Late for Nowhere

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Posts Tagged ‘Cycling Pulau Ubin

Treasure Island: Geocaching by bicycle on Pulau Ubin

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During the week or so that the Pokemon Go craze lasted, people around the world could be observed shamelessly engaged in capturing virtual monsters that “existed” only insofar as players were willing to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones.

While I have never played Pokemon Go, I have occasionally indulged in geocaching, which similarly involves relying on a phone app – or a GPS unit – to navigate real-world locations while on the hunt for a particular objective.

The key difference with geocaching is that the goal of the pursuit is not an imaginary creature but an actual object – usually a “cache” of small trinkets or a log book stashed inside a plastic container and hidden from the sight of casual passersby.

This tangible aspect means that geocaching, which has quietly persisted since its founding in 2000, is a more subtle pursuit than Pokemon Go: The actual existence of geocaches means that they are subject to thievery or disposal by anyone who discovers them accidentally. As a rule, therefore, these GPS treasure hunters seek to avoid being observed as they remove the containers from their hiding places.

So it was that on a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself milling about a picnic area on Pulau Ubin awaiting the departure of a large group of hikers who had decided to enjoy their lunches and tick a few boxes off their bird-watching lists a mere 5 meters from where, unbeknownst to them, one of these geocaches had been concealed.


In an effort to loiter uncreepily in the vicinity, I feigned interest in the local flora, but I could only maintain my nonchalance for so long while staring at tree bark and sun-bleached leaves. The bird-watchers seemed to have hunkered down for the duration, and I eventually lost patience, remounted my rented mountain bike and pedaled away, silently vowing to return later in the day.

Pulau Ubin – an island that lies off Singapore’s northeast coast – is an undeveloped haven of traffic-free paved roads and dirt pathways that provides an easy, inexpensive escape from the commotion of the rest of the country. The forests and wetlands are best explored on foot or by bicycle, the latter of which can be rented on the island at prices ranging from S$5 to S$15 (US3.5 to US$10.5), depending on various factors such as how rusted they are and whether the gears and brakes actually work.


Bumboats to Pulau Ubin can be caught at Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The 10-minute ride costs S$3 a person, with boats leaving as soon as there are 12 passengers. Once on the island, I splurged on a workable S$15 mountain bike and cruised inland for a day of exploration.


Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the website, and I started by heading north to the far side of the island to find one called Orchid Garden. While a pedaled down a lonely, tree-shaded road, I occasionally glanced at the map on my phone to confirm that I was steadily closing the distance to my target.

Unfortunately, once I was within 0.1 miles of the cache, my Singapore SIM card conked out and I started receiving SMS’s from a telecoms operator in Malaysia – Pulau Ubin is close enough to the border, and remote enough from the center of Singapore, that my phone thought I had entered another country.

Unable to access the geocaching app, I continued on nonetheless, soon reaching an oceanfront campsite with mainland Malaysia visible across the briny strait. A hand-painted sign reading “Orchid Garden” pointed me to a dirt trail tunneling through the jungle.


A few minutes later I arrived at the “garden”, where I found a modest shack, storage shed and boat dock on a property strewn with plant pots, ceramic sculptures, rusting motorcycles, torn fishing nets and other detritus. A makeshift “Cold Drinks Sold Here” sign promised the undeliverable as it pointed to a phantom business venture.



Without the app to help me narrow the search, there were an infinite number of places where a small plastic box could be hidden among the clutter. After poking around for about 20 minutes I was no wiser about where it might be located. There were other caches to find, so I grabbed my bike and continued riding down the jungle trail, eventually spilling back onto pavement.

My Singapore SIM card soon returned from the dead, and I followed a network of winding roads to the western end of the island to find the Lady Gold cache hidden in Ketam Mountain Bike Park. Once inside the park, I followed the beginner-level “blue” trail to Pipit Hut, a rest area for hikers and cyclists.



I had the shelter to myself, and my phone app indicated that the cache was hidden somewhere in the forest about 100 meters away. I plunged into the trees on foot but soon found my progress waylaid by a chain-link fence meant to keep people away from one of the long-abandoned quarries that in the 1960s had supplied Singapore’s construction industry and given Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) its name.


