The Last Kampung

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Thursday, April 3, 2008

The bumboat churned through the emerald water. A group of Chinese tourists laughed and took photos of each other. Just as quickly as the shores of Singapore slipped away, the shores of Pulau Ubin slipped closer-the gazebos on the end of the pier, the kampung huts on stilts, the barnacled rocks. One of the girls took a photo of me, the western loner, wind in my hair. The bumboat, rustic and festive in turquoise, yellow and sky blue, pulled up to the dock, frothing away at the stern.
We stepped off the boat and back into the Singapore of 50 years ago. Pulau Ubin is the site of Singapore's last original kampung, or traditional village. Next to the pier, mangroves with rounded leaves and long twisted branches grew out of the sand. It was like being in Indonesia just a few weeks ago, but this village had a different flavour. The signs to the restaurants and bicycle shops were in Chinese, and, on the shore beneath the shade of a tree, the figure of Kuan Yin was sheltered in a red shrine with burning incense, oranges, and Foo dogs cavorting in a painting beneath her.
Above the entrance to one brightly painted kampung house was a hand-painted sign with the words of the ancient Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius daubed in red and orange:
Though this island remains unchanged, it is under constant threat from what the wise emperor has termed as man's desire to change the world to suit himself--or, in modern terms, multidevelopment. But for now it is a quiet respite from the hoards of shoppers and glamour-pusses of Orchard Road sporting their Louis Vuitton bags and Hermes scarfs. (I had already seen the Chanel store on Orchard Road and recalled my first blog entry written at Changi Airport-"first hippie, then Chanel."). The time, however, has not yet come, nor may it ever.
The Chinese tourists jumped on their rental bicycles and off they went. I was tempted to rent one (it's only 10 Singapore dollars for the day, but my jeans were already sticking to my legs in the heat, and, besides, I was feeling lazy. The First Stop Restaurant beckoned me to its veranda, and I enjoyed a large bottle of Carlesburg for six dollars, a great deal considering the expense of alcohol in the city.
The brew went down easily as I watched dogs roll and squirm on their backs in the middle of the road. Fishermen chatted over cold drinks, readying their rods for an afternoon on the water. The Chinese girl who took my photo waved to me as she went by, up the path to other parts of Ubin, which I will explore later one day.
I went for a walk and found a treasure of a garden with not one person in it but me. Called the Sensory Trail garden, it was filled with champaca trees, home of my favourite fragrant flower, Robusta coffee plants bearing clusters of red fruit, tufted heads of lemongrass, and fiery Ti trees. Back in Canada when I worked for a landscaping company, a woman in an architect's office had the tiniest and saddest specimen of this tree in a pot on her desk. It was nearly dead before I attempted to rescue it. Though it grew a few bright leaves, my ministrations were not enough; it remained sparse, starving for fresh air, sunlight and space to grow. Here was its cousin, an actual tree in full glory, lucky enough to have all its requirements met by nature.
Elephant's foot, Moses in the cradle, Indian borage, white mugwort, great Morinda, henna, neem trees (provider of an excellent natural insecticide): the sensory garden is a balm to frazzled city senses. By the time I got back in the bumboat, I was relaxed and buoyed by this hidden and precious vestige of nature in the last kampung of Singapore. May the kampung remain and not give way to the whims of "inconsiderate man," greedy for development to suit himself. May the considerate man, in the end, win out.
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