EXPLORE: My SEA Journey in Hong Kong + Singapore

I have the incredible opportunity to study abroad again as a graduate student through Loyola University Chicago. Thanks to a Procter & Gamble scholarship, the 10-day trip was almost entirely paid for other than my flight. I’m still a broke college student by all means, but since the cost of living is so low in Southeast Asia, I might as well take advantage of my time abroad and travel some on my own. I have traveled alone on weekends when I studied abroad in Rome, and I have also traveled on my own some in the United States. I am very independent and introverted, and I truly believe that you can experience so much more traveling on your own. Would I like to travel with others? Absolutely. But, decision-making is hard and I’ve learned most people don’t often follow through on their word. Thus, I travel alone and love it.

Is it coincidence that my three-part trip aligns with my three main passions in life which are consequently the three main themes on my blog? Yes, it actually is, but I am not surprised. I planned to explore Hong Kong and Singapore, be educated on the study abroad portion in Ho Chi Minh City, Siem Reap, and Bangkok, then I would empower myself on a yoga retreat in Ko Samui. I’m pretty sure it’s all I’ve talked about the last few months, but it was a welcome distraction from finance or Trump.

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I flew out of Chicago the early morning after Christmas. Ignoring the miserable 15-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, I was more than happy to take an overnight layover. I booked an Airbnb at a nearby apartment complex (ironically named Caribbean Coast). I have been to Hong Kong as a young child, so I was initially hoping to see the Big Buddha while I was there or maybe go hiking. Alas, the Buddha was not open until later in the day, and the trail was not as easy to locate as I had hoped. In the morning, I still went for an easy run around the area, discovering a “Trail of Health,” several elderly fitness stations, and many elderly practicing Tai Chi. This small town girl was surprised how friendly everyone was. Many wished me “Good Morning” while others waved or even gave me a thumbs up of encouragement. I always say that I wish Chicagoans were more friendly on Lakeshore Trail. Hong Kong surprisingly has Chicago beat. 

I flew to Singapore right after and took a cab to my other Airbnb. Singapore is a city-state, so it is small, but it is also a decently sized city. My Airbnb was a condo located in the north in an area called Ang Mo Kio. Several small buildings housed around a gorgeous pool remind me of an idyllic nursing home, but I’ve seen several small families and twenty-somethings. My host was out of town, but she had a tenant, a partner, a maid, and an adorable puppy to keep me company. My simple room was all I needed, and the pool and massage chair were the perks. A night here costs the same as 2 drinks in Chicago ($30), so it honestly couldn’t be beat.

About a 45-minute bus ride from downtown and a mile walk to the nearest market/restaurant/mall, it isn’t what I would call convenient. However, I think this is important in traveling vs. vacation. I never want to have to *escape* my life, so I only want to travel, not vacation. Travel is about immersing yourself in other cultures and learning from your surroundings. This cannot happen if you’re sittin’ pretty in suntan city.

Did I enjoy laying by the pool? Absolutely. But, I learned Ang Mo Kio and the downtown area by getting lost, both while running and taking public transportation. I got really hot and sweaty with some massive mosquito bites. I looked really dumb, many times, trying to navigate, whether it be geographic or societal. Singapore is an English-speaking country, but many service workers do not speak English so I had to maneuver language barriers as well as cultural differences. I stood out like a lone golden retriever in a country of cats. I was eager to learn, but it wasn’t always easy or fun or comfortable and I can’t even imagine what some people thought or said about me.

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That being said, I love traveling this way. How else can you empathize with others and learn about different cultures if you don’t know it for yourself? That’s when you learn about others. You see things that unfamiliar and ask yourself why they are that way. You reflect and you see problems being answered in ways that you may never have thought of. That’s where creativity and innovation begin. It was challenging, and I enjoyed every second.

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On Thursday, I went out on a run to explore the nearby parks. Capturing many pictures and videos along the way, I love taking my time to run and see everything. Not only is there incredible greenery, but there are so many people at the parks, especially elderly. With large ageing populations in the world and especially Asia, I loved seeing the focus on fitness for elderly. With many groups, classes, and equipment, they were staying active with Tai Chi and yoga. I learned in other neighborhoods that running is popular among all ages too.

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I ate at my first of many hawker stalls. Here, you can have a meal for between $1 and $5 Singapore dollars, which is like $0.50-$3.50 USD. If the food is good, there is a long line and the food will be fresh. Otherwise, it may have been sitting there without air-conditioning for hours. They also have markets for fresh food for your grocery shopping. This is the more *authentic* eating for the lower and middle classes. There are communal sinks to wash your hands, but otherwise it’s basically an outdoor food court. Many people will eat breakfast there and takeaway lunch and possibly dinner. Some of the best food I tried was from hawker stalls, including chicken BBQ buns, Kaya toast, lime juice, and dumplings. It’s economical and delicious — what more could you want?

