Last Monday the schools were closed, and as it was such a lovely cool day, I decided a long overdue adventure to Haw Par Villa was in order. I can’t count the times I’ve driven past this attraction on Pasir Panjang Road, thinking I’ve got to go and check this out, so it felt good to make it a priority for a visit with my boys. My impression – surreal, but at the same time, I loved it! The boys did too. However, I’m not sure if it’s going to be for everyone, which I’ll explain in a bit.
A bit of background first. Haw Par Villa (originally called “Tiger Palm Gardens”) is a Chinese mythological theme park, founded in 1937 by the Aw brothers, famous for developing Tiger Balm. Containing more than 1,000 statues and frescos, it provides an overview of folklore, legend and more – all based around Confucian beliefs. However what makes the park infamous is the Ten Courts of Hell – and perhaps a reason you might not want to take little kiddies to the park? The great thing about the Ten Courts of Hell is it’s inside a giant Dragon’s tail, so it’s also a cool thing for kids.
We caught the train to Haw Par Villa on the SMRT Circle Line and directly from there, you gain entrance to the park – which is free. We went up the hill and followed the path around to the right, almost immediately entering the Ten Courts of Hell – ooops! The great thing for me is the boys didn’t really seem to care too much about the display, and were having an absolute blast running up and down inside the tunnel (or the Dragon’s tail). Phew, because some of the imagery was pretty brutal to say the least. I’ve shared a few favourites to give you a flavour.
Therefore, the question you need to ask yourself is: do you want to expose your children to these sorts of images? If you have really observant kids, who take in everything they see, and are maybe prone to nightmares, perhaps it might not be the best idea? Then again, as a young kid, not much older than my lads, I went to a medieval theme park in Australia called Kryal Castle and it featured a medieval torture room. I wasn’t scared by it, in fact, I found it really fascinating – and the display at Kryal Castle was life sized. So I keep thinking perhaps it’s not that bad? Either way, my boys didn’t notice what the displays were about, but yours might, so something to keep in mind? You can, of course, avoid this display all together as it stands pretty much alone, and there’s plenty more to see.
As a whole, I found Haw Par Villa fascinating. I took a trip down memory lane with the Tripitaka display, along with his disciples Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy. That show was awesome and I can STILL sing the theme song! The whole educational appeal of the place was fascinating too, with images reflecting moral lessons about doing good, being good, etc… And for the boys, there were all sorts of animals and images to capture their imaginations – including dragons – and the whole thing is so colourful, how can kids not be mesmerized?
But it’s more than that. Singapore is such a beautiful, modern, sparkling city, and here we have a decrepit theme park, with flaking paint, broken water features, untended gardens, and more, which was all terribly charming for me. It’s a different side to Singapore, and a welcome side to boot, because while it’s not the only flaking feature in the city – they are everywhere when you look – it makes me feel a little more comfortable having something not so shiny and new to visit. I also wasn’t concerned about the boys running around, with an incessant need to climb constantly coming into play, because it was pretty much abandoned and we all felt free to explore.
Overall, I really enjoyed the day out and so did the boys. I am a lover of history and enjoyed being taken on a mythological journey – so it was really satisfying for me. For the boys they had the freedom to move, running up and down the stairs, climbing the parapets, exploring the ponds, looking at the colourful images, lighting incense and making offerings, and more, so it was cool for them too. As I’ve said before, I want them exposed to everything this world has to offer, and Haw Par Villa is definitely a place that offers that. It’s very cool in a weird kind of way.
If you plan on giving it a go, there is parking right out the front, but make it an adventure by catching the SMRT to Haw Par Villa. There was also an unopened cafe on site, but I’m not sure when it does open, therefore take a picnic and plenty of water to get through the day. It’s pretty sunny as well, so hats and sun block, or mosquito repellent if you go at the end of the day, is recommended.
Just remember, if you want to avoid The Ten Gates of Hell, go straight up the hill and do not take the path to the right, or just keep going left if you do enter this area. The Dragon’s tail is very obvious, so you can’t miss it.
PS: I know something funky is going on with the font, but have no idea how to sort it out. Apologies for that as it doesn’t look pretty!