Return to the Granite Island

On Sunday, Prescott and I went with a group of Singapore American School science teachers and a handful of students for an educational morning visit to Pulau Ubin, a small island tucked between Singapore’s northeast shore and Malaysia. The island was used for granite quarrying for over 100 years, hence its name (“ubin” means “granite” in Malay). It has also been home to rubber plantations, prawn fisheries, and poultry farms. But today the granite quarries have all been filled in …


… the mangroves are naturally taking over what the prawn fisheries left behind …


… and the island is pretty much just used for low-key eco-tourism. It remains one of the few places that you can go in Singapore — though you have to travel by boat — that has no tall buildings or urban development. People say that this is the one place where you can have a true view into what Singapore used to be.


I love the short trip over to Pulau Ubin. From Changi Point Ferry Terminal, you take a bumboat ride across the Straits of Johor across vibrantly-colored water. You’re likely to have views of large ships …


… and old fishing huts (still in use today) out on the water:


When you arrive on the island, you step out of your onto a very simple pier (those boats lined up in a row in front of the pier are the bumboats that serve as 12-person ferries to and from Pulau Ubin).


We have always rented bikes on Pulau Ubin on previous visits, because that’s the best way to see the spectacular coastal trail at the island’s eastern edge. But this time we went on foot, which meant a much more leisurely trip with many opportunities for close observations of nature. (Pulau Ubin has nature to spare.) We found bugs and what was probably a beetle (I thought beetles were bugs, but when you’re traveling with science teachers, you learn a lot of new things in a short amount of time) …IMG_4003IMG_4044IMG_4012

… termite nests, both arboreal and terrestrial …


… and the mucky mounds of mud lobsters (the lobsters themselves are noctural, so I’ve never seen one):


We looked at mangrove trees and studied the means by which they propagate (the trees flower, then seed pods grow on the tree, and eventually those seed pods fall off, float in the water, sink, and take root).

We also wandered around the Sensory Garden, where NParks (Singapore’s National Parks system) has planted a small orchard filled with different edible fruit native to the region. We investigated durian trees and husks (the fruit itself is not in season right now) …



… rambutans high above (this fruit is very much in season, and we were lucky enough to find just a few edible drops) …


belimbing (a super-sour fruit) …


asam gelugor (another super-sour fruit, which looks like a pumpkin but grows on trees and is used in curries) …IMG_4140.jpg

… and jackfruit:


Prescott loves jackfruit, so I was really excited when I found a good-looking one on the ground. But despite Prescott’s determined efforts to open it with a rock, we didn’t get to eat any fruit; it was entirely underripe.


The Sensory Garden also supports a variety of plants that have long been grown for medicinal purposes. These included torch ginger (said to have a wide range of healing powers) …


… butterfly pea (another plant said to have a vast number of healing properties, but which I think is best used to turn water a cool shade of blue) …


… and the toothache plant, which tastes truly terrible but really will numb your mouth for several minutes.


There is always something to look at on Pulau Ubin, including some truly wonderful trees:


We also explored Butterfly Hill, a “knoll,” according to the NParks website, “created specially to conserve and showcase butterflies.” Unfortunately, the plants are much easier to catch on film than the butterflies. But I was a fan of the crown flower (mostly for it’s milkweed-like pods) …IMG_4101IMG_4102

… and the seven golden candlesticks (mostly for its name):


The highlight of our trip to Butterfly Hill was our hornbill sighting!


I have been waiting to see one of these birds (oriental pied hornbills, to be specific) in the wild ever since we moved here — and we saw not just one, but two! Here you can see one and hear the other:

Prescott thinks these birds look really funny (he calls them “eye-face”), and it’s hard for me to argue.

While a visit to Pulau Ubin is mostly about seeing the natural world, there are signs of human life all over the place. In addition to dozens of other visitors, we saw beachside altars …


… to an unfortunate amount of garbage along the coast (there are also a whole bunch of feral dogs).


If you are lucky enough to be on Pulau Ubin when Teck Seng’s Place is open …


… you can see what human life on Pulau Ubin would have looked like forty years ago. This house, which was owned by a shop owner’s family from 1975 until the early 2000s, has been decorated to allow visitors to see what life might have been like in Pulau Ubin in the 1970s. Teck Seng’s Place is a diverting if super-brief side trip up a short set of steps off of one of the main roads.

All of the beds are surrounded by mosquito netting, a reminder of one of nature’s downsides on Pulau Ubin (I would count biting ants even higher among these).



The kitchen had a typical old Singaporean food cabinet – note the dishes at each foot, which would have been filled with water to keep six-legged critters from crawling up and invading the pantry.


I was most interested in the kueh molds out on the counter, which would have been used to make pressed cakes out of glutinous rice flour.


But the most significant and present sign of human life during our time on this island – and definitely the loudest – was the Chinese opera display taking place in what might generously be called Pulau Ubin’s town square. This was the scene when we arrived:



I can’t quite call this an opera because for most of the time we were there, no one was singing or speaking. Instead, we saw a lot of highly stylized dancing …

… and parading:

But the outfits, full makeup, instruments, and stage all made clear that this was (or would soon be, perhaps) a street opera performance. I’m starting to get to know the different characters (or I think I am, anyway). We had warriors …


… scholars …


… and characters whom I call the prince and princess in my head, but who likely have very different titles in the opera world:


This character, however, was new to me:IMG_4098

From what I could see, this set of opera characters had come over to Pulau Ubin as part of a larger Chinese religious festival. This tent was right across the way …


… and inside was a giant altar to an imposing blue deity:


I often walk around Singapore feeling like it would be handy to have a cultural translator (an actual language translator would help at times, too, particularly on the phone). In this case, I really wanted to know who the blue guy was – but my Google search yielded no useful information.

For a small island, Pulau Ubin never fails to surprise and fascinate. I was very glad to have done a small section of it on foot, because I felt that I saw slices of the island that I would never have noticed otherwise. I would recommend that first-time visitors take on more of the island by bike, but for a more intimate visit, a walk is well worth it.


One response to “Return to the Granite Island

  1. Pingback: Paddling Around the Pulau-Pulau | Traveler Tina·

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