Travellers who visited Singapore will definitely know the island resort known as Sentosa to the south of the island-nation. That island with a giant Merlion, beautiful beaches, Universal Studios, the casinos at Resorts World Sentosa and various attractions. But not all know of another island off the eastern coast — Pulau Ubin (乌敏岛).
Also known as the "Granite Island" in Malay, rustic Pulau Ubin (or "Ubin" for short) is in stark contrast to the more developed Sentosa island. Instead of posh hotels and restaurants on Sentosa, Ubin has a tiny village with just a few wooden houses and a seafood restaurant. Instead of sky trains, buses and taxis to get around Sentosa, Ubin has some old vans to ferry visitors across the island. The most common means of transportation on Ubin is bicycles.
In fact, Ubin is a "nature park" under the care of the National Parks Board (NParks) of Singapore. The small island is inhabited by a very small population who had stayed on the peaceful island for many years. Go there and meet these friendly people.
We have some advice here for the trip to Ubin.
Apply insect repellent for repelling mosquitoes and stay away from desolated and shady places, don't wander into less-travelled places.
Apply sunblock to prevent sunburn, even on cloudy days.
Wear light-colored, thin, long sleeves shirt to keep mosquitoes away and reflect sun heat.
Standby some plasters and antiseptic wipes (just in case).
Bring drinking water (unless you prefer to buy cold drinks around the island).
Bring cap and raincoat (in case it rains).
Optional: an extra T-shirt if you have further plans after Ubin.
Also, Ubin is some distance away from the mainland, so there is no telecommunications coverage from Singapore carriers on most parts of the island, except in the village. If your mobile device is set to automatically search for carriers, it may lock onto Malaysia's network and incur data roaming charges. Do manually set your mobile device to use your carrier's network only.
Getting To Ubin
Take the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) to Tanah Merah Station, go to Exit B, you will see a bus stop near the exit. Catch Bus 2 to Changi Village Bus Terminal (35 minutes). The bus service will end there so not to worry about where to alight. This is the easiest way to get there.
The following services also terminate at the bus terminal:
Bus 29 from Tampines Bus Interchange,
Bus 59 from Bishan Bus Interchange, or
Bus 109 from Serangoon Interchange, it will pass by Pasir Ris MRT Station too but you need to find the right bus stop.
After alighting at Changi Village Bus Terminal, turn left and walk about 150 metres to Changi Point Ferry Terminal. This is where you will be ferried to Ubin by bum boats. Do note that the ferry terminal is an immigration checkpoint for travellers to Pengerang in Desaru, Malaysia. Photography is strictly not allowed inside the building.
For travellers going to Ubin, custom-checking of passports is not required but foreigners should always carry them for identification purpose — especially on a remote island. Locals should have identity cards on them (this goes without saying). Note that x-raying of belongings will be conducted on the returning trip.
Each bum boat can carry up to 12 passengers. Boat captains will usually wait for 12 people to be present at the waiting area before bringing them to their bum boats. The fare for each passenger is S$3.00 (one-way) to be paid on the boat to the captain. If you bring your own bicycle, pay an additional S$2.00 surcharge and carry it on and off the boat yourself. And if you bring a pet, you will need to charter a whole boat to yourself.
If there are insufficient number of passengers and you are not willing to wait, make up the shortfall in fares (bear by yourself or split with others if they are willing to share) and the boat captain will commence the journey. The maximum fare is S$36.00 per-trip and exclude bicycle surcharges.
Bum Boats Operating Hours: 24 hours.
Services may be round the clock but may not have enough passengers to fill a boat. In such situation, pay the shortfall in fares. The best timing to have enough passengers will be between 7am to 7pm. So, do be at the Ferry Terminal at between 9am to 10am on weekdays. On weekends, be there even earlier as there will be long queues (including locals) to make the bum boats run to-and-fro like crazy.
The journey across the Strait of Singapore is about 10 minutes and you will get off at the pier near to the village on Ubin. Wait for the captain to berth the boat and give the signal to alight. Those who bring bicycles will need to carry them up to the pier.
