Kayaking the Four Rivers of Pulau Ubin

When the time and the tides align, one of our favorite paddles is to explore the four rivers of Pulau Ubin, where we’d cross over from Pasir Ris, and cut up from the southern side of the Island via Sungei Jelutong up through to the northern tip, then paddle back down through the island again on a couple other rivers.

On Sunday, we did just that. The gloomy weather predictions had mostly fizzled, such that we were offered a clear sunny window to mid morning. The crossing was easy – on flat waters under a partly cloudy sky after a beautiful orange-pink sunrise, and all too soon, we’d left behind the drone of power boats in the channel and entered another world, filled with the melodic chirpings of unseen birds and incessant calls of crickets.

Shan, as always, was our unflappable guide through the rivers, although on this day KayakAsia was also leading several groups up through the rivers as well, so we used them as our guideposts as we overtook the groups, exchanging pleasantries and greetings with our friends as we passed.

Jeff’s shot of me – love the lighting!

We made good time, even with stopping for a short snack by the narrow silver of beach on the northern side of the island (next to fresh wild boar tracks!) and floating around in the thick of mangroves for around 20 minutes or so, waiting for the tide to rise just high enough for us to paddle over a couple of half submerged tree branches that blocked our paths.

Busy day on the water: Waiting for the ship to cross the channel from west to east, and two sand barges to cross from east to west before we made our north to south crossing back to Pasir Ris

By the time we made it back out the southern end of the island via Sungei Puaka, we could see thick grey clouds overhead. And by the time we hit Pasir Ris and looked back, Pulau Ubin was shrouded in mist; the storm had descended upon the island. We got lucky; a few passing puffs of rain clouds hit us as we got our kayaks out of the water, but it was only after Jeff and I had just finished washing our kayaks that the rain really started to come down – just in time for a warm shower and lunch!

Kayaking to Kusu and Lazarus Islands

We went with some friends last Saturday on a KayakAsia led paddle from Sentosa to the Southern Islands. What a beautiful morning to set off!

The currents were mild on the way over, and we enjoyed blue skies and clear waters. The tides were really low when we got to Kusu Island though, such that we had to carry our kayaks midway into the lagoon – no soaking in the cool emerald green waters in the inner lagoon this time for us.

After a bit of a morning tea where we enjoyed fresh curry puffs, homemade four berry tarts, tangerines and coffee, we clambered back into our inflatable kayaks to cross over to Lazarus Island.

Shoe’s pic of us
Ling’s picture of us on the breakwaters on Lazarus Island

There, we poked around the tidal pools, admiring the sea anemones, nudibranches, and moon jellyfish.

Judy, Shoe and I

All too soon, it was time to make the slog back. I suppose it was too much to ask for mild currents again! My right arm was tired by the time we made it back to shore, having to pull against the currents the entire trip back. At least I earned those beers after!

Monica’s photo of the beautiful sea grass at low tide
Moon jellyfish

Quick Jaunt to Paulu Ubin from Pasir Ris by Kayak

When your company’s country head asks you for a 1-1 meeting done on the water, why would you ever say no? Especially on a brilliantly warm and breezeless day like it was last Monday, when the waters even in the middle of the channel looked absolutely flat and glassy?

So it was that we set off from Pasir Ris towards Pulau Ubin, me in my trusty Oru kayak, and Scott on his stand up paddle board.

Mid crossing pic from Scott
Scott on his paddle board, approaching Pulau Ketam

We had a couple of hours before other meetings, and so decided on a quick exploration of the mangroves in Pulau Ubin. We ventured up the river mid-tide, when the flow was still mild and in our favor, past a family of monkeys swinging through the trees alongside and overhead us.

This looks like a drone pic, or a pic from a bridge, but it’s actually just from Scott standing on his SUP

There are rivers that we could paddle up to bisect the island, but the turns are tricky, and without relying on maps, we found ourselves in disused prawn farms instead. No matter – it was time to head back to the mainland anyway.

