Bao Buns & Supertrees – A Year in Singapore

Nicole Neumark, BA English and History of Art student, details her travels across Asia all thanks to her year abroad in Singapore.

Nicole Neumark, BA English and History of Art student, details her travels across Asia all thanks to her year abroad in Singapore.

I had always wanted to travel to Southeast Asia, therefore, I had planned to do a Year Abroad ever since deciding on my degree course at UoB. My decision to study in Singapore had been heavily influenced by the beautiful and utterly fascinating Marina Bay Gardens and its “Supertrees” I had glimpsed in a documentary years ago. I wanted to travel far and make the most out of my exchange year, pushing myself to the edges of my comfort zone and beyond, understanding and finding myself in a new environment and context. I did not really believe in the whole ‘finding yourself’ concept, but I was open to give it a try in the name of personal development and a call to adventure. I was the first BA History of Art student from UoB going to attend the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, and I was quite involved with planning modules and accommodation, but soon enough I found myself on three consecutive flights finally landing at the Singapore Changi Airport.

Nicole watching the sunrise over Vang Vieng, Laos, from a hot air balloon

One of my first challenges was to adapt to the climate: being so close to the equator, Singapore has a heavy humidity and an average of 36°C (sometimes 33°C on a ‘cold’ day). It took me two weeks to acclimate. The overhead fan in my bedroom was my best friend. Between December and February, there is a monsoon season. A ‘monsoon’ means you must run in your flip-flops to the closest building at the first droplets of rain to avoid being drenched and hide out from the almost apocalyptic thunder and lightning. An umbrella will not be enough. Run or you will be drenched. Also, insect spray in the evenings is always a good idea. 

Life at university was also very different. I lived in the affordable student halls and shared a room with another exchange student. There was no kitchen, but the meals in the food halls were extremely reasonable and delicious. In the mornings, I would get a Bao Bun with lotus paste, an iced coffee, and a cup of freshly cut dragon fruit. My classes consisted of English Literature like ‘1984: Past, Present, Prophecy’, Art History like ‘History of Photography’, and some other flexible electives like ‘Intro to Creative Writing’ and ‘Mandarin Level 1’. While one of Singapore’s four official languages is English, it does become useful to know a couple of common sentences and words in Mandarin. After my classes, I would meet up with friends in one of the many study rooms and then go to the food halls for dinner (my favourite was Korean ramyun). I became very good friends with a group of exchange students, and we did many trips and activities within Singapore together: hiking the scenic treetop walk, getting spooked in haunted houses at Universal Studios Singapore during Halloween, drinking a Singapore Sling cocktail at the top of the infamous CÉ LA VI SkyBar, cheering at the Chingay Parade for Chinese New Year, and visiting the Singapore Zoo and Marina Bay Gardens for daytime and night-time escapades. Those friendships I built still connect me to people all around the world and I cannot wait to visit them and reminisce about our time in Singapore.

Nicole in front of the Golden ‘Hand’ Bridge at the Europe-themed Ba Na Hills Park in Vietnam

Nevertheless, my most memorable experience took me even further abroad on a two-month long solo backpacking trip during my winter break. Even though I had some reservations about it, I did not let doubt, anxiety, or fear stop me. Being an over-planner, I meticulously planned all movements and hostels and most activities for my trip across three spreadsheets and embarked on my journey with my sturdy, green backpack I lovingly named ‘Baby Yoda’. Never could I have imagined I would be able to take care of rescued elephants and snorkel amongst shy sharks in Thailand, go tubing and on a hot air balloon ride in Laos, swim through bioluminescent plankton in Cambodia, learn how to windsurf and discover a Europe-themed amusement park in Vietnam, as well as many other unforgettable moments in South Korea, Taiwan, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Bali. 

Nicole taking care of elephants at the Elephant Green Hill Project in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Unfortunately, my Year Abroad was cut short by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. By the beginning of April, it became clear I had to leave Singapore in a hurry to catch the last flight home, which led to a certain lack of closure for my year abroad - a Bao Bun-shaped hole in my heart. My Year Abroad made me more adventurous and brave, more outgoing and self-sufficient. After travelling on my own and living in a country so far away from home, I know now that nothing can stop me from pursuing my goals, be it personal, academic, or professional. The diversity of Singapore’s ‘melting pot’ population taught me new lessons in communication and to always be open for the unexpected moments in life. I see my time in Singapore as a significant, character-building experience for me, and it helped me to view my present and future differently by immersing me this completely different life. I will always love Bao Buns and I will always love Singapore. One of my dreams is to return to Singapore and drink another iced coffee under the Supertrees as the sun sets over Marina Bay. 

Blog post written by: Nicole Neumark