Taiwan in a Weekend

Singapore -> Taipei

One of the great things about living in Singapore is the travel opportunities, and getting to go away on weekends. Last term me and my friends went to watch the lantern festival in Pingxi and spent the weekend in Taiwan, here’s how we did it.

Day 1: Taipei

So the flight to Taiwan takes around 4 hours, depending on which flight you get, so after arriving we made our way to our hostel. To get to the hostel we took the MRT, in the airport you can buy both phone sims and travel cards. The Taiwan metro card is also a key chain, and they’re very cute, for example mine is a Snoopy key chain! The first thing we noticed was the change in temperature, as we visited in February the temperature was around 16 degrees Celsius, which is quite a change from the 33 degrees we had gotten used to. We spent the afternoon going around the old town in Taipei and visiting some of its beautiful temples. This was all free and the photos were beautiful! We made our way to the walking street for dinner and shopping. The main thing worth noting is looking up, most shops and restaurants are upstairs rather than at street level. There’s lots of cool and quirky bars and restaurants for example, ours was underwater themed and had swings!

Day 2: The Festival

The festival is held in Pingxi / Shifen which is not in Taipei. Instead we decided to first visit Jiufen and then go to Shifen. To get there we were able to take a bus direct from Taipei. Jiufen is an old town in the mountains, with great views of the coastline and lots of market stalls and things to buy. If you have time it’s definitely worth staying for lunch and watching the view. From here we went to The Lantern Festival. The transport to the festival is fairly organised, as you’re able to get a bus or a train. Once you get there you can buy dinner and drinks from the stalls and have a look around. It gets busy very quickly, and the transport back does end before midnight – so it’s worth checking times and giving yourself enough time to be there (for reference we spent just over two hours at the festival). You also have the option of buying a lantern with your friends, you can decorate it and set it off with the others. Whilst there we got very lucky as a local resident offered us tickets to set off a lantern inside the venue which is where the main lantern releases happen. This was just by pure chance what we were able to do this but if you get the chance I would really recommend it, as it was a very special experience.

Day 3: Taipei

On our final day we spent time going around Taipei some more. We visited the Chiang Kai – Shek memorial which was beautiful, there is also a changing of the guards ceremony which is very elaborate and cool to watch. Whilst it was the start of cherry blossom season we didn’t have time to get out of the city to find any, but the people who did really recommended it! Another recommended activity is Taipei 101, however because of the time of year we were not able to go outside to see the view. An alternative to paying for the view is to climb Elephant Mountain, which is beautiful for sunrise and sunset.

We only spent three days in Taiwan, but it’s definitely somewhere I would go back to! It’s a great mix of city life and culture.

Laos: Recess Week

During your studies at NUS you will get one week recess half way through the semester (after week 6). In this week me and my friends decided to travel Laos, from Houayxay – Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane, over 8 days. Here’s a breakdown of how we did it.

 

Houayxay (Gibbon Experience)

The whole trip to Laos started with us wanting to go on The Gibbon Experience in Houayxay. To get here we flew to Chiang Rai, Thailand, and then took a bus across the border into Bokeo. For this we needed $35 (USD) and a passport picture for the visa for Laos (which is mandatory regardless of stay length). The only tricky issue some we encountered was needing proof of exit from Thailand when the bus to Laos was a local one. So we had to book tickets online and then cancel them once we were in Laos.

We stayed the night in Houayxay then left to The Gibbon Experience. We took a Tuk Tuk to the jungle and then hiked for about 1-2 hours uphill to reach the top of the tree line. Although the website says this is an intermediate hike I would recommend good hiking shoes and plenty of water as in places it was quite steep. From there we zip lined across the tree tops of the jungle and it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. We booked the express tour, so only spent one night in the jungle. For this night we spent it in a tree house with panoramic views of the jungle at sunset, and an open view bathroom. The only issue was lots of bees due to the close proximity to The Tree King, but these go by night fall. The following day we zip lined and hiked back the bottom, again with beautiful views. I can not recommend The Gibbon Experience enough, it is expensive for budget travel but worth every single penny.

