Pulau Ubin: Rediscovering Sixties Singapore

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Singapore has been on my travel list for a long time but somehow I always chose the more alluring Europe or Australia over it. So when finally I got a chance to explore it I was happy but wasn’t going gaga over the impending experience. I had heard a lot, seen a lot and read a lot about Singapore and I knew there was hardly anything offbeat to be explored here. But boy was I so wrong! Einstein had said imagination is more important than knowledge and so I set out to Singapore, applying what he said. This travelogue summarizes why Einstein is mostly right 🙂

So hop on the time machine and travel back in time with me, to Singapore or Singa Pura, as it was called back then.

The day I landed in Singapore I knew it was going to be one heck of a trip when after one and a half hours of leaving the airport I realised that I was missing one bag. I was stressed and I called up the Changi airport helpline. Changi Airport is not renowned for being one of the world’s best airports for no reason. Their staff’s prompt response made me a fan of theirs for life. And by the way, it is such a beautiful airport that you can spend days exploring it and still not get bored. Anyway, we’ll talk about this topic in detail sometime later. Let's get back to our story.

After exploring all the touristy spots like Santosa Island, Marina Bay, The Merlion, Garden by the Bay, Botanical Gardens, Night Safari, Little India, Clarke Quay and other attractions I wanted to see something which not many people had seen so I kept probing my hostel guys about the offbeat places in Singapore. And thanks to them and some help from Google Guruji I zeroed in on exploring Pulau Ubin.

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Pulau Ubin Island Entrance, Singapore

Pulau Ubin tucked away far from the glitzy malls and swanky city life of the mainland Singapore is an island off eastern Singapore and often considered the last 'kampung' (village) in Singapore. The name Pulau Ubin means “Granite Island” in Malay. Until the 1960s it was used for quarrying granite. But thanks to a decline in quarrying since the 1970s, a slice of ancient Singapore has remained preserved - a retreat for nature lovers and adventure seekers. It is a treasure trove of biodiversity, where six or more major habitats meet and mix. An overgrown and rugged landscape with a small number of wooden, old-style Malay and Chinese kampongs (villages) where around 100 residents live who speak only Chinese and don’t understand even basic English, Pulau Ubin seems to have somehow missed the detriments of time, aging.

My Pulau Ubin journey didn’t start on a good note. The Chinese driver of the bus, who didn’t understand English, dropped me at a wrong Ferry terminal. It was a military area and there was nobody in sight so I walked up to the ferry terminal and asked the army personnel to let me in. Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew had passed away that day and perhaps that was the reason he was in such a foul mood. He told me it wasn’t the ferry terminal for civilians. When I asked him where the right one was he got really worked up and said he’s not Google. I should use my smartphone. I didn’t expect that coming from a government servant. Being the hothead I gave him my piece of mind,

“I am sorry if you are having a bad day. But being an army personnel it is your duty to protect the pride of your country. By talking rudely with a foreigner you are leaving a very bad impression about your country. I am not asking you to do me a big favour. Being nice to strangers is the smallest act of kindness anyone can do.”

I said that and rushed back to the road without even waiting for his response. Though I showed immense courage to utter those words I was shit scared from within. There was no soul visible on the road. What if he abducts me? Kills me? Throws me in the ocean? Nobody would get a whiff about me. But those were, of course, devilish thoughts, inspired by the countless hours spent watching murder drama on tv and youtube. (Un)Luckily, nothing of that kind drama happened.

After waiting for some time in the open that was turning out to be a hot furnace of a day, a taxi came to my rescue. After a wait of an hour, I took the ferry to the Pulau Ubin terminal.

Pulau Ubin Jetty at Changi Terminal - 1

Changi Terminal from where ferry goes to Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Getting off the “bumboat” ferry onto Pulau Ubin’s narrow wooden jetty was a welcome change from the hustle bustle of a city life. A signboard was placed right at the entrance for visitors’ guidance.

Pulau Ubin Island First look - 1

Sea View from Pulau Ubin, Singapore

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Pulau Ubin Ferry Station, Singapore

Just a few metres away from the shore a tiny village with a few single-storey wooden restaurants decked up in traditional Chinese décor and bike rental shops welcomed you.

