Singapore's Gardens by the bay: Celebrating nature with Hi-Tech excellence;
The bounty of nature that awaits a visitor in any of the tropical countries of the world is perhaps the first striking feature of his visit to the tropics. Singapore in spite of being a metropolis is no exception. If you leave a patch of land unattended here, within few weeks it would get converted into a beautiful lush green meadow and if left unattended for few years, the chances are there that a regular tropical rainforest would grow there. I always feel that Singapore or for that matter any of the tropical countries with their fantastic range and array of flora and green foliage are the best examples of celebration by nature.
Singapore lately has been shading some of its fabulous green covers, in its quest for becoming one of the leading cities of the world. Whether due to a feeling of guilt, that they are robbing from people their natural wealth given to them by mother nature or just for the official reason given by the city planners, that they want to create a city in a Garden, a new mega garden project has come up in Singapore, aptly called as 'Gardens by the bay.'
Singapore had till a decade ago a marshy, unused bay with a beach on it's east coast, known as Marina Bay. I remember having visited it about a decade ago. Though a metro rail MRT station existed there since long, there was hardly anything there at that time that could enthuse a visitor. There were few shops and eateries and a flat marshy wasteland leading to a beach. About six or seven years ago, Government decided to convert this bay into a sweet water lake and built a barrage through which water could only overflow to the sea. On the other shore of this bay, there already existed a garden known as Kalang garden, but the shores on east and south remained undeveloped. In January 2006, an international master plan design competition was launched to seek world-class design ideas for Gardens by the Bay. It drew more than 70 entries submitted by 170 firms, from over 24 countries, including 35 from Singapore. An 11-member Jury comprising local and international experts shortlisted eight teams and two winners were announced in September 2006; namely Grant Associates for Bay South and Gustafson Porter for Bay East, both from the UK.
The Ground breaking was held in November 2007 for Bay South Gardens, after which, development of Bay East Gardens also commenced. Bay East underwent reinstatement works and was opened to the public in October 2011. Bay south garden was opened to public in June 2012 and remains as Singapore's latest attraction for tourists.
Like any other public place in Sigapore, South gardens also have a vast underground parking place complete with a lift available, which takes you straight to ticketing booths. It is however far cheaper to buy tickets on line as we have done. As I came out from the parking area lift, I see a long foot path covered with a weather shade, leading to the two main attractions of the south gardens. The landscaping around this foot path is done in a very aesthetic manner with a large central tower completely covered with creeper and climber plants blooming with flowers. A row of large sized seed shaped decorative rocks gives visitors a group photo opportunity. The covered path way, leads to a covered area in between two giant green house domes. In Singapore's weather, which usually alternates between blistering hot sun and torrential rain, this covered pathway and the covered area between these domes is a must. I can see plenty of steps for sitting down and a snack and drinks bar, in true Singapore style. There are some interesting giant structures here in this covered area. They resemble huge dried tree trunks, halfway eaten by termites. Huge ants made from stainless steel are seen roaming on the tree trunks.
We decide to visit the green house dome on my right, called as 'Cloud forest' first. An escalator takes me down to the basement level, where the entry doors to this dome are located. With usual thoroughness, our tickets are checked with bar code scanners and we are let in. As the inner automatic doors open and the full inside details of the cloud forest dome come in my view, my first reaction is off total astonishment and awe.
A huge 35 meter high waterfall is hitting the ground just ahead of me, sprinkling small droplets of water in the already misty moist weather inside the dome. The waterfall is coming from an edge of a central artificial mountain created in the middle of the dome and shaped like a sharp mountain peak. I start walking along the base of this mountain. The walls of the mountain are covered with lush vegetation, which shroud this tallest indoor waterfall of the world. These walls showcase plant life from tropical highlands up to 2,000-metres height above sea level. I can see a mixture of beautiful and fascinating orchids blooming with lovely flowers, delicate ferns, colourful bromeliads, whose leafs form cups that hold water and where many an insect survive, dazzling perennial flower plants called begonias and menacing carnivorous pitcher plants. All of these are epiphytic plants that live on top of other plants in nature, they hardly require any substrate for growing and are perfectly adapted for growing here on almost vertical walls of this artificial mountain. I have never seen before the carnivorous pitcher plants and they seem to have many varieties and colours here, some of them looking very ominous. There are also conifers like Swamp Cypress (Taxodium districhum) and Tasmanian tree fern ( Dicksonia antartica) brought in from Australia.
