July 9, 2015, by James Smith
Studying Abroad: My Malaysia Adventure
When I was applying to study pharmacy as an undergraduate many years ago, one thing in particular drew me towards The University of Nottingham more than anything else; the opportunity to travel and study abroad. This past year has been my fourth and final year of study and my wish finally came true, as I got the chance to undertake my final year project at the UoN Malaysia campus.
As I landed in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, I had very little clue as to what to expect. Travel guides and Google had given me some ideas, but being there and experiencing it for myself was another matter entirely. I remember the first thing I thought as I stepped off the plane was: ‘blimey, Malaysia is freezing cold. This isn’t what I signed up for’. 40 minutes later, as I left the extreme air-conditioning of KLIA airport, I realised Malaysia is ridiculously hot (as you would expect). Almost immediately I went into the classic British mode of complaining about being too hot and sweaty, despite moaning about the cruel, cold British winter a mere 16 hours previously. But after 2 weeks, I was used to the climate and consequently the moaning died down.
The UNMC Campus
It was an hour’s taxi ride after landing before I arrived at the UNMC campus. Most of my close friends from pharmacy had made the move with me and the campus had many similarities to the UK campus, making it feel like home. It was a friendly and sociable place, plus an ideal base in between weekend trips away!
However, it must be said that too much time spent in a long stretch at the UNMC campus can be very boring if you aren’t careful! The campus is relatively small and a little way out (about 45 minutes taxi ride or a 1.5 hour bus and train ride) from the centre of KL. Thankfully, the sports facilities are free for all students. This, in combination with my final year project, kept me busy and entertained throughout my time on campus. I initially got involved with the UNMC football team (before it interfered with my
travelling…work), whilst also trying my hand at hockey, swimming and badminton. For people who aren’t into sport, the student association (SA) has loads of clubs and societies within it that appeal to all. Many of these societies organise trips to islands and other places in Malaysia, making it ideal for the lazy/unorganised traveller who likes to just turn up and not focus on details! Joining or interacting with these societies was a great way to meet people and to keep any threat of boredom at bay!
KL itself is a massive city, full of lots of shopping centres, museums and cultural hubs (such as little India and China town). There is lots to do there. The iconic Petronas twin towers stand tall over the whole city and are a great focal point! My top tip for anyone arriving in Malaysia is to get a Malaysian phone straight away. They are super cheap and really useful. On my first trip to KL, my friends and I went to the Times Square shopping centre, which is a massive shopping centre near to the size of Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. I got separated from my friends due to the elevator doors shutting very abruptly and quickly. Then, with no working phone, it took me a long time of hanging around the exit waiting for my friends to find me , which eventually, they did!
As I keep mentioning, weekend trips became the norm whilst living out in Malaysia. We made group trips to many places around Malaysia, including Langkawi island, Pangkor island, Tioman island, Penang, Melacca and even Singapore! Pangkor was my first and potentially favourite trip. It is a small island, around a four hour coach ride and ferrytrip from campus. It has many beaches, a massive hill and quiet roads with very few cars. This made it the perfect place to hire and ride mopeds (sorry Mum, I was going to tell you one day). Two friends and I spent the weekend zooming around the island on our mighty steeds, exploring the island and what it had to offer. We found some private untouched beaches, some brilliant views from the hillsides, as well as an amazing cake shop in the town centre! I would highly recommend this trip and activity to anyone travelling to Malaysia in the future… just be careful and don’t start thinking you are a motor GP professional because that is when accidents can happen!
Another of my favourite trips was to Langkawi. Langkawi is a much bigger island than Pangkor and has a lot going for it. It has big, expansive beaches, strips of bars, shops and restaurants and beautiful natural sites (such as waterfalls and mountains). At the beaches, you can have the option to either relax, sunbathe and take the odd dip in the sea or partake in watersports! Jetskiing, parasailing and kayaking are some of the activities on offer. The main beach is lined with bars and restaurants, meaning you can enjoy a cheeky cocktail on the beach and watch some stunning sunsets, whilst sparing a thought for those people you left behind to freeze to death in the UK winter! Langkawi also offers a skyrail up the mountains. Up here you can observe some amazing views across the island and the sea. Plus, the cool breezes can be extremely refreshing! Near to skyrail station at the base of the mountain, there is a natural waterfall, where monkeys gather and live together. It was a fantastic place to stop and explore for a short stop. However, my highlight for Langkawi was the duty free chocolate store, located in the main shopping centre. Chocolate in Malaysia is just not the same as back in the UK. Sure, they have Cadbury’s… but it’s just not the same; it’s simply not right. So, this store that imports many different chocolates over from Europe and the US was a welcome sight to my friends and I. We stocked up and left the island buzzing (due to the colossal amount of E numbers we had consumed).
