Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kusu Island and the Cheng Ho Dragon Boat

[Sunday April-19]--  Today we decided to see something outside of Singapore, albeit not far outside.  We signed up for an afternoon "cruise" on the Cheng Ho dragon boat, a boat providing a tour of the harbor area of south Singapore, and a brief visit on the Singapore island of Kusu.    This is a 2 1/2 hour tour--  and fortunately Cheng Ho is not Mandarin for "S.S. Minnow", nor Kusu for "Gilligan".  (A vague reference for you boomers familiar with the TV show Gilligan's Island).  The cruise also optionally includes an English tea.
There are a number of islands that are part of the Republic of Singapore, however none are very large.  Three islands that are regularly accessible by ferry are Kusu, St John, and Palau Ubin.  (Palau is the Malay word for island).  Our original thought was to take a ferry to one of the islands-- Kusu Island, and hang out for the day.  But on Sunday morning the weather forecast indicated a strong chance of thunderstorms and rain later that day.  The smaller ferrys service the islands only three or four times a day, and this could be a long time to wait out a storm.
Thunderstorms here are (apparently) frequent, and certainly capture your attention as they pass through.  In comparison with the T storms of Idaho and California, there are no mountains to speak of, so the clouds hang low.   This provides for a really close encounter with the thunder and lightening.  For some of the storms passing through, it looks and sounds as if the lightening is occurring directly outside the apartment, and perhaps it is.  When the rain comes, it comes down in huge volumes for several minutes.  If you are outside when a storm passes through, count on getting wet.  The storms don't last long--  a few minutes to sometimes an hour, but during their presence they are loud, wet, and menacing,  scaring small children, dogs, and a few adults.  I prefer to be inside at these times.
So erring on the side of caution, we changed our plan to take a harbor cruise on the Cheng Ho Dragon Boat tour.  This was a nice alternative way to spend the day-- it is on the water, includes the English Tea  (a euphemism for dainty sandwiches with no bread crusts and sweet desserts.  Tea and coffee happen to be available too.), and provided shelter should the rain arrive as predicted.   Perhaps most appealing to me, the boat is air conditioned!
A bonus of the tour is that the Cheng Ho stops and disembarks passengers on Kusu island for a 30 minute stop.  When reading the tour brochure I thought this would be ridiculously brief period of time.  However after arriving at Kusu Island, I found 30 minutes more than adequate, and in fact we probably had 5 or 10 minutes surplus.  Kusu turns out to be little more than a large reef, with a small rise at one end, and otherwise flat.  If storm surges were prevalent in the region, it would frequently be covered in water.  The island was once only about 1/7 of its current size of 8.5 hectares-- previously only two rock outcroppings, but enlarged in 1975 to become a small day park.  Kusu means "Tortoise island" in Chinese, and the Malay name for the island is Pulau Tembaku.
We walked its circumference in 20 minutes, including mounting the 135 steps leading to the temple at the top of the (only) rise on the island.  The island is a national park, and has a number of small beaches, and picnic tables, some with small cabana shelters.  There are also a Malay shrine (Dato Sayed Abdul Rahmen-- a holy man saved on the island by the supernatural arrival of a boat with food and water) and a Chinese temple (Homage for Da Bogong, or "The Merchant God") on the island.  In October upwards of 60,000 pilgrims converge on the island for the annual Kusu Festival, a religious event where the devotees pray for good health, peace, happiness, good luck and prosperity.  I imagined the island with 60,000 people on it and decided that this is one event we will never attend.  The event in this venue would provide a wonderful example of describing a captured audience.
I also imagined if we had come to visit Kusu by the smaller day ferry, as in our original plan.  My ignorance and greater expectations for the island might have brought on some anxiety as we would watch the ferry motor away without us.  However now calibrated on its attributes, another visit to Kusu is possible in our future, where we bring a picnic lunch and spend a leisurely afternoon on one of the small beaches, a brief pause from the concrete and crowded bustle of Singapore.
Cheng Ho dragon boat

A view of the stern...

The Sands Resort casino/hotel, under construction.

Skyline of downtown Singapore.  The Singapore Flyer (ferris wheel) is on the right, next to the Sands Resort Hotel & Casino

Approaching Kusu Island.  There are actually two islands in this photo-- there is a water passage to the right of the red buoy (barely visible on the right) that separates the islands.

Approching the dock at Kusu.  Note the large freighter ship passing behind Kusu in the distance.  This rather awkward looking ship is designed for shipping automobiles.

 The Chinese temple on Kusu Island.  The temple has an approach that crosses a pond, currently drained for maintenance on the pier.

 The Malay shrine.  The shrine is located at the top of a rise of the island, that requires ascending some 135 or more steps.

The Malay shrine.  The rocks are painted, and leaving graffitti appears to be part of the practice.

Also along the path and stairs leading to the Malay shrine are many small plastic bags tied to the tree branches.  These appear to contain small paper scrolls, incense, and other token offerings.  The religious practices and their significance are completely lost in my ignorance of the religions, for both of these religious sites.

One of the small beaches, with swimmers, on Kulu.  The coast of Sumatra(?) is visible in the distance.  The beaches are of course artificial, as the entire island was constructed by fill behind protection breakwaters.

 The island is "Tortoise Island" and these are the resident tortoises, in an enclosed pond.

Elaine at the Kusu ("Tortoise Island")  tortoise monument.  You can see the Cheng Ho moored at the dock and the Chinese temple in the background.

Passing pleasure boats beyond the Kusu breakwater, with the Singapore skyline in the distance.

 Singapore is one of the busiest ports in the world, and there are hundreds of ships in the area.  A container freighter passes by Kusu.

There are countless ships anchored in the straights off of the Singapore harbor, including a sister ship of the Cheng Ho dragon boat.

There are also many water taxis operating in the region.  This is the Marina South Ferry terminal, where the Cheng Ho operates, as well as many of these taxis.  This is a small terminal, although because of its close proximity to Malaysia and Indonesia, and the foreign ships arriving, it has a immigration check point.  The water taxis apparently bring merchant sailors to and from the anchored freighters and ships.

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