Soon I reach the half way point round the mountain base, where an arrow tells me that the way up is inside the mountain. They have high speed lifts, which take me to the top, where a small gallery called as 'The Lost World' has been constructed. I look outside. A superb view of Marina bay emerges through the mist inside the dome. The lost world gallery has many a plant species that have existed for Millions of years on earth. Most of the plants here have a wild wacky look with strange looking stems, carnivorous cups and none have large leaves. There are many a varieties of fern and some really exotic and rare plants like Pitcher palnts( Sarracenia spp.) Butterwort (Pinguicula spp.) Sundew (Drosera spp.) and Venus fly catcher (Dioaea muscipula.) They also have a miniature lake their at the center in true Japanese garden tradition, with small island, teeming with these strange looking bizarre plants.
From the lost world a walkway emerges out in the middle of misty no where, and I continue to walk along it. I realize that this walk way is sloping down and would probably take me to the lower level. On the mountain wall on my left, I can see hundreds blood red Anthurium flowers, in their full glory. I recollect having seen these plants in a greenhouse on a coffee plantation in Coorg, south India.
The misty walkway finally takes me to the interior of the mountain, from where I come down further to a large hall named as Crystal Mountain, which really a collection of weird shaped Lime stone pinnacles known as stalactites arranged in an impressive way and a lone stalagmite dropping down from a steel structure fixed in the ceiling. A walk way juts out of this hall and is called as treetop walk. I see a beautiful fully blown white Magnolia flower in it's majestic glory, which reminds me of my stay in California, where the entire street, where I lived, was lined with these Magnolia tress that produced such lovely fragrance when the white flowers bloomed.
Further down, there are those mandatory kind of educational displays and shows about ill effects of pollution, greenhouse effect. I just skip through and come to a passageway named as secret garden, a world of bizarre looking plants and ferns like Swamp Cypress and Tasmanian Tree ferns and Black Tree ferns (Cibotium glaucum.) Pines, Gingkos and Cycads (Ceratozamia sp and Lepidozamia sp) , which exist since the Jurassic age, opens up.
I keep walking enjoying the flowers and the plants and see a sign board that says exit. My tour of this misty world is over. I come out and realize that I am little tired. I decide to relax in the central area with a cup of freshly brewed Earl Gray Tea. The next dome ahead is known as Flower dome and the fliers in my hand say that I would be enjoying some of world's finest flowering trees in there.
The Flower dome in Singapore's latest attraction, Gardens by the bay, is a huge columnless super structure, 38 meters high and sits on 1.2 hectors (about 3 acres) of reclaimed land. It has been fabricated with a steel grid that acts like an eggshell. There are 3332 panels of spectrally selective glass of 42 different shapes, which makes it look like a giant puzzle. Unlike cloud forest dome, this one is longish and looks like a giant snail.
The weather inside the flower dome is dehumidified and cooled to 22 degrees Celsius, creating an atmosphere of eternal or perpetual spring. The architects wanted originally to make it display plants and flowers from the Mediterranean-type climatic regions, where the temperature rises from 10 to 17 degrees Celsus and summer droughts last from three to six months. But as things finally turned out now, the dome displays flowering and other plants from five main regions of the world with similar kind of climate: the Mediterranean Basin, California, southern and western Australia, western cape of south Africa and central Chile.
As I enter the dome through the inner automatic doors, a stunning multilevel Panorama stretching to almost 360 degree opens up before my eyes. On my right, on an upper level I can see many varieties of cacti and a collection of succulent plants from deserts from all over the world. Just opposite me, on a lower level is a bewitching array of colourful displays of the Flower Field, which reflects different seasons, festivals and themes. On my left, there are all kind of trees on lowered as well as elevated platforms that come from specific regions of earth.
I turn right and start my visit to the dome from a range of Cacti and Succulent plants. Many years ago, our house garden in my home town of Pune, used to have a section devoted to Cacti brought from Americas by a friend. They are all gone now, but here in Singapore, in the Garden by the bay, I am able to see and recognize many of the Cacti varieties that we had in our house garden. These familiar varieties of Cacti somehow give me a feeling that I am actually meeting some long lost friends from my childhood. Some of the Cacti here have lovely flowers. I immediately recognize the common Cacti like Prickly Pear, Organ pipe and Pin cushion. A lonely Saguaro stands tall, flanked by few other strangely shaped trees known as 'Baobas.' The sign boards guide me to some exquisite varieties of Succulent plants with water filled stems and dangerous sharp spikes given to them for protection. These include South African Tree Grape ( Cyphostemma Juttae), Madagascan Club Foot ( Pachypodium lemarei) and Bolivian Wooly Cactus (Vatricania guentheri).
