Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Singapore

"Why are you going to Singapore?"

This was the typical response when I told people I was studying abroad in Southeast Asia. Once these people googled Singapore, they read about its tropical weather, upscale shopping and strict government. While these qualities are certainly a core component of Singaporean culture, they haven't been the defining elements of my Singapore experience.

My Singapore isn't the expensive shops and restaurants on Orchard Road or the beaches lining Sentosa Island. My Singapore is the daily $2.30 lemon chicken rice and $1.40 iced green tea from Canteen 16. My Singapore is the sweat that trickled down my back after walking a mere five minutes in the extreme heat and humidity. It's the lizards that crawl all over my dorm room walls and the bouncers at Attica who give me too many free drinks. It's staying up till 2 in the morning every Tuesday on the computer watching Glee and skyping with family and friends. It's the weekly four-hour-long group meetings followed by two-hour-long dinner meetings. It's the constant stares from Asian men on MRT rides, the local food from hawker stands and the numerous Sunday afternoons spent at the campus pool with fellow exchange students.

I expected to have amazing experiences while studying abroad. The snorkeling in Thailand, sandsurfing in Vietnam, shopping in Hong Kong and temple exploring in Bali were all part of my plan. Regardless of the fact that I've lived abroad and travelled quite a bit before, I knew this experience be life-changing. But I didn't expect to discover my passions. I'd always been so jealous of musical theatre majors because they seem so madly in love with their careers. Being here has made me realize that traveling has been my passion all along.

I've never lived in the same place for more than five years and I like it that way. There are (arguably) 195 countries in the world and I've got approximately another 70 years to see them. Whoever said ignorance is bliss obviously didn't read any Lonely Planet travel guides. Living abroad again has reignited my love for meeting new people and exploring new places. Especially those with nice weather.

Being here has made me realize how precious life is and that it is meant to be enjoyed. I have been so simply HAPPY these past five months. I have a few wonderful friends, beautiful weather and delicious food. I'm eternally grateful for my parents who encourage and support me in everything I do. I couldn't be more blessed.

Initially, the idea of going back home made me depressed. But I realized that I only have two precious years left of college and they are something I will never get back. Asia will always be here waiting for me. So Asia, you have two years to recover from Hurricane KaraKona before I come back in full force for good. Consider yourself warned.

My view every day at 6:30 PM

Daily dim sum meal
My fellow Hall 3-ers - Hall Olympic Champions!
Typical 20-minute thunderstorm. Oh, Singapore.
NTU, home of the Fighting Dumplings
Addicted to green tea. The first of many adjustment-back-to-USA problems.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Highlights from Southern Vietnam

Leah and I booked a flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam about a month ago for some pre-exam explorations around southern Vietnam. We had no idea what to expect and it turned out to be our most amazing travels yet. Writing down every single detail from the trip would take hours, so here are a list of my top ten favorite moments from southern Vietnam.

1. Floating down the Mekong Delta river
The Mekong river is one of the world's greatest treasures. It is the 7th largest in Asia and flows through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Yunnan China and Burma. The Mekong Delta is the region that flows through southern Vietnam. We took a one day tour to My Tho, a riverfront town about 2 hours outside of Saigon. We wore signature Vietnamese conical hats and floated down the river all afternoon, soaking in the local culture.

2. Crawling through the Cu Chi tunnels
The Cu Chi tunnels are the famous underground tunnel system used in the Vietnam War. I had learned a lot about them in school and was so excited to experience it firsthand. It was incredible to see the barbaric war tactics used by the Vietnamese. As an American, it was both heartbreaking and fascinating to get a hands-on glimpse of life during the war. 

3. Firing an AK-47 at the shooting range
There was a shooting range in the Cu Chi area. We had made friends with the coolest Canadian chick ever and decided to split a 10-bullet pack while testing out the AK-47s. I went first and tried my hardest to hit the target, but sure enough was about ten meters off. I didn't realize how powerful the gun was and after my first shot, my entire body was jolted backwards. IT WAS AWESOME.

4. Crossing the streets in Saigon
Sounds simple, right? Saigon traffic is one of a kind. Our tour guide said it best, "When a Vietnamese person turns 17, they go to driving school. Once they graduate, they never follow the rules again." This includes all traffic lights, too. People literally cross the street while thousands of cars are zipping around them. At first, we sketchily creeped on a local woman and crossed the street with her. By the end of our trip, we were brave enough to cross them on our own. It was scarier than shooting a gun and crawling through underground tunnels.

