Tales from a boomerang-shaped island

They call it the Singapore of the 1960s — the last ‘kampung’ (village) of Singapore. Pulau Ubin is a big, boomerang-shaped island lying to the north-east of the main island of Singapore. It is just a short bumboat ride from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Each bumboat is authorised to carry only 12 passengers, and there are no scheduled departure timings.

The thickly wooded shores of Pulau Ubin gradually become clear, and you soon alight at the rather crude jetty. The Ubin town is nothing but a row of antique houses, standing on either side of a narrow lane. Judging by the nature of the shops, it appears that the main business in the place is bike rentals. There are a couple of tiny restaurants as well. A few small taxi vans with the unique ‘PU’ registration wait eagerly to take tourists around the island.

There is no dearth of activities here. One can climb up the narrow trail to the summit of the Puaka Hill — the highest point on the island. Panoramic views of most of the island can be had from this vantage point, apart from the distant views of the Singapore and Malaysian shores. Directly below the viewpoint lies the large, deep Ubin quarry, which is now filled with water, providing a very picturesque sight, together with its thickly wooded shores. The name ‘Pulau Ubin’ in Malay means ‘Granite Island’, and a number of granite quarries lie scattered around various parts of the island.

For the more adventurous, there is the Ketam Mountain bike park on the western part of the island, presenting narrow biking trails with various degrees of difficulty for the bikers. Within the park lies the curious ‘German Girl’s Shrine’, a small yellow Chinese temple. The story goes that the daughter of a German coffee plantation owner fell to her death from a cliff, while fleeing from the British soldiers. The Chinese labourers, who found her body, performed her last rites, and enshrined her ashes in this small temple. This shrine is said to be popular among the betting enthusiasts of Singapore, who think that the spirit of the German girl would bring them luck.

A good part of the island is covered with mangrove swamps, and our paths go over a number of quaint wooden bridges, which offer pleasant views of the mangrove ecosystem. The rest of the island is mostly covered with lush tropical forests, and biking along the forest trails, with their share of ups and downs, is very refreshing. It is not uncommon to sight wild animals on these paths, and I was able to see a family of wild boar, at close quarters.

There are a couple of temples in Pulau Ubin for the spiritually-oriented. The Lotus Temple has a big, golden statue of Buddha overlooking a small pond. The Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong temple, closer to the town, sits by the side of a small hill.

Authentic religious performances are held on the island by the residents of Pulau Ubin, during special occasions like the Hungry Ghost Festival.

The single-biggest attraction of Pulau Ubin is the Chek Jawa wetlands, lying on the south-eastern edge of the island. It is considered to be a unique location, where seven different inter-dependant ecosystems exist together in one small area — mangroves, coastal hill forest, rocky shore, sandbars, sandy shore, sea grass lagoon, and coral rubble area. Chek Jawa is reached by a rather strenuous pedalling of about five to six km from the main jetty; the lesser fit can hire taxis to reach there. There are two walks available to witness the ecosystem — the mangrove boardwalk and the coastal walk. The former allows you to have a close view of the inland and coastal mangrove ecosystem, while the latter offers a magnificent view of the unique coast. There is the 21-metre Jejawi Tower, which accords a panoramic view over the whole area.

Located just behind the Chek Jawa information kiosk is another exceptional landmark of Pulau Ubin — House No. 1, Pulau Ubin.  It is a strikingly beautiful Tudor-style mansion, facing the sea. It was built in the 1930s as a holiday resort by Langdon Williams, who was the Chief Surveyor in the region. The building has been painstakingly restored, and now functions as the Chek Jawa Visitor Centre. It is supposed to house the only working fireplace in the whole of Singapore.

Pulau Ubin had, at one point of time, supported about 1,000 people, through granite mining, and its plantations of rubber, coffee, and spices. The mining has long since stopped, and Nature has overrun the plantations, leaving less than 100 people living on the island. There is no electricity and piped water supply on the island, and you encounter quite a few docile dogs on the roads. Life is totally unhurried here, and this stark contrast with the efficient, systematic Singapore is where Pulau Ubin’s charm lies.

Pulau Ubin is a great place to spend a full day at a languid pace, and the best way to do it is on a bike, preferably on your own — like I did.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 7:47:19 AM |

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