It’s always summer in Singapore. Beads of sweat soaked through my white tank top, then percolated to my outer botton-up shirt. I rolled down the sleeves to prevent myself from becoming a buffet for mosquitos. My feet steamed in the thick boots I bought for a previous winter vacation to Korea. I was warned we would walk through jungle-like vegetation before reaching the abandoned Istana Woodneuk.
Also known as the “Woodneuk House,” this structure—once covered with an iconic blue roof—is one of two royal palaces owned by the 21st Sultan of Johor. The other palace Istana Tyersall had a red roof, but was burned down. While some refer to Istana Woodneuk as a “royal palace,” others call it a “grand mansion.”
Istana Woodneuk was completed in 1892 for the sultan’s fourth wife. In 1942 the mansion was used as a military hospital. Upon Japanese bombing, 700 medics and patients burned to death. Istana Woodneuk became abandoned for over five decades. In 2006 the famed blue roof burned down. The individual blue tiles can be see on the rooftop upon climbing two ladders.
It’s hard to believe that a 123-year-old mansion exists across from Dempsey Hill, an area filled with middle to high-end restaurants including the famed White Rabbit. Lined along the busy Holland Road near the Botanic Gardens is thick greenery. A hanging sign warns the public: Private Property, No Trespassing. But look closely and there lies a subtle dirt path connecting the sidewalk to the deep of the woods.
If I were alone, I may have chickened out. But our adventure team was seven members strong. If any spirits decided to peekaboo, at least I had six others’ arm to run into. Considering the heat and humidity, a good scare was what we needed to chill out.
Into the woods we went. One member at a time disappeared from the sidewalk. The dirt path deepened on an uphill climb. Tangled tree roots intersected the path. A hazard if walked during the night. A mass of black hair suddenly revealed itself.
Within minutes the dirt path created a T-intersection with another wider path large enough to accommodate vehicles. Which direction to go: left or right? We took an educated guess. The path slightly angled up towards the right. Roads typically lead up to something, not downwards. We turned right.
Walking the wide dirt path, careful to avoid the dips and puddles, the mansion gradually uncovered itself through an open space between bushes. Enthused that the abandoned building hadn’t been demolished after all these years, we marched faster towards the entrance. Most of the structure remained intact, though was covered in grey and graffiti.
Once we passed the front door, our group split and wandered off at varying speeds. Some took their time for photography. Others strolled swiftly. As I snapped away with my camera, I stayed close to at least one person. The hallways led to dark spaces and I wasn’t ready to be eaten by the shadows. Especially alone.
Near the main entrance was a grand staircase made of wood and holes. I carefully placed my feet on the edge of each step for minimum pressure. The staircase led to the second floor of patios and ceilingless rooms.
Back to the first floor I carefully walked through the dark spaces, looking for photographic opportunities. Ceilings resembled contemporary watercolor paintings. One room had a queen-sized IKEA bed, appropriately from the Sultan mattress collection. Broken alcohol bottles were scattered on the floor. Someone thought the semi-creepy mansion would make a fun place to have a sleepover party. If anything, they probably were haunted by mosquitoes.
My friend’s father, who had unexpectedly joined us for the exploration, claimed he can see ghosts. He later told us he saw a British man with beard and mustache standing beside the stairs on the first floor. There also were Asian servants and four ladies dressed up, each holding a glass of wine. How awesome it would be to live as a party ghost? Spirit on spirits. Drink forever yet never hungover. Cheers to that!
Afterwards we walked to Dempsey Hill and ate tacos.
ps: The coordinates of Istana Woodneuk are as follows: 1°18’31.7″N 103°48’44.2”E. Simple copy and paste into Google maps.