Tatler Tours: Benjamin Kheng Takes Us Around Woodlands | The Best Food, Activities and Spots
If you don't live in the northern region of our city-state, chances are, you won't know much about it unlike all that the east or west has to offer. For many locals, a trip there usually means visiting our Malaysian counterpart—after all, they are but a mere 1km away on the Singapore-Johor causeway. But the north definitely has more to offer, and it brims with a rich history peppered with lesser known attractions yet to be explored.
For a start, the northernmost neighbourhood of Singapore was named after its heavily-wooded appearance when viewed across the Straits from Johor. Long-time residents and those from previous generations would tell you about the rubber plantations and poultry farms that used to fill the area before it was cleared out by 1972. Thereafter, it welcomed the first 1300 housing units and comprised four estates in total: Woodlands, Admiralty, Woodgrove and Marsiling. Today, the area is undergoing a major facelift to situate itself as the largest economic hub in the north. Not only will there be new spaces for business, research & development and innovation nestled in the region's luscious green landscape, it will also be a strategic centre location for Singapore's up and coming food corridor that connects the future Agri-Food Innovation Park with key institutions such as Republic Polytechnic, Senoko Food Zone and farms located at Lim Chu Kang.
In the seventh episode of Tatler Tours, we enlisted the help of local musician and actor Benjamin Kheng who brings us around the neighbourhood of Woodlands. Prior to his debut as a singer with the now-defunct local band The Sam Willows, Kheng spent his youth as a national swimmer enrolled in the Singapore Sports School where he was part of the 141 student strong cohort as the proud institution's pioneer batch. And lo and behold, where else could the school be located at if not—that's right, Woodlands.
Watch the video below:
1/5 Yan Ji Seafood Soup
If you've made your rounds in the hawker circuit in Singapore like Kheng has, chances are, you've heard of the famous seafood soup by Yan Ji Seafood Soup at Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre. The family-run food stall has been around for more than three decades and is now helmed by second generation owners. They've also garnered a loyal following from all over the city as their dishes feature a generous portion and wide array of freshly-sourced seafood ingredients; namely scallops, fish slices, razor clams, prawns and crayfish. The latter was sold out when we visited the stall—a testament to its popularity—and each bowl is served with a satisfying amount of concentrated seafood broth that is made daily from scratch.
During our visit, Kheng dug into his bowl of premium seafood soup—the largest offering on the menu that features abalone and scallops—and gushed about the flavourful stock.
Located along Woodlands Terrace, Melvados is amongst the hidden gems in the neighbourhood that food enthusiasts would want to have on their radar, alongside other wholesale food retailers on the same stretch. These shops offer frozen foods sold at wholesale prices, and at Melvados, customers should look out for items such as its famed cakes and pasta sauces for their next dinner party. Incepted in response to the hectic lives of Singaporeans who simply don't have the time to whip up gourmet meals for themselves, Melvados is a retail brand under the family-run food manufacturer Foodedge Gourmet, that also supplies food items to major airlines, country clubs and five-star hotels in Singapore.
On busy days, Kheng loves to start his meal with his favourite corn chowder, followed by the beef rendang pie that features authentic Southeast Asian flavours in a flaky crust. Besides those, the musician also admits that he is a huge fan of ondeh ondeh and cannot resist the different ondeh ondeh-flavoured foods at Melvados. It wasn't long before his basket was filled with a couple packets of ondeh ondeh brittle and tray cake, with the latter layered with grated coconut and soaked in gula melaka.
(Related: A Drink With... Benjamin Kheng)
3/5 Sembawang Hot Spring Park
If you've had your travel plans to Japan scrapped in the past year and were looking forward to the onsen baths there, then fret not, as Sembawang Hot Spring Park—located just on the edge of Woodlands—will have you sorted with a similar experience in the tropics. In a normal year where leisure travel is permitted, Kheng would head to his favourite hot springs located in the South Island of New Zealand where visitors can take in the panoramic views of the alps and crisp air. The onsens in Osaka, Japan, also ranks high on his list as they're set in legendary prefectures and your experience comes with the full treatment—yukatas and all. But seeing as we've been homebound for a bit, Sembawang Hot Spring Park would have to do. Armed with a pail, some eggs and the iconic Good Morning towel in hand, Kheng was excited for a foot soak at the hidden gem in the north.
