SINGAPORE - Ulu, a colloquial Malay word that refers to remote areas, has shed some of its negative connotations. While the term used to suggest danger associated with unfamiliar terrain, ulu places are exactly where urbanites here are heading to seek respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. From Changi in the east to Jurong in the west, Life!Weekend takes a walk on the ulu side of Singapore and unearths four secluded spots you can explore - right in your own backyard.
Canoe, camp and more in Sembawang
Nestled deep in the forested areas of Sembawang is a water sports facility that is a throwback to kampung days.
Run by the People's Association, Water-Venture (Sembawang) is housed within buildings featuring traditional Malay architecture.
En route to the centre, visitors can spot Masjid Petempatan Melayu Sembawang, a quaint green and yellow mosque built in the 1960s that once served as the religious and social meeting point for Muslims living in nearby Malay villages.
The 8,671 sq m Water-Venture facility, which cannot be seen from the main road, is a 15-minute stroll from the nearest bus stop after Andrews Avenue, a private residential area.
Built in 2008, the centre offers a resplendent view of the Strait of Johor as well as activities such as kayaking and sea-rafting. It also organises nature trails and orienteering courses in the nearby forests.
Those who want to make a night out of the experience can now sleep under the stars.
The centre, which completed its expansion works last month, lets visitors camp in the great outdoors for $5 a night. The less adventurous can book a bunk in the four dormitories on site, which can sleep 40 people each. The accommodations are geared towards bigger groups and those going as a party of 10, for instance, can expect to pay $45 a person.
It is the only Water-Venture outlet, among the eight islandwide, that offers dormitories and camping facilities.
Visitors can go back to basics and try their hand at outdoor cooking using a charcoal stove or indulge in technology-free games such as navigating through portable props and a team-building exercise in which participants use simple materials such as ropes to clear obstacles.
Since the facility started running trial camps in January, it has drawn close to 3,000 campers.
Mr Michael Foo, People's Association's director of community sports, says: "Water-Venture Sembawang's recent extension offers more facilities that cater to a wider group of people. Given its location along the coastline, residents are able to retreat from the bustling cityscape to relax in the quaint and rustic waterfront."
For senior programme manager Henry Ang, the centre is a "hidden gem" that fellow Sembawang residents he spoke to are unaware of.
He discovered the place by chance while dining at the now-defunct Bottle Tree Village in Jalan Mempurong more than two years ago.
"It has a rustic location compared with the other Water-Venture outlets," says the 50-year-old, who has lived in Sembawang for 14 years.
An active grassroots leader, Mr Ang is also the newly appointed chairman of the Water-Venture Committee (Sembawang) and plans to organise a 2km brisk-walking event soon. The walk will start from a residential neighbourhood in Sembawang and end at the Water-Venture facility.
"We have our own playground close to home, set in the hub of nature," he says proudly.
Location: 60 Jalan Mempurong
How to get there: The nearest MRT station is Sembawang. Board bus 882 at the bus stop opposite the station and alight at the 11th stop, after Andrews Avenue. Walk along Andrews Avenue and turn left once you see Jalan Mempurong.
Open: 9.30am to 6pm (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday.
Info: Use of water sports facilities starts from $25 a day. Call 6755-0225 for more information.
Walk along the defunct Jurong Railway Line
Three years ago, the Rail Corridor, which stretches from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands, was the talk of the town. People flocked to soak in the history of the 24km-long stretch, which Malaysia's Keretapi Tanah Melayu trains used to run along till it was returned to Singapore in 2011. Many have strolled along the disused railway tracks, but few have visited its lesser known sibling, the Jurong Railway Line.
Branching out from the former Bukit Timah Railway Station near King Albert Park, the railway tracks of nearly 20km run all the way to Shipyard Road in Jurong Industrial Estate. Laid out in 1965, the tracks served as a mode of transport for goods and raw materials into the then newly constructed Jurong Industrial Estate from Malaysia. Due to inadequate traffic, it was made obsolete in the 1980s.
