Cathy Kuang’s semester abroad in Hong Kong

Blog archive: Cathy’s Silicon Valley Road Show

April 22, 2017

Ellie, Bella and I left our Hong Kong university with three full backpacks, plane tickets and little idea of what the next two weeks would entail. As we were walking to the bus stop, it still didn’t seem real that we were finally beginning a much-anticipated spring break trip–to Thailand!


The journey began in Bangkok, the country’s capital. It was a unique time to visit because the King had died six months ago, and the country is still in mourning. Right away, we noticed huge memorials with portraits and flowers all over the city.

As the new King was driving through the city on Chakri Memorial Day, everyone walking on the street was required to sit down.

A mutual friend introduced me to Samsuda, who used to live in Chiang Mai and now works in Bangkok. She helped me out when I was still in Hong Kong planning my trip, and I learned even more about Thailand from getting dinner with her!

We rode a 14-hour sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Pictured here are Bella and Ellie, pre-departure and excited for the journey ahead. The 4 a.m. arrival picture looks very different…


Chiang Mai

We spent the majority of our trip in northern Thailand, primarily in the city of Chiang Mai. It’s the second biggest city in Thailand, after Bangkok.

You can buy everything from clothing to cheap, delicious pad thai at the Saturday night market.

We spent a day at an elephant sanctuary to feed, bathe and play in the mud with elephants. The sanctuary we booked the trip through was rated positively for their treatment of the elephants; we wanted to make sure we weren’t supporting inhumane actions such as elephant riding (don’t do it!).

Ellie and I took a cooking class and learned how to make 5 amazing dishes: mango sticky rice, spring rolls, papaya salad, pad thai and penang curry chicken.

Sarah also goes to WashU and has been studying abroad in Chiang Mai this semester! We met up at one of her favorite brunch spots.



Everyone I talked to before this trip raved about Pai, so of course I needed to go see what all the hype was about. It’s a winding, 3-hour bus ride north from Chiang Mai. People say that you need to spend at least a couple days in this town to get a feel for the chill lifestyle there, but sadly, I only had 24 hours. The highlight was renting a scooter and riding it around Pai.

Rode a scooter for the first time!


Chiang Mai (again)

I returned to Chiang Mai in time for Songkran, the Thai New Year. It’s a three-day celebration most known for the water throwing, which turns into a wild, city-wide water fight. Songkran is recognized all over the country (as well as nearby countries including Cambodia, Laos and Burma), but Chiang Mai has one of the biggest celebrations. The night before, people were already walking around with water guns and buckets, preemptively starting the festivities. On April 13, the first day of Songkran, kids, adults, travelers and locals alike were all participating, and there was no chance that anyone could step outside without getting wet. Pickup trucks drove through the streets with bins of water and people in the back aiming water at pedestrians. People hung off the backs of tuk tuks with water guns. It was insane!

Getting ready for Songkran.


The view from our hostel balcony.

Krabi/Ao Nang

After spending a week mostly in urban areas, I was ready to head south where the Thai islands are. Besides the change in landscape from mountains to beaches, the temples were replaced by mosques, the temperature dropped slightly to a more comfortable heat (still hot though) and life slowed down.

This part of the trip was ambiguous, as I only had a flight booked from the north to the south and no further plans. I ended up taking a three-hour bus to Krabi on the western coast and befriending the two people sitting in the same row as me, who were both my age, but one was from Holland and the other from London. They didn’t have hostels booked for the night, so the three of us decided to stay at the same one and hang out for the next few days.

Self-ascribed as Mr. Pancake, he would sit outside a 7/11 every day, making pancakes for customers.

My favorite part of Krabi was a day trip to Railay Beach, which is a peninsula only accessible by boat. From looking at a map, we saw that in the middle of this peninsula was something called Railay Lagoon, which sounded like a casual way to spend the afternoon. It turned out to be a difficult hike/climb through the jungle. It was so much fun to scramble up rocks, climb down ladders and try not to slip in the mud. And once we reached the lagoon, we were surprised by a massive, open cavern with the lagoon at the bottom. The whole adventure far surpassed our expectations.