The hot spring park is situated near the junction of Sembawang Road and Gambas Avenue, and is a popular destination for residents in the area. Granted that it isn't quite situated in the neighbourhood of Woodlands, but it's definitely worth a trip there if you find yourself in the north of Singapore with a storied history to boot. The park was once the location where Singapore-based food conglomerate Fraser & Neave (F&N) sourced its bottled water from when it acquired the land in 1921. After the fall of Singapore during World War 2, it was then taken over by the Japanese where they built thermal baths for recreational purposes.
Today, a quick stroll around the park and you'll find a cascading pool where spring water emerges at a hot 70 degrees and cools to a lukewarm 40 degrees. Surrounding the edge of the pool are visitors enjoying a foot soak after a long day at work or relaxing at various trellises with their own buckets and pails. For your next visit, don't forget to bring a couple of eggs, soy sauce and pepper bottles to enjoy the quintessential local breakfast at the hot springs.
If you're like Kheng and enjoy your eggs with a runny consistency, he recommends a cooking time of roughly 20 minutes at the dedicated egg cooking station located at the far corner of the park. Otherwise, head to Sembawang Eating House—the newly built glasshouse restaurant situated en route towards the hot springs—for your local breakfast fix.
(Related: These Japanese Onsens Are Offering Virtual Hot Springs Experiences)
4/5 Woodlands Waterfront Park
Besides the usual spots in Singapore to enjoy a gentle sea breeze or watch the sunset, Woodlands Waterfront Park offers an unprecedented view of the Straits of Johor, Singapore-Johor causeway and our neighbour to the north. It is also home to Singapore's longest jetty that was reopened to the public in 2011 and measures at 400m long. Once there, you'll find groups of families and friends having picnics, cycling, or simply enjoying the view. The popular no-frills dining establishment, Rasa Istimewa Waterfront Restaurant, is also located at the end of the jetty, where halal tze char-style dishes are served to groups who wish to enjoy a meal near the sea.
Our musician misses travelling up to visit Johor Bahru where he'd usually grab some delicious grub and a massage or two. More specifically, he finds himself craving for the herbal bak kut teh from across the causeway. If you find yourself in a similar position, we got you covered. Hungry folks can also head to Hong Ji Herbs Bak Kut Teh at 19 Marsiling Lane for their fix of the Malaysian dish, which comes with a portion of tender pork ribs with soup served in a claypot alongside braised pork trotters and chunks of stewed fried beancurd.
(Related: Tatler Tours: Jamus Lim Takes You Around Anchorvale, Sengkang | The Best Food, Activities and Spots)
5/5 Abandoned WW2 Marsiling Bunkers
Perhaps the most exciting and unexpected location on our itinerary, the abandoned bunkers from WW2 are bound to enthral history buffs on the quest for adventure in our city-state. It was upon sheer chance Kheng, who is a little bit of a thrill-seeker himself, learned about it right before our shoot and was down for the experience.
To aid us in our journey, we enlisted the help of Scott Tay, founder of Beyond Expeditions SG, and his team of experienced guides. Tay typically leads groups of travellers to regions of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Ladakh, but due to travel restrictions caused by the onset of the pandemic, now takes intrepid explorers around Singapore to discover what the city has to offer, including these abandoned bunkers which according to him, had initially taken more than two hours of circling the forest floor to locate.
(Related: 8 Travel Tastemakers On How The Pandemic Has Changed Travel And Where To Go In 2021)
For the uninitiated, these underground bunkers are split into the northern and southern factions, and Kheng visited the latter in the interest of time. Originally built by the British as part of the Royal Air Force fuel reserve depot in 1942, it was subsequently occupied and modified by the Japanese during World War 2. The part of the Southern bunkers that Kheng was guided through then featured four sealed exits, long winding pipes and old rusty wires from the past.
History aside, here's where the fun begins. After carefully slipping through the entrance and descending deeper into the tunnels, you'll only have your headlamps and posse to rely on down there; plus there's zero reception, and folks have to prepare to be submerged in ankle-deep mud and sludge that's been sitting in there for well, ages. Of course, you'll also notice the rusty pipes that stretch more than 150m long, once used to fuel fighter aircrafts in one of history's greatest wars.
Unfazed and determined to trudge on? Great, as you'll also be greeted by a slew of the bunker's long time residents such as the likes of creepy crawlies, frogs, and the occasional family of rats. Another reassuring sight is located right above you, as your eyes wander to see the clusters of hatched gecko eggs on the ceiling. Whilst there, don't miss out on your best 'Influencers in the Wild' photo opportunity.
Head to the SingapoRediscovers page to find out more about the available tours and attractions in Woodlands neighbourhood.
(Related: SingapoRediscovers 2020: The Best Local Tours to Join in Singapore)