Kusu – Singapore’s “Tortoise Island”

Haha…I decided to be a tourist in my own country and went on a short tour of Kusu lsland organised as part of the Singapore Heritage Festival 2014. I had originally signed up for a different tour but it was over-subscribed, resulting in me being put on their waiting list and several months later was given this tour instead. It must have been more than 2 decades ago when I last visited this island but I don’t remember much about it except that I saw tortoises! (the things you remember when you were a kid…)

Ferries to Kusu island are available from the Marina South Pier.

As this was an organised tour, we had a chartered ferry to take us there (it’s about a 20-25min ride). The public can purchase tickets for the ferry which is operated by Singapore Island Cruise but the ferry will go to St John’s Island first (30min from Marina South Pier) before going to Kusu (15min from St John’s).

Our tour guide, who introduced herself as “Juslet”, gave us an introduction to the islands of Singapore – did you know that there are >60+ islands which belong to Singapore? Some have already been reclaimed and combined into bigger islands, so the total number of islands (if you’re keeping count) may change over time.

Kusu Island is one of the Southern Islands in Singapore, located about 5.6 kilometres to the south of the main island of Singapore, off the Straits of Singapore which has a length of 105 metres and a depth of 22 metres.

The Southern Islands comprise of 8 major islands – Kusu Island, Sentosa, Sisters’ Island, Lazarus Island, St John’s Island, Pulau Seringat and Pulau Tekukor.


This is the departure gate at the Marina South Pier, for ferries headed to the Southern Islands.

Indeed, it took us about 20-25min to get to the island.

A look at the jetty at Kusu and the ferry that took us there.

We’ll have to return to this spot later to take the ferry back to the Marina South Pier.


The name Kusu means “Tortoise” or “Turtle” in Chinese and the island is also known as Peak Island or Pulau Tembakul in Malay. The word “kusu” also means flatulence in Tamil, but this is totally unrelated to the actual name of the island! LOL…

This island got its name from stories passed down by the Malays and Chinese in Singapore, citing that a magical giant tortoise had turned itself into an island in order to save two shipwrecked sailors, a Malay and a Chinese near Singapore waters. The sailors were immensely grateful to the tortoise that they returned to the island to give thanks. Thus, a Muslim kramat and a Taoist temple were built on the island, according to the beliefs of the two sailors.


A Tortoise Shelter can be found here and it houses many tortoises. Donations are welcome as they are used for the upkeep of these creatures.

These critters sure look like they are enjoying the tranquility of island life…


The main island of Singapore can be seen from here but you can barely make out the Singapore skyline (not sure if it was due to the rain or haze).


THE KUSU KRAMATS

A Kramat is believed to be the resting place of a pious man or royalty and at the top of a flight of 152 steps, there are three kramats to commemorate a pious family who lived in the 19th century – Syed Abdul Rahman, his mother Nenek Ghalib and his sister, Puteri Fatimah.

You’ll arrive at this place when you reach the top.

Many devotees come to the kramats to pray for good health, good marriages, wealth, good results for exams and childless couples would also come here to pray for children.

  

A closer look at the sign informing people what they can pray for (or perhaps it should be called a “wish list”).

There’s even one altar located just at the top of the stairs where people will pray for 4D numbers and other wishes – you can see some of these written on the walls beside the altar.

Human traffic to the kramats is well controlled as you climb up using one flight of stairs (152 steps) and walk down using a different flight of stairs (137 steps).

Rest stops can be found along the way (both directions) for those who may find navigating stairs a challenge.


On the other side of Kusu island resides the Da Bo Gong (大伯公) or Tua Pek Kong (literally: Grand Uncle) Chinese temple. Built in 1923 by a wealthy businessman, the temple houses two main deities – the Da Bo Gong and Guan Yin (观音; Goddess of Mercy). The former is believed to have the power to confer prosperity, cure diseases, calm the sea and avert danger, while Guan Yin is known as the “giver of sons”.

Entrance to the temple:

A closer look at the entrace archway…

…and the handle on the gate!

An altar and some tortoise statues can been seen when you enter.

This building houses the main altars of the temple.

Lately I’ve developed this habit of looking at the rafters of buildings – look what I found when I looked up:

Many people were earlier seen hanging around this area at the side of the temple and they seemed fascinated by what they saw there. I waited for the crowd to disperse before I snapped this picture. Can you guess what can be found here?

Answer: More tortoises!

  

There are quite a number of interesting carvings found at the tops of the temple building.


Somehow from this angle, the temple structure seems to resemble a boat.

This body of water has a giant turtle living in it – it showed itself briefly but hid under the bridge most of the time. The water wasn’t very clear so I didn’t manage to photograph it.


I thought this scene of one of the bridges and a pavilion looked quite picturesque.

Many people were crowding around this particular pavilion (see picture below), so I was curious as to what they were looking at.

Upon closer inspection, I discovered it was a wishing well!

Some people threw coins in, hoping to hit one of the bells in the process, in the belief that there was a higher chance that their wishes would come true if their coin successfully struck the bell (well, that’s what I overheard someone saying).


Kusu island is also popular for its lagoons, pristine beaches and tranquil settings. I personally thought this area looked like a nice quiet spot for a picnic.

If you want to enjoy a nice quiet picnic on the island, you may want to avoid the ninth month of Chinese lunar calendar (sometime between September and November), when about 100,000 people will make a pilgrimage to the Da Bo Gong Temple.

Note that overnight stays are not permitted on the island.

There is no food available on the island. I spotted a structure with a sign saying “Food Centre” but it was just an empty structure.

The island is rather small so there’s nothing much to do here apart from visiting the kramats and Chinese temple, picnicking at the beach or swimming at the two swimming lagoons. Make sure that you bring an ample supply of food and drinks if you intend to stay here for the entire day. Toilet facilities are available on the island.


Getting There:

There is a daily ferry from Marina South Pier currently provided by Singapore Island Cruise⇐check their website for their latest charges and ferry schedule.

Alternatively, you can also privately charter a boat from Marina South Pier. Enquire at the booking desks for more information.

The Kusu Pilgrimage season is held during the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. During this time, about 100,000 pilgrims make the trip to the island. Ferry services, road access to Marina South Pier and other regular services may be suspended and changed. Check the Sentosa website and Maritime Port Authority website(⇐search for “Kusu Pilgrimage” on the site) for the latest updates nearer to the event.


Thanks to National Heritage Board for organising the tour, local tour guide Alexis Juslet for her clear explanation and volunteer guide Sam Pang for helping to facilitate our transportation!

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