Pulau Ubin felt like an entirely different world from Singapore's glossy skyscrapers and pristine streets.
Katie Warren/Insider
  • I recently spent a day on Pulau Ubin, a tiny island off the coast of mainland Singapore.
  • I felt like I was in an entirely different country or had stepped back in time in Singapore's history.
  • Instead of bustling streets and gleaming skyscrapers, I found traditional village life, wild boars, and an abandoned resort.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Pulau Ubin is a tiny island off the northeastern coast of mainland Singapore.

Google Maps

The island, which is just under six square kilometres in size, is one of the last remaining kampongs (villages) in Singapore. Only about 130 people live or work there, Lim Liang Jim, Singapore's Group Director of Conservation at the National Parks Board, told me.

Originally populated by indigenous Malays, the island became known as "Granite Stone Island" in the mid-1800s thanks to its granite quarries, which were used in construction on Singapore's mainland.

The island's population peaked at about 2,000 people between the 1950s and early 1970s, according to the National Parks Board.

Getty Images/boryak

Those who didn't work in the quarries grew crops like coffee, coconut, pineapple, and durian, which were also grown on the island.

But after the last granite quarry closed in 1999, the population dwindled, according to Ethan Chung of the Friends of Ubin Network. The island's economic activity shifted to primarily food and beverage and bicycle rentals, Chung said.

On Singapore's National Day earlier this week, I took advantage of the day off to take a day trip out to Pulau Ubin for the first time since I moved to Singapore in December. 

To get to Pulau Ubin, you take a ferry boat called a bumboat from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal, which is about a 20-minute drive from the famed Singapore Changi Airport.

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There's no set ferry schedule; the bumboats depart whenever there are enough passengers to fill them.

Despite the pandemic, the number of visitors to Pulau Ubin is roughly the same as the average of past years: about 300,000 visitors annually, Lim of the National Parks Board told me.

"Pulau Ubin is a natural getaway for Singaporeans to enjoy," he said.

The small boats accommodate up to 12 passengers at a time.

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It's four Singapore dollars per person each way, or about $2.95 (about R43). We paid the boat operator in cash after boarding the boat.

After the 15-minute ferry ride, we arrived at the Pulau Ubin jetty a little after 11am - and we were certainly not the only people who'd had the idea to spend National Day on the island.

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The main thoroughfare in the village was bustling with people, most of whom were renting bicycles at one of the several bike shops.

Katie Warren/Insider

The bike rentals started at $11 (R159), and can cost as much as $22 (R319), if you want to upgrade to a newer bike.

The moment I set foot on Pulau Ubin, I felt like I'd left behind the Singapore I've come to know over the last eight months.

Katie Warren/Insider

That Singapore is all futuristic-looking skyscrapers, pristine streets, efficient public transportation, and nearly instantaneous food delivery.

Just a couple weeks ago, I walked down Singapore's most exclusive street, Nassim Road, which is filled with multimillion-dollar mansions and where the preferred modes of transportation are Range Rovers or Porsches rather than the bicycles of Pulau Ubin.

That image certainly doesn't represent most of Singapore, and that was never more apparent to me than when I visited Pulau Ubin. While Pulau Ubin also doesn't represent most of modern-day Singapore, it does offer a glimpse into what it used to look like.

The area around the jetty is mostly bike rental shops, but the island also has a handful of restaurants and beverage stands, a police station, and a Chinese temple.

Pulau Ubin's Fo Shan Ting Da Bo Gong Temple.
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Villagers would gather at this temple for prayers and celebrations like Chinese New Year.

The villagers of Pulau Ubin live in wooden kampong houses and either live off traditional farming and fishing or work in the island's tourism industry.

Katie Warren/Insider

"I think most of them have family members who have provided some support," Chung said, adding that some work in the bike rental shops or in other operation or maintenance jobs on the island. 

There is no tap water or electricity provided on Pulau Ubin. Residents get their water from wells and their electricity from generators.

In 2013, however, Singapore's energy authority started testing out solar panels and biodiesel to generate electricity on the island.

Pulau Ubin has a network of paved roads and forest paths.

Katie Warren/Insider

Visitors can't bring their cars to the island, so they can get around either by bicycle or on foot.

Beyond the main jetty area, a few drinks stands operate around the island, but they were closed during my visit - likely either due to Covid-19 restrictions or the public holiday.

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One of Pulau Ubin's main attractions is the Chek Jawa Wetlands, an area that includes coastal forests, beaches, and a mangrove swamp.

A boardwalk at the Chek Jawa Wetlands.
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The wetlands are home to rare plants and birds and about 500 marine species, according to the National Parks Board.

Cycling around Pulau Ubin led to a day full of picturesque nature scenes like this pond covered with lily pads and encircled by palm trees.

Katie Warren/Insider

I also spotted some of the island's other famed inhabitants: monitor lizards and wild boars.

On a forest path not far from the jetty area on the southern part of the island, I came across an abandoned resort called the Celestial Ubin Beach Resort.

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Another similarly named and inoperative resort, Celestial Resort, was recently demolished on the island's southwestern side to be replaced with an environmental research lab. 

Both resorts closed down "many" years ago, according to the National Parks Board.

Blocked off by a barrier, the abandoned resort seemed to have been left to the elements.

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When I got back to the jetty area for a late lunch around 3pm, I bought a cold coconut to quench my thirst before I started looking for food.

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Unfortunately, after asking around, I discovered all the restaurants on the island were closed.

A closed seafood restaurant on Pulau Ubin.
Katie Warren/Insider

I don't know if they were closed because it was National Day, due to Covid-19 restrictions, or if it was because I simply arrived too late for lunch.

But after cycling and walking for several hours in humid 90-degree weather, I was in desperate need of food and had to cut our trip to Pulau Ubin a bit short.

Lesson learned: If you have any doubt that the restaurants will be open, bring your own food. 

A group called the Friends of Ubin Network, formed in 2014, works to revitalise Pulau Ubin while preserving its heritage and traditional kampong life.

Katie Warren/Insider

The trick is figuring out how to balance the needs of a "a small group of villagers who have been staying there their whole lives" with the national needs, said Chung, who is a member of the network.

"I think this pandemic actually brings in kind of an opportunity, in terms of there's more interest in this small island," he said. "It's also an opportunity... how do you want to see the future of [Pulau] Ubin?"

Despite my planning mistake with the food, Pulau Ubin was more than worth the trip.

Katie Warren/Insider

With the lack of travel around the region due to the pandemic, it was a refreshing change of scenery and a fascinating peek into Singapore's kampong past.

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