We wandered through the old prawn farms on Pulau Ubin

As it was during the phase of the full moon, the tides were stronger than usual, and the head-on flow took us almost by surprise. The waters were still calm, but we had to exert much more energy to fight the currents all the way down the river and back across the channel to Pasir Ris.

But fun times – and we’ll be looking to do more of such meetings on the water!

Kayaking: First paddle of 2021 at Pulau Ubin

We rang in the new year with relentless rain. Literally, from the first day of the 2021 till pretty much last Thursday, it poured buckets everyday. Heavy, pounding rain that lashed against our windows, along with howling winds and startling claps of thunder and angry flashes of lightning.

We ended up cancelling all our outdoor activities and hunkered down indoors, spending the first weekend painting away.

Paint by numbers of our favorite Sydney sunrise from my kayak

Last Saturday though, the weather finally cleared, and eight of us (yay for relaxed covid restrictions!) eagerly got into our kayaks for a paddle to Pulau Ubin.

Photo by: Jingyi

After weeks away, our muscles definitely felt it. The strong currents and headwinds didn’t help either, so after battling our way to Ubin, we abandoned our plan to get to the Chek Jawa reserves and instead turned to go with the currents to explore Sungei Tiga, one of the many rivers on the island.

After, we beached up on Ubin itself, in the hopes of some belly warming Mee Rebus from the Muslim lady in the store by the jetty. Alas, she was closed for business, so we just found another store for some refreshments.

Felt almost like we were in another country – Malaysia / Philippines / Thailand
Our paddles neatly lined up

Felt so good to be back out on the water, even though I was honestly wiped out and had to nap the rest of the afternoon. 😂

Kayaking: Pasir Ris to Changi Village

Month 9 of no overseas travel. Every time I start to feel remotely sorry for myself though, I think about how lucky we are to be here in Singapore, where the government has managed to get the virus under control especially when compared to the (non) responses of some other governments. Except for the trying month in May where we were all placed on lockdowns, we have been able to resume most activities – swimming, tennis, kayaking, and meeting with small groups of friends and family. I caught up with friends Stateside last week for Thanksgiving, and found out that most of them had essentially been self-isolating since March! 😦

So yes, even though we aren’t able to explore the crystal clear waters of Raja Ampat, Ningaloo, Phuket, or the Greek Islands this year (all itineraries we’d planned for), we have had the opportunities to explore the sea and rivers close to home.

One recent Saturday morning, our group of kayaking buddies met at Pasir Ris park for another mini expedition. Nothing ambitious this time – just a short paddle along the coast eastwards to Changi Village. We beached up and dragged our kayaks high up on the sand, carrying our paddles and life vests for the short stroll to Changi Village hawker centre for a mid-morning meal and coffee. Yum.

Stomachs filled and feeling sleepy from food coma, we refreshed ourselves in the cool waters before climbing back into our kayaks for the trip back to Pasir Ris. Along the way, we branched up Sungei Api Api (River of Fire) where we marvelled at the lucky residents whose apartments overlook this serenity, a haven of egrets, herons, and eagles.

Perfect jaunt for a hot, sunny morning, before the afternoon monsoons set in.

Kayaking: Exploring Sungei Khatib Bongsu

My company gave us Friday the 13th off, as one of the 6 “wellness” days they’d designated for the remainder of the year, as a response to the burnout some of us was feeling from the extended global lockdown courtesy of Covid-19. We made the most of it – 8 of us got together to do a clean up paddle of Sungei Khatib Bongsu with Kayakasia.

According to our guide Ling, the Khatib Bongsu mangrove is a very special place, not least because it, along with Palau Ubin, is one of the remaining untouched mangrove forests in Singapore. Today, mangrove forests make up just 0.5% of the total land mass area in Singapore, down from 13% in the 1820s. Sungei Khatib Bongsu and its maze of estuarine channels is one of the last few un-dammed rivers in Singapore, and the only way to explore it is by kayak. The government though, has announced plans to develop the area into a nature park, ala Sungei Buloh. Having experienced the quiet, unspoiled beauty of it yesterday, I agree with Ling and the Kayakasia crew that it’ll be very sad and a real pity if that means cleared trees, transformed habitats and built-up board walks for crowds to throng through. I don’t want a “natural landscape design”. I just want natural!

