Given the state of house addressing, using Google Maps to guide oneself around in India ends in tears. Singapore, though, is a well-planned city with a robust public transport system – and here Google Maps usually shines for a navigationally-challenged person like me.
Usually. Last week, I needed to go to a place called Pulau Ubin (more on that later). I whipped out my smartphone, asked Google Maps to show me the best route via public transport from my (then) current location (it can do that, that smart cookie!) to where I wanted to go. Pat came the reply: “no buses found, 41 minutes walking from current location to Schiphol International Airport, Amsterdam.”
Turns out that I was standing on the wrong side of the road; therefore, there were no buses heading the way I had to. So – like the proverbial chicken – I crossed the road…and all was m’kay.
Pulau Ubin is Singapore’s last remaining kampung (village). For a country that was founded no more than 50 years ago, urbanization has been rapid in engulfing any semblance of rural settlement that might have been there. Pulau Ubin is the exception – it is a tiny island off the coast of Singapore, now maintained as a nature reserve. I had a friend from my university whom I used to work with vacationing in Singapore, and we (along with some travellers he met in Kuala Lumpur) decided to go mountain biking.
To reach Pulau Ubin, one can take the MRT to Tanah Merah (on the Green Line) – if you’ve been here, then you might recollect this as the place where the MRT branches off to Changi Airport – and then catch a bus from there to Changi Village Ferry Terminal. At the ferry terminal, Singapore’s fetish for weird public signs continued to catch me off guard. For instance, this sign asking people not to wash their feet in the washbasin (complete with plagiarised stock photography of a foot being washed in a washbasin)…
…a comic strip explaining how and why people should dry their hands after visiting the toilet…
…a bizarre ‘Beware of Glass’ notice on a free-standing pane of glass, that serves no apparent purpose…
…’2 crews’ (as opposed to ‘2 crew members‘) for every 12 passengers on our ‘bum boat’…
…right until we reached Pulau Ubin, where we were warned not to set up tents on the jetty.
It’s insane! Someone, somewhere has a job in Singapore to think of every single ‘undesirable’ situation and come up with pictorial representation warning the public not to do that. (For more on this, watch video blogger Natalie Tran’s vlog for Lonely Planet from Singapore.)
The name ‘Pulau Ubin’ means ‘Granite Island’. Not surprising, because in the old days this island used to be a granite mine. Ever since it was converted to a nature reserve though, mining activities have been stopped. Pulau Ubin is now an idyllic resort for nature lovers, adventure seekers, and fat old bastards with moolah to spend at resorts on the island.
The ferry ride from Changi Village Ferry Terminal is a short one – for about S$2.50, a ‘bum boat‘ will take you across the channel to Pulau Ubin in fifteen minutes. (You might have to wait a bit for enough people to gather at the departure jetty.) Not a lot of thought seemed to have gone into the naming a mode of transport as ‘bum boat’ and why tourists might find it funny; I’m assuming that the descendants of the creative geniuses who did so went to name a retail clothing chain ‘Wanko’.
A short walk away from the jetty area, you’ll find shops renting out bicycles. (With signs that read “IS IT REALLY TRUE? $2 HIRE!” The answer is yes, it’s true, but only for children’s bicycles.) Prices are standard at every stall so there’s no point price hunting – decide the kind of bike you want and hire one. Standard rates hover around S$5 for the cheapest bikes going up to S$8, so there’s no need to haggle either for a couple of dollars. Bikes are rented out till 6pm in the evening.
Although you can go to Pulau Ubin for hiking too, the place is primarily designed for mountain biking. There are varied difficulty levels for tracks and varied settings. Personally, I had never tried mountain biking before this, neither did most of the others in our group. The sections of the trail passing through jungle were excruciatingly hot and humid to negotiate, but they were interspersed with stretches of less steep trails every now and then to ease the pressure. The humidity can quickly sap your energy. Make sure that you buy enough bottles of water at the jetty base and keep rehydrating yourself!
Overall, the bike trail definitely is one intended for novices, with a few challenging stretches thrown in. The reward for taking on the challenging stretches is that you get to see granite quarries not reachable via the easier trails. Unfortunately, I had to drop out halfway through the trail. I sprained my right wrist quite badly recently; I was even forced to wear a wrist brace. I reckoned that since I had been wearing the wrist brace and popping painkillers it would be okay, but the pain become unbearable going on a particularly steep slope. I decided to drop out from the group and head back to base.
Hilarity ensued when I got distracted laughing at a road sign showing a tree branch falling on a cyclist, consequently took a wrong turn, and rode straight onto a beach on the far end of the island. I did make it back, eventually, after causing a crash among three bikers (and running away from the scene of the crime). The man we had hired our bikes from regarded me suspiciously when I returned the bike early and without my friends accompanying me. He started inspecting the bike and shouting things at me. I think he was accusing me of having pushed my friends off a cliff at a granite mine after forcing them to sign their wills over to me at gunpoint. Then again, my grasp of Chinese is weak, so maybe not.