The route to Railay Lagoon.

Arriving at the lagoon was the best feeling in the world.

We saw so many monkeys running on this fence!


Koh Lanta

Near the end of the trip, I decided to do a quick detour to Koh Lanta for some relaxation and more isolated beaches. This island had fewer tourists than Krabi, which I appreciated. After this short escape, I was reunited with Bella and Ellie in Phuket for our flight back to Hong Kong (at this point, home).

Taking the ferry to Koh Lanta.



The trip isn’t over! We had a 13-hour layover in Singapore on our way back to Hong Kong and took advantage of the opportunity to see as much of it as we could.

Singapore skyline.

WashU people are everywhere! Here’s Daniel, who has been studying abroad in Singapore.


Two weeks traveling in Thailand left me with countless mosquito bites, but also the confidence knowing that I can handle the backpacking life. I’m looking forward to the time when I can have the same freedom as the travelers we met that were on the road for several months. Still, with the time we had, we were able to see the different landscapes across Thailand and experience varying paces of life and cultures. I’ll be back!



March 15, 2017

Food is a lens through which to experience a culture, and it’s also beautiful when it brings people together. A group of girls in my dorm became friends all because one girl offered to make us a home-cooked meal one night, and now these are the people that I spend most of my time with!

In honor of the magic that is food, I’ll highlight some of my favorite meals that I’ve had in Hong Kong:

Taco Night in Hall 6


Led by two exchange students from Mexico, the hall that I live in organized a Taco Night in one of the common rooms. Besides eating tasty homemade tacos, it was an opportunity to meet more local students, which doesn’t happen as often as chances to meet other exchange students.

Ichiran Ramen

Picture2This meal was one of the most unique restaurant experiences I’ve had. To start, you’re seated at a bar by yourself with partitions separating your table space from the people on either side. Secondly, the chefs are in front of you, but you can’t see them because there’s another partition there. You order your customized ramen by checking off boxes on a slip of paper and then pressing a button to let the kitchen know that you’re done. When the food is ready, the partition in front of you is raised up so that your bowl of hot, delicious ramen is served. Instead of sitting at a table looking at and chatting with your friends, it’s just you and your ramen.

Sham Shui Po Tour


After having explored Hong Kong a bit, it’s easy to just go back to the same favorite areas and do the same activities. This walking tour of the Sham Shui Po district of Hong Kong was special because we had a guide who was familiar with the area. He pointed out hole-in-the-wall eating spots and told us some background information about the district. We walked by a street with semi-permanent structures built by people without other kinds of homes, which contrasted sharply from the hip, modern districts of Hong Kong. However, getting to know a city includes seeing both the positive and negative sides. We ended the tour with a meal at an authentic Chinese restaurant, characterized by a round table with a lazy susan and endless rounds of dishes.

Hot Pot in Hang Hau

Picture4Vegetables are difficult to come by in Hong Kong, where most meals consist of meat and rice. Whenever I’m in need of a fresh, filling meal, I go to a hot pot restaurant near my university. At this particular spot, each person has their own pot of boiling broth, and for 90 minutes, you can eat as much as you want. Meat options include beef, lamb and chicken, while the buffet offers various different noodles, vegetables and other food. After cooking your food, you can dip it in sauce to add flavor. After the hot meal, it’s time to hit up the frozen yogurt machine for the perfect end to the best 90 minutes of your life.

Bread Show Bakery

I love, love, love Chinese bakeries. Hong Kong is full of them, and it’s hard not to go into every single one that you see. En route to Art Basel, I walked by this bakery called Bread Show and just couldn’t resist. I ended up buying green tea and chocolate mochi and coffee bread, which were amazing and great snacks in between checking out art galleries.