We assembled bright and early on the grassy banks on the Yishun canal between the intersection of Yishun Ave 8 and 9
We waited patiently in an orderly line to clamber aboard our 2-man inflatable kayaks

Our journey began immediately right off the canal. After some quick paddling techniques tips for those of us new to kayaking, Ling steered us down a narrow waterway. The drone of motorcars disappeared, replaced by the more melodic chirping of crickets and calls of the dozens of bright blue kingfishers that darted about us. Though some had initially been fighting off yawns from their early morning alarms, everyone had now perked up and awed by the lush greenery, a markedly different world from what we were used to.

Back in the 70s, prawn farms dotted the area. We could still see remnants: the half rotted stakes and collapsed sluiced gates that we squeezed past as we navigated the lush labyrinth of waterways. Otherwise, the only other signs of inhabitation now were the plastic bottles and styrofoam bits that the tide brought in. 😦

After a week of rain, we were really lucky to have a such a gorgeous morning to be paddling. The early morning light filtered through the dense canopy, lending a sparkly and other-worldly feel

I’ve paddled the mangrove rivers of Pulau Ubin at least a dozen times already this year, but this mangrove forest at Khatib Bongsu is really something else! Kayakasia bills this as one of the most beautiful river trails in Singapore, and I have to agree. We paddled past gigantic fig trees, traversed in and around a mix of different flooded forests. They seemed oversized compared to the more delicate habitats on Palau Ubin.

Ling knows this area by heart now, having led hundreds of tours here through her 6.5 years with Kayakasia, but for the rest of us, our sense of direction were completely out of whack. I had absolutely no idea where we were, for she’d randomly direct us off a narrow but free waterway into a thicket of trees, or placidly slink under a mess of branches. We were not nearly as graceful or deft with our paddles, and the mangrove was often pierced with shrieks and laughter as people smacked themselves in the face with the low hanging branches as they tried to extricate their kayaks from exposed roots that seemed to loom up suddenly in the middle of nowhere.

But that’s the beauty of kayaking in the mangrove forests. There were literally no paths to follow. We could literally chart our own journey.

After 3.5 hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the mangroves, Ling led us out to the coast. We reluctantly left behind the glassy flat waters and the blissful shade of the trees and promptly met with chop and wake from the half dozen wakeboarding boats gunning down the river. It was a bit of a rude shock to the group, for now they also had to contend with a head on current and wind as they re-adjusted to coastal kayaking. After the leisurely paddle of the mangroves, we had to work against the current to paddle the 4km to our ending point at Sembawang Park. We did have a bit of a break midway through though, stopping at a tiny sandy beach (sadly littered with bits of plastic and other detritus the tides left behind) for a breather and late morning tea of curry puffs and fruits.

Overall, a magical experience, and a great team bonding to boot! And I will say this again: for all the grief about not being able to travel, I am grateful that this lockdown has enabled me to more fully explore where I call home. We may not boast of stunning vistas and soaring mountains, but I’ve a newfound appreciation of our mangrove ecosystem.

Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang
Our rough route: Sungei Khatib Bongsu to Sembawang Park

Introduction to Wake Surfing

I’d been seeing pictures / videos of friends seemingly surfing in Singapore right before the Covid shutdown recreational activities. When things reopened up again, I asked one of these friends what / where / how they were doing it. Turns out, there’s a new (to me) sport of wake surfing. Like wake boarding, one is towed from a power boat starting from a stationary position in the water. Unlike wake boarding though, the board used for wake surfing is narrower and doesn’t come with foot straps. And once you’ve been towed to a standing position, you’re supposed to manoeuvre to the lip of the wave so you can let go of the tow rope and surf the wave.

