Time stands still a short ferry ride from Changi Village. In the rustic roads and forests on the island of Pulau Ubin, the ghosts of old Singapore appear.
The recommendation was from the daughter of a friend. “And they need to go to Pulau Ubin for one day,” came the forwarded message. “It’s a little Singaporean Island that is unchanged since the 60s and 70s. It’s how the whole Island used to be until the government came in and tore everything down to build it up as a first world country.”
We were leaving Singapore with mixed feelings. Pete had visited in the 1970s and it is, of course, a vastly different experience today. There was virtually nothing he remembered from that trip to be seen. We’d headed to Bugis Street and turned away from the touts and hawkers. We’d sought tradition in Chinatown, Little India, and the Long Bar at Raffles where we drank a $15 Singapore Sling. Ouch.
Having opted to stay in Johor Bahru across the bridge in Malaysia, we’d spent precious time exploring there, too. But the one thing remaining in Singapore we wanted to do was visit Pulau Ubin, and it looked as though we weren’t going to get the chance.
Some people prefer their Singapore in superlatives – the sky-high infinity pool at the Marina Bay Sands, the bustle of its business and finance hubs, high end shopping, and spotless public spaces. Others find it overly sanitized, preferring things to be a bit grittier without all the “Faustian” attributes.
It’s true that Singapore, with its 20,000 people per square mile, can be overwhelming. We found ourselves needing a rest from its energy, gratified by the good manners and friendliness of its citizens, not so impressed with the glitz, and wanting more than we’d seen on the surface. But, after more than six months of full-time travel, we’ve learned to trust. The Universe invariably presents what we ask for in unexpected ways.
Thus, we found ourselves not in Mumbai for four days as planned, but staying on. When an unfortunate pricing discrepancy at an airport hotel desk had us scrambling for an alternative, the Universe responded by delivering us to Changi Village. This location is close to the international airport by the same name, but another, quieter world altogether. And with our gift came a reprieve: the time to visit Pulau Ubin after all.
Pulau Ubin is located off northeast Singapore, reached by a short ride from the Changi Village Jetty on a bumboat. Bumboats are low and sturdy, beat-up, little tug-like vessels. There are no set times or schedules at the Jetty, except for starting at sunrise and ending at sunset. (We suspect this is because our bumboats appeared to have no lights.) Bumboats will depart when there are 12 people ready to go.
When it was our turn, it took just a few minutes for the bumboat to transport us back several decades.
Pulau Ubin bumboats drop you on the main visitors’ jetty, which was built by Japanese occupiers between 1942-43. The initial Japanese landing on Pulau Ubin had been a feint, which led the Allies to believe the main invasion of Singapore would come from this direction. Instead, there was a perfunctory bombardment on Changi Village, whose defenders’ munitions fell short, failing to deter any real threat. Invasion came from the northwest.
Upon arrival, we discovered various forms of island transportation are available. The Pulau Ubin “taxi” is actually a van you rent from an “office” just past the arrival jetty on your walk into town. From the looks of it on the day we visited, this was a popular option for folks who arrived insufficiently familiar with non-urban environments and inappropriately dressed.
Ubin town proper consists of several restaurants, bike rental and mechanical repair businesses, souvenir stores and a temple.
The Ubin Wayang stage is the town’s most imposing structure, once used as an open-air school for the island’s children. Now it’s the site of village dinners and traditional shadow puppet and operatic performances.
Wayang pageantry is part of the village way of life, as opposed to shows purely for visitors, and may be a dying tradition. According to Wikipedia, UNESCO has designated typical Indonesian wayang as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. One of the biggest wayang performances on Pulau Ubin is held during Hungry Ghost Festival, when the Chinese believe the gates of Hell are opened for spirits to roam our world.
We chose to rent bikes. There are several vendors with bikes for everyone, even the littles.
The most popular route on the island takes you to the Chek Jawa wetlands, an ecosystem which has been under protection since 2007. But there are plenty of other ways to go. We opted for a scenic route that led us out of town through forests and clearings with rural homesteads.
In the darker forested areas, we heard surreal, ghostly cackling. These were endangered Oriental pied-hornbills.
We also heard mysterious rustling overhead and on the ground while cycling through the forest. These sounds turned out to be monkeys and cute little baby boar. Warnings posted at stopping points indicated the monkeys can be aggressive, particularly if you’re carrying food. As well, you want to be on the lookout for a sow who might be protective of her offspring. Things got ominous when a large monkey began to approach me with a determined expression while Pete was exploring further up the road. I hopped on and quickly pedaled away.
