Pulau Ubin is an islet just off the coast of Singapore. It only takes 10 minutes to get there, but it’s a world apart from the city. Few vehicles are permitted on the island, most roads are unpaved, and but for day trippers it’s now mostly uninhabited. It’s so quiet you might imagine that not much has changed on the island since the late 1880’s when it was first settled, but that’s not exactly true.
What is true is that the trees planted by those early settlers are now huge, and their durians are both awesome and free, if you can find them.
I adore irony, so it tickles me pink that my first two days in one of the most urbanized places in the world I spent seeking out the forested areas looking for wild durians and other exotic wild fruits.
Pulau Ubin is not primary forest – like the Forbidden Forest we visited the night before, most of the durian trees are actually abandoned orchards. Intermixed with the durian trees are rambutan trees gone wild, now too tall to easily harvest. However since Pulau Ubin is a protected nature reserve, and not a military zone, exploring and picking up durians is perfectly legal, and you can do so without the help of a local.
It is best recommended, however, to go durian hunting with someone as unrelentingly enthusiastic as yourself. I visited Pulau Ubin on the last day of July with my friend Qing Hui, who is possibly better at eating durian than I am. Going with her made the trip more fun and gave me the endurance for the search.
How To Get To Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin isn’t a metaphorical island, it’s a physical one and there isn’t a bridge. The isolation has preserved it’s rustic charm, and also means that going there requires getting on an old wooden bumboat which happen to look delightfully identical to the plastic boats I played with in the tub as a child.
The boats depart from Changi Point Ferry Terminal on the Southeastern side of Singapore, not far from the airport. Get there via Singapore’s excellent transportation system or Uber (get a free ride using this link).
It may be tempting to use Google Maps to figure out how to get there, but I suggest you try Streetdirectory.com while in Singapore. I was amazed at how deftly Street Directory found easy routes and compared transit time and cost for trains, buses, and taxis
From the Betel Box Hostel, where I stayed, Bus #2 took me all the way there in about 50 minutes.
The bus dropped me off in front of the Changi Hawker Center, a series of small restaurants and stalls that were teeming with activity. Following Qing Hui, I headed left toward the water and a small, unimportant-looking grey building. We headed downstairs to a waiting area, but we didn’t even sit down before we were ushered down the pier and onto an old, neatly painted boat which I can only describe as quaint.
Boats depart when they are full, meaning there are 12 people waiting in line. Qing Hui and I were lucky – since we were the 11th and 12th persons, we didn’t have to wait at all.
The ride costs $2.50 per person, plus $2 to bring your own bicycle. If you are in a hurry and have cash to spare, you can pay $30 and have the boat leave right away.
Renting a Bike In Pulau Ubin
Pulau Ubin is small. It’s only 10 square kilometers, and if you wanted you could walk from end to end in an hour.
However, it’s also easy and cheap to rent a bicycle in the cluster of shops called Ubin Town. There were many times more bicycles than people the day we visited. The narrow lane was lined with them, and I imagined that if enough people ever arrived to rent them all the one-lane roads would become impassible.
Bikes range from $5-20 SGD per day depending on the quality of the bicycle. Being the cheapskates we are (hey, we needed money for more durian that night!) we went with the cheapest option.
The bikes were comfortable, but the chains rattled with each rotation and the arthritic gears took their time to change. Luckily the island is mostly flat with just a few lumps for hills. We also pedal on durian power.
Looking For Durians on Pulau Ubin
Qing Hui and I set off with high hopes and no clue where to go to strike our sugar-loaded gold.
Maybe it was beginners luck, but no sooner had we started pedaling from the rental shop than we passed this sign. We screeched to a halt (the brakes literally made that noise).
To my eyes, this sign quite plainly said “Durian Trail.”
I actually recognized the sign from Leslie Tay’s post where he finds his first durian. I had a good feeling about this one.
Qing Hui and I headed up the small path to the left of the sign. And then it hit us – the overwhelming, dank scent of a durian. We grinned at each other. Jackpot, and so easy!
The odor came and went in wafts. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Qing Hui and I split up, circled around, and met again scratching our heads. Where was it?
It felt primeval, stepping through the dappled shadows and smelling intently, trying to determine which way the wind was blowing. I realized how rarely I use my nose for practical purposes compared to my eyes and ears. If it were a sound, I could easily figure out the direction it was coming from. But that enticing smell, dancing on the breeze, was infuriatingly unlocatable.
