Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Singapore’s Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island)



Pulau Ubin (Ubin Island) provides the visitor with a glimpse of Singapore’s former ‘kampong’ (village) heritage, and a welcomed break from the high-rise towers, HBD flats, shopping malls and busy streets that characterize much of Singapore.

Rustic Malay-styled Village House on Singapore's Pulau Ubin

Located in the Strait of Johor between the northeastern tip of Singapore and the Malaysian state of Johor, Pulau Ubin may be just the day trip to take for those who have been in this most modern and developed of Southeast Asian cities long enough that they crave a little breather from all the hustle, bustle, concrete high-rises and fashionable shopping malls. Pulau Ubin is Singapore done ‘old-school’, a throwback to the kampong (village) days before the city-state became an international center for commerce and finance, and one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’. The quaint, often stilted wooden houses and old plantations, together with the natural splendor and laid-back attitude, will clear the mind, soothe the soul and recharge one’s batteries for another round of shopping and world-class eating back in the ‘Lion City’. According to local folklore, the island came into being as the result of a challenge between a frog, a pig, and an elephant. They decided to see who could be the first to swim across the Strait of Johor from Singapore to Malaysia, with the losing animals turning into stone; all three animals failed to make it across, with the pig and the elephant becoming Pulau Ubin and the frog becoming Pulau Sekudu (Frog Island). The 1880’s saw the arrival of settlers from Johor and the establishment of a thriving Malay community on the island. Pulau Ubin means ‘Granite Island’ in Malay, and with the arrival of the British on the island came the quarrying of granite, though fishing and farming were the primary occupations of the islanders; the quarries have long since closed, and visitors are barred from access due to safety concerns. The island is home to the Outward Bound Singapore centre for outdoor education and leadership development, and the National Police Cadet Corps (NPCC). The island is reached from the Changi Village jetty via bumboat, with a one-way ticket for the 10 minute trip running SNG $2.50, with the boats leaving once 12 passengers are aboard.
The Sensory Trail

Walking off to the right as you step off the jetty, you will soon find a small Pulau Ubin visitors center with photos and diagrams of the flora and fauna to be found on the island. Continuing on and heading left at the island police station, you will see the Sensory Trail, which leads you past specimens of various fruit trees, spices, herbs, traditional medicinal plants and native plants of the mangrove forest. Heading northwest of the jetty along Jalan Ubin past the bike rentals and restaurants, you’ll see the wayang stage used for Chinese operas and some small Buddhist and Confucius shrines. Following Jalan Ubin to the right will take you past a small lagoon flanked by palms, soon to be replaced by more lush jungle-like environs dotted with old ‘kampong’ houses reflecting Malay influences. Continuing north, you can take a right at the junction with Jalan Durian and reach the gravel and dirt roads to Chek Jawa, or you can go straight onto Jalan Sam Heng which soon becomes Jalan Mamam and leads to the Mamam Beach Campgrounds, with the dirt trail to the left at the end of the road leading to some mangroves along a creek that empties into the Strait. There’s also a Thai temple at the north end of Jalan Wat Siam. Pulau Ubin’s wildlife, natural beauty, old kampong houses and its religious shrines & temples are best enjoyed on two wheels, and bikes of varying quality can be rented for a full or half-day from one of several shops located near the jetty (SNG$2 – 20). There are a few paved roads on the island, though most roads are graveled or dirt; there are mountain biking trail of varying degrees of difficulty on the island. Since my visit to the island, the Ketam Mountain Bike Park, located around the fringe of a quarry on Pulau Ubin, has opened. The 45-hectare park contains 10km of mountain bike trails, consisting of tracks with the 3 out of 5 IMBA ratings and both Dirt Skills and Freeride Skills Parks. There are a limited number of vehicles on the island, but vans or taxis can be hired for touring the island’s attractions if one does not intend on doing any biking.

Chek Jawa Wetlands Coastal Loop Boardwalk

Pulau Ubin is home to the Chek Jawa Wetlands, one of Singapore’s richest ecosystems where six major habitats meet and mix. A visit to the Chek Jawa Visitor Center is a ‘must-do’ while on the island. Chek Jawa is an intertidal area, and is best viewed at low tides of 0.5 meters and below, hence tide tables need to be consulted when planning a visit. The visitors center (8.30am - 6.00pm) includes a viewing jetty, over 1 km of boardwalk comprised of Mangrove and Coastal Loops, and the 21-meter Jejawi Tower located along the Mangrove Loop. Chek Jawa can be reached by hired car, bike or a roughly 40-minute walk from the Pulau Ubin jetty; note that vehicles and bikes must park at a lot located some distance away, and then continue to the center on foot along a wooded trail for about 5 minutes. The Mangrove Loop was interesting, with the sounds of insect, frog and bird calls overlaying the crackling of air bubbles beneath the arched roots and aerial tubes of the mangrove trees at low tide. As for places to sit back and simply chill out on the island, Noordin Beach and Mamam Beach would be likely candidates for hangout spots if one’s aim is relaxation and decompression amid relative peace and quiet (save for the occasional whine of high-bypass turbofans heralding the approach of an inbound flight to Changi) after several hectic days of sightseeing around Singapore. For those who place a premium on communing with nature, Chek Jawa Wetlands is the best place for you to hangout while on the island. A good resource for finding more information on Pulau Ubin and on other areas in Singapore where one can enjoy the great outdoors can be found here: http://www.nparks.gov.sg/cms/