One Dim Sum

Picture6 I’m also a massive fan of dim sum, which I explain to people who don’t know what it is as “the Chinese version of tapas.” It’s actually something that I miss when I’m at WashU because there are several great dim sum places back home in the Boston area but not many in St. Louis. Studying abroad in Hong Kong means that there are always new dim sum restaurants to try. In fact, there’s even one on campus! Most recently, I went to One Dim Sum with my roommate, her friend visiting from Turkey and two other Americans. We ordered way too much food, but we wanted to try everything from chicken feet to the restaurant’s signature mango dessert. The cool part about this place was that they had photos for every item on the menu, as well as the name in seven different languages: English, French, German, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Thai.

My Room

Sometimes, you just gotta make yourself some pasta and watch Netflix. Picture7


February 27, 2017

A remarkable part about Hong Kong is the combination of city and nature in such close proximity to each other. Not only are these contrasting environments present, but Hong Kong contains the extremes of both: it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and has some of the tallest skyscrapers; at the same time, the beauty of the more untouched spots is incredible. There are numerous hikes and outdoor activities here.

Who would’ve thought that this photo was taken in Hong Kong?

Who would’ve thought that this photo was taken in Hong Kong?

Woke up early one day to walk to an uphill part of campus for the sunrise.

Woke up early one day to walk to an uphill part of campus for the sunrise.

So far, my favorite outdoor adventure has been kayaking in Sai Kung. Just a short bus ride away from campus and for $50 HKD (about $7 USD), you can rent a kayak for an entire day and explore the islands off the coast.

Kayaking in Sai Kung with Drew, also a WashU student at HKUST for the semester.

Drew Kayaking

Drew Kayaking

Nature is great, but so are the people who are there to appreciate it with you. Last weekend, my friend Lia visited me in Hong Kong! She’s one of my closest friends at WashU, and she stopped by for a few days en route to her study abroad program in mainland China.

Besides kayaking, another outdoor favorite in Hong Kong has been hiking to Big Wave Bay Beach, which I did with Lia and three other friends. We were in a rush to reach the beach before sunset, but we made it there before dark and braved the cold water for a swim. The place is a hotspot for surfers because of the size of the waves, and there were several people still out there when we arrived. An item on my Hong Kong bucket list is to return to Big Wave Bay to surf!

One of the “deserted” islands we stopped at.

One of the “deserted” islands we stopped at.

Speaking of my Hong Kong bucket list, I’ve been able to cross off several items because I’ve been in Hong Kong for the past two weeks instead of travelling. There are still many things left to do and places to go, but thankfully, I’ll be here for three more months. However, I know that these coming weeks will fly by, and the fact that my semester abroad is already ¼ of the way through is crazy.

Lia and I

Lia and I at Big Buddha on Lantau Island (Photo credit to Lia)

It doesn’t quite feel like I’ve settled into a routine here, and I’m not sure if it will ever feel that way. Spontaneity and variability are usually factors that I seek out when life becomes too regimented back at WashU, but this semester, it feels like change is the norm, and stability needs to be sought out from time to time. Nevertheless, these spontaneous decisions have created memorable experiences, such as attending a secret Black Eyed Peas show despite having class at 9am the next day–I still made it to class!

High Junk Peak

Hiking with exchange friends on High Junk Peak Country Trail (Photo credit to Naman).

February 12, 2017

Victoria Peak (Hong Kong)

Victoria Peak (Hong Kong)

When you study abroad, time doesn’t run the same way. A day is equivalent to a week, and a week feels like a month. The past three weeks have confirmed that I definitely made the right decision to come here!

To answer all the uncertainties of my previous blog post: my roommate is from Istanbul, Turkey, and she’s probably going to read this post because we’ve become good friends (Hey, Ilgin!); I’ve taken the metro many, many times and love the efficiency of public transportation…I swear the escalators are faster here, too; every day is busy and fun, even when I go somewhere that I’ve been just a day or week ago because it’s almost always with a different group of people.

