Explore Singapore's wilds the easy and the hard way

Travel Weekly associate editor Grant Flowers traveled to Singapore. Here is his report.

SINGAPORE -- With more than 3 million people crammed into a country of little more than 200 square miles, Singapore is one of the most densely populated places on Earth.

Yet it's not all buildings and crowds. Indeed, after a couple of miles along the lush and landscaped expressways, visitors realize that this tiny country takes its nature seriously. Yes, there are tons of shopping malls (with air conditioning!), and the crowded areas are crowded, but some natural attractions aren't far away.

One of the most unusual of these attractions is the night safari, an attraction operated by the Singapore Zoological Gardens. Since most of the world's animal species are active at night, the night safari provides a terrific opportunity to see fauna in a more natural environment.

Visitors hop onto motorized trams to visit eight park areas. These areas have been designed to reflect ecological areas of the world, and therefore sport such titles as Equatorial Africa or Nepalese River Valley. Special lights, placed high above the ground, provide enough illumination to see the animals go about their nocturnal business. (The zoo claims that the amount of illumination is a little stronger than natural moonlight.)

As the tram slowly moves along the small paved road, area after area comes into view. The zoo's emphasis on natural enclosures, such as moats, to keep the animals contained meshes well with the night safari concept. The only problem is when visitors realize there's no fencing separating them from the Malayan tigers. (But they are apparently well-fed.)

Other highlights of the night safari are the Asian rhinoceros -- a massive animal coated with plates that look like a suit of armor -- as well as lions and an Asian elephant. Dangerous animals, such as the lion, are kept in the natural enclosures, but harmless creatures are allowed to roam the grounds freely. The tram had to stop several times to avoid small herds of these animals, including a group of Axis deer. On another occasion, a tapir, a rather indescribable creature, walked past no more than an arm's length from the tram.

The night safari is adjacent to what is called the day zoo. This is the home of some of the most famous residents of the Singapore Zoological Gardens. The zoo has a group of about 25 orangutans, the orange-haired apes native to the nearby islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Pulau Ubin island . If visitors are looking for a more unstructured activity than visiting the zoo, there's the island of Pulau Ubin. This is a small island off the north coast of the main island, in the Straits of Johor that separate Singapore and Malaysia. Getting to Pulau Ubin requires a tour of Singapore's transportation infrastructure. The easiest way is to take the MRT to the easternmost stop, Pasir Ris, and then take a taxi to Changi Village, a small town on the northeast shore of the main island.

From Changi, a few Singapore dollars pay for a five-minute boat ride to Pulau Ubin.

And that's where the real work begins, for about the only way to get around the island is by bicycle. Getting a bicycle is no problem, since there are about 10 rental locations at the end of the dock. Prices are cheap.

So what's there to see? There's an abandoned quarry, a small Buddhist shrine and a mosque, in addition to the kind of personal space that doesn't come easy on the main island.

Because people live on the island, the vegetation is not like a rain forest. But there are plenty of palm trees and small farms, which give the island a rural feel, quite a contrast to the metropolis a few miles away.

There's also a little bit of sweat involved, since pedaling a bike in equatorial heat isn't easy. Still, it's the kind of activity that takes all types, and it's definitely rewarding to make it the half-mile or so to the north shore of Pulau Ubin, where cyclists can see across the Straits of Johor to Malaysia.

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