Mangrove Near Mamam Beach

One thing that was quite interesting during my visit to the island was watching some Outward Bound Singapore youth being given jungle survival training near the Mamam Beach campground in the north. The instructor was a retired ‘Straits Indian’ Singaporean who spent 35 years as a commando in the SAF Spec-Ops Group, training other SAF and visiting foreign commandos in jungle survival. The tattooed, powerfully-built gentleman was passionate about passing on skills and shared wisdom to local kids, whom he felt spend too much time with video games and in shopping malls. He first demonstrated, in a loud Drill Instructor manner sometimes sprinkled with a bit of colorful language, how to kill, clean and prepare a live frog to the assembled group of squeamish and groaning Singaporean school kids. His most memorable quote came while he was detailing the locations and sequence of knife cuts required to maximize the amount of useable meat from a frog carcass: “Remember, if you do this right…you get meat! And if you do this wrong…you get bloody sh*t! And…YOU CAN’T EAT BLOODY SH*T!!!” After finishing with his demonstrator frog, he asked for a volunteer from the audience to come to the front and be walked through the killing and cleaning process with a second live frog. When nobody stepped forward, he pointed to a Singaporean girl of about 15 years of age wearing Muslim head-covering in the first row to be part of the demonstration. “NOOO!!!”, she squealed loudly. “TOO BLOOD-DEE, LAH!!!” After the laughter of her fellow classmates died down, the instructor let her off the hook and performed the task on the second frog himself, after which he proceeded to demonstrate two different methods for manually starting a fire without a flame source using items from a fire-starting kit similar to the one that all of the classes students had been issued. I would later meet up with the instructor and his students again as I biked from Mamam Beach to the Chek Jawa Visitor Center, and had a chance to chat briefly with the instructor while his students were given a short break.

Restaurants and Bike Rental Shops Near the Main Jetty at Ubin Village




















Pulau Ubin is revered by the local for its fresh and delicious seafood that can be enjoyed in a laid-back setting at prices lower that those found on the ‘big island’. Though I did not get a chance to sample any of the restaurants on the island (my only meal taking the form of some energy bars and an isotonic sports drink while biking the trails), a number of them are located in the island’s main village along Jalan Ubin (Road) among the bicycle rental shops to the left of the jetty. The ones I glanced at were Cheong Lian Yuen, Ubin First Stop and Season Live Seafood. Ubin First Stop (#42 Jalan Ubin, 11AM – 10PM; closed Wednesdays) is said to be popular and quite good, serving up Chinese, seafood classics like black pepper crab and even some local specialties including wild boar. Season Live Seafood (#59E Jalan Ubin) is located near the water’s edge, with a view of Singapore across the Strait and outdoor seating beneath a large protective canopy for those daily Singapore downpours.




















I left the island by late-afternoon, so I can’t really talk to what nightlife Pulau Ubin has to offer. I don’t recall seeing any bars or KTV joints on the island, so the evening’s entertainment would likely be limited to enjoying some beers and fresh seafood with some good company at one of the restaurants in the jetty area until they close for the evening (presumably at 10PM, if Ubin First Stop Restaurant is any indication). If restaurants are the full extent of nightlife on the island, I’d say one could probably do much worse than snagging an outdoor table at Season Live Seafood to enjoy a nice sunset, then hanging around until they shut the lights off and kick everyone out. I neglected to see how late the bumboats back to Singapore run, which could put limits the sampling of Pulau Ubin’s nightlife for ‘day-trippers’.




















Though I only did a day trip to Pulau Ubin, there are some accommodations available if one wants to spend the night on the island. Celestial Resort (previously called Ubin Lagoon Resort) is located in the southwest of the island. Referred to as ‘rustic’ and not rated highly on the web, perhaps low expectations are in order; the rate for two people is quoted as SNG $98 (weekday)/SNG $118 (weekend). Ubin Lodge is said to now be open to the public. Located behind the island police station (coast guard police post) and about a 5-minute walk from the jetty, the chalets were formerly used by civil servants and said to offer a taste of Singapore circa 1960; no info is available, as their web site is currently down for construction. There are three campsites available on the island (Noordin Beach, Mamam Beach and Jelutong Campsite) with no permit required; campers are advised to drop by the Ubin NParks Info Kiosk (at the Jetty) on arrival. Noordin Beach is also said to be quite nice.


If one’s travel plans will put them in Singapore for a few days, a half-day spent out on Pulau Ubin is well-worth considering, as it allows a visitor to get a sense of Singapore’s humble beginnings and traditional village-like heritage, and perhaps give the credit cards a little rest.

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