Orchids are breathtaking

DEEP in the centre of Singapore's hustle and bustle is an amazing oasis known as the Royal Botanic Gardens.

I went there recently for the first time and came away spellbound by this amazing place

The gardens are 156 years old and are the only tropical display listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

They have won many international awards and with good reason.

However for many years it was the garden's commercial potential that kept it flourishing.

You see, the garden played a pivotal role in developing rubber trees and rubber extraction which became one of Asia's greatest industries.

From the city's shopping belt you climb up a gentle road and suddenly you are enveloped by jungle. The jungle is older than the gardens and covers about six hectares.

It makes Singapore one of only two cities worldwide to have a tropical rainforest within its boundaries.

More than 10,000 species of flora are spread around its vast grounds.

Luckily, in the Second World War, university experts from Japan were able to protect the garden from their own military and as a result no looting or damage occurred.

After the war the gardens, first opened in the 1850s, were handed back intact.

At the heart of the gardens is the National Orchid Garden, stretched out over three hectares of hillside.

You enter through a rather underwhelming building and are suddenly confronted with the most stunning display of natural colour you could ever hope to see.

I never realised just how many orchids there are on planet Earth. The garden has a collection of more than 1000 species, plus more than 2000 hybrids.

The display seems to go on forever and then you enter the Orchidarium where the natural species are presented in a breathtaking tropical setting.

Some notable varieties include Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth all celebrating the most famous British women of the 20th century.

The colours on display are simply breathtaking and assault the senses with their brilliance.

In fact, I came away from this exhibit convinced that if ever I developed a green thumb, it would be growing orchids.

Nearby is Palm Valley, the place the locals go to enjoy a picnic or an outdoor concert.

The Saraca Stream meanders down a hillside and is shrouded with tropical plants and palms of every description.

There are three lakes in the garden as well as a Ginger garden with its own waterfall and the Evolution Garden featuring giant clubmosses.

I sat for quite a while in that special place, as you do in a great garden.

Asia can be quite a daunting place to visit because of the crowds, the traffic and the pollution.

There is a mad rush to develop at all costs in these places and often history is chopped down or demolished to make way for new roads, and developments.

Singapore has managed to avoid this by preserving its famous gardens and leaving it intact as a treasure to be enjoyed for all times.

And they are adding new areas all the time. The Children's Garden, for example, is a popular new addition and claims to be Asia's first garden for kids.

In granting it World Heritage status, UNESCO said in part:

"The Gardens demonstrates the evolution of a British tropical colonial garden into a modern and world-class botanic garden, scientific institution and place of conservation and education."

As a result, The Gardens are the first tropical, and only the third botanic gardens on the UNESCO World Heritage listing. It was a fitting tribute to Singapore's 50th year of independence.

Entry to the gardens is free but there is a small entry fee to the Orchid Garden. The gardens are open 5am to midnight every day of the year.

So, when you visit Singapore, do yourself a favour and take time out from the shopping and the tourist traps and spend a day in the Royal Botanic Gardens.

You won't be disappointed.

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