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Singapore's Golden Oldie

July 11, 2013

Stepping off the bumboat to Pulau Ubin, a mere 15 minutes from the city-state, means going back in time. By Duncan Forgan

Published on Jul 11, 2013

What’s most striking about Pulau Ubin is not its mangrove wetlands or emerald lakes. It’s not even the quiet lanes that wind past rickety wooden kampong houses, rainforest and thickets of coconut trees. No, what’s most remarkable about this speck of granite is that its aura of nostalgic torpor remains generally undisturbed.

Home to just 100 villagers, here vintage telephone boxes rub shoulders with colorful ramshackle temples and electricity is drawn from generators. Women sell coconuts from cool boxes and modern Singaporean cuisine is eschewed in favor of fresh seafood plucked live from tanks.

Even getting to the island reveals a side to Singapore that many tourists presume lost amidst all the city’s practicality and glitz. The ferry terminal at Changi Village is the hop-on, hop-off point for the bumboats that make the 15-minute trip from the mainland. The small vessels smell of oil and are crewed by grumpy Chinese aunties and uncles. Watch out if you don’t have the exact S$2.50 fare.

The near absence of motorized vehicles makes this bucolic hideaway ideal for exploration by bike. There is a string of interchangeable rental shops lining the lane near the ferry pier. You’ll get something adequate for around S$10 a day. If, however, you are going to tackle the Ketam Mountain Bike Park—8 kilometers of trail that includes some tough sections—pay S$20, for something better.

For those inclined to take things easier, there’s more to do than just meander. Part of the fun of the Ubin experience is just following your nose and biking along its lanes. The must-visit attraction is the Chek Jawa ( wetlands. The one-way track takes you through dense interior forest patrolled by wild boars and hornbills. The wetlands itself encompass several ecosystems including a sea-grass lagoon, coral rubble, mangroves and coastal forest.

Behold the outlook from the peaceful Noordin Campsite across to Johor in Malaysia. Another sterling viewpoint is at Ketam Quarry in the west of the island where the gentle rise to the lake reveals a widescreen overview of Singapore that stretches all the way down to the towering skyscrapers of the CBD.

The island’s clutch of restaurants offer local favorites such as sambal stingray and chili crab in Singapore’s most stirring seafront setting. Season Live Seafood (+65 6 542 7627) is the biggest and the best location of the outlets near the jetty.

Though most visitors tackle Ubin as a day trip, it is possible to spend the night on the island. Its one resort, Celestial (+65 6 542 9749;, offers clean and pleasant rooms in a barracks-style building and, for those looking for privacy, there are also standalone beachfront villas.


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