5. Sledding down sand dunes in Mui Ne
Mui ne is a lazy beach community five hours outside of Saigon. It is famous for fishing and the incredible natural landscapes. We explored the red sand dunes and even got to sled down them. It was actually quite heartbreaking because all of the local poor children hound tourists upon arrival. We were quite literally attacked by a group of about 8 kids, begging us for money. They taught us how to sled down the dunes and even took pictures of us.

6. Riding an ostrich
I can now confirm that it is not safe or sanity to ride an ostrich. It is downright terrifying. They look like dinosaurs and their necks can turn 360 so when you are sitting on it, it can still look you directly in the face. We accidentally stumbled onto an ostrich farm when exploring Mui Ne. For a whopping $1, we got to ride the ostriches. I may or may not have peed my pants.

7. Vietnamese diet: pho, spring rolls, beer
I used to think Kraft macaroni and cheese was God's gift to the world but boy, was I wrong. Enter "pho" - a beef and rice noodle soup garnished with scallions and onions.  I ate it at least once a day, accompanied by vegetable spring rolls and a large Saigon beer. I was so excited to finally try Vietnamese pho and it did not disappoint. I'd go back for the food alone. Bie Han Oi is the world's cheapest beer and it is produced in Northern Vietnam. One can of Bie costs 3000 dong (20,000 dong = 1USD.) Vietnam, the country where drinking beer is cheaper than drinking water. Sweet!

8. Renting a motorbike
We decided to skip the jeep tours in Mui Ne and visit the sites via motorbike. For a total of $3 each, we rented a motorbike for about four hours. We figured it would be easy in Mui Ne than the streets of Saigon. The guy we rented it from spoke no English and spent 30 minutes with us teaching us how it works. Nothing was cooler than cruising down the Vietnamese coast with the wind blowing in our faces. 

9. Souvenir purchases
THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES ROCK! I bought a massive hammock for $7 which I can't wait to hang in my room. Not sure how, but it's going to happen. I also bought Photoshop for $4 and it actually works! Also purchased pants, tank top, bathing suit and a Lonely Planet guide for about $20. Vietnam = shopping heaven.

My time in Southeast Asia is coming to an end and I am heartbroken about it. I've had the time of my life in Singapore and can't believe how fast time has passed. I've learned more about myself, my interests and goals than I ever thought possible. I'll be spending the next twelve days studying for finals. Leah and I have one final trip to Hong Kong to celebrate her birthday before my departure. I have a six day layover in Madrid and will reunite with my old neighbours from England and my college room mate from Elon. I can't wait to see them. Then it's back to the good ole U S of A, where I have an internship lined up with E! Entertainment. So while it physically pains me to leave, I am looking forward to diving back into my original love - the entertainment industry.

And hey, only two more years till I graduate. Then it's back to Asia :)

Monday, April 25, 2011

My first Islamic Easter

Once upon a time, two Singaporean princesses caught the travel bug. They had dreams of conquering Southeast Asia, one country at a time. So when they got the opportunity to visit Kuala Lumpur, the capital of bordering country Malaysia, they grabbed it. However, their trip did not go as planned.

These princesses boarded a five hour night bus to KL from Singapore. The bus ended up taking seven hours, but the princesses did not let this dampen their spirits. These princesses were responsible travelers and had booked their hostel in advance. Unfortunately the cab driver could not find said hostel, so the princesses were left on the side of the road at 3AM.

The princesses were getting stalked and harassed by street bums, so they walked into the first hostel they saw. The man at the door seemed very nice and gave the princesses a reasonable price. But once the princesses walked into their room, they were shocked. This room was not fit for a princess. This room was not even fit for a street bum! The princesses were too tired to care, so they slept on dirty shirts in a room with moldy walls and no hot water.

At least it was air conditioned?
The next day, the princesses found a new hostel. This hostel was much better and the hostel owner said that they could share a mixed dorm with two handsome Danish princes. The princesses were very excited because they loved to make new (male) friends. Unfortunately the Danish princes were not interested in becoming friends with the Singaporean princesses. But the princesses did not let this dampen their spirits either.

The two princesses began soaking in Malaysian culture. They visited the National Mosque, the Islamic Arts Museum and the Petronas Twin Towers. They even got to wear burqas! They finally were starting to fit in.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Local Muslim babes

That evening, the princesses decided to experience KL nightlife. For the first time ever, they were rejected to not one, but TWO, clubs. The princesses were flat out pissed off. They couldn't understand their bad luck. The only people that wanted to talk to the Singaporean princesses were two Australian pre-teens who were 'double-dared' to go up to them. They decided to make the most out of their misfortunate so they spent the night at a shisha bar called Baghdad Nights with middle aged Arab men.

