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Cute cats, tiny houses and the country’s only village – why Singapore’s islands should be on your radar

Simon Calder’s Travel

It’s only 3pm and I’ve already hiked a boardwalk suspended over a coral reef, spotted numerous rare butterfly species and admired deserted beaches from an observation tower in a wildlife-filled wetlands. But I’m not in Borneo or Brazil – I’m in Singapore.

Pulau Ubin was always on my hit list, but old favourites on Singapore’s mainland kept getting in the way – places like the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, where I’ve spent entire days spotting crocodiles and herons from hides. Not that I’m making excuses – after all, it takes just 15 minutes to reach the island of Pulau Ubin via the 12-person boats that splutter out of Singapore’s Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Yet despite its proximity, Pulau Ubin a world away from mainland Singapore.

Many of its current 40 or so residents once worked in its quarries – its granite was once in huge demand and was used to build much of Singapore’s public housing. When the quarries ceased operations in the 1990s, the few workers who stayed became fishermen and small business owners, like the lady running the bicycle hire shop next to Pulau Ubin’s pier, where I find Singapore’s last remaining kampong (village). There are no hotels here, although visitors can stay on its campsites.

One of Singapore’s last remaining kampong villages is on Pulau Ubin (Singapore Tourist Board )

Motorised vehicles are a rarity on Pulau Ubin; it’s a magnet for cyclists and hikers. I saddle up and join a trail starting near an old wayang (Chinese opera) stage and a Chinese temple – a reminder that many quarry workers were Chinese immigrants.

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The former industrial sites are now lush nature reserves. On the island’s southern side I find Pekan Quarry, now a lake popular with the kingfishers and herons – I spot them perching on nesting platforms. At nearby Butterfly Hill, a football field-sized former chunk of wasteland, I pass clouds of butterflies drawn to flora planted to attract rare species such as the Mangrove Tree Nymph.

I refuel at the trailside Ah Ma drinks stand, quenching my thirst with fresh coconut juice sold by an elderly lady wielding a fearsome machete. This is Madam Ong, whose parents once farmed prawns. When business slowed, she swapped seafood for snacks and built her drinks stand using timber from abandoned houses.

Saddle up for a trail around Pulau Ubin…

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