Pulau Ubin (“Granite Island”) used to be home to several thousand settlers who quarried granite, and cultivated rubber, coffee, coconuts, pineapple and jasmine. Many are laid to rest in Chinese and Muslim cemeteries. We saw several signs indicating their locations, but all had been overtaken by jungle vegetation. There was a sad kind of energy when we realized that no one was looking after these graves. We took a water break in a sunnier area overlooking a former granite quarry where all was still silent.
Many visitors to Pulau Ubin extend their experience by camping and kayaking its mangroves and streams. A quick Google brings up tales of campers, bikers and hikers being haunted by all kinds of unexplained phenomena, particularly when close by old cemeteries like the ones we had passed.
Other visitors come to Pulau Ubin for religious reasons: there are nine temples and numerous shrines on the island. We spotted this one next to the beach:
Perhaps the most bizarre edifice on Pulau Ubin is the German Girl’s Shrine. Located on the southwest side of the island, it’s away from the more popular places tourists frequent. Legend has it that the urn at the shrine, since looted, contained the remains of a German girl, the daughter of a plantation owner on the island. She fell off a steep cliff while fleeing British soldiers in 1914. Villagers claimed to have encountered her ghost so frequently that they took her remains to a nearby Chinese shrine, where she became a deity.
Today, the German Girl’s shrine is popular with gamblers and other pilgrims who come to pray for health and winning numbers. They leave gifts of cosmetics, mirrors and perfume. During our visit, it was her temple’s turn to get a facelift. We found this video which vividly conveys the creepiness of the older structure:
Along our bike route, we encountered another biker, a solo traveler hailing from Hawaii’s Big Island. Back in Ubin town, it was fun to enjoy a cold beverage and talk story!
Since we left Singapore, we’ve learned that Pulau Ubin’s residents and lifestyle are the focal points for a project about the island’s unique community heritage. Consisting of resident biographies and a chronology of experiences and sentiments in the form of oral history, the project’s findings will be compiled by Singapore’s National Heritage Board into a report and documentary film.
Some believe this project may signal an impending government attempt to “improve” Pulau Ubin. There are already a couple of areas aside from the German Girl’s Shrine that are under renovation. If this is true, it may mean maintaining the integrity of the island with its authentic flaws and rough edges will be sacrificed for a more edified experience. If so, the ghosts of old Singapore will not be as easy to find.
Practicalities, Tips and Information:
To get to Pulau Ubin from Singapore proper, take the MRT to Tanah Merah MRT Station (EW4), then board Bus No. 2 to Changi Village bus interchange.
The Singapore Tourist Pass will cover your fare on both bus and MRT. These can be purchased at ticket stations in Changi Airport on arrival in Singapore. Return your plastic card for a deposit refund when you leave.
Changi Point jetty is not far from the bus interchange and hawker center. Look for the terminal behind the Ubin First Stop Restaurant on the corner, go down the stairs and queue for Pulau Ubin. Bumboats (about $3 per adult one way) to Ubin operate from sunrise to sunset. Pay the driver onboard in cash.
When renting bikes on Pulau Ubin, check out each vendor for the best match for your skill level. Make sure you have them attach a handlebar basket for your belongings. Bring water! Temps and humidity are high in this region. Not all roads are paved, and the route to the wetlands is steep in places. We dismounted to walk going up, and then again going down (our bikes’ brakes weren’t the best). We were quite happy to get back into “town” for a cold beer.
Ubin Kayak offers several guided eco-adventures including pair paddling the mangroves and bisecting the island from north to south in an 8km stream run. Although they also offer guided mountain biking with planned history stops, we opted to bike on our own.
Changi Cove, 351 Cranwell Road, Singapore 509866, tel. +65 69226122 is a restored and modernized conference and event center with attached hotel in a quiet, natural setting with heritage trees. The hotel is 10km (about 20 minutes) from Changi Airport.
Changi Cove has 112 individual MyPlace “retreat rooms” with serene decor and thoughtful amenities, including individual Nespresso machines with complimentary capsules, and L’Occitane toiletries. Breakfast is available at the hotel. Double rooms from S$240 (we paid considerably less through a third party booking site).
Within walking distance of Changi Cove, we enjoyed dinner at The Coastal Settlement (200 Netheravon Rd, Singapore 508529, tel.+65 6475 0200) in an eclectic environment filled with ephemera.
Vintage Vespas, Volkswagens and BMWs contribute to kitschy decor and a menu that will send your memory into overdrive.