Things to Do: Singapore Zoo and Night Safari

I don't usually like zoos because the animals usually look sad and hot. This is really the first zoo I have been to where the animals look, well, pretty happy to be there. It is almost like they are feeling sorry for me, sweating with 200 pounds of junk I am carrying for my kids, while they cavort in their natural jungle habitats and wait for dinner.

The zoo is well-worth visiting, even if you generally do not like zoos. If you (or maybe your kids) actually like seeing animals, this is a must-see. Seriously, if this was Ebay feedback, I'd write “Excellent Ebayer!! A+++ Never Better;;; Cured my tumor and shipped fast!!!!!!!!!!”

OK, the bad news I can offer for you pessimists is that the zoo is a bit hard/expensive to get to. Public transport takes an hour, and sends you to Ang Mo Kio MRT station, where you transfer to bus SBS 138 and walk a long way. The only good way to do it is by taxi, about US$12 from Orchard Road in 2004. if you have little kids and strollers and backpacks and can't afford the taxi, go someone else instead ‘cause you won't like the trip.

Admission prices, directions and opening hours for the zoo are at www.zoo.com.sg. You can buy a nicely discounted combo ticket for the night safari (see below).

The Singapore Zoo was one of the pioneers in the natural habitat concept, and they have got it down. There are no cages, and for most animals, all that stands between them and you is a moat. Fences are cleverly hidden by greenery such that in most cases unless you are trying to look they just aren't there. Some critters are behind glass, like reptiles, but even then live within a natural looking setting. This all creates the impression that you are seeing the animals up close. There are beautiful white tigers and some of the biggest crocodiles I have ever seen. It may have been Ritalin in their Alpo, but most of the animals seemed lively and animated.

The shows and feeding sessions go on all day, and are entertaining. They can descend a bit into circus-like stunts, and this may be a bit off-putting when compared to how much effort otherwise goes into making the zoo not seem like an animal penitentiary.

You can pay to be photographed with various creatures, or on ponies or elephants, so parents may need to sort out their stance on this before hand ‘cause it will look like fun to your kids.

Food is everywhere and not too expensive. There are some shops, but they are heavy on souvenirs and light on necessities, so bring along any diapers and other baby maintenance gear you will need for the day. With a few exceptions, the zoo is generally flat and easy on strollers, with wide paved paths to take you between exhibits. A lot of it is in the sun, so sun screen and hats are needed. There is a zoo tram that you can pay for that will take you past all the major exhibits.

The zoo toilets are famous and are, quite literally, an attraction of their own (our kids saw them featured on Animal Plant TV before we left). Here are some actual photos of a zoo men's room. The water you see is not rain, but an artificial waterfall designed to create a tropical atmosphere. No wonder they won awards for it all.

Note that the baboon area features an entire tribe of baboons, including at most times of the year females very, very obviously in heat who are routinely mounted by the alpha males. The males also display their privates and mount each other to show dominance. Some parents may wish to determine if this is right for their kids at this time. If you have chosen to put off that birds and bees lecture, you will find yourself delivering it spontaneously at this point in your tour of Singapore.

Yes, we are lame parents but we did not take the kids to the breakfast with the orangutans (there is also an afternoon tea session). We just ran out of time and money, but folks say it is wonderful fun, albeit in a circus-y way. The animals are trained to join your kids as they eat and you can take all sorts of close up pictures and touch them. Prices are on the zoo web site. The events take place off the beaten path a bit so if you skip them like we did you will not have to stand there while your kids watch other kids with Nicer Parents enjoy themselves.

The Night Safari

This is co-located with the zoo, but requires a separate admission (combo tickets are available) and opens only after the zoo itself has closed for the day. The animals and habitats are completely different.

The food areas for the night safari open right as the zoo itself slams closed, so it is easy to have dinner. We had very tasty satays at decent prices, and you can get noodles, fish and even burgers and beer at the same places.

Because the night safari takes place at night, like after dark, everything is dark. The habitats are illuminated with only soft, indirect lighting if at all, and the paths between sites are very dark. Smaller kids may get frightened, and strollers and backpacks may bump into nearby branches and bushes. You might want to consider small pen lights, or even better, those chemical illumination sticks if your kids do not like the dark. Carrying anything too bright is prohibited, and pointing lights at the animals is not allowed. We don't have pictures from the Night Safari because it was dark, and all flash photography is prohibited so as not to freak out the animals.

Because it is dark, and involves a lot of walking (the night safari area is 1.5 times larger than the zoo itself), we strongly recommend paying for the night tram. The tram takes you past lots of animals, drops you at a “jungle station” where you explore on foot a while, then picks you up again for the second half. On the first part of the trip sit on the right side of the tram for the best views; on the second leg, sit on the left side. People seated in the middle of the bench seats have poor views of everything.

At some points of the trip the animals are roaming free and can and do approach the tram. This is fun for some kids but may scare others. Avoid the temptation to stick out little hands or offer food. These are still sort of wild animals and they can bite, even if in accident going for that Cheeto.

There is one animal show that again is a bit too corny and artificial for my tastes, but the kids liked seeing the animals in action and at one point a night barn owl swooped over the audience at hair top level on cue. Even my jaded self liked that. The show is free with admission.

Like us, you will want to visit the zoo in the day time and then take in the night safari that same night; they are next to each other, you bought a combo ticket and the taxi ride was 12 bucks and 30 minutes. All I can say is that by 10pm our kids, ages 12 and 9, were dragging and very unhappy with walking in all ways. It is a long day in the heat of mainly passive viewing, and was probably too much to attempt in one day. Your call, but we saw a lot of other tired parents barking at tired kids in the taxi line when it was time to go home.

Visit the Night Safari web site for more information.

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