Singapore is a gleaming, modern metropolis...but if you dig deep, there is still quite a bit of natural and cultural heritage to be found. Take for example the fascinating old jungle cemetery known as Bukit Brown.
Abandoned for many decades, it is the final resting place for many early Chinese pioneers...and currently home to a lot of colorful wildlife–such as kingfishers, woodpeckers, and even a troop of curious monkeys!
Words & Photos By Nathan Allen
Singapore's Chinese Heritage - Lost in a Jungle
Almost forgotten by time, the dense jungle has taken over much of this historic site. For me, that's actually a huge part of its appeal. Bukit Brown was named after the original owner, George Henry Brown. He was a British trader that lived on this land.
Brown had sailed from Calcutta in the 1840s, and after purchasing the area, he named it "Mount Pleasant".
It was then sold to Ong Kew Ho and Huay Kuan, but eventually transferred to the government when the need for a cemetery arose. It served Singapore's Chinese community for about 50 years, and was actually considered the largest cemetery outside of China. It closed down decades ago, but you can still visit and take a self-guided tour of these mysterious gravesites.
I absolutely loved wandering and taking pictures here...with not a (living) soul around. It's so solemn and peaceful – a wild and scenic counterpart to Singapore's well-manicured green spaces (of which I am also a fan).
Photographers, birders, and general nature-lovers feel quite at home here. Have a look at this giant, "rain tree"! These are the kinds of jungle scenes I dreamed of as a kid. I never imagined ferns could grow high up in a tree, but these bird nest ferns feel right at home there.
Some Bukit Brown graves are adorned with stone statues and figurines.
This is one of those times when I wish I could read Chinese...I'm so curious about who these people were, and how they were immortalized and remembered on their tombstones.
A few have actual photos on them...and this helps to paint a picture of who these early Singaporeans actually were.
While exploring these jungle trails on my own, I began to hear rustling in the trees around me. I'm not a very superstitious person, but Bukit Brown is supposedly one of the top 10 haunted sites in Singapore. In fact, the "Asia Paranormal Investigators" are one of the groups working to preserve this historic cemetery!
As it turned out, these "ghosts" were of the long-tailed variety...
Spirit Guardians? - Long Tailed Macaques
Eventually I spotted a curious face through the jungle trees...it was a family of monkeys! There must have been 11 or 12 of them.
I approached slowly, but was still met with a bit of resistance. Most of the group slowly shuffled away, but the dominant male stood his ground and showed his teeth. I did not push my luck, but instead just sat peacefully, hoping to show them that I was no threat.
It worked. The old male kept a watchful eye on me, but he began to relax...and even start foraging for food around him. The female and baby monkeys slowly inched back into view.
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Needing to get closer, I switched cameras. With my little Canon superzoom, I continued shooting photos in the fading afternoon light. Some of these monkeys even seemed to pose for me!
They were so fascinating to observe...I can see why anthropologists like Jane Goodall & Dian Fossey studied them so intensely. Their behavior seemed to mirror a human family's so much...it was uncanny.
The youngest members were the most curious...but the easiest to be spooked as well. This makes sense, as they would be the most vulnerable. These baby monkeys were adorable...and so expressive!
Eventually, curiosity got the better of some members. They began to climb the trees and position themselves above me, so as to get a better look. At one point I had one almost reach down and touch the top of my head. Of course, I didn't let things progress too far, because wild animals are, after all, wild.
Still though, these monkeys and I bonded. They were nothing like the super aggressive ones I encountered in India or the Philippines. Those monkeys have no fear of humans, and will even steal food or attack if they feel at all threatened...or are simply in a bad mood! Haha. No...this group, this group was different.
Being in an abandoned jungle cemetery gives them some access to humans, but not too much. They are not too comfortable...but not too afraid, either. I had found a sweet spot. Being allowed to join them, in the wild...in such a humbling and surreal location...was an experience I will never forget.
How To Get There
Bukit Brown is near MacRitchie Reservoir. You can take a bus and get off here. Then walk a few steps down Kheam Hock Road until you see the sign for the cemetery on the left. I think there may be a possibility of guided tours, but I'm not certain.
Tips: If you visit Bukit Brown, I hope you'll be respectful in this solemn place. Please don't feed the wildlife, and be sure to pack out all of your trash. Definitely don't forget mosquito repellent if you're going in the morning or late afternoon. Other than that...enjoy!
- Nathan Allen
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