It looked super cool, and my friend assured me that it was in fact, easier to pick up than wake boarding. Haha. so I eagerly got online to try book in a slot. But it’s evidently very popular! The next slot we could get in was all booked out and we had to wait over a month to get in the next available booking with SurfnWake.

The morning, when it arrived, looked ominous with dark grey clouds looming low over the horizon. As we drove towards Ponggol Marina, where our lessons were to take place, we drove into ever increasing splatters of fat heavy raindrops on the windscreen. By the time we pulled off the highway, the rain was coming down fast and furious, obscuring the road ahead into a blurry streaky mess.

Thankfully, it seemed a fast moving cell, and the storm had abated by the time we rocked up to our instructor Yen and eagerly clambered onto his little power boat.

Among the four of us, Jeff had the most recent experience – he’d recently gone wake boarding at the cable park with his coworkers – so we had him go first. He made it look super easy, getting to standing right in his very first attempt. He was able to quickly progress to letting go of the tow rope with one hand, and to navigate the board back into the sweet spot of the surf.

After a few false starts though, the rest of us managed to get to standing as well. A big win, considering that we had squeezed the four of us into a 2-hour session; usually, Yen recommends a maximum of 3 people for that time frame. Our greatest challenge was to not tug on the tow rope, but to just let it pull us along while we tried to shuffle our feet into the right positions on the board using just our core.

Great fun though! Jeff and I immediately booked in another session right after (alas, another month out!); we’re determined to get to surfing the waves sans rope!

So glad the weather cooperated. It turned out a glorious Sunday. I stayed in my swimmers the rest of the day, wearing it for 2 hours in the tennis court, in between long soaks in the pool. 🙂

Kayaking: Exploring my backyard in Pasir Ris

The tides didn’t line up with when we wanted to go out to explore the mangroves of Pulau Ubin. Rather than wait another weekend though, we decided to venture out anyway. Even if we couldn’t find a river to cut through the island, it still would be a great way to get in some fresh air and workout.

The rain overnight did not clear the clouds, which still loomed low in the sky. The air also felt still and heavy, but at least we had a smooth crossing from Pasir Ris over to Pulau Ubin. Within a half hour of launch, we entered the river fronting the abandoned PA chalets. As soon as we rounded the first bend, the chirping of the crickets enveloped us. We spotted our first pair of otters placidly swimming past.

As always, the cacophony of crickets enveloped us when we entered the mangroves

On our past forays into the mangroves, we had friends guide us. This time, my brother and I were alone. With the help of a grainy Google Earth (Google Maps did not offer enough detail here) and a compass though, we felt confident enough to map our way out of the labyrinth network of riverlets.

We squeezed past narrow gaps in search of navigable routes to the northern shores of Pulau Ubin

Alas, no matter what small channel we managed to squeeze past, the tide was just a little too low, the mangrove roots too exposed. Oh well. We retraced our path, following a brilliant blue kingfisher that flitted just ahead of us with every quiet stroke of our paddles.

On a whim, when we got back to Pasir Ris, we decided to venture up the canal bisecting Pasir Ris Park. We’d crossed the main bridge hundreds of times in the years past, but never did venture up its length. But the canal is much cleaner now, evidenced by another pair of otters that ducked between the mangroves alongside the water’s edge, watchfully eyeing us as we paddled past.

Going up the Pasir Ris River

We were so astounded by the quiet beauty of the river, and of the uniquely Singaporean sight of the colourful housing blocks peeking from above the trees. What a lovely view these residents enjoyed of the river, with the resident egrets and herons nesting on the high branches. My brother spotted another otter, this one bravely swimming right under his kayak and then popping its head out of the water to stare at him.

Beautiful morning.

Kayaking: Exploring the Rivers of Pulau Ubin


Waning moon phase with a high tide at 940am. With mild currents predicted, we were in a good place to launch off from Pasir Ris at 730am to leisurely explore the mangroves in Pulau Ubin.

Unlike the stormy conditions from a couple of weeks before, the air was still and the water glassy. It made for an easy and light-hearted crossing to Pulau Ketam, from which we crossed over to Pulau Ubin.