Returning to the hut, I tried following a hiking trail in hopes that it would curve around and lead me in the right diction, but the longer I walked, the farther I moved from the cache. The sky darkened and the trees started swaying in a tempestuous wind, so I backtracked to the shelter and ate crackers while enjoying the spectacle of a brief, violent thunderstorm.



The sun returned as the storm raged southwestward, but I remained flummoxed over the location of Lady Gold. Well, there were other caches to find, so I rode away empty-handed and followed the GPS signal to Recovery and Rest, where the aforementioned gaggle of lunch-eating, bird-watching miscreants stopped me dead in my nerdily frustrated geocaching tracks.

I was zero for three. Moving glumly onward, I aimed myself north in search of Not Too Deep, located in the forest along a nondescript stretch of pavement. I parked my bike as close to the cache as I could get on the road, and once again dove into the jungle. The trees were widely spaced, making for easy walking, but the ground was strewn with deep layers of huge leaves.

A GPS signal will normally bring searchers within 5 to 10 meters of the treasure, but actually finding it requires good, old-fashioned digging and snooping about. So many hiding places, so little time. Just as I was beginning to despair about my fourth failure, I kicked over a pile of leaves and there it was – a green ammunition can nestled among the roots at the base of a large banyan tree. I fell to my knees and howled lusty praise to the gods of geocaching. A group of cyclists who happened to be passing by on the road glanced nervously into the jungle and started pedaling faster.


Flush with success, I took a break from the hunt and rode to the east side of the island to check out the Chek Jawa Wetlands, the flagship wildlife sanctuary on Pulau Ubin. A 1.1-kilometer boardwalk takes hikers through mangrove forests and along the coast, skirting an ancient coral reef, mud flats and sand banks that emerge only during low tide. There was also a 20-meter-high viewing tower, which, not surprisingly, had been commandeered by another group of bird-watchers.




The afternoon was waning, so I abandoned plans to return to Recovery and Rest, and instead resolved to find two geocaches stashed not far from the boat jetty. The first, named Treasure Island, was hidden along a beautiful stretch of trail between two freshwater creeks. There were plenty of hikers around, but a quick, efficient search among the trees during a lull in the foot traffic revealed the hiding place of the small plastic box. Two for five. I was on a roll.


My last destination was U-bin Tricked – the name refers to Japan’s invasion of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese duped the Allies into believing the assault would come from the northeast. The Allies, falling for the ruse, deployed their freshest troops on Pulau Ubin, leaving the northwest coast of Singapore virtually undefended against the actual attack.

I’d like to be able to report that my last geocache search was successful, but I’d be fibbing. I did find the location – an old concrete bunker cleverly concealed inside a banyan tree – but upon entering the dark, enclosed space was confronted by a foul odor and a swarm of buzzing wasps.

I didn’t stick around long enough to determine the source of the smell or to assess precisely how angry the wasps might be at my intrusion. Rather, I beat a hasty retreat while wondering whether Pokemon Go might be an easier, less hazardous hobby to pursue.


Written by latefornowhere

December 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Back to Basics: 72 hours in Singapore

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In a departure from matters strictly Myanmar, this general article is about escaping to Singapore for a long weekend of basic indulgences that are tough to find in Yangon. A slightly altered version was originally published in the Nov 2013-April 2014 issue of Mingalabar, Myanmar Airways International’s inflight magazine.


Cognitively confusing architecture in Singapore

Singapore offers plenty of big-ticket attractions to entice visitors from around the globe, with major draws including Sentosa Island, Universal Studios, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay.

I had been to all of these destinations on previous trips to Singapore with my wife, so on our most recent visit in October we decided to get back to the basics and spend three days exploring some of the country’s old standbys, including the Colonial District, Little India, and Orchard Road. We wanted a short holiday from Yangon that combined eating, shopping, soaking up some culture, and exploring the outdoors, all of which are easily done in Singapore.

We decided to start at the very beginning. On the afternoon of our arrival from Yangon, we walked along the north bank of the Singapore River from our hotel near Clark Quay to the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, commemorating the site where Mr. Raffles landed on January 29, 1819. He later signed a treaty with local rulers to establish a trading post, thus beginning the long march of development that has made Singapore what it is today.


