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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala

SINGAPORE (continued)

May 30, Wednesday afternoon

For my last full day here, I decided to explore Pulau Ubin, an even smaller island off the northeast corner of Singapore. It's supposed to be the last undeveloped area in Singapore, where you can see what it was like when tigers still roamed Orchard Road. To get there, I took the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit, or Mad Rush for the Train) all the way out and then waited for Bus #2, the one that takes you past the old Changi Prison, where Singaporeans still remember how the Japanese tortured prisoners during their harsh occupation; past the new Changi Prison, where the Singaporean government keeps anyone who threatens its benign authority; and past the eerily located Japanese School. Alighting at Changi Village, I was a little worried. There were no signs to Pulau Ubin. But a man with a fishing rod looked promising, so I followed him as discretely as I could. He led me around the food court and over a foot bridge to a line of old bumboats. They each waited for a full load of 12 before chugging off to Pulau Ubin. It didn't take long, with all the teenagers freed from school.

As we headed off to the island, the boat sank alarming low but thankfully there were no waves. When we were about 50 yards out from the dock at Pulau Ubin, the captain cut the engine and began collecting money. What he would do then if I didn't have the S$2, I wondered. Throw me in and make me swim the murky water back to Changi Village?

Exploring Pilau Ubin

The bumboat captains back up these old boats with mere inches on either side.

A shady place to catch some fish.

Two women on their way home with groceries for the day.

Corrugated roofs and bright paint update the thatched, wooden Malay homes.

A glossy travel magazine would call this island rustic. But then, I doubt a glossy travel magazine would be much interested in this tiny spot of land. From tip to tip, it isn't more than 6000 meters. No sandy beaches, no resorts, no full moon parties. There were, however, lots of school kids hiking. They would pass me in big groups, all of them wearing black nylon pants and holding painted bamboo walking sticks. Many of them also carried large plastic jugs to fill with water back on the "mainland". And there was always one boy in every group responsible for lugging a suitcase-sized first-aid kit. The island's campsites and old quarries (that are now swimming holes) obviously make it a popular destination for the younger set.

I rented a bicycle to explore the trails. Although most of the narrow roads are paved, not much has been cleared on either side. Riding along, I couldn't see in more than a few feet. The occasional kampong (Malay home) or shrimp farm reminded me that people still live and work on Pulau Ubin. Speed bumps prevent bikers from having too much fun, although I did find one unmarked and unpaved shortcut that provided a little excitement. The bicycles have front-wheel shocks and the trails are amazingly flat. But signs still show Mr. Universal Stick Figure pushing his bike responsibly down even slight inclines. The government never misses an opportunity for social engineering. I coast down hills as fast as I can, my thrill for the week. It's good to be out away from traffic and malls and tourist sights and even the food courts.

Back a couple of hours at Changi Village, I found Blossoms ebakemart, a "Halal Hong Kong Styled Confectionary." The don tat, or egg custard tarts, called out to me as usual, and I couldn't resist trying a "chicken danish." Both were excellent, the best baked goods I've had so far in Singapore. Both lard-free crusts were amazingly flaky. I went back in for a fried, sugar-sprinkled doughnut, a cloud-soft but not too sweet puff of dough, one which could even stand up to Lamar's in Kansas City.

More Singapore >

May 2001