My Singapore Travel Rambles

Explore SG: Sacred Island of Tortoises

It all started with grandma. It has been more than a decade since she left us, but traces of her can still be found around the house and more distinctly, in the traditions and practices that she passed on. A jolly mother of nine children, her heart was bigger than her overweight frame. She was always smiling and travelling with her friends to seek out the latest ‘lobangs’ (Singlish for good deals).

Every year in October, she would visit the Kusu Island to pray for blessings. It was a queer place, and I didn’t understand the interesting culture before. To the child that I was, Kusu Island was simply an offshore island, whose biggest attraction lies in the abundant tortoises. There was nothing special praying at the Da Bo Gong Temple or Keramat (shrine in Malay) – both of which differ from the religion that I was born into. But of course, I didn’t know any difference then.

One year, our visit coincided with my birthday. That was the last time that we went on the pilgrimage together. Two months later, grandma left us. After her departure, sentimentalism propelled the mum and I to visit the Kusu Island every year.


The Kusu Pilgrimage

The annual Kusu Pilgrimage takes place in the ninth lunar month that usually falls between September to November. During this period, devotees of different races and religions will visit the island’s sacred sites with a common objective – to pray and seek for blessings. Kusu Pilgrimage 2014 will be from 24 Sep 2014 to 23 Oct 2014.

Kusu Island: The Tortoise Island

The Kusu Island, also known as the Tortoise Island (in Chinese), carries an air of mystery with the various myths and legends attached to its origin. One of the most popular stories revolves around two shipwrecked men – a Chinese man and a Malay man who were saved by a giant tortoise that miraculously transformed into an island. To show their gratitude, the two grateful men eventually built a Taoist temple and Muslim keramat.



As a child, I always looked forward to the Kusu Island visits with great anticipation because the journey to the destination in itself was already exciting! We used to take a ferry from the now defunct Clifford Pier and bobbed our way across to this tiny island, which originally was shaped like a tortoise’s back. In recent years, we made our way via the Marina South Pier.

Pristine beaches surrounding the island were and still are a sight for sore eyes. Salty breezes carry the faint scent of incense smoke around the island, where devotees pray fervently for wealth, good health, harmony and even fertility etc.!


The Da Bo Gong Temple was built in 1923 and dedicated to the Chinese God of Prosperity. Prior to reaching the main hall of this simple Taoist temple, one will pass a small tortoise sanctuary where tortoises of different sizes lounge. Curious adults and children would crowd around this small space, ogling at the seemingly dwindling numbers of tortoises. I like to console myself; perhaps they are also anxious to find out if the tortoises survived yet another year.


Just a stone throw away from the temple stands the temporary bazaar and food center, which are only open for operation during the Kusu Pilgrimage. At the other end, a flight of steps mark the passageway to the shrines of three Malay saints, known otherwise as the keramat.

The sight of seniors (at least twice my age!) making the laborious climb of 152 steps to seek blessings and express gratitude never fails to touch me. Their perseverance are admirable and something for us younger people to learn.

As for the keramat, one word sums it all: exciting! Numbers were scribbled across stones and the yellow shrine. Yellow ribbons were tied around tree branches and there were tiny red bags that carry stones. The latter reflects gestures of devotees who are seeking blessings for fertility.



Within the dark, tight spaces, there was no room for silence. Blessings were hollered across heads, while incense smoke threatens to make one eye’s water. It is interesting to note that more than half of the devotees are Chinese and joss sticks are on sale. To one end, painted words on the ceiling wall signalled the direction to pray towards the Heaven God – a Taoist deity.

This harmonious blend of cultures at these sacred places of worships struck me as uniquely Singapore and I am thankful of finally recognising and appreciating it.


Kusu Pilgrimage 2014 will be from 24 Sep 2014 to 23 Oct 2014.

Besides the cultural aspects, Kusu Island with her swimming lagoons and beaches provide an idyllic getaway from the bustling city. Ferry ride to the island during the Kusu Pilgrimage takes about 45 minutes each way. For more information, please visit:


The above information has been compiled based on various sources, including my own experience and should only be used as a reference. For more information, please check out:

2 comments on “Explore SG: Sacred Island of Tortoises

  1. I don’t know how you do this every time, but there is always so much information in your stories. Very enjoyable.

    • Thank you 🙂 There seems to be this constant struggle to find a balance between writing the way I want to and what audience may want to read. Your words are especially encouraging though because you are my favourite writer/photographer here. Hehe!

      PS: your latest image(s) brings to mind the words ‘lock in time’. I really like it though it’s a bit melancholy and make time seems like a scary thing.

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