PICTURES

Escape to Pulau Ubin, a rustic island paradise just a short bumboat ride away

It is Singapore's last kampung, a lone village frozen in time and a whisper away from the mainland concrete jungle.

Residents on Pulau Ubin proudly call themselves islanders.

Technically, so are Singaporeans - give or take a clutch of towering skyscrapers - but Ubinites are the real deal.

"There, you see," gestures Ms Koh Bee Choo, 43, at a dusty wooden signboard that crows "We are islanders", as seven wild dogs play and run amok through her bicycle rental shop.

Her community of villagers had an eviction scare last month, thanks to a poorly worded census notice. The authorities later confirmed that there are no present plans to develop the island, which is to be kept in a "rustic state for as long as possible".

No doubt this brought a sigh of relief not just to residents, but to the more than 300,000 visitors that the island gets each year.

Want an idyllic weekend getaway without having to pack your passport?

Life!Weekend plans a day at Pulau Ubin for you, laying out the sights, sounds and smells you should not miss.

keziatoh@sph.com.sg


8AM: BUMBOAT RIDE

Private bumboat operators herd passengers towards waiting vessels. Each can take up to 12 people. A pretty sandy beach and small jetty are your first glimpse of Pulau Ubin, which means "granite island" in Malay, a nod to the abandoned granite quarries there.

8.30AM: KAMPUNG BREAKFAST

From the jetty, it is a five-minute bicycle or van ride to the north-east of the island, cutting through dirt paths and overgrown shrubs.

Celebrity television chef Bobby Chinn has made the same journey to attend a half-day cooking class run by culinary school Cookery Magic ($120 to $140 for about four hours, www.cookerymagic.com, call 6348-9667), whose classes are conducted by Ms Ruqxana Vasanwala. Lessons take place at 54-year-old Madam Kamariah Abdullah's house.

But first, there is breakfast - lontong (rice cakes and vegetables in a curry), sweet Malay kueh and tea, slurped and sipped while sitting cross-legged on the floor of a 100-year-old kampung house on stilts, lined with orange-white wood panels. A peek beneath the house reveals a surprise: A lime-green boat belonging to Madam Kamariah's great-grandfather, carved from a single tree trunk, still hangs.

10AM: FORAGING FOR HERBS

Time to get to work. Instructor Vasawala's voice rings through Madam Kamariah's leafy jungle backyard.

During a one-hour walk to pluck herbs for cooking, the 51-year-old regales her group of 20 with tips on the medicinal properties of wild plants.

The hibiscus flower and papaya leaf prevent pregnancy, she says, pointing out Mother Nature's contraceptives. And the cekur - sand ginger - can help a new mother recuperate after birth, she adds.

11AM: JUNGLE COOK-OUT

"No, cannot," barks Ms Vasanwala, as strict as a Peranakan matriarch, staring down my blob of half-pounded sambal belacan on pestle and mortar.

It is not dainty work: crouching on the ground, pounding fresh chilli, garlic cloves, galangal and shallots to a fine paste.

Twenty minutes of hard, rhythmic pounding later, she pronounces it "good enough" - though a longer time at the grinder could produce a creamier paste. "It is about how it feels in your mouth, that is what cooking is," she says.

Later, you stir-fry this paste over high heat, letting it bubble into a steamy red sauce that is perfect "at the point when you choke and sneeze", says Ms Vasanwala, hovering over my shoulder.

The spice paste is to accompany nasi kerabu, a Malay herb rice chock-full of finely chopped mint, kaffir lime leaves, coriander and Thai basil. It is served with butter prawns tossed with garlic cloves and black pepper.

The class offers a chance to combine heritage with practical cooking skills, says lawyer Shamim Dhilawala, 50, who attended the class two years ago.

She says: "It was truly memorable to learn in an authentic kampung house, pick herbs from the surroundings and soak up the old rustic charm."

12.30PM: LUNCH

To top off the rustic feel, lunch is served on bird's nest fern leaves plucked from the backyard. For a nostalgic dessert, an antique shaved-ice machine makes quick work of ice blocks, which are shaped into ice balls and doused with rose and kiwi syrup.

1.30PM: RIVER KAYAKING

You will want to flex your muscles a little after pigging out.

Take another five-minute bicycle or van ride back to the beach, a stone's throw away from the jetty.

Suitable for beginners and even children, this scenic kayaking route through river and marshland is best done at a leisurely pace, all the better to spot mudskippers and small fish skimming across the river surface, and hornbills and egrets flitting past above.

Asian Detours ($60 for about three hours, www.asiandetours.com, call 6297-6998) runs guided tours, which includes equipment and insurance.

The activity is a workout and an educational lesson at the same time, says housewife Grace Wong, 33, who took her two sons aged four and six on the kayaking trip earlier this month.

She says: "The route was very gentle and amid the mangroves, the guides explained why these are important for the environment, which was educational for my boys.

"We were very lucky that day - we even spotted otters on the river bank," she adds.