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The lone restuarant, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

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Cycle renting shops, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

When you visit Pulau Ubin make sure you don’t forget to carry a good pair of healthy lungs and strong legs. Bicycles or walking are the ways to get around on the island. There are hardly any motorized vehicles to be found on the island. Off late Pulau Ubin has become popular with mountain bikers, thanks to the 10 km all weather mountain biking trail in the 45-hectare Ketam Mountain Bike Park, which has solidified the island’s unofficial title of “Bicycle Island”.

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Ketam Mountain Bike Park, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

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Pulau Ubin Cycle Park, Singapore

I was not in a mood to walk or ride so I opted for a van rental for 20$ for a pickup and drop at Chek Jawa Wetlands. Unfortunately, the guy didn’t even understand simple numbers. So my pick up time was completely messed up.

Like Alice, I was walking all alone in the wonderland when I heard a feeble chatter. The chatter became audible and the best part-it was in English. I followed my ear and they led me to a handsome English model and fashion photographer. I asked them for directions and they offered me to accompany them. I was sorted! From feeling lost on the island, I was now on a guided tour of the 100-hectare Chek Jawa wetland. We walked through the 1.1-kilometer board walkway getting amazed by the corals' reef and rich marine life. The end of the walkway leads us to the 21-meter tall viewing tower from where we not only got to see a 360 degree top view of the entire park but also saw some interesting species of birds.

Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin

Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Chek Jawa Wetlands bridge, Pulau Ubin

Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Viewing Deck

Viewing Deck at Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

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Wooden Pathway, Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Pulau Ubin Viewing Deck

On top of the Viewing deck, Chek Jawa Wetlands, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

After one and a half hour of walk, we reached the van drop-off point but my driver was nowhere in sight and I didn’t even have a working phone so I decided to hitch with the boys. We alighted at the old quarry. While the boys were busy shooting, I shared my pleasantries and went circumnavigating the island on my own.

Pulau Ubin Fauna

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Old Quarry, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

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Old Quarry, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

The birds at Pulau Ubin - 1

Old Quarry, Pulau Ubin, Singapore

While walking through the island I felt as if i was back in Sixties Singapore. No high rise buildings. No traffic jam. No rush to reach anywhere. It was a much needed welcome break to walk on the rustic roads under swaying coconut palms, exploring shady trails in overgrown rubber plantations, checking out secluded beaches and flourishing mangroves. Since I was kind of alien in this hidden paradise i decided to do what was best - soak into the sensorial pleasure of the Pulau Ubin. I wandered around the Singapore’s last kampongs and admired the rustic beauty and simplicity of a bygone era. There was a playing area for the kids and a place to worship.

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Amidst the Greens of Pulau Ubin - 1

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the playing platform for kids - 1

It was the world out of the world. Very calm. Very peaceful. All I could hear were birds chirping. No sound of any human or roaring engine. I looked around with the curious eyes of a lost child. I wanted to spend a night at the island but I wasn’t carrying any camping gear so I decided to catch the last ferry back to Singapore.

I was a happy person. Pulau Ubin reinstated my belief that being authentic, unspoiled and rustic is being beautiful not just in the NOW but in FOREVER.

Taking this valuable lesson I walked out of the wild with a strong desire to travel soon into the unknown because it’s usually the unknown that reveals you with yourself.

So can I expect you to explore the ancient part of Singapore when you visit this South East Asian Lion country?

TRAVEL TIPS

  1. Carry you packaged food and lots of water. Though there is a restaurant at the entrance, none in the park
  2. Some of its marine ecosystems appear only during low tides. Plan your visit better by finding the timing of the tides before you visit
  3. Bus services are infrequent. Keep a tab on them The nearest MRT Station is Pasir Ris from where you have to take a bus or a taxi to go to Changi Ferry terminal. From there take a “bumboat“ ferry to Pulau Ubin
  4. You can either rent a bicycle or carry you’re your own
  5. If possible learn few basic words in Chinese to speak to the locals
  6. Wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be walking/riding a lot
  7. Camp or spend some time on the unspoiled beaches of the island - Noordin Beach, Mamam Beach, or Jelutong Beach
  8. Bring lots of insect repellent and respect wildlife. Wild boars and monkeys are all over the park
  9. Carry cash. There are no ATMs or card swiping machines here.
  10. Carry a good quality camera. The island is a photography heaven

Disclaimer:

  1. I Won the Singapore Invites Contest with Singapore Tourism Board for this story and I was hosted with my family at Cornard Hotel at Singapore and I flew by Singapore Airlines
  2. All the views expressed here are my own and basis my personal experience there. All pictures are taken by me

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