On other side of the aisle, there are funny looking trees that are bulky at the top and slim at the bottom, exactly the other way of normal trees. These are known as 'Baobas.' These funny looking trees actually carry huge water tanks at the top which may hold 1500 to 7500 liters of water to survive in long droughts. The varieties on display here include African Baobab from Senegal that weighs over 32 tons and Madagascan Ghost tree.
I return to the entry area and stroll to my left, to explore the plants displayed there. The first gallery I see is the Australian garden, which boasts of some of the most exotic species from down under, like Grass tree (Xanthorrhoea glauca), which can survive a bushfire, Queensland Bottle Tree ( Brachychiton rupestris) with it's huge belly and Kangaroo Paw ( Anigozanthos flavidus) with flowers that look like Kangaroo paws.
The next gallery has trees, shrubs and grasses from south Africa and is called as South African Garden. Some of the exquisite displays here include Tree Aloe ( Aloe barberae) related to Aloe Vera and King Super Bush ( Protea Cynaroides). It's lovely pink flower is South Africa's national flower. There are also many shrubs here that have sharp needle like leaves and which are known as 'Fynbos' in south Africa. Just opposite this gallery is the South American Garden with number of trees with large hulks. The exhibits include Chilean Wine Palms, whose palm nectar is used for wine making and Monkey Puzzle tree, whose branches grow in such weird way that even monkeys may find it tough to climb them.
Further along but on left and on an elevated platform are the lovely flowering shrubs from California. These include California Tree Poppy (Romneya coulteri) also known as Fried eggs flowers, beautiful purple blue California Lilacs (Ceanothus spp.) and Coral bells ( Heuchera species) that cover large tracts of ground. Opposite to Californian Garden is the Olive grove with its Olive (Olea europaea), Turkish fig (Ficus carica) and Pomegranate ( Punica granatum) trees that can grow very old.
On right of Olive grove is the circular elevated gallery called as Mediterranean Garden. This has several fully grown Date Palm ( Phoenix dactylifera) trees found around Oases of the Sahara desert famous for its fruit; dates. There is also a solitary Cork Oak ( Quercus suber) tree along with a Dragon's blood tree (Dracaena suber), whose resin produces a blood red colour.
I go round the Mediterranean garden and on the other side is a large floor area covered with plants blossoming with flowers of all shapes, hues and shades. There are creepers and climbers on the walls. The few types of flowers that I could recognize include, roses, tulips, dahlias, cosmos, gardenias and Xenias. The list could go on and on. It is one of the best flower displays that I have seen.
I walk out of the dome and realize that I have spent more than 3 hours watching the domes. The Gardens by the bay have many more attractions like supertrees and heritage gardens. There is even a tree top skyway. I decide to break for lunch and march to a nearby sandwich bar called Cafe Crema. While having my lunch, my thoughts are still centered on these two conservatories I have just visited. They are, without least doubt, grand spectacles achieved with lot of hi-tech excellence, but when Singapore can boast so much of its natural beauty, endowed by nature to it in plentiful measures, aren't they really unnecessary? Some people in Singapore seem to believe so. This is one reaction from a local resident, I found on net.
“I am from Singapore, not very impressed by these 'snails' that grew out of reclaimed land. Greenhouses with mediterranean plants & tropical plants, no matter how good the green technologies, it is going to be unsustainable. Why do we need to contain & dictate nature? Why not preserve more of our primary forests instead? the artificial trees, sadly, do not remind us of the tropical rainforest at all. (..a roof-top bar again?!)
It is sad that our future environment is going to be made of structures like these & maybe soon we will no longer remember how nature looks like anymore.”
(I must confess that I am no botanist and do not know names of most of the trees and flowers and obviously have never before heard of their Latin names. My source of information is the sign boards displayed by the garden management and a nice booklet published by them.)
Entire project of 'Gardens by the Bay' is one of the largest garden projects of its kind in the world. When finished, the total site area would occupy a staggering area of 101 hectares mainly of reclaimed land beside Marina bay in downtown Singapore, and would comprise of three distinct gardens – Bay South, Bay East and Bay Central. Bay South is the first and largest of these three landscaped gardens of this project, that is now completed. However the two conservatories, called as “Cloud Forest” and “Flower dome,” that I have just described, are not the only attractions of the bay south gardens.