3.30PM: A SHRINE TO A DEAD GERMAN GIRL

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This is another of Pulau Ubin's well-kept secrets. In a tiny temple on the south-western side is a tiny one-room temple with a shrine to a German girl, or "Nadu Guniang" as the villagers call her, in a jumble of Malay and Chinese.

A smiling Barbie doll encased in glass sits on the altar, surrounded by flowers and other "offerings": bottles of rosewater, a tube of lipstick, a Pears' soap bar and trinkets such as hairbands and coin purses.

Outside the sheltered space is an urn for joss sticks and a furnace to burn paper offerings.

The exact origins of the temple are unknown. Local folklore has it that the girl, the daughter of a coffee plantation manager, fell off a cliff to her death in her haste to escape from British soldiers at the end of World War I.

Some local workers found her corpse and gave her a proper burial.

About 10 people visit the shrine each week, says caretaker Lim Cheng Teck, 55, a former Ubin resident who moved to the mainland 10 years ago. He commutes here every day to watch over the temple, as well as ferry visitors in a taxi-van.

 

The shrine is not linked to any religion, he says. "I have seen people offer joss sticks, or make the sign of the Catholic cross here," he adds.

Devotees pray for health and safety, says Mr Lim. But their best bet?

He says wryly: "Lottery numbers, what else?"

4PM: CHEK JAWA

On the south-eastern part of the island is one of Singapore's unspoilt wetlands. You will recognise it on your bike from a two-storey Tudor-style house (No. 1 Pulau Ubin, free admission), which marks the entrance to the 100ha Chek Jawa.

Built in the 1930s by the British colonial government's chief surveyor Landon Williams as a holiday home, the two-storey abode now houses a visitor centre, complete with a working fireplace - a bizarre addition in this hot climate.

The house overlooks a tiny islet shaped like a frog. Legend spins a tale of three animals - a frog, pig and elephant - that failed to reach the shores of Johor, and were turned into stone. The elephant and pig together turned into Pulau Ubin while the frog became Pulau Sekudu, or Frog Island.

Chek Jawa (free admission, 8.30am to 6pm) houses one of the Republic's richest ecosystems. There is a seagrass lagoon with carpet anemones and sea cucumbers, a coral rubble area with living corals and fan worms and mangroves teeming with fiddler crabs and mudskippers.

Visitors tread on a boardwalk and mount the 20m-tall Jejawi Tower for panoramic views.

Leaving Chek Jawa, some hidden secrets lie in wait: four unknown tombstones off a dirt path - "frozen in time, but most people just walk by without a second glance", says sports coach Colin Koh, 49, who conducts kayaking classes on the island - and wild boars aplenty. These roam in the leafy forests off the path, but occasionally sidle up to visitors.

6PM: A WAYANG STAGE FOR THE GODS

In the centre of the town square on the south side of the island is a fiery-red temple dedicated to Tua Pek Kong, a popular Taoist deity also known as the God of Prosperity.

It faces a traditional wayang stage, where shows such as traditional Teochew operas and getai are sometimes staged, so "the deity can watch", says custodian Doreen Lim, who is in her 50s.

She moved to the island with her husband in 1997 after the economic crisis, when she was retrenched from her travel agency job.

Villagers consider the Taoist deity the island's guardian, as Pulau Ubin was left unscathed during the Japanese Occupation.

6.30PM: SENSORY TRAIL

From the temple, it is a 10-minute stroll to the sensory trail. This 1.5km-long easy-walking trail offers a distilled experience of the island's flora and fauna in 11/2 hours, letting visitors experience the island using their senses of touch, hearing and smell.

Along the path, resident birds such as the magpie robbin and bulbul call out, and the smells of lemongrass and pandan abound. The trail meanders through a vegetable garden, orchard and mangroves.

7.30PM: DINNER

Dinner options on the island are limited to mostly coffee shops.

Near the jetty, the Marine Coffee Shop sells bottled drinks for $1.50 and Malay favourites such as mee rebus and nasi lemak for $3.

The Celestial Ubin Beach Resort also runs a snack bar, with sandwiches going for $3.50 and seafood dishes such as sambal prawns and pepper squid at $10.

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9PM: BEACHFRONT REST

Want to put your feet up for the night? Operator Bertrand Choo, 47, runs Celestial Ubin Beach Resort (8V Pulau Ubin Island, call 6542-9749 or e-mail bert@celestialresort.com), which has eight standard rooms at $168 to $188 a night for two guests.

Rooms are spartan. For those looking for more luxury, there are two beachfront villas at $299.60 to $353.10 a night for four guests.

Camping is free: Visitors bring their own gear to spots such as Mamam Beach and Jelutong campsite, which come with toilet facilities.

For Singaporeans more accustomed to the bustle of city life, the island is a fresh respite, says Ms Mandy Xu, 38, who runs a phone business.

"I come here once every two weeks or so for the fresh air and just to get away from it all," she says.