Today, the railway tracks have been incorporated into the greenery and roads. A key indicator of its existence is the rusty brown cast-iron bridge that arcs across the Sungei Ulu Pandan Canal.
Though it is a less flashy and more rugged railway line, with no distinctive railway station to boast of, the short-lived Jurong Railway Line has much more to offer: It shows greater evidence of railway tracks mingling with surrounding flora and fauna.
Mr Leong Kwok Peng, 57, vice-president of Nature Society (Singapore), says that about 20 per cent of the railway tracks are still visible along the Jurong line, compared with just 1 per cent for the Rail Corridor.
To him, the Jurong Railway Line has a rustic and mysterious quality that should appeal to those who want a glimpse of Singapore's railway history. Mr Leong says: "Unlike the main line, of which most of the tracks have been returned to Malaysia, the Jurong Railway Line is, in this sense, more of a rail corridor, with a larger presence of railway tracks."
He recommends Sunset Way as a good starting point for exploring the line, a trek which takes about half a day. There, one would first notice a sea of green as lalang plants and clusters of wild plants, such as the Simpoh Air, flank the railway tracks.
Along the way at Clementi Avenue 4, one would be greeted by a community farm, where nearby residents have planted vegetables, herbs and fruits.
Visitors can venture into one of at least three dark train tunnels. Be warned though - they can get muddy, especially during the rainy season now.
Nature Society (Singapore) is working on a comprehensive guide to the entire railway line, scheduled to be released next year.
Heritage blogger Jerome Lim, 50, has trekked on both the Rail Corridor and Jurong Railway Line multiple times. He says the allure of the Jurong line lies in that "one can be transported to a rural Singapore we have largely forgotten about".
"It is a place that takes me away from the urban world. Spaces like these are rare today and they help me to see that there is a lot more to Singapore," he adds.
Location: There is no one entry point, but a recommended spot would be the intersection of Sunset Way and Clementi Street 14, where a small bridge stands.
How to get there: The nearest MRT station is Clementi. Hop on bus service numbers 52, 154 or 184 from the bus stop outside the station and alight at the fifth stop at Block 109 Clementi Road. Head north-east towards Sunset Way and you will see the bridge.
Nature-watching at Sengkang Riverside Park
Developed in the late 1990s, Sengkang has never quite shaken off its image as a quiet, remote housing estate. There is, however, a hidden gem in the northeastern neighbourhood that is worth making the journey to - Sengkang Riverside Park.
Sure, Punggol next door might have a scenic waterway and distinctive bridges, but this 21ha park which opened in 2008 and is one of the biggest in Singapore, has its own trump card - a manmade wetland that sits among the greenery. There is also the Sengkang Floating Wetland nearby, one of the largest manmade wetlands here at about half the size of a football field.
Go animal-spotting at the wetlands, which serve as a natural habitat for turtles, small fishes and other creatures such as the purple heron, collared kingfisher and common scarlet dragonfly.
The park boasts vast green swathes where visitors can walk, jog, cycle and do other exercises.
The verdant sanctuary also features more than 60 types of fruit-bearing plants. These include mangosteen, mango and starfruit as well as uncommon fruits such as the batoko plum and velvet apple.
To refuel, stop at al fresco halal eatery Mushroom Cafe near the park's main entrance, which serves local and Western fare with infusions of mushrooms.
Mr Lawrence Goh, 40, was having a bite with his wife and three young sons at the cafe when Life!Weekend visited the park on a recent Sunday afternoon. "We like coming here once a month as it's quieter and not as crowded as the other parks. The kids can also be closer to nature," says the entrepreneur, who lives in Buangkok.
For teacher Terrenz Huang, the ulu quality of the park is what attracts her and her husband to drive there from Yishun. "It's much easier to get a parking spot here compared with at Punggol Waterway Park and we enjoy the peace and serenity of the place," she adds. The couple will be moving to Punggol next year, but Ms Huang, 28, says they will still visit Sengkang Riverside Park.
There will be a free cycle-in movie event at the park on Nov 29, the first of its kind to be held at a park here.
