Photo: There is nowhere quite like Singapore.

Haw Par Villa (AKA Tiger Balm Gardens)

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Despite what the glossy brochures tell you, Singapore isn’t all glitzy shopping centres and perfectly manicured gardens. See the darker, more dilapidated side of the city with a visit to the bizarre cultural theme park known as Haw Par Villa.

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Pass through the gates and prepare to be bewildered

Pass through the gates and prepare to be bewildered

Originally known as Tiger Balm Gardens, the park was founded in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the Burmese brothers and businessmen behind the popular herbal ointment Tiger Balm. Wanting to give back to the community, they designed the park as a place where children could learn about traditional Chinese values. To achieve this goal, more than 1,000 sculptures were built especially for Haw Par Villa illustrating morality tales, scenes from mythology, and the punishments that sinners endure in the Ten Courts of Chinese Hell.

No, he won't be fine.

No, he won’t be fine.

While it’s questionable if a visit to Haw Par Villa will make your children better behaved, it will almost certainly give them nightmares. The dioramas in the Ten Courts of Hell illustrate the extremely specific punishments for different sins in extremely gruesome detail. For example, cursing gets you thrown on a hill of knives, being ungrateful to your elders gets your heart cut out, and prostitutes are drowned in a pool of blood. Don’t worry, I haven’t spoiled them all – there’s plenty more.

Of course, the Ten Courts of Hell is just one of the many things to see at Haw Par Villa. Most of the space is hilly gardens containing large sculptures that range from violent (a war between fish-men, a boy who’s been hit by a car) to out of place (the Statue of Liberty, koalas and a kangaroo) to downright perplexing (a wolf speaking on the telephone, the crab-lady below). While these creatures must make sense to someone, the signage is a bit brief and, at times, as perplexing as the sculptures.

Uhm.... why?

Uhm…. why?

As you might have suspected, Haw Par Villa has fallen out of favour as a tourist attraction and maintenance over the last two decades has been minimal. However, with the opening of the Haw Par Villa MRT station serving as a reminder that it still exists, there has been a resurgence in the number of people going to see this bizarre place for themselves. Or maybe they’re going because admission is now completely free.

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