Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Soaking in the sity

The best 'view' of the springs

When one thinks of Singapore, one conjures up images of a frenetic city, always seeking new ways to renew itself and make money in the same time. With more than 4,5 million inhabitants living tightly on the small and limited main island, it's surprising to find out that there are corners of the island which are still relatively village-like and tranquil such as Changi village where I stayed a few nights.

Tekong Hot Springs
Even more surprising is to know that there are two hot springs within the tiny nations borders. One lies on the isle of Tekong, off the eastern coast of Singapore's main island. It's off limits to most (a so-called restricted area), as it is army exercise area, however there are a couple accounts from enlisted poor souls, like this one from Tag Yuxiang:
'we went to this hot spring where there are stories tt its haunted.. it was rather interesting..and the spring was really deep.. but not as hot as those in Thailand where u can cook eggs haha..'
Photo's are available from John Larkin who probably visited the island before it went off limits. More info on the island on Wikipedia.

Finally a last tip from zeroniner on for those, who are about to set off for Tekong:

'Unfortunately this island is off-limits to the casual visitor, as the entire island is a military training facility'.
If only I would have known this before ..., but as always I'm better in researching once I've been there. Or not as in this case.

Sembawang Hot Springs
The other Singaporean hot spring is named Sembawang. And it's not all too difficult to reach and seems quite special, if you believe other accounts.

Such as from Backpacker Mama who has two accounts of visits to Sembawang:
Account no. 1:
'But I just went there last weekend ... and boy! Was I shocked!'
Probably, especially if you look at the accompanying photo's. The second account brings more pieces of info and ends with:
'Try it before its Gone.... (u know how rapid Singapore can change)'.
These accounts (with many photo's) are highly informative, such that visiting the hot spring and reporting on it is nearly superfluous, but still I'm curious and it could from the reports be something totally different.

Nearly there, burning money on the Gambas / Sembawang cross roads, where else?

Getting there
It seems to be an unknown quantity these hot springs. Luckily the directions, off Gambas Avenue where it crosses Sembawang Road give some distinct direction. Coming from the east of the island, this included a number of buses to get here, unfortunately for the foreign tourist there is hardly any bus info available. So I whiled away a couple of hours too-ing and fro-ing through extensive built-up area's. Probably a taxi would have done the job much, much quicker, but Singapore's public transport is soooooo cheap, though not informative!

However at the cross roads I felt that I was nowhere near the springs, so I decided to take the Gambas Avenue and hope I'd get there pronto. The first cyclist I asked was completely in the dark and decided it was a fair way to go and I should take the bus. Hmmm, I prefer to walk.

Hundred meters past this meeting I stumble on a cryptic signboard next to a gate which was an entrance to somewhere. However the shrub lined walkway is bordered by two high fences and all I can see is a sharp corner 200 m further on. At that moment a couple of people are exiting and feeling I had not been successful on first query, I ask them. I'd struck the jackpot! This walkway leads there, much to my astonishment. To their's as well, as this is obviously not a tourist attraction officially rubberstamped by Singapores Tourism Board ("Uniquely Singapore").

Where else but in Singapore can you wash your motorcycle with piping hot spring water? OMG, it's not allowed!

Clearly if whole administrations in the Southeast Asia region are enticed in promoting hot springs to tourists, why not in Singapore? Nothing to boast about? An eyesore? Unknown?

Well, it is certainly something different: high perimeter fences line the walkway to the site (surrounded by a military site) and after taking the sharp bend it's another 200 m before I come to an entirely open space, fully cemented and fenced in. No eco-tourism claims here. The cemented plain counts one brick building. Standing at the gates it's obvious to see that this must be the source. However whoever built this building was pretty sure nobody would even be able to enter let alone get a good glimpse of the source.

Otherwise there were a couple of taps scattered around the pleasantly un-Singaporean quiet area. This being a Sunday, there were a number of people gathering round and using buckets to clean themselves, filling up bigger drums or just washing their motorcycles. If that's not unique?