Participants will embark on either an 8km or 14km cycling tour along the North Eastern Riverine Loop, which is part of the Park Connector Network that includes Sengkang Riverside Park. It will be followed by a screening of Rise Of The Guardians (2012) at the event lawn.
Registration for the cycling event has closed, but visitors can still have a picnic and catch the film.
Location: 50 Anchorvale Street
How to get there: Alight at Farmway LRT Station on Sengkang LRT Line West Loop and walk for five to 10 minutes westwards towards the park.
Cafe-hopping in Changi
The cafe craze that started here around 2011 has spread to sleepy Changi.
At least four cafes have sprung up in the eastern tip of Singapore over the last three years, including The Coastal Settlement in leafy Netheravon Road and Peloton Coffee & Juice Bar in Changi Village Road. Other cafes in the area include Chock Full Of Beans and Crepes & Puffs.
A spokesman for The Coastal Settlement, which opened in 2011, says the owner picked the secluded location on purpose. "We chose this location because of the luscious greenery and surroundings that complement our vision. The Coastal Settlement is not just a place for dining, but it is also a getaway."
With vintage decor including Vespa scooters, rotary telephones and old-school typewriters, the 670 sq m cafe that can seat 180 customers indoors and 100 outdoors evokes nostalgia and aims to be a dining haven away from the city.
Drawing both families and hipsters on weekends, it serves Western fare and local delights such as roast chicken, nasi lemak and tom yum spaghetti. Prices range from $16 to $42 for main dishes.
Less than 2km away is Peloton Coffee & Juice Bar, the new kid on the block in Changi.
When it opened in May, it was a cafe-cum-retail store selling finger food along with sportswear and triathlon gear.
The retail section moved to a bigger space at the nearby Changi Civil Service Club last month and the 1,200 sq ft premises, which can seat 40, are now dedicated to serving food and beverages. Ms Rashidah Saheer, 43, Peloton's co-owner, says that while its initial target customers were sportsmen and cyclists, the cafe has drawn diners from all walks of life, including young families and students. Business tends to be quiet on weekdays, but she says things pick up on weekends.
The cafe offers light bites such as gourmet sandwiches (from $7.90), its signature sweet and savoury waffles (from $10.90) and a wide range of coffee drinks (from $3) and juices ($6). While Ms Rashidah acknowledges that Changi is "very ulu", she also appreciates its rustic charm and proximity to the coast.
"Customers can enjoy the atmosphere here. They can sit for hours and have a nice, long chat with their companions," she says.
This is precisely what draws teacher Jasvir Kaur, 24, to the coffee joints in Changi.
A self-professed cafe hound, she visits The Coastal Settlement and Peloton every few months.
She used to visit popular cafes such as Group Therapy Coffee and Chye Seng Huat Hardware in town, but was put off by the crowds.
"I just want to get away from the masses during the weekends and chill out at a cafe, and the cafes in Changi give me that luxury," she says.
THE COASTAL SETTLEMENT
Location: 200 Netheravon Road
How to get there: The nearest MRT station is Pasir Ris. Head south towards Pasir Ris Central Street 3. Board bus 89 at the bus stop opposite Pasir Ris Town Park and alight 14 stops later, before Cranwell Road. Walk north-east towards Cranwell Road and turn right onto Netheravon Road, where the cafe is located.
Open: 10.30am to midnight (Tuesday to Sunday), closed on Monday except during or on the eve of a public holiday.
PELOTON COFFEE & JUICE BAR
Location: 01-2008, 1 Changi Village Road
How to get there: The nearest MRT station is Pasir Ris. Head south towards Pasir Ris Central Street 3. Board bus 89 at the bus stop opposite Pasir Ris Town Park and alight 17 stops later, before Singapore Aviation Academy. Head west on Telok Paku Road towards Changi Village Road, where the cafe is located.
Open: 11am to 5.30pm (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), 11am to 10.30pm (Friday), 8.30am to 10.30pm (weekend), closed on Wednesday.
This article was first published on November 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.