Several mental breakdowns, 6 holidays and a global pandemic later, I’m leaving the land of the Merlion…
Prior to moving to Singapore for the year, I had never even travelled beyond Europe. What lay ahead of me was a mystery, aside from the wild assumptions strangers told me and the random bits of information I got off google…
If I could go back to a year ago today, this is what I would tell 2019 Poppy.
And believe me, if there’s any place to take amazing insta pics – it’s Singapore.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
By Monika Kvassheim, National University of Singapore
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.
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.
I didn’t get the rush of relief that usually comes with the end of exams and deadlines. While I was of course happy to have finished my exams, I knew that it also meant the end of my time in Singapore.
Near to the end of my stay, I started to learn more about Singapore from a citizens point of view, proving the paradise of Singapore to be more complex than just a country full of good natured people. One friend we made was a Singaporean beach club owner who my friend and I would spend time talking to on our Saturday afternoons at the beach. He explained that while he was proud of Singapore’s safety, it came with a multiple of rules and regulations limiting the freedom of the Singaporeans. The housing shortage in Singapore, for example, caused the government to enforce legislation which meant that someone could only buy their own property if they were married. Before I knew this, I always thought it was strange that the majority of the students at NUS lived at home with their parents rather than on the campus, and would be expected to move back in after university until they got married. I presumed this was just the culture. It is commonly assumed that certain rules and laws, for instance the ban on public drinking between 10.30 pm and 7am, are just a result of Singapore being ‘boring’ or trying to uphold high levels of safety. However, people believed that the bill was passed by parliament after the 2 hour long 2013 Little India riot. This involved 300 migrant labourers which broke out because of the death of an Indian migrant worker after a collision with a private bus. Investigations found the migrant worker killed to have been intoxicated while trying to board the private bus. The apparent perfection of Singapore has obviously come at a price.
One of my few regrets about my time abroad is not having applied to spend a year here instead of just a semester. At the time you think that 5 months away from home is going to be more than enough but I have realised that 5 months flashes before your eyes and it was only at the end of this time that I actually started to feel settled and comfortable. It was only in exam season that we started to discover some of my favourite parts of Singapore. Kampong Glam, for example, is beautiful and has a certain atmosphere that I think you would find hard to come across anywhere else, as you walk past the open front shops selling incense and different arabic fabrics and clothing. Despite how much I love Singapore, I think the one thing I am most grateful for are the friends I have met while I have been here. I feel very privileged to have met people all across the world, from places like South Korea to America and Canada to countries all around Europe. As I start to pack up my things I think back to when I first arrived in my room and how nervous I was, especially when I realised there was no wifi and no way of contacting home, freaked out by the lizards and stressed out because of the humidity. 5 months later, I’ve learned to love the lizards and am definitely not looking forward to being cold in England.
Following last weeks celebration of International Women’s Day, I decided to focus this blog on the theme of independence.
At NUS we are given a recess week half way through the semester, so we took this opportunity to spend a week in Vietnam. We spent the majority of our time in Hanoi but also spent two days in Ha Long Bay and one day in Ninh Binh, both of which were beautiful. However, throughout all the amazing things that we did and saw, it was the Women’s Museum in Hanoi that touched me the most. The museum was an extraordinary tribute to the women of Vietnamese history and of Vietnam today who have and continue to work for their nation and family. A documentary that was played in the museum exhibited the current situations of many of these women. With their husbands ill or unable to work, women that now work in Hanoi told their stories of how they wake up at ridiculous times like 4am to make their way to the market, so they can buy their produce to sell during the day. Usually not returning home till times like 11pm, they spend what little time they have tending to the house and their children before only having a couple of hours sleep before having to start the same day again. Their days are filled with terror as they are often chased by the police, and most days they barely make enough money to feed their family.
The most striking part of the whole museum, however, was one room filled with the photographs of hundreds of vietnamese women. These women have been named the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’. This title was granted to over 50,000 women who had lost more than two children, their only child, only one child, their husband and children or their own life. It was a title given to acknowledge the silent sacrifices of the thousands of women involved in the Vietnam War. One particular image from the museum, named “Mother and Son Reunite”, was a photo recording the reunion of an ex-Con Dao prisoner who was sentenced to death after being accused of being a Viet Cong spy, with his mother after many years of separation. I think the picture says enough for itself about sacrifice.