A bird's eye view of the Bay south Gardens, from the nearby Ferris Wheel called “Singapore Flyer,” actually makes a visitor aware of the enormity of this project. Besides the two caterpillar like glass dome conservatories, what catches attention of every visitor, are eighteen huge steel structures called supertrees, erected in groups at three spots in the gardens. The groups have been named as “ Supertree Grove,” “Golden Garden” and “Silver Garden.” These so called super trees are actually giant steel towers varying between 20 meters to 50 meters in height and are shaped to look like trees. Each of this supertree is designed to have thousands of plant species growing up their vein-like cladding. The super trees also serve the purpose of rainwater harvesting for the gardens below and are embedded with sustainable energy and water technologies integral to the cooling of the Cooled Conservatories. The tallest supertrees have restaurants and bars in true Singapore style, where you can dine with a magnificent view.
There is an area called “canopy” in between the two conservatories. From here a path leads to the southwest. I start walking along the path. The Supergrove cluster of supertrees is located here. At the center of the grove are the two tallest supertrees. Clustered around them are 10 other superthrees, which would mean that this cluster has 12 supertrees in all. The other two clusters of supertrees are much smaller, each having just 3 supertrees. The management calls the supertrees as vertical gardens with each of them studded with vertical display on walls of of tropical flowering climbers, epiphytes and ferns making them appear almost spectacular. I reach the tallest supertree in the center. There is a lift available for going to the top. In few seconds, I reach the top balcony. The view from here is just breathtaking to say the least. Off course, towards west, only thing that I can see are the giant triplets of the “Marina Bay sands” hotel and casino. To the north is the Marina Barage and in other directions magnificent view of the bay and tall buildings of the downtown dominate the view. I have a closer look at the steel tower made from welded steel pipes. The surfaces are entirely covered with creeper plants and orchids. Some of them displaying brightly coloured beautiful flowers.
Between two tallest towers a walk way in the sky is suspended with help of steel cables. The path, about 3 or 4 feet wide and at a height of 22 meter, shakes slightly and has some horizontal movement too, making a walk on ,it a thrilling and exciting experience. This is perhaps as nearest as we humans can go nearest to walking in sky and I love it. On the other side, the skywalk reaches the other tall supertree. The view below shows a well manicured chain of small gardens linked by pathways and the whole thing look like an emerald necklace, around the supertree grove. I reach the other tower and swiftly come down by another lift. Ahead of me is a beautiful manicured lawn and beyond that a chain of restaurants with exotic names like Hill Street coffee shop and Peach garden noodle house. No place in Singapore can survive without eating places nearby. Even with so many restaurants here, locals have been complaining about lack of food courts here. I decide to make around of the emerald necklace of gardens that surroud the grove.
These gardens, in all 10 in number are all themed gardens, each having its own theme like Indian Garden, Chinese Garden, Malay Garden, California garden, Colonial Garden and World of Palms. On the west boundary of the park a beautiful small lake has been created with a strip like shape (parhaps as an after thought) but with good landscaping. It has been named as Dragonfly lake. The Landscaping is superb and I decide to linger there for few minutes, as I find it quite relaxing.
The time is around 7 pm and I decide to visit one of the restaurants on the other side. I order Nonya vegetable curry with rice. However instead of the rice being served separately, it has been added in the curry itself in the form of cheese or tofu alike cubes, cooked from finely ground rice flour. Nevertheless, the curry is very tasty and I am satisfied with the food.
After my food, I come out on the lawn outside. The view has changed completely. In front me there is a backdrop of tens of thousands of lights sparkling from the rooms of “Marina Bay sands” triplets. In front of them stand the supertrees now lighted with sparkling and soft glowing lights of different hues and colours. The spectacle of colour, texture and fragrance is a mesmerizing experience for me. I relax a bit on the lawns. Exactly at 7.45 pm, there is an announcement on the public address system and the light and show starts with pleasing music that can be heard clearly. The group of 6 or 8 supertrees ahead of me suddenly light up with thousands of lights of different colours and start dancing in tune and rhythm of the music. I find the spectacle fascinating and quite pleasing for the senses.
The show ends in 15 minutes and all the supertrees now glow up making the view grand and superlative. With a heavy heart, I get up and start walking towards to underground car park. My visit to the Bay south gardens finally over. It was no doubt an unforgettable experience.