The Malaysia Grand Prix
The UNMC campus is located relatively close to the Sepang race course, where the Malaysia Grand Prix takes place. Any fans of formula will love this, as the location in combination with the cheap ticket prices makes it nearly impossible to miss. Even people who don’t even know what F1 stands for will enjoy the days at the course, as the atmosphere is electric and infectious. Just be warned… if you buy tickets to watch from the hills with no shade (the cheapest tickets) you WILL burn not matter how much sun cream you put on! After the race, you even have the chance to get on the track at the finish line and take some pictures!
Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year (CNY) is a hectic and fantastic time in Malaysia. The Chinese community turn out in masses, performing traditional Chinese dragon and drums shows, whilst food is constantly being cooked and can be smelled wherever you go. We spent CNY in Pengang. Penang is another Malaysian island, famous for it’s street food. Unfortunately, we went at the wrong time for this. On the first few days of CNY, all the Chinese families spend time together and take time off their daily jobs, meaning many of the street food stalls were closed. However, in the main town of Georgetown, we enjoyed many Indian banana leaf meals. These meals are served on banana leaves (hence the name) and traditionally eaten with your hands. It was a great cultural and culinary experience; one that I hope to experience many times again! The other thing to do in Penang at CNY is to visit the local Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si. At CNY, the temple is covered in lights and celebrations of hope and prosperity are held at the temple. A visit at night is quite a spectacle, although I do feel sorry for the people responsible for taking all those lights down… it’s a heck of a job!
Further up the coast of Penang lies Batu Ferringhi. This is a beach region on Penang. The beach itself I found to be disappointing. It was overrun with rowdy tourists, very crowded and there was barely any section of the sea available to swim in, due to so much (overpriced) watersporting activities being crammed onto the small beach. However, up the road was a gem; the Penang national park. Here some friends and I walked through a rainforest to a quiet beach, seeing some of the Malaysian wildlife (such as monkeys and monitor lizards) along the way.
Batu Ferringhi also houses some brilliant restaurants. We visited a Thai place that served a great experience, as well as some cracking Thai food. This restaurant (unfortunately the name eludes me) provided on stage entertainment of traditional Thai dancing. This was great to watch, although eventually the time came for the performers to ask for volunteers to step up on stage to partake in a Thai dancing lesson. Looking around the room, I visibly watched hundreds of people around the restaurant shift and sink into their seats, eyes set on the exit in case they needed to make a sharp escape. I joined them. Little did I realise that my friends were all pointing at me and calling out to the performers. Before I knew it, I was ushered up on stage to face the whole restaurant, whilst cursing my friends. It turned out to be really fun. I can’t say I am a natural at Thai dancing, but it was an experience I shall never forget.
One last tip regarding Penang at CNY… DO NOT TRAVEL THERE BY COACH AT THIS TIME OF YEAR. The traffic is awful, due to families travelling to visit each other, and it took us 9 looooong hours to get back to campus, whereas the flights (although slightly more expensive) only took around 45 minutes.
Around Easter time, my hard work in the labs was finished and I had lots of time to write up my dissertation. Since I had worked hard (and not had enough trips already), I decided to head to Australia to visit a friend, who was undertaking her dissertation in Melbourne. The Melbourne and the east coast of Australia is only an 8 hour flight away from KL and prices can be really cheap (around £70 each way), particularly at this time of year as the Aussie winter starts to creep in. If Australia is a place you have always wanted to visit (as it was for me), studying at Malaysia can give you the platform to do so. My logic was simple: ‘Malaysia is much closer to Australia than the UK… therefore if I am ever to visit there soon, now is the best chance I have.’ I loved it so much that I even returned to Australia once my dissertation and exams were finished, this time to travel up the east coast (Syndey to Noosa)!
After this return trip to Australia, I rejoined my friends back in S.E Asia. We spent the next 3 weeks travelling through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The three weeks were simply amazing. We packed so much in (too much to write about in this blog) but the highlights include having tailored suits made in Hoi An (Vietnam), visiting the temples at Angkor Wat (Cambodia), visiting the killing fields (Cambodia), playing with elephants (Thailand), undertaking S.E Asian cooking courses and canyoning in Da Lat (Vietnam). Other students I know also travelled to China, Japan, Korea, Philippines and Indonesia! The options of where to go and what to do were seemingly limitless and it was hard to select things and cut other things out!
Overall, my time studying in Malaysia was an unbelievable experience, which allowed me to experience multiple cultures and new things. I developed new hobbies and interests, met some incredible people, had the opportunity to travel around 2 continents and still managed to work hard and achieve solid results in my final year project and exams. To anyone thinking of applying to study in Malaysia, I would say: DO IT. Not every student is lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to study abroad and if you have a desire to experience more of the world and different cultures, it shall not disappoint you.