Looking up, I could see that we were in a grove of durian trees, ancient massive beasts that had stood there for at least 100 years. But I didn’t see any fruits up there.
We were about to give up – maybe that smell was a trick of our imaginations – when I heard a distinctive thunk. I know that sound very well.
I took off through the underbrush, trying to trust my ears to remember where the sound had come from. I stopped, looked around and saw nothing. Just leaves.
It was perfectly round, a beautiful yellow-green specimen with a stem that was still oozing sap.
A delighted attempt at a selfie ensued.
Then we rushed off the trail to eat our prize durian while sitting on the tarmac road, like civilized people. A couple passing by turned around on their bicycle seats to stare, letting the front wheels wobble crazily. They just wished they had some.
In looks it wasn’t impressive. It was creamy white, but had fallen hard, the flesh bushing dark from impact in some places. It also had the large, obvious funiculi that personally I think are ugly.
The flavor though, was awesome. It had the power of a durian from a really ancient tree, all those tiny minerals and micro-micro nutrients sucked from deep within the earth by a taproot that has traveled downwards for a century. It tingled on the sides of my tongue and felt slightly cold as I swallowed, the mysterious gift of “numbing” given by very old trees.
It wasn’t until after we finished eating that I realized I had forgotten to change the camera settings from the night before’s durian hunt, and the pictures would come out grainy. Oh well, I thought. I’ll get better pictures of the next one.
But that was the only durian we found. Although we sometimes smelled it, and searched fruitlessly in circles, we had to be satisfied with our one lucky durian. It was the last day of July, and we were late. For better luck, go in late June.
Other Things To Do On Pulau Ubin
When it’s not durian season, and unfortunately it often isn’t, Pulau Ubin is still a nice place to visit.
It’s quiet, peaceful, has great views of Johor across the water, and would be a great place for a picnic.
The most popular place on the island is Chek Jawa, the coastal mangrove wetlands. There’s a boardwalk, a lookout tower, and lots of sparring matches between these tiny yet aggressive Porcelain Fiddler Crabs.
There’s other exciting wildlife too. I was thrilled when I glimpsed a wild boar fleeing through the shrubbery while we were looking for durians. Then these two just wandered up to us at Chek Jawa, completely unconcerned, bursting my bubble that I’d spotted some exotic wildlife.
I felt a bit like a group of Japanese tourists I once watched in Oregon getting exciting and taking lots of pictures of a deer. At the time I thought it was hilarious. Now I understand.
But babies… anybody would snap pictures of babies.
Where to Stay on Pulau Ubin
You can stay overnight on Pulau Ubin, although not many people do.
There is one hotel on the island called the Celestial Ubin Beach Resort. It’s located a short walk from the jetty if you turn right rather than turning left to go to Ubin Town. It’s not cheap – on weekdays a Standard Room costs $168 SGD per night, and it’s more expensive on weeekends.
The budget choice is either of the two campgrounds. Jelutong Campsite is near Ubin Town, and Maman Campsite is about 3 km away to the north. The campsites have toilet facilities but no potable water, so remember to pack your own. Permits are not required and it’s free. Just remember to stop by and register at the small police station before pitching your tent.
Where To Find Durian on Pulau Ubin
Durian grows all over the island. It may be one of the most durian-dense places I’ve been that wasn’t a farm. (Oh wait, it used to be a farm).
Some areas still are privately owned. These are usually marked with fences, so use normal logic when deciding whether or not you’re stealing or simply wildcrafting.
Durian Hotspots I noticed:
- On the road between the Former Headman’s House and Jalan Durian, where despite the road’s namesake I didn’t notice many mature trees. Isn’t irony lovely?
- On the left side of the road heading from the Former Headman’s House to the Chinese Cemetery. This area is on a significant hillside, and the trees still had durian on them even though it was late in the season.
- On both sides of the road at the turn-off the to the Chinese Cemetery, although not in the cemetery itself.
- Along the small trail leading up the hill from signpost #6 Durian on the Pulau Ubin Tree Trail.
If you’re a local and have more tips for finding durian or other exotic fruits on Pulau Ubin, please feel free to share them in the comments. Thanks for sharing the fun!