The water from these taps is red hot and the air smells of sulphur but not too much so. The people bathing seem an agreeable lot and are mostly just passing the day, twittering old style. Bathing takes a form of clothed styles from the normal day clothing to swimmers, but nothing risque, this is Singapore after all. Showing bits of body the sun (hardly ever) sees can only lead to vice, it's believed. Well there's a thought.

From the aforementioned Backpacker Mama's site I understand there's a guy camping out here and who sort of oversees in a unofficial way the proceedings. He also sells cooled down hot springs water because the water is simply too hot to bathe in.

As long as the sun's not shining, this is a great way to end the day. Gathering round the hot water taps, just like in the old days.

BackgroundAt this point, I would like to draw your attention to the amount of historical accounts of this site. Simplified: the springs were discovered in 1909, why not before is unclear. In 1922 a local bottler acquired the site and used it's waters. During WW II the Japanese of course spruced up the facilities for their own good. Nothing wrong there. Despite some plans for development not much has happened since, in a large scale sense. In 2002 the military built the current facilities though only after locals demanded local access and preservation.

What it used to look like. Source: Richard Hales

Health properties are something different. The very hot waters are acclaimed to remedy a number of diseases even a bout of bad luck. But nothing official.

Other internet sources not previously mentioned:

'The sizzling hot water has been touted with healing properties, to rid aches and pains. It is so hot that some plastic bottles would deform if used to contain the water. Past attempts for a viable production of bottled mineral water by private companies have all but failed'.
'The temperature ranges between 100 and 150 deg C. Consequently, the high pressure causes the water to seep upwards through cracks, thereby forcing itself out of ground into a 6 m spring. At this point, the temperature of the water drops to 70 deg C.
Tested by PSB Corporation and SGS Testing & Control Services, the spring water was found to contain 420 mg of chloride per litre, an amount which is evidently higher than the 35 mg to 100 mg in the water from Choa Chu Kang and Bedok waterworks. The samples of the spring water also prove that the sulphide content is three times more than tap water. It is the presence of these minerals that has enticed thousands to the hot spring, in a search for cures for ailments like rheumatism and arthritis, as well as skin conditions like acne and psoriasis. However, medical authorities remain sceptical about the healing powers of the spring water'.
'During that same year, a rash of scalding cases, including an incident in which a 57-year old diabetic man lost six toes to gangrene after bathing in the hot spring, prompted the Singapore General Hospital to warn that people with nerve disorders or diseases affecting blood circulation should stay away. Soon after, rumours that the well was haunted by the ghost of a Malay boy who had met his death by falling into the boiling spring water began to circulate; a Chinese curse, written in graffiti on the wall that now encloses the well, promised a similar fate to anyone who vandalised the premises'.
  • Krisalis (2004):
'biked around the Sembawang area in the pouring rain went to Sembawang hot springs. I didn’t even know Sembawang had hot springs until this weekend! The springs aren’t very glamourous - nothing like their Japanese counterparts, for example. There weren’t many people at the springs, so it was quite relaxing, if somewhat bizarre, to sit around on soaking our tootsies in big plastic buckets of piping hot spring water, which smelled vaguely of rotting eggs'.
'Bring small towels, swim suit, comfortable clothes, and sandals when you go there. We suggest you to dip the towel in the hot water squeeze it and put it on your face or body to get a natural hot massage! '
'Singapore's best kept secret might be a remote hot spring spot in Sembawang, north of the island.'

See this signboard? That means you're at the hot springs. But let's keep it a secret, eh?

Getting there: The entrance is located just to the east of the Gambas aAenue intersection with Sembawang Road, on the south side of Gambas. All just in north Singapore.

Soaking Experience: very good, but hardly any opportunity other than for foot bathing. Nice and hot.

Overall Impression: Different and unique. Very relaxing. They just need a couple of big tub's (drums) ... Thumb's up!

Escape to Sembawang hot springs

Update [April 2011]: another very informative website here.

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