by Sofia Roche, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Going to a new university is a big change. It’s kind of like starting as a Yr. 1 and having to get used to a new campus, learning styles, applications and much more. The positive side is NUS is extremely organized and everything you need will be communicated to your through you NUS email.
by Sofia Roche Vidaurre, National University of Singapore, Singapore
The first thing that stands out about the city is the abundant nature. It is great for those who enjoy walking around metropolitan areas while having the option of getting lost in nature. The famous Gardens by the Bay is a mix between the futuristic Super trees and Cloud Forest, providing a sanctuary of greenery and tranquility. And only 30min away by public transport there is beaches on Sentosa Island to enjoy hotter tropical days!
When I began this adventure in January, this was not at all how I envisioned it ending. Coronavirus and government recall meant that I had to leave sunny Singapore very quickly. Whilst the government recall, the pain of getting a new plane ticket and, leaving all my new friends behind was not how I envisioned it ending, I can’t say it hasn’t been memorable.
My time abroad has not only allowed me the opportunity to travel and have amazing new adventures, but stretch and challenge myself. I will never forget the amazing views of sunrises in Surabaya, rainforests in Laos, and lanterns in Taiwan. However, for me it was the people who made my experience so amazing. I never thought I would make such important friendships so quickly, and yet we’ve already planned our New Years celebration together! People often joke that you “find yourself in Southeast Asia”, and I definitely found the best group of friends. People who I would quite literally jump off a cliff after, and people who immediately agreed to finish my checklist with me on my very sudden last days in Singapore. I feel extremely lucky to have shared amazing memories with these people, and I know this is the first of many adventures for us!
I also feel that Singapore has made a lasting impact on me. I am more spontaneous and willing to take risks, to plan a trip on Thursday night and leave Friday morning. It has broadened my horizons by allowing me to take risks and grow. I know I can travel alone and live on the other side of the world and it not end in mass disaster. Living abroad has made me more independent and self-sufficient. From organising my own VISA, to navigating boarder crossings at night, it’s safe to say that I definitely learnt a variety of life skills!
Whilst my time in Southeast Asia was cut short, I wouldn’t trade my experience, or the friendships I made! (And don’t worry I’ll be back there next summer for a new adventure!)
To those students going abroad in Semester 2 just as I did, the long wait between receiving your placement offer and that eventual flight out can feel endless. There were many times I found myself frantically trying to recount why I’d wanted to go abroad in the first place – the initial excitement now wearing off and the reality of the wait ahead sinking in.
But as a student who DID go, and who found herself lying awake on one of her last nights at the National University of Singapore, thinking – almost alarmed – about the fact she’d nearly cancelled her placement; here are the five things I wish I knew before studying abroad, which would have made that wait easier.
1.There really is nothing quite like studying abroad
There’s summer travel, sure, but being in a foreign place and living like a local with a stream of new friends at your disposal, and plenty of pastoral and financial support? Now that’s something I could do with more often! While abroad I became so aware of how unique this experience was. Having the support from a university (particularly in a pandemic) in this process was invaluable, and knowing I had assistance should I have run into difficulty mean’t I was able to enjoy the experience so much more fully. It’s an opportunity I would recommend to anyone, and one I feel sad I won’t be able to replicate again.
2. Your university friends won’t move on without you
This is the hard part. Many students worry about this! Although you’ll be gone a long time and life can get busy, stay in touch with your uni friends. Find out what’s happening back home and share with them what new things you’re trying. When you come back, if you find you’re not as close to some people as when you left – that’s okay! It’s a normal part of life! But those core people really do stay with you. My study abroad came as a time where I felt my social life was peaking, I was growing closer to new friends, and I couldn’t see why I’d ‘ruin’ a good thing. All I can say is: take the plunge! It feels crazy in the moment, but a second semester in Manchester, although fun, never really could have challenged and enriched me like a semester abroad did.