On returning from Vietnam, everything suddenly seemed to get a lot harder. The fun and travelling of the last month and a half had stopped and I was immediately bombarded with a lot more work than what I had had before. Everything had changed and I suddenly felt a whole lot further away from home. For a bit I was definitely guilty of wallowing in self-pity, but I would like to relay some words of wisdom from my very wise mother which will apply to all of you at home or overseas- wherever you are in the world. One night when I was feeling especially far away from home I called her in an understated attempt to stop feeling sorry for myself. She stopped me and told me to look at what I’ve got. She reminded me that I am in one of the highest percentiles of the luckiest and most privileged people in the world and that despite how I might be feeling right now, I needed to acknowledge the opportunity that has been given to me, that I needed to be strong and independent and use this chance in the best way I could.
As I think back to what I learned about the women in Vietnam who work 18 hours a day to keep their family alive, it seems ridiculous to feel sorry for myself because I miss home. For the women of Vietnamese history that have had to sacrifice so much more, it is important that we all appreciate the amazing chances that we have been given and continue to use them and encourage others in the future to do the same.
Here is my advice for anyone thinking about studying abroad, especially those thinking of going far away: it will be difficult, and it will be a lot more difficult than you ever thought it could be. I left Manchester and then home thinking that it would be easy, that I would miss home a bit but that I would be too absorbed in my new life to think about it. Trying to live a new life is more difficult than that. You have to adapt to the cultures of the people around you while still trying to establish a place for yourself. For me, this has come in ways as simple as not being able to understand the English that the Singaporeans speak, purely because of their accents and the words they use, even though their actual English is perfect. It can make you feel isolated but in the midst of that you have to force yourself to take a step back and think about what you have been given the chance to do. Have the strength to be independent like the Vietnamese women are forced to be every single day. You have been given a once in a lifetime opportunity, you may never have an opportunity to do anything similar to this again and because of that you can not let anything stop you from making the most of every single second. Go out into the world and learn about these other individuals like the Vietnamese women, it might just put your whole life into perspective.
People were often quite surprised to hear me say that I was going to be studying in Singapore. Having only met a very small handful of people from Manchester who were even going anywhere else in Asia, I was apprehensive myself before I left. It occurred to me that maybe I had made the wrong decision deciding to go somewhere so completely different from the UK, while others seemed to all be going to the slightly more familiar USA, Canada or Australia. Four weeks down the line it is safe to say that I definitely picked the opposite place from Manchester, but it was also definitely the right decision.
I chose to study in Singapore mostly for the ability to easily travel around South East Asia. However, being here has made me realise that there is a lot more to see in Singapore than I had originally thought. During the week I had before lectures started, I managed to see the majority of the main sights of Singapore. While the famous Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands are both magnificent, my favourite part of Singapore so far is in fact the little cultural hub of Little India. The first time we went was on one of the few rainy days, but this was nevertheless brightened by the intense mass of flowers and garlands that are scattered throughout the markets here. Walking through one of the main markets, you are immediately bombarded with the sights, smells and colours of different fruits and flowers that surround women in a variety of beautiful saris and other Indian style dresses.
Despite this, the actual campus of the university was not quite what I expected. Through being a campus university it seems to me more like how I would imagine an American High School than a university. For one, all the local students are extremely dedicated to both the university and their halls. The majority of them walk around in university t-shirts and I’ve seen and heard some singing their hall anthems while walking through university- this is obviously not something you see in Manchester. At times the campus has definitely felt claustrophobic, living and working in the same place throughout the week, but ultimately I’ve accepted this as a form of motivation to work during the week, allowing myself to make the most of the weekends.
The most exciting part about being in Singapore has to be the travelling that I have done and that I plan to do. Luckily for me, I found a piece of home in a girl from Newcastle University who I met on my first day at NUS. Both of us are very keen on travelling and in the past four weeks have managed to go to both an Indonesian island called Bintan and Penang in Malaysia. The highlight of both of these must be the 2 hour hike we did in Penang National Park that took us to beaches named ‘Monkey Beach’ and ‘Turtle Beach’. Although there weren’t monkeys or turtles actually on either of the beaches, there were an abundance of monkeys especially in the nature surrounded them. Turtle beach in particular was beautifully quiet with pristine white beaches and a pearly blue sea. However, it was the startling backdrop of the tropical jungle that surrounds the beach, that set the place apart from anywhere I have been to before. It was honestly breathtaking and almost scary looking out at the expanse of sea ahead of you only to look back to the tremendous and almost oppressive jungle behind.
What I love most about Singapore is it’s collaborative individuality. It has no single point of reference which is what makes it so unique. Within any single area in Singapore there is a bit of India, a bit of China, a bit of Malaysia, even a bit of London in the skyscrapers. Yet it still manages to hold its own within its amass of culture. The skyscrapers are that bit more clean than in London, the Indian food places and shops seem to be that bit more organised than they would be in India and overall Singapore has managed to create it’s own distinct identity within the bundle of cultures that have established themselves.