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  The Straits Times, 5 Dec 04
The great escape

Go on, get away from it all. NParks has now made camping at five sites a walk in the park

JUST woke up this morning and feel like camping in the park? Now you can, as the National Parks Board (NParks) has done away with the need for permits.

From Dec 1, campers at five sites - Changi Beach Park, East Coast Park, Pasir Ris Park, Sembawang Park and West Coast Park - no longer need to apply for permits. Previously, they had to obtain one, issued free, at least five days in advance.

The good news gets better. NParks has also opened up previously closed areas in these parks to campers. Its communications manager Jean Lee says the move is to encourage more people to use the parks. 'We saw an increasing trend in camping among Singaporeans but the need for permits meant that they could not do it spontaneously,' she says. From January to October this year, NParks received over 10,000 applications for permits, compared to just 7,700 in 2001.

The most popular campsite is Changi Beach Park, followed closely by East Coast Park. West Coast Park is the least favoured. Barbecue pits, which cost $16 or $20 each to rent depending on size, still require bookings at least 10 days in advance.

Apart from the five parks, camping is also allowed at Pulau Ubin's Noordin and Mamam beaches which do not require permits.

Over at Sentosa, Camp Laguna on Palawan Beach charges $12.60 per night for a group of people if you bring your own tent, and $12.60 to $25.20 for rented ones. For overnight camping at Pulau Hantu and Sisters' Islands, you need to obtain a free permit first from the Sentosa Development Corporation. However, repair work is being done at the jetty in Sisters' Islands so it is closed to the public.

Mr Chan Jim Kee, head of outdoor education at the Ministry of Education, says it is 'extremely safe' to camp in Singapore, with lightning storms being the only major concern. But Mr Ho Ee Kid, president of the Singapore Adventurers' Club, feels that campsites here tend to be 'too sanitised and civilised'. 'A lot of camping spots lack the oomph factor. Camping in places like the East Coast Park can be a tame experience as you are so near to civilisation,' he says.

He suggests opening up some controlled areas in forests, like in Mandai or Bukit Timah, to let Singaporeans experience 'the wild side'. Outward Bound Singapore's deputy director Leng Chin Beng acknowledges that pollution and destruction of the environment are the potential setbacks in allowing people to rough it out in more remote nature spots. 'Before this can even be considered, campers need to become more civic-minded and responsible towards the environment,' he says.

Five parks rated as camping sites

Veteran camper Alex Ngew rates five parks and points out three great sites for pitching your tent. The 26-year-old freelance photographer goes camping up to eight times a month and owns 11 tents of various sizes. He has pitched tents at five parks countless times and occasionally goes overseas for camping trips.

Sembawang Park

He says: This park is very windy and has wide, open fields to conduct activities. It is also not too crowded and people who come are usually families who live nearby. The only disadvantage is probably its inaccessibility.

How to get there: Bus Service 167, which starts from Bukit Merah Interchange and passes through Orchard Road, takes you to the entrance of the park in Sembawang Road.

Site A is good because: There is a very big tree which offers shade and food is less likely to go bad The abundance of small trees allows you to tie a clothes-line to dry clothes It is facing the sea and the opposite shore is lowland, so it's nice and windy The concrete pavement next to the sea allows you to place a stool and fish in comfort It is near the bus terminus and a small snack shop

Site B is good because: It is very near the barbecue pits There is very little sand on the grass patch so you don't have to worry about tracking sand into your tent The coconut trees make you feel you're really on a sandy beach even though there is none It is a popular spot to pitch tents, so if you enjoy company, go on and chat up that babe or hunk

Site C is good because: It is on very high ground so you don't have to worry about flooding when it rains It is near a pavilion so if the rain gets too heavy, you can take shelter there instead The trees surrounding it give more privacy than the open areas in sites A and B The playground is just 10m away so children can be let loose there, giving parents a respite

Changi Beach Park

He says: People always think that there are many transvestites lurking around this place at night but the 'high activity zone' is only in one small area.

How to get there: Take bus Services 9, 19 and 89 to carparks 2, 4 and 5. Or take Services 2 and 29 to Changi Village and walk five minutes across the pedestrian bridge to the park.

Site A is good because: It faces the sea and is very windy Facilities such as the toilet and barbecue pits are nearby The amphitheatre is nearby and a good place to do your Singapore Idol thing The area is sandy, which makes it very cool to sleep on, if you find the tent too stuffy.

Site B is good because: There are many shelters nearby to shield you from violent storms The carpark is only 20m away so transferring all the camping gear and food is not such a chore There's a playground for the children nearby The toilet is less than 50m away, useful when your stomach rebels against that undercooked chicken wing

Site C is good because: It is on the beach but on high ground, so the high tide won't wash your tent away You get an unobstructed view of planes taking off from Changi Airport The grass is very soft, making it a comfortable carpet to lie on It is relatively quiet even though the main road is about 100m away The main road is concealed by many trees so you still feel you are far away from the hustle and bustle of city life

East Coast Park

He says: The entire population of Singapore seems to be here but, well, so are all the facilities.

How to get there: Take Service 401 to East Coast Park Service Road (Sundays and public holidays only). Or take Services 16, 155 & 196 to Marine Crescent or Marine Terrace and take the underpasses or overhead bridge. Or take Service 36 from Changi Airport and alight at Carpark F3.

