Most visitors to Singapore think of it as a clean, highly organised and sophisticated first-world city with some of the most advanced technology in Asia. It is. It boasts superb public transport, ubiquitous island-wide WiFi connectivity, and designer outlets galore in massive shopping malls galore.
Yet surprisingly, just a ten minute boat ride away from all this sophistication are people living as they have for hundreds of years. Living in basic bamboo huts built on stilts over the water, eating fish they catch every day, and providing ferry services to passing travellers. And they are Singaporeans.
The island they live on (or off, in reality) is called Pulau Ubin – which means Granite Island in Malay language. It is home to just a few hundred people, a number that’s dropping quickly as old residents die and their homes are reclaimed by the jungle or sea. There have been attempts to make a holiday resort there, and new roads are being pushed into the less reachable areas around the remnants of the old colonial quarries blasted out of the granite to build things like the law courts, cathedrals and churches, and elegant monuments to colonial rule on the mainland.
Pulau Ubin still has a few scattered dwellings on land as well as the water-houses (kalongs), remnants of the traditional villages (kampongs) that once were the norm everywhere in Singapore. A landmark Buddhist temple is now no more, making way for progress. Hens scratch in the dirt, dogs roll or lie asleep on dirt roads, and the occasional snake and wild pig rustle or snort in the undergrowth. Durian trees add to the jungle feel with the gentle plop of falling fruit (and a very strong smell).
On the north of the island, easily reachable by hired bicycle ($3 for half a day, working brakes optional), is Chek Jawa. This is the remnant of one of Singapore’s few coral reefs, formed around 5,000 years ago and home to a variety of aquatic wildlife that is impressive given its proximity to busy shipping lanes, chemical plants, a massive container port and oil refineries. There are six habitats - coastal forest, mangroves, sand bars, sea grass lagoon, rocky shore and coral rubble - some of which can be found at Pulau Sekudu, part of Chek Jawa.
Chek Jawa looks out across the Straits of Jahore past the few remaining kalongs, and can be wandered about in by bicycle (on land) and in flip-flops (for the more daring and those equipped with a towel). The mangroves that creep down to the waterline near the reef itself are home to a myriad of tiny animals. Mud skippers dart, tiny crabs wave gigantic pincers, sea stars creep slowly about and sea eagles circle above in the thermic air.
The flora at Chek Jawa is impressive too, if not quite so colourful as on the Great Barrier Reef. Plate-sized carpet anemones wave feelers at tasty passing shrimp, real live sponges pulsate gently and you may even see an octopus or two hiding under an outcrop.
If you do visit, it makes sense to take your time at Chek Jawa, although you can hear the jetliners roaring in to Changi airport just a few seconds away as the 747 flies, the pace there is ancient. The waves lap, the crabs dig endlessly, you may even hear a hornbill or two back in the thickets.
Snails move faster in Ubin. Picture by Jeremy Torr.
So if you do visit Singapore, be sure make the time to slow down a little, escape the rush and wade back in time to Chek Jawa where the orang laut, or sea-dwellers live.
You may not be able to buy Prada, but you will be able to hear your own heart beat.
Visits to Chek Jawa are on a first-come-first-served basis and is only possible at low spring tides. To book a guided tour for up to 15 people for SGD60, call Pulau Ubin Hotline (Tel: 6542-4108) or visit the Information Kiosk between 8.30 am and 5.00 pm. Advance payment is required.
It’s 20mins by bicycle from the Pulau Ubin jetty or by cab. Bumboats depart Changi Village jetty at 20minute intervals, or when full (whichever is sooner). Cost SGD 2 each way. To get to Changi Village jetty, take the MRT to Tanah Merah station (EW4), then connect to SBS bus 2 or 29 to Changi Village bus interchange.
You can camp on the island or stay at the NCC Ubin Resort. For more information, contact the hotline or visit National Parks Board’s website at www.nparks.gov.sg.