Escaping to Singapore’s Island Getaway: Pulau Ubin

Just minutes from Singapore’s Changi Village, an island oasis helps travelers escape Singapore’s urbanism, if just for a few hours.

For the cost of S$2.50 I was on the bumboat to Pulau Ubin, watching the Changi Village harbor grow more distant as the vessel’s motor rumbled loudly and churned the waters off the coast of Singapore. 

When I type the word harbor, you probably imagine a dozen rows of concrete or heavy wood docks sided by the bright white hulls of pleasure craft and fishing vessels, and though “harbor” is the right word, it’s not the right image, so let me set the stage:

The Changi Village harbor has no extensive dock network. There is one dock that serves all the bumboats, old basic boats that look like they would be best suited for small-scale shrimping rather than hauling a dozen passengers to nearby islands and across the Johor Strait to Malaysia. The boats and dock may be rustic, but that’s where the rustic ends. The passenger ferry building beside the dock has an X-ray machine and incoming passengers pass through a metal detector; this is, after all, an international port (there’s ferry service to the terminals near the Malaysian city of Johor). Just a couple hundred yards away from this open-air terminal, you’re in Changi Village proper.

There again, we strike a lexical oddity. This is not a village like some old romanticized version of Southeast Asia where the huts are straw and the locals wear cotton wraps. No, this “village” is quintessential, modern Singapore. There’s a coffee shop that does 3D “Hello Kitty” shapes with the foam of its lattés, and steps away is a hawkers market center where cooks sell to-go foods of all types from small stands jammed next to each other. Large apartment buildings and modern hotels stand over ground-floor retail. It’s a fairly sleepy place by Singapore standards, but even in this resort pocket part of Singapore, the restaurants are packed on a Saturday in April, and buses are constantly queuing, delivering day trippers to this enclave from the nearest rapid transit station at Pasir Ris, Singapore’s easternmost satellite town.

Bumboats await passengers in the Changi Village harbor at the ferry terminal.

Once on the bumboat, we were off from the harbor in a flash (loading is so prompt that the captain does not even bother lashing the boat to the dock). Within a minute, I was looking back at mainland Singapore (if it’s even appropriate to call Singapore a mainland—it is after all, an island-based city-state at the tip of Malaysia) as the bumboat ferried an assortment of passengers (young couples, a business consultant from Taiwan, a tour guide, a couple writers from the U.S.) over to Pulau Ubin, one of the 60-plus islands that comprise Singapore.

As I stepped off on the island of Pulau Ubin a group of school children were playing in the water where small waves lapped a boulder-strewn beach. They were on an overnight field trip to study nature. The contrast between this small island (10 square kilometers, or approximately 4 square miles) and the mainland is distinct and intentional: Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s response to the omnipresent urban density.

Singapore bumboat captain

On the mainland, stand atop the Marina Bay Sands, a 57-story resort property known for the infinity pool on its roof and the 2-story atrium-style casino in its basement, and you will look into Singapore’s wall of urbanity—office towers and residential apartment blocks extend as far as the eye can see. But when the boat pulls up at the long skinny dock that extends out from the jungle and rocks of Pulau Ubin, you’re in another world.

The island was once covered with small-scale farming and granite-mining operations (Pulau Ubin translates to “granite island”), but today the island is largely unpopulated and Singapore has made it one of the nation’s rural getaways.

Granite quarry on Pulau Ubin

Every day, boats of locals come across from Changi Village Harbor to rent bicycles and loop around the miles of trails on the island, past the old granite quarries and the humble kampong houses, most of which sit empty now. They walk the wetlands trail to check out the biodiversity and rocky shores of the Chek Jawa portion of the island (give yourself about 40 minutes for this trail on the southeastern end of the island; the best time to go is at low tide when it’s easier to see anemones, sponges and other sea creatures).

By far, the most popular activity is to rent bicycles from vendors near the dock and then loop around the island for the afternoon. While there is some new stock to be had, the mountain bikes rented here are typically old affairs. The front suspension shocks are worn out; gears and chains have been extended beyond their serviceable life; shifters screech and skip when pedaled uphill, but it’s all part of the island laid-back attitude. In the city, Singapore’s MRT train system will always run on time and no one spits on the streets, but on the island, if your bike has a couple of working gears, count yourself among the lucky and be satisfied.

Bicycle rental shops on Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Most cyclists loop around the approximately 15 kilometers of paved paths and graded, crushed-gravel trails on the northeastern end of the island. Along the paths, visitors find themselves under a massive Pulai tree then at an overlook above a former granite quarry that looks prime for swimming and diving were it not for signs prohibiting such activities. Shelters dot the island for respite from afternoon rains (take heed: Pulau Ubin is known for its lightning strikes and many of the tallest trees have lightning rods attached).

Even while pedaling a noisy bicycle, don’t be surprised to see wildlife. As I pedaled, I looked down to see a macaque scurrying along beside the trail, and while we parked our cycles near the old Muslim cemetery to venture out to the Chek Jawa foot trail, a pair of wild boars came through the area with a half-dozen piglets in tow.

Wild boar piglets on island of Pulau Ubin

On the northwest portion of the island, there’s more to explore. The Ketam area of the island is home to a bona fide mountain bike park near a large quarry site. Ketam Mountain Bike Park offers 10 kilometers of riding, ranging from easy trails suitable for beginners to technical tracks that favor advanced riders. The standard bicycles you can rent near the island’s dock are probably not well suited for the most challenging, double-black-diamond trails at the bike park.

Mountain biking on Pulau Ubin, Singapore

Our little group had already pedaled seven kilometers on bikes that grumbled almost as loudly as a passing thunderstorm. We were steeped in sweat from the day’s humidity combined with a few stout hills, so it was time to loop back to the dockside vendors, return the cycles, and have a shopkeeper crack open fresh coconuts to refresh ourselves before our ferry back to Changi Village and to the urbanism of Singapore.

Six hours later, long after the sun had set, I was standing at the edge of the bustling rooftop nightclub at the aforementioned casino resort and stared into the expanse of this electric city-state, looking toward Malaysia. Somewhere in the view, this little green island was probably the only part of the horizon not lit.

Pulau Ubin ferry

If you go:
Ferry: The ferry to Pulau Ubin runs regularly but is not on a set schedule. Boat captains transit the strait once the vessel is filled by 12 passengers (or a number close that). Passenger rides are S$2.50 as of April 2015, and you can bring your own bicycle for another S$2.

Bicycle rentals: Bicycles can be rented on the island for approximately S$8-$14 per day, or you can sign up for guided cycling tours of the island. For some extra adventure, rent a tandem bike.

Camping: The Singaporean government allows basic camping on Pulau Ubin at designated locations, and there is no charge. Large groups need to coordinate with the park police in advance, and all campers are advised to check in with the Pulau Ubin park police outpost to inform them of a plan to camp. There are also options for overnight hotel-style lodging on the island.

Attire and necessities: Bring mosquito repellant and closed-toe shoes if you're planning on cycling. Running shoes are the perfect footwear. Water and sun block lotion are also recommended. Cash is needed for cold Tiger beers, bicycle rentals, water and freshly cracked coconuts.