The next day, they ventured off to the Batu Caves. After hundreds of stares and dirty looks by locals, they finally arrived. They spent the morning indulging in the Indian culture of Kuala Lumpur and enjoyed it very much.

The princesses were hungry for lunch, so they headed back to their hostel. Then they realized - Oh no! - they only had 10 ringgit ($2.50USD) left. So they got happy meals from McDonalds, which did not make them happy at all.

The princesses decided that they were over Kuala Lumpur. They got on a bus back to Singapore where they spent the rest of the weekend eating dimsum and lounging at the pool. They lived happily ever after.

The End.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Parents visit, Hong Kong & Thailand

The past two/three weeks have been a complete whirlwind. My parents arrived April 1st and we spent time in Singapore, Bintan and Hong Kong together. It was great to show them my life here and spent time together. They spent a few nights at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel in downtown Sing. The MBS has an incredible infinity pool on the 57th floor that has awesome views of the city. We got some great pictures, even with cloudy weather. I took them around my school and favorite local restaurants before heading off to Bintan, Indonesia for two days. In Bintan, we continued eating great food and soaking up the sun before returning back to Singapore. I had school all week and met up with my parents after classes each day. They left for Hong Kong on Thursday and I met up with them on Saturday morning.

They made it!!

Playtime in the Marina Bay Sands pool

Marina Bay Sands hotel
The kiddies enjoying some much needed sunshine

We found heaven, it's in Bintan
Hong Kong was AMAZING! It has the vibrancy and pace of New York but the similarities end there. My first stop was for some dimsum (of course) and we spent the rest of the day visiting markets and shopping. Even my dad had a great time. In fact, he had to buy a new suitcase because he had bought too much stuff! My parents were like giddy teenagers running around the city reminiscing about their old favorite spots. I didn't remember anything from when we lived there fifteen years ago except for a few sites from pictures hanging around the house.


Fa Yuen street shopping

Her favorite, the jade market

Best. Food. Ever.

I was dying to go experience the nightlife in Lan Kwai Fung and my parents were total sports about it. We went bar hopping and I even got my mom to do jello shots out of a syringe with me. Everyone at the bar was cheering on the American "sisters" and we had a great time. The next day we visited Victoria's Peak, Repulse Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui. I would say the highlight of my trip was the food. I am obsessed with any and all Asian food and the dimsum in Hong Kong was too delicious.

The American sisters

Lan Kwai Fung, HK party district

View from the Peak

At Dickens bar in the Excelsior hotel, his old fav.

Repulse Bay beach

My parents left HK Monday morning to go back to the US. Before my mom even got on the plane, she was talking about her next trip back. I told her it'll be in two years when I graduate and am living in this time zone full time. So start booking your trips now, people! My flight wasn't until Monday night so I spent the day on Lantau Island. I took a crystal cable car to the top of a mountain in Lantau and met a lovely couple from Chicago who kept me company. I visited the Po Lin Monastery, Tian Tin buddha and Tai O fishing village before my flight at night.

Cable car up the mountain

Walking up the many stairs to Tian Tan buddha... These women stopped after each step to pray.
Tai-O floating village, nicknamed "Venice of the East" haha

On Tuesday, Leah and I were on the internet and found dirt cheap tickets from Thursday - Sunday to Krabi, Thailand. It is "E-learning week" at NTU so all of my classes are held online. The lecture notes are posted online and you write short responses to each lecture. There are no physical classes held. It is really bizarre - and pointless, if you ask me - but it meant that we could book the tickets to Thailand. We did and it was a great decision.

We nearly missed our flight on Thursday morning because the shuttle to our terminal was running late. Luckily, they kept the gate open for us an extra five minutes and we made it. We saw a few exchange students who we'd met earlier in the semester on our flight and made plans to hang out for the day. We spent the rest of the day drinking on the beach and exploring Krabi. We ate amazing Thai food and just had a really fun time.

Thailand crew
"Mrs. Sweet and partner" as the hotel staff called us

Drunkenly babysitting Thai children haha

The next day, Leah and I rented a private longtail boat to visit the surrounding islands. We visited Poda Island and Tub Island. It was absolutely beautiful. The pictures speak for themselves.