And welcome to Pulau Ubin!
Last Kampong of Singapore
Don't be in a hurry to run off somewhere. Explore the last village (or kampong) of Singapore. Situated right beside the sea, the relax and rural seaside atmosphere makes the village captivating to city dwellers, especially the younger generations who grew up in cities. The kampong will show them what Singapore looks like 50 years back.
Unlike many riverside or seaside villages in other countries that are usually polluted by wastes from the villagers, Ubin villagers and NParks staff keep the sea and land pollution-free.
Ubin is a nature park, so do not litter on the island. Keep it clean for the benefits of everyone. Also, try not to smoke or start a fire on Ubin, fire engines need to take boats to Ubin before they can put out any fires (happened in June 2015 due to a bush fire).
Outside the police post, near the jetty, is an old police jeep. It is probably decommissioned. This type of old jeep is no longer in active service on the mainland. And this may be the last one that is still around.
Most of the shops in the village rent out bicycles. A normal bike costs about S$8.00 for the whole day. There are other types of bicycle available, such as mountain bikes, tandem bikes, bikes with baby seats, etc, to suit every preference. Also, there is no need to compare prices between the shops, it is the type of bicycle that determines the price. If you go on a weekend, go early or you may not have a bike to rent. Rental prices also tend to be slightly higher on weekends.
Apart from renting bicycles, you can get drinking water and snacks from the shops. There are some eating places and a seafood restaurant in the village too. You may want to get a bite before moving off or plan your day trip in such a way to return to the village for lunch or rest break.
If you like seafood, try the only seafood restaurant (Season Live Seafood) here. Their prices are comparable to the cooked food stalls in Singapore neighbourhood towns. Note that it is closed on Tuesdays.
There are other eating places too, but opened on weekends only. Hopefully, with more crowds on weekdays, shop owners will be willing to open for business and provide more choices. If the weather is hot, you can get coconut juice and ice desserts at some of the shops too.
Cycle or Walk
Getting around the island is faster and easier using bicycles, but may miss a lot of things, especially if you are looking for lovely animals in the wild. Do cycle slowly and take in the scenery. You can also opt to walk but do start early in the day, it will take almost a whole day to trek leisurely around the whole island.
Don't worry about being lost on the island, there are signboards with maps at every path junctions. If you cannot read maps, keep to the main roads (there is only a few) and ask whoever you meet along the way for directions. You can preview the map at NParks website. Do download and use it offline. There is no network coverage in most parts of the island.
Apart from concrete paths, there are uneven terrains and rocky trails too, so do not cycle too fast, especially when going down slopes — you may collide with other cyclists, knock down someone or fall off the bike and injured yourself.
There are signs to advise you to dismount and push the bike down slopes. Be safe, heed it or the plasters you bring may come in handy. Oh, no signs will advise you to get off the bike and push it up slopes, you will automatically do it after tiring yourself out.
If you are tired or thirsty outside the village, take a break at one of the "rural cafes" around the island and have some cold drinks or coconut juice. "Y u so like that! Buy a drink la" (Singlish).
How to Travel Around Ubin
Take a look at the map below or use the map at NParks website to have a clearer view.
A large part of the island to the west of Ubin belongs to Outward Bound Singapore, a training centre for team-building. It is out of bound to visitors. The rest of the island is accessible by paths. Chek Jawa is to the east of the island.
Notice that the village and pier is located at the centre of the accessible area. You can choose to start on the west side or east side of the village. Whether you are going from west to east or east to west, the paths will cross at a "main intersection point", a T-junction near Pekan Quarry. This point is quite near to the village. You can plan your day trip in a way to return to the village for lunch during the crossover.
A large part of the west side is Ketam Mountain Bike Park for mountain bikers with protective gears. The mountain bike park is of international standards for mountain biking competitions. So, if you are not into mountain biking, don't try the trails there, especially without protective gears. However, you can still visit the German Girl Shrine and Ketam Quarry, the gravel trail to these places is reasonably easy. Go slow on the trail as braking too hard on loose gravels can send you skidding.