3. A little bit of uncertainty does you good
Studying in a foreign country can seem incredible daunting. New people, new routines, new food – but if anything, being abroad made me so much calmer and far more adaptable to unfamiliar situations – without me even realising it! There are moments you feel homesick, or caught unawares, or out of your depth – but they pass, and leave you a little bit more resilient each time. There’s no growth without a bit of challenge.
4. You’ll learn to become a tourist in your own city
It really did take spending three months studying 10,841km away from home to remind me how thrilling it is to be a tourist. When I returned that summer that feeling stayed, and I found myself really taking in the places I grew up in, but seeing all the usual details I’d usually miss. Even the most mundane things fascinated me whilst abroad – all those little cultural differences we aren’t even aware of. Coming home, I paid more attention to them and more so in my final year at Manchester.
5. You really won’t stop talking about it when you come home
Everyone always jokes about the gap year students who talk non-stop about the time they spent abroad – but that’s for a reason, and it’s going to become you! Your friends might roll their eyes, but so many little things back home home will remind you of what you miss about your time abroad. It could be an inside joke no one understands, or an insatiable craving for those amazing paratha in the uni canteen you now need to replicate, or being able to sit outside on warm evenings with friends now scattered across the globe. These things stay with you, and although sometimes missing them hits hard, I really do feel so lucky to have something to miss!
A brief overview of the trips I took and if I think they’re worth the buck…
Lombok (a more undeveloped Bali, yet it offers a lot of the same opportunities)
Amazing food – a vegans dream, cheap cheap… make sure you try the Nasi Goreng & Mei Goreng!
Activities, activities and more activities: white water rafting, scuba diving (manta rays, shipwrecks), sunrise hikes and of course surfing all year around – are just some of the things you could get up to!
If you like dancing into the night, Bali is home to Asia’s best beach parties … Oldmans & Sandbar is where to be (every night).
**Stay in Canggu, Lay Day Surf Hostel (avoid Seminyak & Kuta)!
Kuala Lumpur(the cliché exchangers first getaway)
Overall, it was one the most modern and clean cities I’ve been to in SE Asia outside of Singapore. The Batu Caves are worth going to, most likely for that Instagram post, be ready to be sweaty.
This will most likely be your first escape from Singapore and its prices… However, be aware that Kuala Lumpur isn’t as cheap as you’d anticipate!
Tioman island(a divers dream, not much attraction to the island besides its waters)
Langkawi (a great short trip)
Langkawi was one of my favourite islands during my time, a great weekend trip. Lots of water sports, cheap motorbikes and white beaches.
*would recommend staying at ‘bed altitude’ hostel!
Easy to get to/ fast transport – can get the bus from Singapore.
Can be done on the cheap – £20 return bus.
The worse food in SE Asia (for me).
I only have positive things to say about this island… extremely cheap, filled with some great adventures, beaches and day trips to other nearby islands.
Cliff jumping at Kawasan falls was great – only if you’re prepared for a 15m jump off a waterfall!
Great for diving – Malapascua for the Thresher Sharks, Oslob for the Whale Sharks and Moalboal for the famous Sardine Run.
Palawan – El Nido & Coron
Both of these islands are known for their day trips… do you think you’ve got what it takes to hack a full day of lagoon and beach hopping?
It’sa hard life!
*I’d highly recommend catching the 5 day boat trip from el Nido to Coron (if you’ve still got enough cash to keep you afloat)!
This is a little surf island located in the southeast region of the Philippines -making it super hard to get to!
But if you do, it’s home to some of the worlds’ best breaks (recently held the world surf championship).
Like the rest of the Philippines it’s plagued with palm trees and white sands, however it is one of the more expensive spots due to the wave-seekers
Also surfing brings a more bohemian crowd (one that does not only break a sweat over the waves, but also over how instagram-able their smoothie bowl is)!
