Any Singapore trivia buff should know that the city-state isn’t made up of just one island, but 63 small separate ones. One of the easiest to reach, just a quick bumboat ride from Changi Village out near the airport, is Pulau Ubin, one of the most rustic places left in Singapore.
In local folklore, Pulau Ubin was created when a frog, a pig and an elephant decided to have a race from Singapore to Johor (in Malaysia) with those who failed to make it turning to stone. Each of the animals had problems and none made it all the way to Johor. The elephant and the pig came together to form Pulau Ubin while the frog became Pulau Sekudu — a blip of an islet off the south east coast of Ubin.
True to legend, the animals turned to stone — Ubin means “granite” in Malay — and the island’s interior is riddled with abandoned granite quarries which have since filled with water to form a series of lakes that act as havens for a rich and diverse birdlife that now calls the island home.
The granite was quarried to make the floor and wall tiles that decorate many historic buildings and much of the stone that was used for the original causeway linking Singapore and Johor Bahru came from Pulau Ubin. The island did however have only so much rock to give and the quarries eventually shut down in the 1960s and by the early 1970s it was largely abandoned back to nature.
Since being left to nature, the island has thrived — abandoned quarries filled with water and turned into lagoons, while thick jungle trees grew back, and animals and birds previously extinct in Singapore – including the Malay mouse deer and majestic hornbill birds – returned. The official census of Ubin’s inhabitants includes monitor lizards, reticulated pythons, crab-eating macaques, civet cats, wild boars and pangolins.
Today Pulau Ubin soaks in a charmingly rustic state, serving as a popular weekend destination for locals and tourists alike. A few shops have sprung up near the ferry point where you can rent a bicycle or enjoy freshly-caught seafood and there is a visitors’ centre where you can learn about the island’s wildlife. Highlights include the Chek Jawa wetlands — a mixture of mangroves, lagoons, sandbars, and coral reefs which forms the most diverse ecosystem on the island — a peculiar shrine, and a mountain biking trail, but most visitors simply want to escape urban life for a few hours.
Boardwalks have been built so visitors can observe the sea stars, crabs, anemones, seahorses, sea cucumbers, nudibranches, and octopi without causing any damage. Among the mangroves look out for mudskippers, fish that crawl out of the water and can breathe air through their gills. Rarer species include dugongs and dolphins; your best chance of spotting one is to climb the observation tower and watch the off-shore reefs.
Pulau Ubin is ideal for a day trip, but it’s also possible to spend the night. It is free to camp on Noordin and Mamam beaches (bring your own tent and food) or, if you’re not the “roughing it” type, more comfortable accommodation is available at the Celestial Resort which has its own swimming lagoon and restaurant.
Getting to Pulau Ubin: Bumboats run from Changi Beach Pier operate 24 hours a day. Instead of following a strict schedule, bumboats depart when they have 12 passengers — if you show up for a boat at 3am you may find yourself waiting a long time! The fare is S$2.50 with bicycles attracting a $2 surcharge. The trip takes about 15 minutes.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 5th March, 2016.