddess. Just one block down sits Masjid Al-Abrar, one of the oldest mosques in the country:
Beyond its historic buildings, Telok Ayer is known for its hip cafes and restaurants — and because it sits right at the edge of the CBD (Central Business District), they’re always crowded.
At this stop, you move from the historic city center to a world of glass and steel …
… with only the occasional bit of greenery:
The single interruption in the skyline is La Pau Sat, a historic building that once housed Singapore’s fish market:
Now a well-known hawker center, La Pau Sat was first constructed in 1824. Rebuilt in 1894 with lots of cast iron, this open-air octagonal food court is one of the oldest Victorian buildings in Southeast Asia.
To get to Bayfront, the MRT travels a short distance around Marina Bay and brings you up to the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, the Marina Bay Sands Convention Center, and the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel …
… home to a famous infinity pool, which sits out on top of the largest cantilevered platform in the world (we visited in 2017):
From Bayfront, you can also walk through a long tunnel to Gardens by the Bay …
… or stroll along the water past floating stores and the brilliant white ArtScience Museum:
Bayfront is a stop for tourists and locals alike, all out for shopping and entertainment.
One one side, Promenade offers access to shopping centers and skyscrapers; on the other, it leads out to the Singapore Flyer (our city Ferris wheel, which you can see in the background above) and also to a terrific view of Marina Bay:
This is also the best station for accessing the Float @ Marina Bay, the world’s largest floating stage, and its 27,000-seat multi-colored gallery:
Here, the Float is set up for River Hongbao, a giant Chinese New Year lantern festival. If you squint, you can see the God of Fortune presiding over the proceedings.
Bugis seems to be synonymous with shopping; the station sits right beneath one shopping mall, Bugis Junction, and is within easy walking distance of two more. There are a few original shophouses just outside of the station …
… but there are even more fake shophouses within the mall itself:
Bugis is also the closest stop to the National Library flagship building and the trendy Kampong Glam neighborhood, so there’s a lot going on here. The MRT station itself is acrowded and sprawling interchange where the Downtown Line meets the East West Line (the Green Line).
Rochor sits at the edge of Little India, where you’ll find rows and rows of shophouses festooned with advertisements of all kinds.
Rochor is also just a few blocks away from Sim Lim Square (famous for selling electronics galore) and the iconic Sim Lim Tower:
Rochor had the first interesting MRT art I’d seen a while: Tracing Memories, by a group of students from the nearby LASALLE College of the Arts:
This column features items found at the nearby Sungei Road Thieves Market, an old but waning institution in Singapore.
Little India is one of the most vibrant places in Singapore — it has murals and colorful buildings …
… massive temple towers …
… and shops settling all sorts of wares: saris and spices, fruits and vegetables, gold jewelry and garlands …
… and pictures of the gods:
The Little India MRT station is another enormous interchange; here, the Downtown Line meets the North East Line (the Purple Line). The station art reflects the neighborhood’s heritage: Memoirs of the Past, by S. Chandrasekaran, draws its inspiration from Indian folk art.
At Newton, you leave Singapore’s lively downtown area and enter the world of condos. The only point of interest here is the Newton Food Centre, opened in 1971 as Singapore’s first hawker center. It’s hugely popular with tourists, especially at night — so there’s not much open at mid-morning:
I liked this tree shrine just outside of the hawker stalls …
… and I’ve always been a fan of the Newton MRT station art:
Titled Newton, MessyMsxi’s ensemble of pieces fancifully envision what Singapore might look like in the year 2200:
Now we head north, and the MRT is starting its run along Bukit Timah, the longest road in Singapore. This section of Bukit Timah is crowded with three things: condos, landed houses, and schools. So it’s pretty boring for the average traveler. But I’ve learned that you can find brief adventures even in the boring spots, so I wandered through tiny Malcolm Park …
… and up to Malcolm Road, where you can see colonial black and white houses from the 1920s:
These old bungalows are now fantastically expensive — you can rent one for about $13,000 USD per month.
Founded in 1869, the Singapore Botanic Gardens have now been named a UNESCO World Heritage site — and this MRT stop comes out right at the Gardens’ northeastern corner. From here, you can walk past plants that are fragrant and fruiting, variegated …
… and in all colors of the rainbow.