Chinese tourists scrutinize bronze statues outside the Asian Civilizations Museum.

Nearby is the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is an essential stop for anyone who wants to learn about regional culture. Located in the beautifully restored Empress Place Building, the museum showcases more than 1,300 artifacts displayed in 11 galleries. Permanent and changing exhibitions focus on the cultures of Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and China.

Two notable temporary exhibitions during our visit were “Lacquer Across Asia,” featuring lacquerware from mainland Southeast Asia and China; and “Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia,” showcasing objects that reveal “surprising connections between Asian cultures, and between Asia and the wider world.” Both shows included rare objects from Myanmar, which were nice to see but also served as a sad reminder that some of the country’s important cultural treasures were plundered long ago and dispersed to museums around the world.

Leaving the museum, we crossed the elaborate, pedestrian-only Cavenagh Bridge, passed the stately Fullerton Hotel, and crossed the road to Marina Bay to check out the goofy Merlion statue. A big crowd of tourists was already there, photographing this cartoonish half-lion, half-fish symbol of Singapore that spits an endless stream of water from its mouth into the bay. We snapped some pictures of our own, then wandered south along the water until we came across a food festival sponsored by the U.S.-based Ben and Jerry’s ice cream brand, complete with live music, prize giveaways, games for kids, and of course people dressed as dairy cows. Our discovery of the event was unexpected, and it illustrated for us how there is always something happening in Singapore. A casual wander around the city will inevitably uncover plenty of surprises and special activities.


The pride of Singapore: The ludicrous, water-spewing Merlion statue

For dinner we headed for Boat Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a collection of diverse restaurants offering everything from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to Thai, Indian, and British pub grub. We opted for rich, delicious northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant (chicken tikka masala, kadai paneer, basmati rice, garlic naan, and mago lassis), then ambled a few doors down to The Penny Black Victorian London Pub. By this time darkness had long since descended, and we watched the illuminated tour boats plying the adjacent waterway as we sipped Guinness (me) and vodka-and-cranberry-juice cosmopolitans (my wife).


Northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant on Boat Quay

The next day was earmarked for shopping, but with most malls not opening until 10am, we had time for an early-morning visit to Singapore Botanic Gardens west of Orchard Road. The gardens open at 5am, admission is free, and the morning air is cool and fresh, so it’s a great way to kick off the day on a relaxing note.

Singapore is currently campaigning to have the gardens listed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Already on UNESCO’s list of “tentative sites” for their “outstanding universal value,” the gardens were founded at their present site in 1859 by a local agri-horticultural society. They now encompass 74 hectares (183 acres) and boast a number of attractions, including a 6-hectare tropical rainforest; an Evolution Garden that shows how plant life developed on Earth over millions of years; a ginger garden; a children’s garden with a playground, maze, tree houses, and interactive exhibits; three lakes; an outdoor concert area; and several restaurants.

The centerpiece is the 3-hectare National Orchid Garden, which holds a collection of more than 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids. It’s the only area within the gardens that charges admissions (US$5 for adults, US$1 for students and senior citizens 60 and above, free for children under 12), and it’s open from 8:30am to 7pm daily.

After enjoying the greenery, it was time for a headlong plunge into Orchard Road, a world-class shopping destination that is lined for block after block with everything from megalithic malls to small electronics shops. I don’t remember many details of the retail cyclone that swept us along during our spending spree; all I know is that we started at one end of Orchard Road with full wallets and empty hands, and came out on the other side several hours later, much poorer but our arms laden with full-to-bursting shopping bags.

As might be expected, there are also countless eating options on Orchard Road, ranging from elegant, high-end restaurants to food courts serving inexpensive but delicious rice and noodle dishes. For lunch we opted for tasty gourmet kebabs at Shiraz Mazzeh, a roadside branch of the main Shiraz Persian restaurant on Clark Quay.