Bangkok (the shorter stay the better)
Koh Tao (a personal fav but an extremely difficult place to get to)
Phuket (a means to an end – Phi Phi)
Phi Phi islands (beautiful beaches but there isn’t much to do beside party or dive)
Sorry to sound like your mother but… be careful. I’ve experienced a lot of bad things happen in this country:
NYE my phone as well as my friends wallet were pickpocketed.
Another trip, a friends phone was stolen in the airport and never found.
A close friend was assaulted on his way home after a night out.
**I would not recommend visiting the Phi Phi islands out of season, everything from the clubs to the restaurants were closed for renovations.
Goes without saying the food is phenomenal here!
Overall, in my opinion there’s better ways to spend your time and money in this region.
Don’t plan before arriving, circumstances change i.e. monsoons, typhoons…
Remember low season usually means no nightlife!
A trip always costs more than expected.
Book last minute as Southeast Asia’s the weather is extremely volatile.
Last week I received my final grades from the National University of Singapore, officially marking the end of my time as an international exchange student. For me, these grades do not only indicate the academic progress that I’ve made, but they also remind me of the personal development I’ve made over the past year.
To demonstrate this, I’m going to reflect upon some of the objectives I set out before undertaking my exchange:
Experience new culture: I was fortunate enough to be linked with a local Singaporean family for the entirety of my exchange. This benefited me immensely, allowing me to gain an invaluable insight into local events such as Chinese New Year.
Learn new skills: previously a scuba diving novice, now I am looking to take this skill to a professional level… also, I’ve mastered the art of falling off a motorbike (that’s definitely one for the CV)!
Network: I forged connections and developed lifelong friendships in every continent across the globe. For example, some of my best friends are now situated in: Canada, Germany, Holland and South Korea…(they tell you in your pre-departure meetings that a year aboard is expensive, but they don’t tell you that your post-departure trips are even more expensive)!
Push yourself out of your comfort zone: living over six-thousand miles from home, inevitably, I have had to face a wide range of new and unfamiliar circumstances whether that be new flatmates or speaking in a foreign language.
Taste new cuisine: I experienced a plethora of different food; frog soup to Filipino Balut.
Take up new interests: hours of non-stop surfing without a break, actually no, I broke my rib…
I am truly grateful for this unforgettable opportunity and it is something that will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
Top Tips for New Exchange Students
“It won’t happen to me”… unfortunately, it most certainly will.
Not to mention the obvious global pandemic during my time… but its almost certain, you’ll to encounter some kind of emergency scenario, whether that be an earthquake, a typhoon or a trip to A&E.
To paint a realistic picture, all of those events listed above happened to me… an Indonesian earthquake, a Filipino typhoon and multiple medical trips. For example, I tallied up a total of four countries in which I have been admitted to A&E during my time as an NUS exchange student (Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore if you’re curious).
You will NEVER have enough money or time to do everything on your travel to do list 🙁
For me, I didn’t get a chance to embark upon half of my travel plans… it’s pretty simply really, the more you travel, the more you want to see. You’ll meet people all across various hostels in Southeast Asia that’ll recommend you countless places, which is great, but one day your travel during exchange will come to an end.
A word of wisdom, its more often than not that you’ll go over any travel budget so make sure you’ve got supplementary funds – can you get an over-overdraft?
For my Next Chapter
I am now looking forward to commencing my summer internship at the Department for International Trade within the Civil Service.
Once again, I believe this will be an invaluable opportunity, and I hope to build upon the skills I have developed over the course of the past year.
Firstly, my scuba novice journey started right at the beginning of first semester, where I found a fellow exchange student who was also down to take the plunge…
After a bit of scrolling, we came across a Singaporean dive shop that offers an integrated package: including the Open Water certification and a fully funded dive trip to Malaysia – only for £400 (Roughly the same price as what the certification costs alone in other places such as Europe)!
So if you’re another newbie who’s up for starting scuba, Southeast Asia is one of the cheapest & best regions to try it – I really can’t recommend this enough!