Skipping the rest of the mountain bike park, you will observed that the west side is actually much smaller than what it seems with only one main path (see blue trail in map below). Jalan Wat Siam also leads to a dead end. So, you may want to start with the west side, have lunch back at the village, and continue on the east side and Chek Jawa after lunch. But if you have an appointment to catch a low-tide at Chek Jawa (can be anytime on different days), you need to alter your travel plan accordingly. The tides will not wait for anyone.
See Google Map.
Some key points:
1. West Trail is marked in blue. Go to Ketam Quarry and back the same way. There is a fork in the path to Butterfly Hill, you can cover that trail either on the way there or back.
2. East Trail is marked in purple. Note the red icon indicating the path is one-way. This is to prevent cyclists from colliding head-on along the hilly trails. East Trail attempts to cover as much of the island as possible including the Sensory Trail, but if time is running out, skip Mamam Campsite to the north, cut through Jalan Sam Heng and head straight back to the village.
3. The magenta trail is an alternative path if you intend to skip the village when crossing from west to east or vice versa.
4. Chek Jawa trail is marked in orange.
5. Noordin Beach to the north of the island is fenced off to the public due to serious soil erosion. If you do not have enough time to explore the island, skip heading in that direction.
Things to See on Ubin
Ubin is a nature island, do not expect any artificial attractions that are put up for the sake of attracting visitors. Ubin has more to offer nature-lovers than just cycling around. Go for the natural scenery, the mangroves and wetland at Chek Jawa and wildlife or treat the island as a big classroom for nature studies. Apart from nature, there are cultural sites too since the island has been inhabited for more than a hundred years.
Around the Village
Before going too far, look for hornbills near the village. These birds have large yellow beaks and have been living on Ubin for many years. There used to be two of them but two new members were added in recent years. The hornbills are wild birds and free to roam around the island, so try finding them. It will be easier to listen out for their calls which are rather distinctive from other birds.
In the picture above, a young hornbill and an adult one with a casque on the upper mandible. These birds are considered one of the main highlights on Ubin. Don't miss them.
A yellow-bellied sunbird. It is not easy to get this close to birds, but it is easy for them to get close to you if you are not making any sudden movements. This was a chance shot near the village where there are more flowers.
The West Side
We will highlight some of the places to stop and visit along the path towards the west, the rest will be for you to explore. Do refer to the map for the places that we are going to mention.
The west side has more open lands and is best for bird-watching. With easier accesses to several small beaches, they offer good spots for fishing too. Out of the village, you can check out Butterfly Hill for butterflies if you are into butterfly watching. We can't get good shots with tele-zoom lens so we move on to Pekan Quarry for larger photography subjects.
At Pekan Quarry's view point, you will find large number of herons on the water and trees on the opposite shore. There are other birdies among the flowers and bushes near the view point too. Do look out for them.
On the mud bank beside Jelutong Bridge, right beside Ah Ma Drinks Stall. Look for the porcelain fiddler crabs that will wave their pincers menacingly at you. The male crab has one enlarged pincer and a smaller one for feeding. Female crab has equal size pincers. You will see them during low tides. This is the best spot to get real close to these miniature crabs.
The porcelain fiddle crab is of different specie to the orange fiddler crab in Chek Jawa.
What if you are there at high tide and there is no fiddler crabs? Look for mudskippers.
At the first junction after Jelutong Bridge, a trail leads to Wei Tuo Fa Gong (韦陀法宫), a Buddhist temple site. You can explore the temple site even if you are not a Buddhist. The site has a number of shrines and statuettes. There is also a pond, filled with tortoises and carps, and a Tibetan-style prayer site with prayer wheels. Go around in clockwise direction and spin the wheels at the same time, like what you will do when in Tibet.
After passing Ubin Living Lab, an educational centre for students and a second bridge, you will come to a fork in the path. Take the path towards Ketam Mountain Bike Park and follow the gravel trail. The other fork, Jalan Wat Siam, leads to a no-entry road barrier, a dead end, but you can still go that way if you want more exercise or looking for wild floras and faunas.
