I journeyed to Singapore’s final frontier: a completely undeveloped island of forests and small villages just a ten minute boat ride from the raging city.
I walked up to the door, made to open it, and then move out into the street. Then it occurred to me: I really had nowhere to go. It was my second day in Singapore, the first was spent arriving and then drinking beer with an older guy who gave me a brief introduction to the place. This was an odd feeling, as all of my travels over the previous year were for very specific reasons, often including tight schedules, interviews, and getting to rather odd places beyond the fray of completed urban infrastructure to gather information for the ghost cities book. In point, I realized that I had the opportunity to return to the random-intrigue-chasing style of vagabonding that I’ve done for over a decade up until that point. It was a enticing prospect. While I never know what is going to happen during a day of travel, today I had no idea where I was even going to go.
So I stopped short, looked at the hostel girl that was sitting behind a counter to my left, and ask, “Where is your favorite place in the city?”
She didn’t hesitate: “Pulau Ubin.”
“A small island where people still live in old village houses that are made of wood in the jungle.”
It sounded perfect, though I have to admit that I would have went anywhere she said.
Getting to the coast was easy, I just got on the bus going towards Changi Village and rode. Getting to the ferry departure point was easier, I just walked to the place on the water where the boasts were. “You can’t get lost in Singapore,” I was told when I first arrived, “No, really, you can’t get lost in Singapore.” I could’t yet argue with this — Singapore makes sense.
The ferry, which is technically called a bumboat, costed US$2.00. It was my initial reaction to think the name was some petty slur invented by some colonial British meathead, but it wasn’t. It’s actually the addition of the stripped down Dutch word for canoe — “boomschuit” — attached to “boat.” As far as what a bumboat actually is, is a less confusing inquiry. It’s just a 20′ wooden diesel boat. They ply the coasts of Singapore, taking people to and from the smaller islands, as well as ferrying tourists around on tours. The boats to and from Pulau Ubin run 24 hours per day.
Watch a video of what it’s like to ride a bumboat
The captain manned the traditional style, spoked wooden wheel, taking us past other bumboats, ships, and freighters. The ride to Pulau Ubin took around 10 minutes, and provided glimpses of the coast of the main island of Singapore as well as that of some of its wilder, jungle-fied, smaller islands.
Pulau Ubin means “Granite Island” in Malay, it’s a 10 square kilometer, forest topped granite outcrop that pokes up out of the sea. The place has perhaps always been a little forgotten, and it didn’t even appear on any maps until 1828. It was initially peopled by Malay fishermen and farmers, but eventually peaked as a population center in the 1960s when the granite quarries were going full tilt. At its height, Pulau Ubin had a few thousand people living on it, but today that number has dwindled to under a hundred.
I stepped off of the bumboat and walked beneath a big sign welcoming visitors that arched over the gangway that connected to dock to the shore. I walked over to the large map of the place just to realize that it was pretty much an island dedicated to wilderness recreation. Mountain bike and hiking trails cut through the forests and over the hills, campsites were everywhere, and the entire western portion was completely dedicated to Outward Bound Singapore. Pulau Ubin is now a place for Singaporeans to travel to on the weekends to get a taste of the polar opposite life than that of the city. In all my travels I’ve rarely come upon such a stark contrast between places that are so close together.
Travels on Pulau Ubin video
I walked up the street from the docks. It was lined on both sides by vendors renting bicycles and one or two small restaurants. There was a single grey minivan and one taxi waiting for prospective passengers. The vendors greeted us and offered their services, but didn’t break into the annoying routine of touts. After this, activity ceased completely.
I walked through a campsite area and saw a toucan in a tree. As I focused on it a mob of tourists joined me and began screaming at it. Not joking. They screamed at a toucan. It flew away. I walked away as fast as I could, not yet knowing if Pulau Ubin was saturated by tourists or if I merely ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It turned out to be the later. There was nobody else here. A couple groups of mountain bikers rode by me and that was it. I couldn’t even find any locals to talk with. I’d walk through the courtyards of homes and up to the doors, knock, and have nobody be home. The island appeared to be virtually devoid of residents, and if it wasn’t for the mountain bikers, the group of tourists, the small knot of vendors by the docks, the park rangers, and myself, there would be nobody here.
This was clearly not a negative quality at all. Sitting right next to Singapore, Pulau Ubin is an escape in all aspects. It is a jungle island that has been virtually abandoned. You can walk through the woods here, look at birds, plants, and just dig the nature. It is also possible to stay on Pulau Ubin for free during a visit to Singapore, just set up a tent and take the US$2 ferry and the US$1.50 bus to get back and forth from the city.
Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s antithesis. While Singapore is built up, rich, busy, uber-modern, with a population of wage slaves that hurriedly move from place to place, working incredibly long hours, just 10 minutes away is an island where there is no development at all, hardly any buildings that are not plank board and corrugated metal shacks, just a couple small farms, forests, and a scant population that’s comfortable living the slow life under the tropical sun. Now less than 100 people live on Pulau Ubin, and it’s widely felt that the old kampung culture of Singapore will die with them.
That is if urbanization doesn’t do the job first. There as yet nothing brinking on urbanity here, the people live in wooden shacks, and most of the roads are gravel or dirt. Almost needless to say, this virtually empty, completely undeveloped island within bumboat range of one of the most dynamic cities on earth is being eyed for development. Plans are in place to take this final un-urbanized frontier and bringing it back into the pale of the city. There is talk of government housing projects and subway lines being dug beneath the narrow strip of water that separates Pulau Ubin from the main island of Singapore. Changes are slowly starting to take place. A ring road that cuts around the island has been covered in tarmac, mountain bike trails have been plotted and developed, and a camping infrastructure was set in place. While these changes may seem small, they may prove to be seeds which grow to uncontrollable proportions in the future.
I had lunch a 40-something Singaporean woman who was vising Pulau Ubin to set up a trip for her company, and she mentioned that the last time she visited she was in high school. I asked her if the place had changed much.
“Yes,” she said without a pause for reflection, “it has changed very much. Before there was nothing here, now there is something.”