Site A is good because: It is shady so food won't go bad so easily The soft grass provides a comfortable snoozing zone The toilet is less than 100m away so beer guzzlers are safe The shelters and barbecue pits are just a few steps away

Site B is good because: The toilet is less than 80m away The carpark is less than 100m away so getting things to and from the car should be a breeze It is near Costa Sands resort so you can always pop in to enjoy facilities like the swimming pool and the bar

Site C is good because: It is right smack in the food zone with restaurants, a convenience store and bars. Even the McDonald's outlet is open 24 hours on Fridays and Saturdays. During school holidays, it is open 24 hours every day It is near the bicycle and in-line skates rental stores so you can whizz away from that boring barbecuing chore It is the nearest to civilisation and is perfect for people who have just watched Thai screamer Shutter and think they just might see 'things' behind every tree Barbecue pits are everywhere.

West Coast Park

He says: This place has just been upgraded - complete with a McDonald's outlet - and few people know they can camp here. It may not have a long stretch of beach, but there is a pond and mangrove swamp which can be educational for the kids.

How to get there: Bus Service 176 stops in front of the park.

Site A is good because: It has a huge sandpit where you can play beach volleyball It is near the huge grass clearing which lets you be a high-flyer with kites and even radio-controlled planes The barbecue pits are just a few steps away

Site B is good because: It is shady and cool, so Mum's curry should not go bad so easily The beach is about 80m away and you can walk over occasionally to watch the waves and enjoy their rhythmic, calming sound It is very serene because it is quite far from the playground and grassland It has lots of space for all kinds of activities

Site C is good because: It is the only place in the park with coconut trees which make you feel like you're on a real beach It is right at one end of the park so there is ample privacy You get unlimited views of the sampans bobbing in the sea and the fishermen at work It has barbecue pits

Pasir Ris Park

He says: There are very few facilities and eateries here. The restaurants by the beach have a nice ambience, but their prices may not be within the budget of, say, students.

How to get there: Walk 10 minutes from Pasir Ris MRT station or take Service 354 or 403.

Site A is good because: There are many barbecue pits The toilet is just 120m away Most of the eateries are 100m away The bicycle rental shop is nearby It is generally shady

Site B is good because: The canopy formed by the trees makes the place very shady and cool. It is near the carpark so transporting items to and from the car is easy A restaurant where you can eat by the beach is just 120m away It is a relatively quiet spot even though there are houses nearby

Site C is good because: The toilet is just 20m away There are no shops around so it is very quiet It has lots of shade There is an amphitheatre to conduct activities There are many barbecue pits There is a maze garden about 100m away if you need a healthy challenge

Going off the beaten trek

CAMPING runs in the blood of the Tan family, says Mr Gordon Tan, 49, who grew up in a kampung in Bedok. 'Most of my peers were kampung people. I like the space, vegetation, the sound of birds singing and chickens running around.'

He runs Adventure 21, a four-year-old shop at Chinatown Point selling camping and outdoor gear. His wife, engineer Kim Tan, 36, was also an avid trekker. In fact, they met on a trekking expedition up Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in 1993. Their children - nine-year-old Eve and her brothers Calvin, eight, and Ashley, six - have inherited their parents' outdoorsy genes.

Pulau Ubin is a favourite site for the family's monthly camping trips because it's 'more exclusive', says Mr Tan. 'At East Coast Park and Pasir Ris, you don't feel like you're with nature. There are people playing music and playing games. It kills the atmosphere.'

The family also camps in Mount Ophir and Taman Negara in Malaysia during school holidays and is used to harsh weather conditions. 'Once when we were using a cheap tent, it rained and the whole tent was flooded,' recalls Mr Tan. 'It's what I remember as our 'Titanic' experience.' Once they got a better tent, heavy rains were less of a problem. Says Mrs Tan: 'When it rains, we all sit inside the tent and play games.'

Indeed, camping has become an avenue for family bonding and in some ways, kiddie boot camp. She adds: 'Initially, the kids complained about mosquitoes and the food, but I told them to think of children in other parts of the world who have less.

' What spoils the experience, says Mr Tan, are inconsiderate campers who don't clean up after themselves. 'Campsites here can be quite dirty. People don't have the discipline to dispose of their water bottles, plastic bags and tissue paper properly.'

Hey, where's our tent?

SOMETIMES, the gentle breeze that sweeps over the coarse sands at Changi Beach Park can morph into a mini-hurricane. Just ask Mr Mohammed Mansor Ahmad (above) and his family of happy campers who once had to chase down their eight-man tent blown away by the wind. 'Suddenly the wind came and whoosh,' recalls the 44-year-old forklift driver. But freak occurrences like these have not dampened their love for the outdoors.

Mr Mansor, his homemaker-wife Salimah Ahmad, 40, and their son and daughter, aged 10 and nine respectively, make it a point to pitch their tents in places like Changi, Pulau Ubin and even Coney Island at least once a month. Besides offering an escape from the bustle of city life, the expeditions allow Mr Mansor to indulge in his favourite pastime of fishing.

When LifeStyle chanced upon the family's campsite at Changi Beach Park last Tuesday night, three fishing rods were propped up beside their tent while fresh squid - bait for fish - darted around in a styrofoam box. Mr Mansor points to the sea and says: 'This spot here is where my brother caught a big stingray. That's why I'm here. But I haven't caught anything yet.'

Except for a portable TV set that can receive transmissions from Indonesia, everything else is basic. Dad goes fishing while the kids - who are sometimes joined by a cousin - splash around on the beach. Mum whips up hearty meals, mostly fried fish marinated with turmeric and salt.

Mr Mansor hopes to instill some basic survival skills in his children. 'I want to teach my kids to survive. I want them to know how difficult things were before their time, when we had to do things like catch fish and clean up after ourselves.' His children have never complained, he adds. 'They are the ones who enjoy the experience. They don't want to go home.'

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