Have you heard of Kusu Island, also known as Singapore’s “Tortoise Island”? Here’s what you can expect from this secret getaway!
Kusu Island is steeped in legends, mystery and folklore. While many versions of the legend can be found, it all involves the story of a giant tortoise. The story? A Chinese man and a Malay man were allegedly shipwrecked off the southern waters of Singapore. Seeing this, a giant tortoise – generous and brave – transformed itself into an island to save the two men. The men were so grateful that they built a Taoist shrine and Muslim ‘keramat’ (‘shrine’ in Malay) on the island to honour the tortoise.
Today, Kusu Island is more than an offshore destination for locals to go and pray for peace and prosperity. From picnics to sightseeing, here are what you can do on this mythical island of Singapore!
1. Visit the Da Bo Gong Chinese Temple
Built in 1923 by a wealthy businessman, the Da Bo Gong Temple houses two Taoist deities – Da Bo Gong and Guan Yin (or Goddess of Mercy). The former is highly regarded as having the power to confer prosperity, cure diseases, calm the sea and avert danger, while Guan Yin is known as the “Giver of Sons”.
Every year during the ninth lunar month (which falls usually between October and November), thousands of pilgrims will head to Kusu Island to pray for peace and prosperity at the temple. If you’re visiting the island, don’t miss this destination — or rather it’s bright oriental architecture makes it difficult to miss. This temple can be found just a stone’s throw away from the island’s pier where visitors disembark.
2. Explore the Datok Kong Keramat
At the top of a rugged hill on the island lies three keramats (meaning: holy shrines of Malay holy figures). Many devotees will climb the 152 steps leading up to these shrines to pray for wealth, good marriage, good health and harmony. The keramats are also popular with childless couples who would pray for children. Despite misconceptions, they do not pray to the keramats, but at the sites.
The climb to the keramat is an experience of its own. The 152 steps takes you on a trail that is surrounded by dense vegetation, quiet serenity and peaceful vibes. This is part of the trials and challenges visitors will have to face in order to pray for good health and wealth at the shrines that the steps lead to.
3. Make a wish at the historic sites
Besides praying for better health and wealth at the Da Bo Gong Temple or Datok Kong Keramat, another thing that many locals do on the island is make wishes. On the way to the Chinese temple, you would be greeted by a large wishing well on the island. With a bright red lotus flower as the centrepiece, you can see many locals tossing coins into the well, before taking time to make their sincere wishes.
At the shrines, you’ll probably also see yellow pieces of cloth tied to the trees and branches, each symbolising a wish made by believers. The shrines and temples are said to be able to grant wealth, good marriage, children, health and harmony, making them popular among believers who visit for blessings and worship.
4. See some tortoises
Don’t be surprised to see hundreds of tortoises at the tortoise sanctuary and shelter on the island. After all, Kusu Island means “Tortoise Island” in Hokkien, and it has a strong history and affiliation with the reptile. Whether swimming in the water or resting on the sand, the little tortoises are a sight to behold – especially when there’s so many of them!
Fun fact: Did you know that tortoises are adapted to spend most of their lives on land, while turtles are seen spending more time in the waters? Tortoises also have more rounded and dome-like shells, while turtles have thinner and more water-dynamic shells. So what you see in Finding Nemo are turtles! Cool.
5. Have a picnic!
Whether it is by the waters, or under the shelters on the island, there’s bound to be a spot for travellers to call their “camp”. With no food and beverage outlets on the island, it may be a good idea to pack your own supplies for a picnic, especially if you are visiting during lunch.
With views of the neighbouring islands such as St. John’s Island and Lazarus Island, Kusu Island itself is a great place to explore with friends and family and to have a picnic on, although it is often overlooked over the two aforementioned islands. Wherever you are, remember to pack sufficient supplies and do not leave anything on the islands (except for your footprints, maybe).
6. Explore the marine and coastal life
Venture along the shores and you’ll probably notice a variety of hard corals and soft corals on the island. If you look hard enough, you might encounter some fishes, crabs, shrimps, and clams. A tip? Wear appropriate shoes and be careful of sharp corals and sea urchins.
7. Go for a swim
Tired of the same old beaches on mainland Singapore? You don’t have to go too far to get a change of scene. Kusu Island is popular for its lagoons and beaches, so bring your bathing suit and have a blast in the sun, sand and sea. Just remember to be careful in the open waters and do not stray too far off. Of course, lifeguards are not available on the island, just a heads up!
8. Pose with the turtles statues
Before you leave, make sure you have enough photographs for Instagram, or for documenting your fond memories on the island. A great spot to pose for some photos is in front of the turtle statues just opposite the Chinese temple. The nearby beach also offers amazing vantage points of mainland Singapore. You’ll be able to spot Marina Bay and its magnificent skyscrapers from there!
Since you’re already off mainland Singapore, hit up nearby St John’s Island for its tranquil secret beaches, nature walks and more. Here, whisk yourself away from city life overnight – unlike at Kusu Island where overnight stays aren’t permitted – at its holiday bungalows.
By Muneerah Bee / Last Updated + Additional Reporting by Derrick Tan, July 2021