Image courtesy of Margherita Ragg, used with permission.
For many younger travelers taking a year off from their academic calendar, Southeast Asia has become something of a Holy Grail: cheaper than Europe, safer than Africa, and arguably friendlier to foreign visitors than the U.S., Southeast Asia as a whole checks everything on the gap year traveler's list.
But don't take our word for it: we asked former gap year travelers – now full-time travel bloggers – the “Bemused Backpacker” Mike Huxley, “Where is Tara” Tara Povey and Margherita Ragg of the Crowded Planet about the promise and perils of a gap year in Southeast Asia. Weighing the pros and cons for gap year travelers, Southeast Asia comes out a winner all the time – and Mike, Tara and Margherita are happy to explain why in the conversation below.
Q: What, in your opinion, makes for the perfect gap year experience?
TARA: I don't think there is such a thing as the "perfect" gap year experience because everyone is so different and will want to get something different from their trip. The perfect gap year for me might be a nightmare for someone else. But in general the perfect gap year will leave you with incredible stories, new friends and a new perspective on life.
MIKE: The perfect gap year experience will be different for everyone, but it should be one that is not only filled with fun, excitement adventure and new experiences, but also one that also pushes you out of your comfort zone and forges you into a stronger, more confident, better you.
Q: Why do so many gap year travellers choose Southeast Asia as their destination?
MIKE: South East Asia has the provenance for the essential gap year experience with the banana pancake trail going back generations, and all the essential ingredients to ensure the perfect gap year.
TARA: Firstly, it is so budget-friendly. You don't have to save a huge amount of money to be able to afford a trip through SEA. Obviously some parts are more expensive than others, but in general it's relatively cheap.
MARGHERITA: Southeast Asia [is] easy to get to, with lots of affordable flights from Europe, Australia and North America, it’s (usually) quite easy and cheap to travel around, and the whole region offers a variety of experiences to enjoy, from relax to adventure and anything in between.
TARA: It's just a very easy, but still exciting, part of the world to visit, which makes it great for people possibly experiencing solo travel for the first time.
Diving, Mu Ko Similan National Park, Phang Nga, Thailand. Image courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Q: What kind of activities, in your opinion, need to be included in a meaningful gap year, and where would you go in Southeast Asia to get that done?
TARA: This really depends on the person. I got my scuba diving certificates in Thailand and my level 1 freediving certificate in the Philippines. I learnt to surf in Indonesia. I basically spent a lot of time in the water.
But some people might want to party, or go to a yoga retreat. Lots of people bungee jump. I think a trip on a night bus in SEA is an essential gap year experience. Trying all the local cuisine is important too. I used to think I hated Thai food until I spent a month in Thailand. As long as you are meeting new people and pushing yourself to try new things then you'll have an incredible gap year.
MIKE: Any type of activity that pushes you out of your comfort zone a little bit and improves you as a person in some way makes for a meaningful gap year.
Most people tend to get a PADI certificate, tick a few awe inspiring activities of the bucket list like jungle trekking or volcano hiking, but for other people it can be something as simple as opening their hearts and minds to a new culture, a new paradigm, or getting confidence through eating alone for the first time.
Then of course there are ways to improve the world around you as you travel by doing your research and supporting local communities and businesses, supporting genuine wildlife sanctuaries and charities and avoiding international companies and those that would exploit wildlife and their natural habitats. Meaningful travel is all about improving yourself, but it is all about improving the world around you as you travel too.
- To celebrate ASEAN's 50th year, go diving in the Philippines like Tara, or hit the trails of Sarawak and Sabah like Mike suggests.
MARGHERITA: I would definitely include both volunteering and homestays in a meaningful gap year programme. However, I would be very cautious choosing both experiences.
The sad truth behind the “orphanages voluntourism” industry has been exposed recently, with children being taken away from their families and placed in for-profit orphanages. I would therefore recommend gap year travellers either to do their homework before travelling, researching respectful organisations thoroughly, or better still choosing project after having visited them directly. Same goes for activities involving animals.
Visiting a traditional tongkonan house in Toraja, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.
Q: In your opinion, what mistakes do gap year travelers in Southeast Asia frequently commit in the course of their travels – and what should they be doing to correct them?
MIKE: There are a lot of things, and many of them include acting like drunken teenagers and disrespecting the cultures they are visiting.
MARGHERITA: There are two main mistakes – the first one is treating places as their own personal playground, which includes disrespecting local culture and going crazy with parties, and the second one is taking part in unethical animal activities like elephant riding, because of their ‘bucket list’ factor.
TARA: They need to remember to respect the culture around them and to be mindful of the local people. I think that gap year tourists have a bad reputation for that reason and we all need to try and change that.
If you're going to visit a temple, make sure you're dressed appropriately. Make sure you read up about the traditions, customs and culture of the countries you are visiting before you go.
MIKE: Learning a little about the places you visit and the culture you are in goes a long way, and makes sure that you don't become one of those idiots who get naked on sacred sites or just head straight for the nearest bar and stay there your whole trip.
Another huge problem are the travellers who – mostly unwittingly – support the exploitation of wildlife or the unethical for profit voluntourism industry by not doing their due diligence or their research, and by putting their own selfish ego before any ethical concerns.
MARGHERITA: I think educating people on responsible travel, both in regards to local communities and the environment, is crucial – and for this, lots of blogs are doing a great job.
I think reading up and researching before booking a gap year experience is the best way to make sure that what you’re paying for is not something that will hurt local people or the local environment. In this way, your once in a lifetime experience will be so much more meaningful.
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