Not Your Normal Noel
The same day as I finished my final exam of first semester, me and a dive buddy jetted off, spending the first three weeks of our xmas holidays in the Philippines… could have been worse!
First things first. We rented motorbikes and headed to Malapascua, small island situated off the coast of Cebu.
The main attraction to this archipelago is to go see the Thresher Shark. But first we had to get our Advanced Open Water certification (so we could dive down to 30 meters).
The sharks tail grows to the same length as its body, and they use this tail to kill their prey...
Next, we went to Moalboal to see the famous ‘Sardine Run’ – a twisting mass of billions of sardines.
Then, Oslob to see the Whale Sharks – the largest shark in the world.
Finally, Boxing Day did not hold your usual sort of festivities…
No turkey but Thai, no charades but shipwrecks!
Instead of a 3 course dinner, it was 3 dives… The main course was diving the 85mKing cruiser wreck.
The wreck is a passenger transporter that sank in 1997. It hit the Anemone Reef with over 100 people onboard (all survived so no skeletons were seen).
Just to add to this once in a lifetime opportunity, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse during our dive interval!
Semester Two Dives
In Semester two, I got in three more dives; they were in the Philippines. Shock.
This time they were off the coast of Coron. There are over 10 shipwrecks off the island…
It is said that it takes a month to dive them all (so I will definitely be returning at some point in the future)!
Akitsushima is a 115m seaplane tender of the Imperial Japanese Navy, it was sunk during WWII in Sept 1944.
I’m in no doubt that this hobby has only just started for me. It has already changed my future travel plans dramatically, rather than just looking at where the best weather is, you also start checking when and where are the best places to go diving.
I’ve set myself the goal of completing my divemaster qualification, this is the highest qualification you can achieve before being an instructor. Also, I fancy doing it soon because I want to dive before all the oceans are ruined! So I’ve set myself the ambition to complete my divemaster before I’m 30. For me, the most appealing places are:
Gili islands – Indonesia
Great Barrier Reef – Australia
I know I have taken up a very expensive lifelong habit, but at the same time, I really can’t thank this exchange experience enough for starting it.
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.
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 Harry Forster, National University of Singapore
In this article, I’m going to let you in on my ‘top tips’ for speeding up the unavoidable Singaporean student admin
1. Sorting Out Your Student Pass
All exchange students require a ‘student pass’ visa that grants them their stay in Singapore – even though it’s not a permanent visa, that notion doesn’t make it any easier to apply for one…
Completing this is probably the MOST important thing you’ll do in your time in Singapore! It’s required for almost everything from purchasing a sim contract to authorising your studies in NUS…
First things first, you have a lot of things to sort out before your ICA appointment such as an array of documents including: physical copies of online payment receipts to passport-size photos.
Also make sure you hold on tight to your landing documentation as you’ll need this for your visa!
** note that if you’re a student who’s staying for a year you’ll also need a medical examination which involves a blood test and a chest x-ray. (All of this can be done at the University Health Centre which is only one bus stop away from Utown).
During my medical, I experienced my first instance of the infamous Singaporean brutal honesty– after repeating my blood pressure for the third time (as all the previous readings had indicated that my blood pressure was too high) rather than the doctor saying ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine’, the Singaporean doctor said “ I hope nothing bad happens to you whilst you’re in Singapore!”… then we parted ways. Not quite the reassuring words you want to hear from your doctor!
2. Singaporean Sim
When you first land, I’d advise getting a Starhub sim card (as a temporary pre-sim card). I recommend the Starhub sim because pretty much every exchanger I’ve met has had issues with the Singtel pre-paid sim…
For example, there has been multiple instances where I’ve topped up my sim card with over £10 in credit and it’s been eaten up within 30mins for no legitimate reason!!
