Friday, March 23, 2012

Lost in Pulau Ubin

To the northeast of mainland Singapore, not more than a 10 minute boat ride away, is a tiny island called Pulau Ubin. People mostly rent bicycles and ride around on this un-developed island which is known as the last 'kampung', or village, in Singapore, because it reminds people of slower paced lifestyle and simpler time. 

Before leaving for Pulau Ubin on Sunday March 18th, Sophie jokes that we should take a before and after picture. "In the before picture we're all really energetic and excited, and in the after picture we're like this," she slumps down a little and closes her eyes in a mock state of pure exhaustion. 

I run to get my camera, put it on top of the TV and set the 10 second timer. We try to take one of those ridiculous pictures with everyone suspended in mid air. Julius is the only one who manages to pull it off, only because he keeps jumping repeatedly and somehow happens to get the timing right. 

Left to right: Kelly, Sif, Sophie, and Jumpin' Julius

After traversing the entire country of Singapore by foot, then MRT, then bus, then foot again, we finally arrive at the Changi Ferry Terminal an hour and a half later. We queue to board one of the "bum boats" that will take us from the mainland to Pulau Ubin. There's no schedule; as soon as a boat has 12 passengers, it's ready to depart. It's really cheap too. It's only S$2.50 per person, and 2 additional dollars if you're bringing your own bicycle.

Stepping onto the bum boat is like stepping into a time warp. The boat is so old and dirty, which sounds dreadful, but it is actually refreshing to see something with some character -- a rare occurrence in Singapore where everything's usually so sterile and plain. We pull out of Changi Ferry Terminal and the bum boat driver is spinning the boat's wheel, and I can't help thinking of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, which for some reason reminds me of my childhood although that cartoon has got to be about eighty years old and I'm only in my late twenties. I blame re-runs.

Once we arrive on the island, the first order of business is lunch, then renting a bicycle, both of which are easy to accomplish as there is no shortage of restaurants or bicycle rental shops. The bikes are ridiculously cheap (S$8 for the whole day) and exceptionally crappy. I guess you get what you pay for, except for Julius who springs for a decent bike at nearly double the price (S$15).

After negotiating a bit, we end up with four bikes (three crappy and one good one) for S$35. The gears on Sophie's bike are a bit finicky, so Julius the bicycle repair specialist takes the bike for a spin to adjust the gears for her while we take a picture of him riding "Asian-style." I apologize if this sounds a bit racist, but let me explain: This is when you leave the seat really low and ride around in the granny gear (the easiest gear). Not only is this really bad for your knees, but looks really funny too. There is no advantage to riding a bicycle this way as far as we can tell, but for some reason we see countless people of Asian heritage riding bicycles like this, which is why we've called it "Asian-style" for lack of a better term.

We take off towards the beach at the Noordin Campsite with the wind in our hair. We make it to the beach in no time, but are met with a sight of utter disappointment. The beach is uglier than sin. The sand is a hideous brown color, there are lots of rocks of an unaesthetic size and shape, as well as driftwood and rubbish strewn all over the beach. If that isn't enough, an imposing fence has been erected to prevent erosion of the beach. I have never seen a more ugly beach in all my life. I can think of nothing but getting away from this place as soon as possible, before it's image is embedded in my mind forever. It may already be to late.

We consult the signboard with a map of Pulau Ubin and decide to go off-roading a bit, which is way more fun, and the scenery is amazing. We take some pictures of us on our bikes, trekking deep in the heart of the rain forest.

Sophie is struggling a bit and clearly isn't happy about something, so we stop to see what the trouble is. She's worried about getting tetanus from a scratch she got from a wire that's come loose on her bicycle. She is also a bit muddy and sweaty. Sophie hates being sweaty. 

"Here, Sophie. Use this." Julius is holding half a coconut full of murky water out to her, a grin on his face.

"Oh yeah great, let me just rub a little Dengue in the wound. That will help."

We get back on our bikes and keep going because it looks like a storm is approaching and I notice some mosquitoes fluttering around my legs. I manage to swat a couple before jumping back on my bike. We're being eaten alive, and the mention of Dengue Fever has got me shaken.