Campus - Cathy K

The campus is right by the ocean – amazing views from everywhere

From adapting to life in Hong Kong to meeting people from all over the world, I’ve realized that I’m more American than I thought. It’s definitely easier to strike up conversation with another American because of similarities in backgrounds and that one mutual friend you’re guaranteed to have, but I’ve been actively trying to interact with different types of people. Besides learning more about China and Hong Kong, I’ve also learned about places such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Turkey, Germany, the U.K. and more because there are 400 exchange students this semester at HKUST.

Welcome to Hong Kong - lit up so brightly that it looks like daytime

Welcome to Hong Kong – lit up so brightly that it looks like daytime

Chinese New Year in Guangzhou, China

Chinese New Year in Guangzhou, China

In addition to new friends, a special part about studying abroad in Hong Kong has been celebrating the Lunar New Year in Asia. While my family recognizes the holiday back in the U.S., I had never experienced it in China before, where the New Year is celebrated for 15 days. For the first few days, we had a break at school, so I traveled to Guangzhou, China to meet up with my dad and my grandma. This past weekend, I stayed with a friend in Taipei, Taiwan, and we braved the crowds to attend the Lantern Festival in Pingxi, marking the end of New Year festivities.

My favorite spot on campus

My favorite spot on campus

So far, I’ve loved this semester abroad. I’m hoping to continue meeting new people and to explore more of Hong Kong. Visiting mainland China and Taiwan have been fantastic trips, but I’m really looking forward to venturing out on local nature and cultural excursions.

“Promotion Period”

Student societies spend many sleepless days and nights preparing for the weeks-long “Promotion Period”

Horse races are a major social event in Hong Kong and are this busy every Wednesday – attended by both expats and locals

Red money packets on trees (Guangzhou)

Flower markets are a New Year tradition from Guangzhou that you can also find in Hong Kong

Letting go of our paper lantern during the Lantern Festival in Taiwan - thousands of lanterns were released that night in that area, and it’s beautiful to see the synchronized release of hundreds at a time

Letting go of our paper lantern during the Lantern Festival in Taiwan – thousands of lanterns were released that night in that area, and it’s beautiful to see the synchronized release of hundreds at a time

January 22, 2017

Well, the moment has finally arrived. Throughout the years, people have asked me whether I plan on studying abroad, and I’ve always replied, “Of course, no question!” without knowing much about what the experience would entail. Spain was the imagined destination, before London took its place. Now, I’m waiting for my 16-hour flight to Hong Kong, where I’ll be studying abroad for four months. “Do you regret your decision?” my dad asks, as the reality of sitting on a plane for that long hits me.

So, why Hong Kong? Several friends who are a year or two older than me have studied abroad in Hong Kong and have returned with endless stories and nostalgic comments about the vibrant Asian city’s superiority over St. Louis (I won’t forget you, STL). Their rave reviews were enough to make HK the place that I always kept in the back of my mind as I researched other options. Paired with my desire to avoid the traditional European study abroad experience, meet people from all over the world and have access to nature (yes, HK is not just a huge, polluted city), Hong Kong seemed right.

The one hesitation I had was that I’ve traveled to China a few times, and studying abroad should be about broadening your horizons, right? Funnily enough, as people applauded my decision to travel so far away from home, I was unsure whether Hong Kong would be enough of a culture shock, given that I grew up in an Asian-American household.

Now that I’m 30 minutes away from boarding the plane, the vague notion of studying abroad is becoming more and more clear, as I start to think about the unfamiliar realities of this first week ahead—meeting my roommate (no idea which country she might be from or who she is), learning to navigate the public transportation system and figuring out what I’m going to do each day.

Despite my initial hesitation about Hong Kong being too familiar, I bet that these next four months will be challenging (in a good way) and full of new, unforgettable experiences. I’m excited for this adventure and am ready to make the most of it!