Hiking to Bukit Brown Cemetery & the “Avatar Trees”
Hiking can mean many things – it could connote a wild adventure with your gung ho crew through the spectacular hiking trails of Europe, or it could mean an offbeat weekend adventure through Singapore’s many nature trails.
3km hike through a forgotten area of Singapore
In a dense city like Singapore, it’s hard to imagine any areas left unexplored. So when a friend first introduced me to the Avatar Trees, “no freaking way!” was my first reaction. Don’t @ me, it’s probably yours too.
Google proved that albeit obscure, this hidden gem had a very doable trek leading up to it. But what came as a bigger surprise was the fact that it was ridiculously close to the uber-popular MacRitchie. Just across a highway, in fact.
Map of our hiking route.
Image adapted from: Strava
As with all unofficial trails, there are several route options you can consider. Below, my colleagues, Clement and Maribelle, and I embark on a ~3km long hike that starts easy along the main road, and gradually gets tougher. Expect lots of pretty photo-ops and – as Hershel Patel would say – a smidge of jungle trekking towards the end.
Here’s all you need to know about hiking to the Avatar Trees.
Starting point: Bukit Brown Cemetery
Getting to the starting point of the trek was, all things considered, pretty straightforward. All you have to do is to take a bus to After Kheam Hock Road – we boarded bus 855 from Commonwealth MRT station to get there.
Cross the overhead bridge to the other side of the highway and you’ll soon reach an ominous sign screaming “caution”, highlighting that the roads ahead aren’t maintained by NEA. We proceeded here. Indiana Jones adventure, remember?
See huge gates out of Batman’s Gotham? You’re entering the Bukit Brown Cemetery – admittedly not at the top of my fun things to do in Singapore list. I’d usually say no thanks to cemetery heebie-jeebies but this time around, this was part of the journey and an intriguing stop at that.
Spot graves of all shapes and sizes dotted around a peaceful forest landscape. Larger tombstones located higher up on the hills usually indicate graves of wealthier folks.
A quick history lesson on Bukit Brown Cemetery: it was built more than a hundred years ago in 1922 and officially closed in 1973, as a final resting ground for more than 100,000 people. Today, many of the tombs are unclaimed and some exhumed to make way for highways and development.
Following an old road down to the Avatar Trees
Once you’re done checking out the cemetery, take a u-turn back along Lorong Halwa and continue left once you hit Kheam Hock Road. Here, follow the curved road until you reach a fork where you can take a left turn into the forest.
Some unexpected sights that greeted us along this stretch include dilapidated makeshift homes with tarps as shelter and more gravestones along the way.
When you reach the end of the road, continue down the beaten path until you eventually reach an open patch where you can find the stunning “Avatar Trees”. Cue a collective wow.
Lush bushes flood the landscape and amidst the greenery, massive trees stretch into the sky. Expect what you see in photographs, and more. The barks of the majestic trees are covered with draping plants, creating a mystical effect that brings to mind the Tipani Hometree from Avatar. It’s no wonder it earned itself the fancy nickname.
A couple of beaten trails head towards the trees for closer photo ops to the Gardens by the Bay-lookalike. Just take care of where you place your foot as there are some gravestones in the area as well!
After this point, you have two options:
- If the ground is muddy we recommend turning back to Kheam Hock Road and accessing the abandoned cars and Chinese temple from there.
- If it’s sunny and dry, continue down the dirt path as we did below.
Jungle trekking to abandoned cars & Chinese temple
The upcoming segment entails a tougher trek than before with uneven terrain and possibly muddy paths if it rained the day before. At some segments, we felt like we were swimming through grass; and in other segments, we found ourselves clambering over fallen trees.
That being said, it was still very doable – though, you will need proper hiking shoes, or at the very least, sports shoes with good traction to prevent slipping or tripping. It would also be a good idea to throw on a pair of long pants to prevent mosquito bites and getting scratched by twigs.
Pass a natural stream along the way.
The great news for less-experienced hikers, however, is that there’s little chance of getting lost as the trail is rather straightforward. We didn’t struggle with gathering our sense of direction as we did at Bukit Batok Hillside Park. Our phones also received decent GPS signals here which helped us identify how far into the trek we were.
Eventually, the trail approaches the main road and runs parallel to the nearby PIE. Continue along the path until you come across a yellow sign, indicating the next attraction along this trek.
There are three obscure paths here. Path #3 will lead you to a temple up on a hill.
新恒山亭大伯公庙 or Xinhengshan Pavilion Dabogong Temple lies above a flight of stairs According to online sources, this was built in 1891 and is dedicated to the land deity of Bukit Brown. Despite being literally in the middle of nowhere, it also looked surprisingly well maintained, hinting that some folks still visit the temple regularly.
After, visit the abandoned cars by heading down Path #1 or #2. It’s about a 5-minute walk along an obscure trail. Some landmarks below will point you in the right direction:
Landmark 1: A flight of stairs in the forest
Landmark 2: A small stream
Upon crossing the stream, it won’t be long before you come across a couple of abandoned cars strewn across the forest. It may be 2022 but this sure looks like Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic 2012.
Nature slowly swallows up the vehicles with one of the cars falling apart; tyres sinking into the ground and leafy vines creeping up its metallic frame. Nearby was another unidentifiable vehicle, possibly a lorry, smothered under fallen leaves.
Since there aren’t any roads nearby, it’s astounding how these vehicles have found their way here. Was this area once a car park? Was there an accident at the PIE 1km away that flung these vehicles here? These time capsules have more secrets than The Tinder Swindler or Anna Delvey but we all love a mind-boggling mystery don’t we?
Endpoint: Exit at Kheam Hock Road
Image credit: Google Maps
Once you’re done with the final attraction, it’s a short jaunt to Kheam Hock Road, where you call a Grab home, or take a 10-minute walk to Adam Road to catch a bus to a nearby MRT.
Some tips for hiking to the Avatar Trees
Despite the bright red cautionary signboards at the start of the trail, the terrain was overall dare I say, easy. Or at least, easy enough, and very achievable for the average hiker. The crew ranks the difficulty out of 10 below:
Clement: 2/10 till you get to the Avatar trees, 4/10 once you’re in the jungle. 6/10 if you come on a hot and humid day like we did.
Maribelle: 3/10. It really felt like I was out of Singapore at some points.
Kezia: 4/10. It’s not a walk in the park but it’s not as difficult as Clementi Forest either.
That being said, we were fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day, when the ground was dry and non-muddy. According to other online guides, the jungle area can flood during heavy showers so you’ll want to postpone your visit if it rains the day before.
Also, since the trail is an obscure one, the full route isn’t reflected on Google Maps. However, we found that you can get a decent map of the trail on running app Strava. Finally, don’t forget the staple hiking essentials of water, sunblock and mosquito repellent.
Embark on a lesser-known hike to the Avatar Trees
With a cemetery, massive trees and abandoned cars all bundled up onto one, a hike to the Avatar Trees checks off a couple of unusual boxes. It unveils a side of Singapore that many of us haven’t seen and would be a good option for anyone looking for adventures beyond our PCNs.
For more hiking and walking guides:
Photography by Clement Sim.