I took two buses to get to the Singapore Botanical Gardens that afternoon. I immediately saw a giant lizard and already thought this was the coolest place. It was a big giant jungle that we all got to enjoy leisurely. It was beautiful.

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Then, I took a train downtown. Like many other things in Singapore, the MRT seemed very British. Of course, the Brits controlled Singapore from 1819-1963, so it makes sense. I felt like I was on the London Underground again.

After taking 4 flights of escalator up, I was immediately taken aback by the tremendously tall buildings surrounding me. I lived in Gold Coast for almost a year, but these skyscrapers required me to actually crane my neck entirely to see the top. I fell in love instantly. For being a bit of a jungle on the outskirts, downtown Singapore is so cosmopolitan and developed. It looks and feels futuristic. From the architecture to the tediously clean sidewalks, it’s another world.

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My wandering spirit got the best of me and I walked around the Downtown Core twice, racking up nearly a marathon’s worth of walking (literally, 24 miles that day!). From the Merlion statue, the Marina Bay, Clarke Quay, and the Gardens by the Bay, I was mesmerized by everything there was to offer.

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I learned that there are several malls in the downtown area. Most are actually called cities (Suntec City, VivoCity, etc.) because it’s basically multiple Mall of Americas. They have underground tunnels to connect them with different shops below as well. I actually got lost in one on New Year’s Eve. Well, I didn’t really get lost, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out of the building!

The next few days, I continued my routine of running, eating at a hawker stall, and relaxing by the pool. That’s my jam and I like it that way.

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Friday afternoon, I explored Chinatown and Telok Ayer. Between Chinatown and Little India, I love all of the beautiful architecture nestled in between typical city buildings. Telok Ayer is one of the bigger hawker stalls I went to, and I finally had some vegetables. That is the sacrifice of eating cheap — I miss my highly nutritious. After that, I went to Sentosa, the “Island of Fun,” for Mulan the Musical. VivoCity, the mall housing the train to Sentosa, is packed and I got lost and couldn’t figure out how to get on the train. Once I finally figured it out, it was almost showtime. I hurried, not wanting to miss a second of one of my favorite Disney movies.

I left before intermission. It was so bad. I could write an entire post on the flawed plot and casting and blocking decisions, but I’ll spare you. I chalked it up to a sunk cost and walked upstairs to enjoy a Krispy Kreme donut as I realized that Sentosa is a more kid-friendly version of Las Vegas. For a business student, mass consumerism and materialism grosses me out more than it should.

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On New Year’s Eve, I picked up my race bib and then I headed downtown. I explored Little India and then found Haji Lane, the rumored Wicker Park of Singapore. It was a small alley that reminded me more of Boystown. I wish I could have seen it on any other night, because it was an exhausting 10-minute walk regardless.

I had debated going clubbing or going to one of the big parties, but I couldn’t justify spending the money when I had to be up early for a race. I don’t like drinking alone either, so it didn’t seem appealing. Suntec City had a street festival, so I decided to check it out. It was a gorgeous venue and setup, and there was an awesome performance by a Singapore girl group to whom I’m pretty sure I could have choreographed their routine, but after that, Singapore celebs were in a lip syncing battle to all American music and I checked out.

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I walked down to the Marina Bay, where there would be fireworks. At 9pm, it was already PACKED and I immediately knew I would not be waiting until midnight. After hanging out a bit, I grabbed a Nutella waffle from a vendor and proceeded to get lost in Suntec City for another hour before heading home and happily going to bed before midnight. It’s kinda sad being alone on holidays. I love being alone, but on days you know you really shouldn’t be alone, it messes with your psyche. Bed was my best option.

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In the morning, I headed to Punggol Park, a park even further north. When I had chosen Singapore, I looked up events going on while I was visiting. When I saw a race, I knew I had to join. I hadn’t run a race since my half marathon, and it would be an awesome way to start running destination races. The park was gorgeous, and I had a great run despite almost 100 degree heat index with 80% heat index. I finished at 57:30, which barely beat my previous 10K PR from the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo in June at 58:00. Considering the weather and my trail shoes, I’ll take it!

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Later Sunday afternoon, I headed downtown again but the rain showers had become the worst yet and kept me limited. I ate my heart out, then I headed back to spend the afternoon in the amazing massage chair writing, preparing for my morning departure to Ho Chi Minh City.

I made some amazing memories in Singapore, and I cannot wait to visit again!

++ Mary K

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