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!

A week in the life of an Exchange in Singapore

These blog posts are all well and good, but if you’re interested in studying abroad I think one of the best things is to see what a week in the life is like. I know before I signed up I was on YouTube searching for exchange student vlogs – to much avail! Anyway, here goes a week in the life of an SMU Law Exchange student in mid-October (peak workload season, yipee).

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Hong Kong: Settling in and Moving Out

Orientation day

For my first full day in Hong Kong, it was the orientation and registration day at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), so I was thrown straight into travelling on the MTR! Luckily, the Metro to the University could not be easier- lasting about 20 minutes to the HKU stop, which is right on campus. Travel on all public transport uses the Octopus card, (Hong Kong’s answer to London’s Oyster card), so is a necessity before using the MTR. This is easy enough to purchase from the customer service desk, and top-up at all MTR stops. Not only is the Octopus card used for transport, but can be used for purchases in the supermarket, buying food in the canteen and even in shops.

The day itself consisted of registering for the student card; general introductions and advice for life in Hong Kong; the societies fair; a talk from the British Consulate; and a Social Sciences orientation. Disappointingly, the societies fair had a lack of sports societies, which I hope to join in the following weeks. However, they said there will be a lot more societies dotted around for the first few weeks of Uni. Considering all the students at HKU, it was to my surprise that I managed to bump into some of the other exchange students from Manchester during the day!

Weekend explorations

The first exploration of Kowloon around the Airbnb, was a 30-minute expedition to find an impressively reviewed (2,663 in total) dim-sum restaurant. A 30-minute walk in the humidity of Hong Kong could be described as a little uncomfortable, turned more so by torrential rain a few minutes before the destination. The many, many, many restaurants passed on the walk made it even more essential the dim-sum was worth it: it definitely was! This fact was confirmed by the queue outside of the restaurant, despite the downpour continuing outside… Another highlight was getting the tram to the harbour, just a couple of stops from the Airbnb. The views of Hong Kong island were incredible, with an extremely panoramic view of the impressive skyscrapers. Yet another highlight was exploring the surprisingly massive Kowloon Park, which was about 15 minutes’ walk from the Airbnb. Facilities included: 2 outdoor gyms, an aviary, 2 swimming pools, a statue walk, open areas with people practicing Kung Fu and of course a McDonalds… The amount of space provided for this urban park was good to see, but surprising considering the massive issues with a lack of housing space in Hong Kong.

The incredible view of Hong Kong Island

Classes begin

For the first week of classes at HKU, it has been an amazing experience mixing with other exchange international students and local students. The classes themselves are a lot smaller, with my busiest class having just 30 students; a nice contrast to some of the classes at UoM. This has meant classes have been a very different experience to Manchester so far. The highest number of international and exchange students is in my Mandarin class, as you might expect. This was clearly apparent to my new Finnish friend: leading with the introduction of “Hello, fellow Westerner.”

Sorry to keep emailing, but…

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Hong Kong: Arrival

George Peach (University of Hong Kong)

I was particularly nervous on the night before my flight, thinking about every possible scenario for my journey.

Could flights be cancelled? Would Hong Kong airport be closed? Would Hong Kong be plagued by endless protesting? Would I lose all my things at baggage claim? Would I enjoy my time in Hong Kong? Would I want to return to the UK straight away?

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Emotional aftermath

By Nooa Karlo ((previously) University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong)

After finishing my studies in the University of Hong Kong, following the last deadline I had for term paper submissions on the 24th of May, I soon left to travel in South Korea and Japan for almost three weeks. Now, I suppose I could talk about that time, because there certainly would be a lot to talk about, evidenced by over 2000 pictures I took while travelling. But looking back at things now that it’s been a few months since I returned home and now that there’s an entire summer between Hong Kong and me reveals that I really do miss staying there. And not just staying there, I miss the food, the buildings, the ocean, the colours, the sounds. (Ok there’s one thing I don’t miss and that’s whatever the weather was very quickly becoming as spring progressed towards summer but I barely avoided that so let’s not count that.) I miss the people I met and the experiences I had, even though it’s sometimes difficult for me to remember it all coherently, because there was just so much going on. Eventually I got used to the new things and they became everyday things, old things. So now that I won’t be going back anymore, at least not as an undergraduate exchange student, now that my room in the JCSVIII is no longer my room, now that I can use my credit card in practically any shop at any time without having to fear the card reader will say ‘connection lost’ at any moment, now that I can’t awkwardly say the only greeting I learnt in Cantonese to the people around me anymore, it just feels strange. Because it feels like I should be going back, but I’m not. I don’t miss Hong Kong in the way that would make my chest feel tight and my face contort to sadness, but I miss it in the way that things just don’t feel right now that I’m not there anymore. Five months was a really short time and I wish I could’ve stayed for longer, but it was just enough to make me feel somewhat at home even on the other side of the world. To those people who helped make me feel that way, I would like to say thanks. I hope I will be able to keep in contact with you in the future too! And to those who were affected by the typhoon a week ago, not only in Hong Kong but especially in Hong Kong, I wish strength to overcome whatever problems it caused you. Having seen the destruction the storm left in its wake has made me worry about the safety of everyone there. Hope you’re all okay. I guess that’s all I wanted to say about my time in Hong Kong on this blog. Goodbye, and thanks for those who’ve read my posts as well!

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One of the many faces of Hong Kong

Singapore ends

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

As most other exchange students, if I could do it again, I would. I had a great year in Singapore and have been home for a while thinking about it. I wanted to write about the highlights of the year that I haven’t mentioned so far.

I had a family, sort of a host family, who invited me for dinners and get togethers once in a while, a highlight was the Chinese New Year dinner cooked by the grandma. Or when we made a promo video for one of the board games designed by my host’s husband.

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Joining NUS mountaineering

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

The most standard advice on how to get to know people when starting university is to get involved in a student club. I went to the fair at NUS and wanted to try a new sport. Though several clubs where open for beginners, I got the impression most of the clubs were for people who already knew the sport. However, the mountaineering group was very welcoming and said anyone could come to training, for free and with no commitments. When I went for the first training it was mainly because I kept failing to motivate myself to run in the heat and humidity, I did not imagine I would end up climbing a 5863 meter peak in Himalaya with them.

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NUS academics

By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore

Studying at NUS was very different from in Manchester. As I study physics, the department in Manchester is large and at NUS it is tiny, so the differences might be larger for me than other courses. It is a general thing though, as far as I understand, that coursework is heavily weighted at NUS in all faculties. If there are a lot of students in a class it is marked by a bell curve. This means that to get better marks other people need to do worse than you. While this protects students against hard exams, it can also create a study culture where people are not willing to help each other. I in no way experienced this, but I heard stories about it from friends in other faculties.

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Science library. 15 minutes before it closes they play classical music to chase people out.

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