Travel Writing Awards Entry
By Sarah V. Harrison
I sat on a rock and looked through the bright, crowded canopy. The water sparkled with the fragmenting sun bouncing upon it, a deep green from the reflecting trees. I wanted to dive in, break the silence. This was my first time in Singapore, and I was loving it.
Despite being off-season the city was still humming with people and stiflingly hot. Shopped to exhaustion I needed to get away from it all – a difficult request in an overcrowded city-state. However, I’d heard of a little known gem: Pulau Ubin, a tiny island located just off the coast of Singapore itself (though not connected by a cable car as the tourist-filled Sentosa). I eventually discovered the right bus to take me out to the boat, past the famous Changi prison. At the dock chickens pecked at the concrete around vending machines. A little wooden shaky boat (a stark contrast to the immaculate, organised buses) was the ferry.
As we approached the island, pretty much all I could see were tall trees. Having disembarked and walked along the jetty I found I was in a small, almost empty, square. There were a couple of houses set back in the trees, and a handful by the water; wooden and tin huts, some built on stilts rising out of the sea. There were two little cafes (I’d heard of the famous chilli crab), and a bike shop. Although you can walk easily around the island’s paths, hiring a bike allows you to cover most of the island in one day. Renting a bike, I bought water, and set off.
There are three paths across the island: west, north and east. Starting along the west I was surprised that I didn’t actually get too hot pedalling along, protected from the harsh sun by the engulfing foliage. The dense and crowded forest of overgrown rubber plantations danced in the sun that somehow got through, full of butterflies, bright flowers and sparkling leaves. I rode on, my bike surprisingly sturdy and capable over the bumpy terrain, despite its essence of patheticness, and I almost flew on past the first quarry. The granite quarries are now filled in with water, creating deep and still lakes scattered throughout the island. Unfortunately swimming is not allowed, but they create breathtaking scenes, and the sea is never far away.
Carrying on the path and over a bridge the forest began to thin, but here the path ended, and the land privately owned. I spied a little stony path though, with no fencing around, disappearing off down a hill. Following it, I tried to stay on the pedals whilst my legs shook and I bounced in my seat rattling over stones, sliding down the hill. I came jiggling to a squeaky-brake stop outside a Thai temple. I couldn’t see anyone around, and got off the bike for a quick rest and a picture. As I was holding out my camera to click, a monk appeared through a large open doorway and came towards me. Fearing I had upset him by attempting to take his photo, I lowered my camera. But he came over smiling and invited me in. We sat on a veranda outside their simple temple and house, made of concrete orange walls and a yellow corrugated iron roof, decorated with red, white and green awnings and flags. Set into the forest edge it was idyllic. Until they produced the food. Durian.
Beggars can’t be choosers as the saying goes, so I could understand why the monks feasted so readily upon the creamy flesh of the fruit. I, however, was delving in much more hesitantly, trying to invisibly hold my nose to avoid the pungent smell naturally produced by this fruit that is for some reason very popular through many areas of South East Asia. Others I have met have also said that after the smell, the taste is good. However, for me, nose held or not, the fruit is unbearable. Unfortunately though, when one is given food by people so poor they are literally giving you all they have, it is impossible to say that you’d actually prefer to have nothing at all. So I went through the pretence of enjoying it and being too full for more. They smiled broad and circular, filling their faces with teeth at my grin of stomach-filled satisfaction.
Leaving the temple I crossed the island. The scenery is quite different on the north and east paths. It is more obviously inhabited, with fields of fruit, including the notorious Durian, and rubber plantations sprinkled in the grasslands emerging from the woods. Clearings have been made, crops grown, animals kept, gardens planted and a few small homes built.
The north path brought me out onto a beach which at first seemed deserted, its sand dust-coloured from the mangroves along the shore. But there was a small array of tents peppered along the tree line. There are no real amenities there for campers, but you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the sea, and as much solitude as you can desire.
After a stroll it was time to head back to the village square for what I had heard were the best chilli crabs in the world. And they were. Meaty, juicy and delicious. Highly recommended. Sitting in the square that was waking a little in the early evening cool, watching the dogs run back and forth, and people shuffle through, it felt like I could be tucked away on Singapore Island itself. It was only looking up and into the jungle I remembered I was on Pulau Ubin, living life as it probably was in Singapore in the 1960s; sleeping hamlets on a jungle island. This must be the last true ‘kampung’ (village) of Singapore. Harking back to the days when Singapore was a Malay fishing village, Pulau Ubin is the antithesis of the bustling, modernised city of Singapore.