Diwali decorations along Campbell Lane in Little India

In the evening we took the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway to Little India, an atmospheric neighborhood where colorfully painted vintage shophouses line the narrow streets and alleyways. Little India is always energetic, but it was even more so during our visit, which coincided with the lead-up to the Diwali, an important Hindu festival of lights aimed at thanking the gods for happiness, health, wealth, and the knowledge within us. Busy Serangoon Road was festooned with beautiful electric lights and other vibrant holiday decorations, while a “festival village” had been set up on adjoining Campbell Lane and Hastings Road where vendors sold Indian ethnic wear and jewelry, arts and crafts, Bollywood movie and music discs, and special Diwali sweet treats.

Since we were already in Little India, we could not pass up the opportunity to enjoy Kerala food from south India. We found a place on Dalhousie Lane called Premaas Cuisine, and we took it as a good sign that the restaurant was packed with South Asian families dining on biryani, roti prata, crab masala, and fish curry.

The next morning was dedicated to outdoor adventure. We took the No. 2 bus from Tanah Merah MRT Station to Changi Bus Interchange, where we hopped on a small bumboat for the 10-minute ride to Pulau Ubin (S$2.50 each way), a sparsely populated island just off Singapore’s northeastern coast. Our main activity was cycling on the island’s quiet roads and dirt pathways, but the island can also be explored on foot.

We rented bicycles near the dock for around S$10 each for the entire day, and set off to explore the jungle-covered hills, peaceful coastline, and mangrove forests. It’s a great place for bird watching, and visitors are also likely to see big lizards and some other small wildlife. There are several religious shrines around the island, as well as an observation tower and a sensory trail meant to be walked with eyes closed to better understand the sounds, smells, and textures of the surrounding environment.

We spent several hours on the trails before cycling back to the jetty area. There were a number of restaurants there, and we picked one where we could sit outside and enjoy a lunch of Singapore’s signature dish, chilli crab – which, despite its name, is more sweet than spicy – washed down with a couple bottles of beer.


Cycling the pathways of Pulau Ubin

After lunch we headed back to the Colonial District in the city’s center and stopped by the Singapore Art Museum. This institution normally holds very good exhibitions, but during our visit most of the galleries were closed in preparation for the Singapore Biennale 2013, a huge contemporary art show held once every two years at venues around the city. This year’s event, which runs from October 26 to February 16, 2014, is well worth checking out because it features work by 82 artists and art collectives from Southeast Asia presented under the theme “If the World Changed.” Participants include installation artists Nge Lay and Po Po from Myanmar.

Not far north of the art museum is Bugis Junction, another one of Singapore’s outstanding shopping areas. We browsed the stores, ate ice cream and then ducked into the air-conditioned cinema to catch a movie – in this case Gravity starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, a spectacular film to see on the big screen. The silence of outer space plays an important role in the movie, so we jumped at the chance to see it in Singapore – where the audience is polite enough to stay quiet in the theater – rather than in Yangon, where moviegoers routinely gab away on their mobile phones and let their kids run up and down the aisles in their squeaky shoes.

We capped off our long day with a visit to Clark Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a vibrant collection of bars and restaurants of every description. The place was jammed with hungry and thirsty locals and tourists, and we wound our way through the crowd until we settled on Muchos Mexican Bar and Restaurant for enchiladas and margaritas. Afterward we strolled across the river on a pedestrian bridge and sampled a few pints of micro-brewed beer at the sprawling, factory-like Brewerkz. My favorite was the dark and malty Black Pig Stout, while my wife preferred the faintly floral Golden Ale. The extensive and diverse selection of beverages was a welcome change from the tragically limited beer options available in Myanmar.


Singapore after dark

We spent the morning of our last day in Singapore enjoying a short stroll in Fort Canning Park near our hotel. Hundreds of years ago the hill was avoided by locals out of respect for the fact that it was home to the sacred shrine of Sultan Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of ancient Singapura. Now the park features shady footpaths that wind around the hill, and it attracts tourists, history buffs, runners, and anyone else looking to escape the chaos of the city. Music concerts and other special events are also frequently held there.

One of the main historical sites in the park is the Battle Box, where the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British during World War II, but during our visit it was closed for maintenance. Still, we were able to enjoy the Edenic atmosphere within the park, and the slight elevation gave us the chance to enjoy one last view over scenic Singapore before we returned to our hotel, checked out, and transferred to Changi International Airport for our flight back home to Yangon.