Luang Prabang

 

To get to Luang Prabang we took a night bus (12 hours), and in all honesty was not fun! We got a bus at 5pm-5am which is the earlier less busy bus – having spoken to others this is a really good idea. In Laos night bus beds are shared between two – so by having fewer passengers we all got our own bed. As we arrived in Luang Prabang at 5 am there wasn’t a lot to do – however we soon were able to go to an Alms Giving Ceremony. This was where local monks walk around the town as locals give rice and food for them. After this we went to Kuang Si Falls which were beautiful. There are two swimming pools – one at the bottom just as you enter and one at the top of the falls after a steep hike (again take good shoes)! The pictures are great but the water is freezing so take a towel! Luang Prabang itself is a UNESCO heritage site and is a great place to walk around and the night markets are a great place to practice your haggling skills (they close around 9pm so go early). If you want to view some temples there are hundreds all of Luang Prabang and are very peaceful to walk around.

Vang Vieng

To get to Vang Vieng we took a 5 hour bus along some very bumpy roads (I would not recommend doing this drive at night). Vang Vieng is a good party town so if you want to have a fun night out it’s cheap and easy. However there are also some great spots of natural beauty. We went to Blue Lagoon 2 and despite being warned it would be packed it was basically empty. It’s a great swimming spot with platforms and zip lines to play on and jump in. From this we hiked / climbed Nam Xay. The viewpoint from the top is definitely worth the hike which gets quite tough towards the end where you have to climb. It closes at 6 so you can’t watch sun set but you can get the sun dipping if you go between 4-5. Although we were exhausted this was possibly one of the best views of my trip so far. Before we left we also checked out the secret lagoon, which you can walk to. There’s a cool cave system here and really clear water which is a great swim. You can even swim into the caves!

Vientiane

We took another bus to Vientiane which was about 4-5 hrs because of traffic in the centre. I would say that you don’t need a lot of time here as most of the monuments can be done over 1/2 days. Whilst here we walked to Pataxai, which you can climb to see views of the city, and Ho Pha Keo. We also visited the big markets which were nice but more commercial than the others in the north.

Overall Laos was nothing that any of us expected, it has a slower pace of life, and a relaxed vibe, centred on community and family.

Moving to Singapore: Helpful extra info that’s useful to know!

Ellie Thompson, NUS, Singapore

Let’s be honest, moving to the Singapore is stressful, from trying to get your bag to match cabin weight, to saying goodbye to all your home friends. It’s overwhelming and more than a little bit manic. So, to help with this stress, here’s a small break down of information that should make the transition a little bit easier!

Money

In Singapore card and cash are used frequently, so it is very rare to come across places that do not accept both. That being said I would really recommend bringing cash with you when you first arrive. Food for both UTown and PGP are in Hawker -Type Centres, and whilst you can pay on card some find it easier to pay in cash. Equally you’ll probably be getting a taxi from the airport, which again is made easier with cash. If you were to use card, I would really recommend Monzo. The useful thing about Monzo is that you can use it in airports, so if you have a stop over you can still buy water and snacks without worrying about having left over money. You can also pay with Grab. Grab is the Singapore version of Uber with an extra section called Grab Pay, here it works like a normal debit card but you pay through the app. Finally, there is also the EZ-Link card. This is a metro card that also works to pay for; printing, washing, transport, and other groceries. It is a widely accepted form of payment and can be bought across Singapore but specifically from convenience stores on campus or at 7/11.

Transport

The EZ -Link card works for the bus and MRT. The transport system itself is very extensive across Singapore and cheap, as you only pay for the number of stops rather than a flat rate. The closest MRT station to campus is Kent Ridge and you can get there for free by NUS bus. NUS have a free bus system to take you around campus, which is extremely useful as the campus is huge. To navigate this, I recommend you download the NUSNext Bus app which is the campus bus timetable and bus routes. The only negative to this is that the campus bus system stops running at 11pm and is reduced service on the weekend. As I mentioned Grab is the same as Uber and is very popular, particularly for the first few days Grab is a really useful way of getting around Singapore. Finally, I would recommend downloading the Citymapper app, not only does this work in the UK, but can also be used for the MRT system and buses.

Plugs

My final piece of advice is to bring plug adaptors. Whilst Singapore has UK plug sockets, some items from IKEA are the European plug system! Also, if you plan to travel you will need some adaptors for the surrounding countries!

Hopefully this should provide some logistical help with moving to Singapore!