Our goal was to explore another river of Pulau Ubin – river Mamam. The mouth of that river opens up from the northern end of the island, but not wanting to do the lengthy circumnavigation, we opted to cut through the island via Sungei Juletong and under Juletong Bridge next to the famous Ah Ma Drink Stall.

Kampong by the mangrove’s edge
Photo credit Jeff
Jeff contemplating our green waterway – photo credit Jingyi
Me, happy to be on the water – photo credit Jeff

The twisty streams are a challenge to navigate, especially with rough maps that don’t show all the detail. But Shan led the way with aplomb, and a few false but fun turns later, we found our way through to the northern end at around 1030am.

A beautiful blue bird day to explore the Mamam River

Initially, we worried that the tide might not be high enough to traverse the mangroves, and indeed in certain stretches our paddle tips kept striking the mangrove roots in the shallow water. But the lower water levels proved a blessing, for it enabled us to squeeze under the two bridges that bisected the river, so that we needn’t step out onto the muddy banks to portage across. Win!

Jeff just managing to squeeze under the bridge, a manoeuvre that required him to slide all the way into the front of his kayak, so that he lay flat in his kayak
Our route from Pasir Ris to Ubin and back. We were all excited that the water levels were low enough for us to squeeze under the two bridges that bisected the River Mamam, so we didn’t have to get out into the muddy mangroves to make a portage – or to retrace our route to circumnavigate the eastern flank of the island

Such a fun paddle! Animals sighted: egrets, wild boar crossing the river, family of otters feasting on fish near the river banks, iguanas floating in the water.

We’ve now kayaked the major rivers of Pulau Ubin, but there remains plenty more twisty turns to get lost in!

Back on the water after lockdown

Friday, June 19. After more than two months of lockdown, we were finally allowed back out on the water. I couldn’t wait, and so took the morning off to go kayaking with three other similarly anxious friends. (Good thing we did too, as it’s pouring buckets this Saturday morning!)

I walked through Pasir Ris Park to my parents’, where I store my kayaks. It’s rained overnight, so the ground was still wet, but the air cool and fresh. There were a few other early morning joggers about.

Whilst we were in lockdown, the park services had stopped most essential services, including the cutting of grass. As a result, we tromped through knee high bunches of wild mimosas and dewy bunches of morning glory to get to the beach. One upside of the enforced stay-at-home orders: beaches free of trash.

Wild morning glory by the beach

I pushed off quickly once I laid my kayak at the water edge, eager to float once again. I pulled on my buff to cover my mouth, though wondering at the government’s logic in this directive, given that I was more than at arm’s length from anything else.

We couldn’t stop grinning. It felt glorious, so glorious, to be twisting our core, feeling our boats glide forward underneath us and hearing the comforting swish of water as our blades sliced through the calm seas. The Malay fishermen were back on the jetties and along the beach fronts too, and we cheered one another on with merry waves.

Our merry crew of four

It was a short 5.5km paddle to Changi Village. Where normally the water there was rough due to heavy bum boat traffic, we had calm landings. The hawker center had also just reopened for sit down meals, so we enjoyed a breakfast of champions: nasi lemak (coconut rice with fried chicken), coffee, and a celebratory bottle of sweating beer.

Brunch at Changi Village. Nasi lemak, coffee and beer

What a beautiful morning! The paddle back was uneventful as well, and the threatening clouds that had looked overhead on our paddle over had blown past us to the northwestern side of Singapore. I got a bit sunburnt, but it was worth it.

[Photo credit: Shirley] Mussels clinging to the bottom of the bouys lining most of the Pasir Ris beachfront, a deterrent to would-be illegal immigrants attempting to swim across from Malaysia. Those bouys are an eyesore, and make crossing over to the island across, Pulau Ubin, a pain, since we couldn’t just cut straight across. But it was lovely to see those mussels. If the water was cleaner, we would have been tempted to pluck them for dinner, as we used to do years ago by the kelongs (houses built on bamboo in the ocean).