Once you’ve got your student pass, then I’d suggest getting a rolling contract with Circles – this was the best offer available that has 20GB, 100mins of calls plus 25 texts per month all for S$18 ≈£10.50
Also, I added unlimited incoming calls for an extra S$2 per month so you can have those long phone calls with your mum at the cost of next to nothing (except they’ll probably have to foot the international fee)!
3. Banking With FRANK
The most hassle free way of getting a Singaporean bank account (and access to a tax haven) is by opening a FRANK bank account with OCBC – opening a local bank is useful if you want to use local services such as Singtel Dash or NETS; these payment services as require a local bank account!
The closest OCBC office is located across from the uni accommodation and still resides within the Utown campus (so it’s only a 2 minute walk).
All you have to take is your student pass, your passport and your proof of address (which can be obtained at the Utown management office).
Talk to FRANK and they’ll sort you out within the hour – no delivery or pick up required!
**Bring your headphones or a friend to help pass the time and you’ll be set up with a local bank account and debit card all within the same hour!
4. Post (Purchase Problems)
When ordering your procrastination purchases online, just note that you need to be at your accommodation to collect ALL your post because (for some bizarre reason) the management office rejects ALL parcels…
**Top tip: state on your order that you need to be contacted for collection, in order to save yourself the stress and hassle of paying the postage fee more times than you need to!
By Harry Forster, National University of Singapore
I touchdown in Singapore sleep deprived and baggage-less after taking 2 connections, 3 planes and visiting 4 airports all within the space of 20 hours… not the most ideal way to be starting your year abroad!
After a lengthy queue at immigration and a long exchange with the lost luggage services, I slowly start to question Changi airport’s reputation for being the best airport in the world…
Then, as I start making my way out of the airport I get a glimpse of what I thought might be the famous Jewel Changi… then I realised I’ve come to the right place!
All in all, I probably spent over 2 hours in this airport! (and could have spent even longer in there)
Step 2: Find Utown
The next obstacle was locating my student accommodation and I had two choices from Changi:
The first option was to grab a taxi that costs about S$30 ≈ £18, and the other alternative was to get the MRT (train) across Singapore that costs less than S$2.
Despite the MRT’s efficiency and affordability (just like in the UK… ha) a 30 minute taxi drive takes nearly 1h 30 by MRT. And because of my hectic arrival experience I decided to opt for a taxi for ease and comfort – this turned out to be a smart decision as the nearest MRT station is a 15 minute bus ride from the accommodation.
*my advice would be to get a Grab (Asian Uber) as it’s much cheaper than your standard airport taxi plus you’ll get your first proper feel of the Singaporean cityscape
Meeting Flatmates & the ‘Welcome Party’
The first people I met and the first friends I made were my flatmates Jaehan and Seung su who are both from Seoul in South Korea (later I met Dongwon who I’m also sharing with and is also from South Korea)… as you can probably guess there’s a lot of Korean students at NUS!
FYI: In Utown everyone shares a 4-bed apartment within one of the two tower blocks. I would highly recommend choosing Utown and a room with air con if you don’t like waking up soaking wet everyday (I’m speaking from personal experience).
Then pretty much straight away everyone went to the Utown residence welcome party. Rather than the typical freshers events in the UK, in Singapore I’ve come to realise that there is clearly some cultural difference over the phrase ‘welcome party’. Here we had a series of talks about the residence including a lot on health and safety – which is important don’t get me wrong, but just wasn’t what I first had in mind.
However, it was a great party in terms of meeting other exchangers and we all bonded over what ‘welcome parties’ we have back at home! From the intel I gathered the UK’s welcome events seem to involve the most alcohol which wasn’t much of a shock to anyone…
Top tip before arriving
I highly recommend getting any medical check-ups and vaccinations back in the UK as a lot of the free services back at home definitely aren’t free over here…
Singapore’s healthcare is super expensive as you’d probably expect. However, speaking from experience it takes you to the point where you actually consider keeping your money rather than your health.