The other side of Singapore
Beyond the soaring skyline to a quiet little isle
Pulau Ubin is an island 10 minutes from, and about 50 years behind, the Singapore most visitors know. While the city-state glories in its ultra-modern skyline, shopping malls and hi-tech image, Pulau Ubin remains a unique reminder of what Singapore used to be like.
The MRT railway to Tanah Merah station begins your journey. Then it’s a bus or taxi trip to Changi Point Ferry Terminal to wait for a bumboat driver to rustle up enough passengers to make it worthwhile starting his engine and chugging for 10 minutes across a crowded shipping channel to Pulau Ubin. Twelve people on board, at about $3 a pop, and we’re off, swapping a shoreline crammed with cookie-cutter housing blocks for one of sand, coral and mangroves framed by thick rainforest, steering a careful course between giant container vessels as aircraft landing at Changi Airport descend overhead.
From Palau Ubin’s long pier you walk straight into the island’s main village, the last true Malay kampung in Singapore, composed of a scattering of houses, a casual restaurant or two perched above the water, a couple of small general stores, an unprepossessing Chinese temple and a string of bicycle hire outlets. Cycling is the way to get around the island. There are hundreds of bikes for hire, priced from $8 to $15 for a day, and frankly it’s hard to tell the difference between the cheap and expensive ones. The newer bikes are higher priced, but they are all pretty clunky, so you need to check the brakes and tyres before renting a steed.
The key destination on the island is Chek Jawa Wetlands, about 4km from the village, and at first there is a paved road that runs past expansive lotus ponds and under a soaring canopy of trees. After a couple of kilometres the track becomes gravel and a fork takes you on to a circular track that leads to and from Chek Jawa. A cheerful chap hands out maps at a national parks outpost where bikes can be stored and then you walk, initially along a 100m pier that offers a view back at the dense tangle of mangroves and bush that lines the shore. If you need a break from the heat, there’s a quaint Tudor-style bungalow that doubles as a visitors’ centre and rest spot.
The real treat of Chek Jawa is the meandering 1.1km boardwalk that starts near the visitors’ centre and loops around the coastal forest, tracking the coral-strewn shoreline. It’s here that much of Pulau Ubin’s intriguing wildlife can be discovered. Some creatures are easy to see, such as the oriental-pied hornbill that nests above, while others are found only when you stand still and stare at the sand and rock beneath the walkway; there are countless tiny crabs scuttling about, sea stars, sand dollars and a bewildering variety of worms.
Along the boardwalk route is Jejawi Tower, a 20m-high observation post above the forest canopy that gives a panoramic view across the island and a sense of the immense rehabilitation work that has been done to turn Pulau Ubin from granite quarry to conservation exemplar over the past 40 years. Back on that bike, you will almost certainly come across cheeky long-tailed macaque monkeys, which loiter on the paths in search of food and trouble. And that snuffling and rustling in the bush is likely to be a wild boar, which are prolific on the island, especially close to Chek Jawa.
These encounters are entirely common, unlike the reported sighting of a tiger on Pulau Ubin in 1997, or the 1990 visit of some elephants that apparently swam across from neighbouring Johor in Malaysia for a daytrip. The path back to the jetty and the bumboat passes by old quarries that have become pretty lakes, and is shaded by immense bamboo trees that arch gloriously over the road, giving all that sweaty pedalling a sense of occasion.
It is possible to stay overnight on the island, but I’m content with a few hours at Chek Jawa and in the main village. For those with more time, there is a fish farm, Chinese and Muslim cemeteries and more wilderness to explore, and a chance to convince yourself that Singapore can do renewal and rehabilitation just as well as it can do reclamation.
Pulau Ubin’s boardwalk, main; kampung house, above; bicycles for rent, left; macaque monkey on the trail, far left; wild boar piglet, below