If its impact on the mainstream tourist psyche can be measured in Google hits, Singapore’s rustic island of Pulau Ubin is a speck in the desert.
Fast-paced Singapore’s quiet little island of Pulau Ubin is the last old-style kampung (village) in this high-tech industrialized Southeast Asian country. For travellers flying into Singapore on business or those on a short stop-over, it’s worth a day-trip or even an overnight stay – and a unique opportunity to relive the 1950s – Asian-style.
As an expat living in Singapore for several years, I can’t quite remember how I found out about this tucked-away tropical paradise. But it wasn’t from a flashy marketing campaign of the ilk reserved for the city-state’s glitzy playground of Sentosa. If its impact on the mainstream tourist psyche can be measured in Google hits, Pulau Ubin is a speck in the desert. While Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) is just a 10-minute bumboat ride from the skyscraper-lined mainland, it’s one of the first-world city’s last genuine pieces of old … and a real-time glimpse into what things must have been like before Singaporean independence from Malaysia in 1965.
Situated northeast of Singapore in the Johor Straits, with a population of about 200, Pulau Ubin – a national park – gives one the distinct feeling that mainland Singapore doesn’t really want to admit the place is still there. Akin to a decrepit old family pet … You love it because you have a history together, but sadly you’ve grown apart. All Singaporeans originally lived in a collection of kampungs. There were no shopping malls, no flashy towers, no slickly-dressed women in pointy-toed court shoes, no sports cars and certainly no ATMs. Residents relied on wells for water and noisy diesel generators for electricity. And that is still how life in Pulau Ubin is in 2011.
The island is largely undeveloped bush and forest land – and there are cycling tracks which run through it. A cycling trip will takes visitors to the quarries, under the swaying trees and past the waving locals in quaint old wooden shacks. (who sell you cold drinks at inflated prices).
Until a few years ago, some of the island’s inhabitants earned their living by keeping chickens and a few cranky, sour-faced pigs. The chicken part of this came to a swift end in 2005, however, during the bird flu scare and there are no more chickens on the island - except maybe the odd maverick who escaped.
The only vehicles which use the narrow tarred roads are mostly bombed out cars and minivans, bombed out motorbikes and bombed out bicycles (which are hired to the visitors for $5 a pop).
There a plenty of places to have lunch near the pier, and cuisine is largely home-cooked Singaporean fare in open-air hawker-style eateries. On the menu is the usual seafood and the delicious Singaporean-style Chicken Rice. YUM! Once you tum is full and you’re on your bike, there’s plenty to see:
Pulau Ubin’s beaches
- There are several camping spots and beaches to choose from, including:
- Noordin Beach has a white sandy beach and a view of Johor across the Straits. Campfires are not allowed.
- Mamam Beach has benches and toilets but no camping
- Jelutong campsite is near the pier and “CBD” and faces the mainland.
- Chek Jawa is without doubt the most beautiful beach and popular
beach on Pulau Ubin
There are several different ecosystems in the area and the plants and animals found here are no longer seen much in Singapore. They are also disappearing around the globe.
Pulau Ubin’s temples and interesting buildings
Favourite rest-stops for cyclists are the Chinese and Buddhist temples. The Chinese temple is a short distance from the pier and CBD, while the Buddhist temple requires you to negotiate a steep hill first. The temple has paint peeling off the walls and concrete floors covered by worn woven carpets. The monks ooze serenity and the whole place smells deliciously of incense.
Not far away, is a strange little house which looks like it might have belonged to a British settler from colonial times. It would be perfect in a place which snowed … the roof is pitched to allow snow to slide off it during winter! If you are lucky, you will find the smiling old man who lives in a ramshackle shack nearby and is the proud owner of a very large, fat, sour-faced pig. She smells and is just plain mean. But the kids love her.
The Island’s secret garden
You will also be very lucky if you stumble upon the “Secret Garden” which is tucked away near a collection of vegetable patches guarded by scarecrows. It really is secret, denoted as such by a large wooden sign proclaiming so at its entrance. It is a magical place straight out of a children’s story book, complete with its own stone well and a collection of aromatic flowers and herbs.
Pulau Ubin is one of the few places one can go in Singapore which doesn’t involve taking on crammed malls and spending lots of money. If you are not up to cycling, there are minibuses which tour the island. Visitors can also organise guided walking, cycling or van tours in advance through places like the “uban explorer”. But these tours are aimed at attracting mainland local visitors and you usually have to have a minimum of 10 people in the group first. Admission to the island is free. Bumboats to and from Pulau Ubin and public transport on the island operate during daylight hours.
So, spend a day away from the rat race, pedaling through narrow roads under swaying palms, exploring shady trails in overgrown rubber plantations, discovering secluded beaches and overgrown mangroves swamps and luscious secret herb gardens.
Despite being just a few kilometers from frenetic mainland Singapore and an easy day- trip for the foreign visitor, on Pulau Uban, the air feels fresher, the food definitely tastes better, and your soul is at peace.Pulau Ubin is perfect for travellers flying into the fast-moving Gateway to Asia on business or on a vacation stop-over.
The island is a wonderful, slower-paced alternative for those who have already visited Singapore’s better known tourist hub at Sentosa Island and its recently refurbished five-star resorts, beaches, shopping malls and casino.
Getting to Pulau Ubin
Most global visitors fly into Singapore, landing at Changi Airport. An abundance of red taxis can be found queuing up at a taxi rank in front of the pedestrian exit/entrance to the airport.
For about $S10, the taxi will drive you from the airport for about 10 minutes to Changi Pier. There, you can catch a small wooden “bumboat” for about $S2. The boat ride is about 10 minutes to the Pulau Ubin Pier. It is easy and cheap to catch a red taxi from anywhere in Singapore and the trip to the Changi Pier will never be more than $S40. The boats operate all day from sunrise to sunset.