The trail starts looking a bit wilder and narrower, and I start having doubts when I have to scramble over a fallen coconut tree blocking the path. The strange thing is we hear music playing, so civilization must not be too far away.

We cross a cement bridge with a huge chunk that's collapsed. Probably the result of some recent storm, I think to myself. On the left of the bridge there's a river, and on the right there's a dry river bed. We carry on and riding, and I notice a very old "uncle" in a little red boat. He's using a single paddle to propel him and his boat full of crab cages to who knows where.

"Hello uncle!" I shout and wave to him. He waves back then carries on paddling. I snap his picture.

We continue following the river and we come to some kind of fishing shack. There are quite a few fishermen waiting for the fish to bite. At least it's comforting to see humanity.

On the right is a huge lake, and the path is very wide. Sophie takes the lead. I'm looking around taking in the scenery when I notice her up ahead. She's teetering on her tiptoes, stuck in the middle of a muddy stretch.

"Ahh!! I'm stuck!!"

Her shoes are getting really muddy and I'm worried she's going to topple over into the mud.

"Keep going!" Julius shouts. The longer she stays there, the deeper she sinks into the mud. We all sigh in relief as she somehow manages to get across.

"The trick is to keep going and don't stop," He informs Sif and me as he takes off towards the muddy patch and cruises through without a problem. He makes it look easy.

Sif and I manage to make it across without too much trouble except that we're now really muddy. We all continue on the path that takes us around the edge of the lake. Julius has now taken the lead, but he's slowing down. Something's not right.

He stops and turns around to shout something to us, "The path gets really narrow up here!" It's not normal for Julius to stop unless there's really something wrong.

"I don't think this is the right way!" He rides back to us and we decide to go back across the muddy patch and try a different route we saw on the way there. Unfortunately that path is a dead-end as well.

"What do we do now?" We're all surprisingly calm. I guess we don't feel very lost because we've just seen people at the fisherman's shack. The only problem is that it has started to drizzle, which is like a ticking time bomb, counting down to the moment the deluge explodes from the sky. You start getting used to the routine after you've lived in Singapore for a month and a half.

"Let's go back to where those guys were fishing. At least there's a roof there we can huddle under in case it starts chucking it down," Sophie puts forward. We all agree and make our way back to the fisherman's shack at break-neck speed as thunder and lightning crack in the distance.

When we reach the fisherman's shack, one of the uncles starts talking to us.

"Hey! Way out over there lah!" He points to an inconspicuous bridge where the words "Way Out" have been scribbled in chalk.

"Maybe should move sign over there," He points to the fork in the road where we went straight when we should have turned left. It was clearly the most logical place for a sign. Oh well, we we are just relieved to have found the way out, so we just chuckle and ask him to take a picture of us so we can remember the momentous occasion.

We find the paved road in no time and we laugh with relief. There's even a cafe, albeit a very shabby one, right across the road. We park our bikes and joke about how we definitely deserve a cold drink. An old man with an umbrella at the ready waddles over to take our order.

An isotonic drink in hand, I sigh as I collapse onto one of the plastic yellow chairs. That's when we hear it. The pattering sound starts in the nearby trees... then it's already here, and it's like someone has turned on a faucet.

"Perfect timing!" Sif says with a smile. And she's right. We couldn't have timed it better if we had tried.

Drenched people start running towards the cafe out of nowhere. It looks like the storm is doing wonders for the old man's business.

After about an hour of playing "I spy" and "guess who I am", it's almost 5:30pm and the rain still hasn't stopped. It has let up a lot though.  We have to return the bikes by 6pm, so we decide to brave to the storm, drop off the bikes as quick as we can, and get the hell off this island.

The "town" was literally only a 5 minute bike ride away. We get pretty wet, but manage to be on a boat heading back to the mainland in a record breaking 10 minutes.

You've already seen the "before" picture. This is what the "after" picture looks like:

On the way back home in the MRT I manage to beat one of Julius' Angry Birds high scores without even really trying. It's the perfect ending to the perfect day.


  1. Looks like a great place for a ride. I travel a lot with my folding bike and I'd definitely like to check it out. I wonder if I'd still get the surcharge on the boat for a folding bike though?

  2. Hi Chris. I believe you would still be charged, because even if it's folded, it's still a bike, and that's an opportunity to make two extra dollars.