Singapore is a small country, but it runs a big tourism engine. Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands, and Universal Studios each draw millions of visitors each year. But all of these places are crowded and expensive and we were looking for something more authentic. Something that provided a look into Singaporean culture and history.

And boy did we find it in tenfold at Haw Par Villa.

The entrance gate to Haw Par Villa. Adventures await…

Haw Par Villa is a theme park dedicated to teaching Buddhist and Chinese beliefs and values through life-size figures and dioramas.

It was dreamed up by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the creators of Tiger Balm, the popular medicinal ointment cream. Built in 1937, the park features over 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology and folklore.

The crazy tiger car that the brothers would drive around town to promote their Tiger Balm.

What to See at Haw Par Villa

A scene from Chinese folklore.

The park is organized into several different themed areas, each more bizarre than the next. As it was raining when we arrived, we headed to the Ten Courts of Hell first since it was indoors.

Ten Courts of Hell

We cautiously entered the dimly-lit caves and braced ourselves for what was to come.
Scenes of what afterlife looks like according to Buddhist beliefs are presented in gruesome detail.

In the first court of hell, King Qinguang judges each person according to his deeds in his past life.

First you are judged and depending on your offenses, are either sent across the golden bridge, silver bridge, or into the courts of hell.

Those with virtuous conduct in their past life take the ‘Golden Bridge’ to paradise. Those whose past good deeds outweigh crimes committed will take the ‘Silver Bridge to reach paradise.

Crimes run the gamut from not paying rent and lack of respect to one’s elders, to more sever offenses like rape and murder.

The eighth court of hell, where those who cause trouble to their parents get their intestines pulled out. On the right is someone who harmed others to benefit himself, getting dismembered.

The depictions of the punishments were both creative, and cringe-worthy.

Rumor-mongers get their tongue cut out.
The third court of hell. On the left, drug addicts and drug traffickers are tied to a hot copper pillar and grilled. On the right, those who are ungrateful, disrespect elders or escape from prison have their heart cut out.
In the fourth court of hell, not paying rent gets you pounded by a stone mallet on the left. On the right, people who were disobedient to siblings or showed a lack of filial piety are grounded by a large stone. Pretty harsh!
The sixth court of hell, where cheating and cursing gets you thrown onto a tree made of knives. Wasting food, mistreating books, owning pornographic material and breaking written rules gets you sawed in half.
The ninth court of hell, reserved for those who commit robbery, rape and murder, receive a punishment of having their head and arms chopped off.

After being subjected to punishment, the process ends with a spin on the reincarnation wheel to determine your future.

These two are being reincarnated as dogs.

Walking through the Ten Courts of Hell was like viewing a storyboard of the next Hostel movie. Probably not for young children or those who are easily disturbed. Otherwise, don’t miss it! It is certainly one of the most unique things I’ve seen.

Exiting the caves, we were faced with one of the weirdest dioramas in the park: an old woman being breast fed. The lesson here being one of filial piety. Or something like that.

Image by Kiran Foster on flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The rest of the park features scenes from various Chinese mythology and folklore.
Interspersed throughout are anthropomorphic animals, gods and goddesses, and the occasional Tiger Balm product placement.

A bloody battle between rats and rabbits.
Giant heads of Chinese gods.
Brought to you by the makers of Tiger Balm.

You can easily spend the afternoon wandering through the maze of spectacular scenes. Of course, there are plenty of Instagram-worthy photo opportunities.

This monkey statue was just asking to be posed with.

As you walk through the villa, you’ll come across a koi and turtle pond among a few pagodas and bridges. It is a peaceful respite in a sea of visual overload.



Getting to Haw Par Villa


The best way to get to Haw Par Villa is to take the MRT. Take the Circle line to Haw Par Villa and leave from Exit A.

The park is open daily from 9am to 7pm, with the last admission to the Ten Courts of Hell at 6:30pm. Light snacks are available for purchase.

Haw Par Villa Admission Fee

Haw Par Villa has been on the verge of closure several times, but today admission is free. It has experienced a reduction in visitors as flashier attractions like Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa Island gobbled up tourists’ attention.

However, if you are visiting Singapore, don’t miss Haw Par Villa. It provides a genuine glimpse into Chinese culture and is a place of nostalgia for many Singaporeans. Though it is an undoubtedly bizarre theme park, it is a unique piece of Singapore’s history and culture that should be preserved.

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