Off the gravel trail in Ketam Mountain Bike Park, you will pass behind the German Girl Shrine at a cross-paths. The German Girl Shrine is a popular place of worship among worshipers hoping to strike rich. It used to be just an old and eerie hut with offerings and a barbie doll on a table. The shrine was renovated to its current structure in recent years. (Find out more about the German Girl Shrine at rememberSingapore.org.)
A short distance further from the German Girl Shrine, towards the first view point of Ketam Quarry, you will see a number of such bird nests on a tree. These nests are homes to the baya weavers, birds that specialised in weaving nests. If you approach the nests too loudly, the inhabitants will dart out of their nests and fly away from danger — you, of course.
A male baya weaver (left) with a patch of yellow on its head and a female one (right).
Just a short distance away, you can check out Ketam Quarry from the view point. There are 5 old quarries on the island, bearing evidences that granite quarrying was once an activity on Ubin. Four of the quarries are in the west, only Balai Quarry is to the east. These old quarries have become freshwater reservoirs, forming beautiful scenery and yet dangerous at the same time. Do not get too close to them as they could be 10-storey in depth. They are fenced up for your safety, so keep your distance.
There are more for you to explored but we need to move on to the east side. After the short trail in Ketam Mountain Bike Park, U-turn and head back to the main intersection point.
The East Side
Back at the main intersection point, you can choose to go back to the village or turn left to go north (magenta trail). If heading north, you will come across a local's house on the left side of the path when going up a slope. Take a good look at the house.
While keeping a lookout for natural sights, check out for other things that may catch your attentions, like this giant centipede with woks as its body, sickles as legs, bells as eyes and steel-rod feelers. Art on nature.
There are also fruits and flowers on the island too. Catch this blooming wild ginger flower. They can be found in several spots right beside paths.
The east side is largely forested and being a larger area, it needs more time to cover. There are wildlife here too but mostly obscured by trees. Most visitors just cycle along the trails and get to their destinations.
A water monitor lizard with a truncated tail sunbathing on a road. These lizards are very common in Singapore, especially in nature parks. They are shy creatures and usually stay away from humans, but do not provoke them to attack you. Just leave them to their sunbathing.
Monkeys, or more accurately, macaques usually roam about in groups. A sight like above can be quite intimidating to cyclists. In most cases, monkeys will not attack people but if you cycle through them and hit (or seems to be attacking) a young one, the adult monkeys may attack you. So do get off your bicycle and walk slowly, keeping a wide berth around young monkeys.
Do not feed them, they may lose their abilities to look for their own food over time. Also, keep any food you have out of their sights, the monkeys may snatch them and hurt you in the process.
You may be able to see some wild boars near the entrance to Chek Jawa. Do not try to feed them or provoke it or take photos of them using flashes, they can weigh up to 100kg and still charge towards you at high speed. As usual, stay clear from young boars.
After Chek Jawa and on the way back, you will pass by Balai Quarry. Viewing from higher ground, Balai Quarry is actually much more scenic than the others.
Note that there are big red ants, snakes or animals that can bite in the wilderness. So, do keep to the well-worn paths.
Chek Jawa (8:30am to 6pm)
We covered Chek Jawa in another article with more photos and information:
You need to get back to the village or pier before nightfall as the paths are not lit at night. Also, bicycle rental shops will close by 6:30pm if you need to return the bicycle.
At the time of this post, there is no lodgings on Ubin. It used to have two chalet sites, but both closed down. So you need to get off the island unless you are camping overnight (find out more about camping at NParks website before you go).
Beautiful sunset from the pier. Once you reach the pier, count the number of people waiting there. If there are less than 12 people including you, wait for more to turn up — hopefully. For this reason, you will not want to be the last few visitors leaving the island, especially on weekdays.
The journey back to mainland Singapore.
You will need to go through custom checks at Changi Point Ferry Terminal on arrival, mainly x-raying of all belongings. Do not bring any plants or animals back from Ubin — they stay where they belonged on that island.
Looking for wild animals? Listen to the Rustles in the Leaves