Divested of my hired bicycle, I decided to explore the coast near the jetty while I awaited my friends’ return. Beaches on Pulau Ubin are little more than thin strips of sand, and the coastline is dotted with jagged rocks. I was lucky to catch the shift from low tide to high tide as I strolled along the beach; the change is as breathtaking as it is dramatic. The instant when softly lapping waves start smashing violently against the rocks is a sight to behold.
We weren’t frisked or anything on the way out to Pulau Ubin, but on our return we were searched at the ferry terminal and our bags scanned with an X-ray machine. What undesirable material could we possibly bring back-lah from a granite island?! Durian?
(That reminds me of an urban legend about durians. The saying goes that if there’s a person sitting beneath a durian tree, a durian will never fall on his head.)
There are a couple of seafood restaurants at Pulau Ubin, and it’s a great place to try out Singaporean seafood delicacies made from fresh catch from the sea. Our group didn’t eat there though as the prices seemed too ‘touristy’. Instead, we headed back by bum boat to Changi Village and proceeded to the hawker centre nearby. You get the same, fresh catch while getting cheaper prices – it’s a win-win.
I recommended my friend from Surrey to try out chilli crab – one of Singapore’s signature dishes. I myself had tried eating this once, only to find it way too messy and spicy for my tastebuds. Anyway, my friend orders the dish, and the hawker asks, “Which crab do you want?” There was a tiny steel box outside his stall, with barely 5cm deep water in which lived four crabs! My friend chose one, and then the hawker proceed to cook it behind the scenes.
I chose to have ‘seafood egg’ instead. From the picture shown in the menu, it seemed like oyster omelette that I’d eaten elsewhere. My guess is that the hawker literally translated the Chinese name for the dish to arrive at ‘seafood egg’ for ‘oyster omelette’. That’s what it eventually turned out to be, albeit a rendition that tasted more omelette than oyster. My friend, on the other hand, thoroughly seemed to enjoy attacking his chilli crab dish. Our other friends in the group ate chicken rice and char siew (pork) rice – staple foods here, so nothing interesting to write about.
The ‘seafood egg’ incident reminded me of a conversation I had with my friends during our trip to eat pig intestines. The largest trader of durians in Singapore is a company called ‘717 Trading’, which operates the Durian Mpire chain where I’d tried eating durian. ‘717’ seemed to be an awkward name for a company, so I asked my friends why it was so. They said the reason is that in Mandarin, ‘717’ phonetically sounds like ‘come eat here’. Instead of an in-your-face name like ‘Come Eat Here Trading’, the company chose a subtler ‘717 Trading’. Clever.
One thing that I did distinctly remember from the time I tried eating chilli crab though was how good the gravy was. Later, we had dinner at an Irish place near Marina Square called Durty Nelly’s. ‘Chilli crab dip with potato wedges’ is one unique item on their menu that you should try out, if you’re a vegetarian or otherwise not feeling courageous enough to try crab. The fiery taste is almost, but not quite, like salsa dip.
Outside Durty Nelly’s, there’s a swish hotel with this street sign…
…which makes me wonder: are such misunderstandings common in Singapore? Are people washing their feet in washbasins in hordes? Do public transport buses – the only double deckers buses in Singapore – suddenly swerve out of their fixed routes and into the parking lane of expensive hotels?
Must there be a sign for Life, the Universe, and Everything?
With friends here, I finally got to do ‘touristy stuff’ around town. Going on the Singapore Flyer; searching for that perfect chilli crab and kaya toast breakfast; strolling around Arab Street, Chinatown, Little India, Esplanade and Marina Bay – we did it all. I had been to Sentosa beach resort earlier on an ‘Amazing Race’ style competition organized by The IET club over here, but that trip was a bit rushed. Finally, I got do the luge run and the skyride in a leisurely way. They are pretty lax about who they allow on these rides, you see. You need to be 110 millimetres tall to ride.
To be fair, they did have a life-size cutout stating the actual limit, which is 110cm. What happened here, probably, is a pedantic printing press received an order for this poster and went, “But…in the picture here…it’s just 11cm! No time to ask our clients – change it to 110mm pronto!”
I was so bored of canteen food that I spent the last few days eating out. One place that I got to check out was Fatboy’s Burger Bar at Mohammed Sultan Road (they have another branch at Upper Thomson Road, which I gather is the more popular branch), thanks to a 50% off voucher I got from the group buying deals website HungryDeals.sg. (I love these HungryDeals guys, simply because their mission statement is “trying to solve the ‘Where shall we have lunch?’ question phase of our civilization’. ;D )
It’s probably best that I don’t mention here that I had to walk a long way to reach the place. I was travelling by bus and tracking on Google Maps the stop I was supposed to get off at; the location update got delayed and I only realized two bus stops later that the place had passed by.
Anyway, the reason I mention this is because I ate lamb for the first time. I ordered their ‘Bolly Wooly’ burger – lamb burger with lettuce, tomatoes, mango chutney in a honey oat brown bun, with a large helping of thick cut fries. By default they do the patties medium rare, but I requested it to be done well-done instead. The lamb meat was so tender that I could almost picture the baby sheep that was killed to make this burger looking at a butcher with glistening eyes; the eyes pleading that its life not be ended cut short (literally) so soon.
A jolly good meal, I say! Only S$20.