Poda Island

Hanging out in our longtail boat at Tub Island

Our driver for the day
After our trip, we got some delicious paid thai and did some shopping. Leah is cross-training for a marathon this summer so she went to the gym and I went to get a thai massage. I was a little nervous because thai massages are very physical and look painful. (Google "thai massage" and you'll see what I mean.) It ended up being an interesting experience because the women spoke no English. She walked on my back and bent me in positions I didn't know were humanly possible. It felt very nice until the next morning when I woke up with a sore neck.

We only have two weeks of classes left before finals begin on May 10th. We have this Friday off and are taking a trip to Malaysia with our friend Rachel. We plan on going to Malacca and Tioman island from the 21st- 25th. We haven't made it to Malaysia yet and I'm excited to check it out! After that is our last week of class. Leah and I are beyond excited because we leave for VIETNAM on the 30th. We are flying into Ho Chi Minh and spending two days there and two days in Mui Ne. I CAN NOT WAIT! Then I've got finals on the 10th, 11th, 18th and 19th. I leave for the US on May 23rd but have a five day layover in Madrid to visit some friends. I am missing Leah's birthday so we are trying to fit in one final trip from the 19th-22nd to celebrate her twentieth birthday.

Am I the luckiest girl in the world, or what? :)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Halfway point

Only two months left... It's so hard to believe that I'm halfway finished with my exchange program in Singapore. It's been the most amazing experience so far and I am so grateful that Elon and my parents provided me with such an awesome opportunity. Having lived abroad before, I wasn't too nervous about the cultural differences or adjustment. I've always thrived in a new environment and being overseas has taken me back to my middle school days living in England where I was constantly learning new things and meeting new people. 

Classes and group meetings dominate my schedule Monday - Friday, so I've gotten to know a handful of local students pretty well. Thanks to them, I'm now an avid lover of Korean pop music, char siew bao and Tiger/Chang/Singhi/Bintang beers. I was even told that I'm a natural at holding chopsticks... so minus the whole blonde hair thing, I'm practically Asian.

My favorite Korean pop song. Obviously I'm in the middle of memorizing the lyrics and music video dance.
Char Siew Bao-- barbeque pork buns. DELICIOUS!
Friday night was an exciting night for the girls of room 10 because we completed a 40k bike marathon! Hall 3 sponsored a 40k bike marathon from 10 pm to 6 am across the entire country. NTU is located on the far west side of the island and we went from NTU to East Coast Park. The journey ended up taking longer than we expected and we arrived back to our room at 8 am. We were absolutely exhausted but it was worth it. We spent Saturday sleeping and met up with Leah's family from Perth who were in town for dinner. We took them to our favorite local Chinese restaurant, Wan Dou Sek. As always, the food was absolutely delicious. Leah and I ventured to the Jurong Bird Park - the world's largest bird park - on Sunday afternoon. It was very cool to see all the different birds but the highlight of the afternoon was the Ben and Jerry's ice cream stand at the gift shop. The combination of the heat, humidity and bird poop stench made my ice cream cone taste like heaven on Earth.

Start of the bike ride
The whole crew
Jurong bird park

Feeding a lorrie

Wan Dou Sek!! Great dimsum
But perhaps the best news of all lays ahead. Friday evening, my parents are coming to town!! I can't WAIT!! It's very difficult to sit in class and listen to a 2 hour lecture on crisis management when my two favorite people ever are coming to see me in my favorite place ever. They arrive on Friday and are staying at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel for two nights. Can't wait to show everyone pictures --- it is an UNBELIEVABLE hotel. We're spending Sunday and Monday at Bintan Island in Indonesia (about 45 min ferry ride away) for a little rest and relaxation so they can get over jetlag ASAP. Monday - Thursday, we'll be in Singapore. I am so excited to show them my campus, new friends and my new city. We lived in Sing in 1995 and I'm curious how my parents think the city has changed. They leave for Hong Kong on Thursday and I meet up with them on Saturday. My perfect week comes to an end on Monday when I bid both my parents and Hong Kong farewell.

Leah and I are looking forward to continue conquering Southeast Asia in our final weeks. We're spending Easter weekend in Malaysia and then we are spending five days in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Between and after these travels, I'll be handcuffed to a chair in the library preparing for exams. Exams here are a big deal -- as in 70% of my grade big deal. It's a far cry from the class system at Elon where I have multiple tests, quizzes, papers, exams -- a lot more opportunities to boost my grade.

I'll be sure to update my blog with stories and pictures from my parents' visit to Sing and Hong Kong. That's all for now :)