If you’re willing to walk about 15 minutes, you can make your way to the spectacular National Orchid Garden.
It’s no surprise that the Botanic Gardens are a popular spot for wedding photos:
Aside from the Botanic Gardens themselves, this stop is right next to the chic and tiny Cluny Court mall and the much less chic Serene shopping center. If you’re thirsty, stop for a fresh juice at Ega Juice Clinic!
Tan Kah Kee
There are exactly two things to see at this stop: Haw Chong Institution, one of the most competitive secondary schools in Singapore …
… and lots of landed houses:
That’s about it, though you can find beauty in the flowers along the station wall …
… the flowers along the Bukit Timah Road overpass (which look down on a giant drainage canal) …
… and the art in the Tan Kah Kee station:
Called Gratitude, this piece is made up of a river of text written by students from Haw Chong.
Sixth Avenue is full of surprises, starting with the station art (unlabelled and untitled), and moving to what you find above ground. The surrounding area first appears to be just an endless sea of condos and landed houses …
… but a bit of wandering leads to several blocks of restaurants, eating houses, a small hawker stall (selling Bismillah Biryani, some of the best of on the island)…
… and shops selling items like wine and houseplants:
They even have a few great murals:
I had far more fun at this stop than I would have expected; given that set in amidst a stretch of very wealthy Upper Bukit Timah homes, Sixth Avenue felt surprisingly down to earth.
King Albert Park
King Albert Park won my “Most Boring Stop of the Trip” award, hands down. It’s all condos and private residences and not much else.
That said, I loved the art in the windows of the overpass above Bukit Timah Road …
… and the station art, The Natural History of Singapore’s Mythical Botanic Creatures by Artists Caravan, is whimsical and fun:
As a side note: for reasons entirely unknown to me, King Albert Park is named for King Albert I of Belgium.
At Beauty World — named after a former amusement park and entertainment center — the wealthy homes of Upper Bukit Timah give way to the ubiquitous government housing structures known as HDBs:
Once a major gambling center, Beauty World is now home to several old malls, a huge array of restaurants, and the yummy Bukit Timah Food Centre:
Beauty World is a hugely active area where you can find everything from paint shops and massage parlors to Korean grocery stores and Chinese temples.
I am a huge fan of the station art at Beauty World MRT, which takes on a 3-D appearance when seen at certain angles:
Called Asemic Lines, this work by Boedi Widjaja takes forms from multiple language (Chinese, Jawi, Tamil, and Latin) and layers them on top of each other. I like that it invites the viewer to “‘hover’ between reading and looking.”
On one side of Bukit Timah Road, you’ll see nothing but condos, condos, and more condos (with Bukit Timah — the tallest hill in Singapore — in the background).
The only place of interest on this side of Bukit Timah Road is iO Italian Osteria in the HillV2 shopping center — across from which I was lucky to catch a lion dance:
But on the other side of the Hillview MRT station, you can hike through Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and find monkeys!
You can also go to Rail Mall (one of the few strip malls in Singapore), have a delicious snack at Springleaf Prata, and imagine what life would have been like when this was an old railway station (here, as envisioned in a mural by Yip Yew Chong):
At first glance, there’s not much of anything at Cashew — this station serves condos on one side of the road and the vast, low-lying Ministry of Defense headquarters on the other:
But walk just a little ways, and you’ll find this beautiful rain tree (designated a national Heritage Tree) …
… and just beyond, you can have fun at Hazel Park Open Space:
But my favorite find near the Cashew stop was the Ga-Hock Eating House, an unassuming old-school coffee shop and seafood restaurant wedged between a busy road and a drainage canal.
I didn’t expect to find so many tables back there — and I certainly didn’t expect to find row upon row of birds tucked between a tin roof and a storage unit!
The northern terminus of the Downtown Line, Bukit Panjang is a massive residential town crammed with HDBs, which stretch out as far as the eye can see.
The MRT station itself doesn’t have much to offer aside from a connection to the LRT (light rail) and access to the somewhat drab Hillion Mall. I wanted to feel excited about Bukit Panjang, but it just didn’t happen. My favorite part of this stop was the station art, Punctum of the Long Hills by John Clang — which, again, focuses on HDBs: