When you’re sitting waterside at Marina Bay, sipping on a cocktail and eating great Spanish food in a chic restaurant, it’s easy to forget that Singapore was once jungle, shophouses and kampungs (the Malay word for ‘village’). A quick trip to Pulau Ubin takes you back just a little and gives you a glimpse of what things were like way back when.
A ten minute, $2.50 ride on a rickety ferry from the Singaporean mainland gets you there. Disembark and you’re immediately on Ubin’s main road. Rental bikes parked out the front of rustic old buildings line both sides of the road. Further along you’ll come across a few eateries serving up cold drinks and fresh seafood. You might even get to see your lunch swimming around in a big blue plastic tub before you eat it. When they say ‘fresh’, they mean it. Lucky we didn’t order steaks because I’d hate to look into some poor cow’s eyes before it’s shot in the head and served medium rare with a side of mash.
As we sit and chat away, sweaty cyclists pull up, park their bikes and sit down to enjoy a frosty beer over a few laughs. It’s a relaxing but vibrant place that seems like it’s been transplanted from a few decades ago into today. It’s a world away from Singapore’s cityscapes and urban sprawl and reminds me more of Indonesia than Singapore.
It’s a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle for a few hours. Most people head there for a leisurely but unbearably sweaty bike ride through Ubin’s jungle. Well, unbearably sweaty for an expat who thinks he’s adjusted to Singapore’s heat and humidity but has, in reality, only learned to complain less. Kayaks can be hired for a few dollars. The water surrounding Singapore is harder to see through than hot chocolate but it’d still be fun to cruise along on its surface, nonetheless.
The roads are paved and wind through thick forest which covers 98% of the Island. Although the occasional car passes through, the only traffic you’ll generally see are other bikes which makes for a relaxing day.
We sat to have a nibble and a couple of cold beers before we hired some bikes to cruise around on. My girlfriend and I hired a tandem bike which I’d never ridden before. My girlfriend has only ever ridden a bike once in her life which made for an ‘interesting’ afternoon.
First lesson for her: turning the pedals does not mean you’re pedaling. Her and I are a team and while there’s no ‘i’ in team, there is definitely an ‘m’ and an ‘e’ and, in this case, it was ‘me’ who was pedaling and her who was enjoying the views. She might disagree but the proof is there: after fifteen minutes, I was sweatier than a schoolboy sitting by the runway at a Victoria’s Secret show. She, on the other hand, was smiling like a grown man sitting by the runway at a Victoria’s Secret show. But she did eventually start putting some effort into it.
Second lesson for her: it’s fun to go fast. The occasion downhill scared the hell out of her but it gave me a brief reprieve from the scorching burn of the lactic acid that was coursing through my legs and having the breeze blowing in your face is heavenly when you’re drenched in the sweat of your brow. And your back. And your arms. And… well, you get the picture.
I did have a ‘wow, that could’ve been bad’ moment that didn’t happen while we were riding but while we were next to a placid pond. We rode past a charming little clearing where a couple of these largish ponds sat covered in lilly pads with bright pink and yellow blossoms growing out of the murky water. We stopped to have a rest and check them out.
While I was snapping off photos, I heard a rustle in the branches of an overhead tree. I thought for a moment that it might be a monkey and, having flashbacks of a previous encounter with a crazy macaque on Bintan Island, I looked up in fear to see if one of the sneaky things was overhead and looking to dive and sink its teeth into me or, worse, poop on me (I’d prefer to get bitten because fewer people will laugh at you in years to come and rabies shots are cheap). It was worse, much worse.
I had only started to look up when a coconut the size of a bowling ball suddenly came crashing down and splashed into the pond not two metres from me, covering me in water and a bit of mud. I wasn’t even worried about the water when I realized that if it had landed on my head, my girlfriend would’ve been left to carry my limp body back to the ferry (serves her right for not pedaling so hard on the way there).
We rode on and came across kampungs which are loose collections of homes that look like they’ve been there since Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles thought to himself “Hey, this place could use an over-priced five-star hotel named in my honour with six bars serving up Singapore Slings which I’ll have to get someone to invent someday.” There is only one place on the mainland where you can still see old-style kampungs so it was a rare chance to get a brief peek into Singapore’s past.
After a fun ride, we headed back to the harbour where we sat to eat at a busy outdoor restaurant. A torrential downpour kept us willing prisoners under the eatery’s roof. I say willing because we kept ordering beers and had a great meal of fresh seafood including chilli crab, mantou buns and some amazing noodles.
Pulau Ubin is a cool little place to get away for a few hours. It’s not Bali and it’s certainly not Fiji but, for $2.50, it’s a cool way to spend the day. And you do get to see what Singapore was like way back when.
Postscript: My girlfriend did actually put in some effort but there weren’t as many jokes in that so I took some creative liberties. You know I love you, babe!