South-east Asia: the gapper's paradise

Cheap, safe and vibrant, South-east Asia is the premier choice for the budget traveller, says Kate Thomas

Who goes there?

Whether you’re an eco-adventurer looking for a low impact challenge, a water baby in search of an island paradise or a city dweller looking for a bit of excitement, South-east Asia offers it all in a neat, low-cost package. The last five years have seen destinations such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam really open up to gappers – low costs, relative political stability and short distances make it easy to combine a worthwhile project with a travel experience.

What gap years can you do there?

From volunteering on coral reef conservation projects on Thailand’s Edenic islands to helping shape the futures of street children in the Philippines, gap year organisations offer a dazzling array of projects in Southeast Asia. Old favourite Thailand has plenty to tempt travellers. While you’ll probably want to check out the beaches and put in an appearance at the famous full moon parties, there are also lots of opportunities to volunteer. Projects Abroad offers gap year experiences that combine both work and play ( www.projects-abroad.org).

For those who want to visit a part of Thailand most tourists never get to see, Africa and Asia Venture offer a two-month programme close to the Thai border with Burma. After five days’ orientation – including a Thai cookery course – you’ll spend eight weeks helping to shape the futures of children in the classroom (www.aventure.co.uk).

Adrenalin junkies looking for a thrill that lasts might want to bypass New Zealand and look at Trekforce Worldwide’s adventures to remote parts of Borneo and Papua New Guinea. Opt for the Borneo trek (from £1,500; two to 20 weeks) and you’ll stay in a traditional long house, climb mountains, swim lakes and help ensure the protection of the orangutan. Trekforce’s expeditions are more extreme than the average gap year project – Tribe presenter Bruce Parry was once a group leader, which gives you an idea of how intense the trip is likely to be ( www.trekforce.org.uk).

What opportunities for further travel are there?

With so many countries packed into one region, it’s easy to get around. The backpacker path through Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia is so well trodden, you’ll be sure to meet like-minded people along the way. The only problem is deciding where to go first. Some travellers opt to spend their time exploring the temples, decadent nightlife and heartbreaking history of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Others are enchanted by the ultra soporific islands of Thailand or Indonesia’s perfect waves. The express train from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is a spectacular ride that skirts breathtaking valleys, patches of jungle and idyllic bays; fashionistas might want to make a stop in Hoi An, a veritable treasure trove of sprawling fabric markets, local tailors and cobblers. Rainforest clad Laos attracts eco-adventurers and amateur anthropologists – you can try white-water rafting or tubing as well as learning about the country’s threatened hill tribes. Malaysia offers a heady mix of jungle, island paradise and urban sprawl while next-door neighbour Singapore is an oasis of calm. Burma has a lot to offer tourists but you should think long and hard before going: many campaigners believe visitors should stay away for now.

How much will it cost me?

South-east Asia is a backpacker’s dream. The cost of gap year programmes varies dramatically, but most reputable companies won’t charge more than £1,500 for a four-week project. Transport is your greatest expense; even so, a second-class train ticket from Singapore to Bangkok costs just £50. You can eat well in most countries for as little as £3 or £4 a day.Unless you’re intent on luxury, a night in a decent guesthouse in Cambodia will set you back around £4. Prepare to tighten the purse strings if you venture off the beaten track, where there may be fewer options for travellers on a budget.

Book ahead and you’ll find great deals on flights to the region. Specialist travel agencies such as STA Travel sell return flights from London to Bangkok from £450, while Qantas and Singapore Airlines both offer fully-flexible fares to Kuala Lumpur from £750.

You’ll need to factor in the costs of visas and insurance – a 30-day tourist visa to Cambodia currently costs US$20(£10.50) – as well as enough spending money to cover such backpacker necessities as a T-shirt or string of beads from Bangkok’s famous Khao San strip.

Are there any risks?

Nowhere in the world is completely risk-free but South-east Asia is a sound choice for first-time travellers. The path through Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia is so well trodden that you’ll always have the company of other backpackers and there are reliable medical facilities in most backpacker hotspots.

Malaria and Dengue Fever are endemic to parts of South-east Asia; visit a travel nurse for prophylaxis and other important shots before departure. Female travellers are unlikely to receive much unwanted attention in this largely-Buddhist region.

Make sure you’re properly kitted out before you head off into the sunset – Gap Year Travel Store ( www.gapyeartravelstore.com) sells destination-specific kits containing everything from first aid and travel pillows to heat-conserving blankets and waterproof matches. They’ll even throw in a pack of glow-sticks – useful for providing emergency light as well as for waving around at all those full moon parties.

What they say

Paul Edwards spent five months in South-east Asia as part of his gap year, visiting Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

“I structured my gap year to incorporate volunteering as well as travel; I didn’t want to waste all my time sitting on a beach. I did a four-week tour of Cambodia and Vietnam with Intrepid Travel, who provided a fixed placement and local tour guides. There were people in the group from all over the world. I also volunteered to work with rescued elephants in Kanchanaburi in Thailand –a brilliant experience. I wanted to visit South-east Asia because it really is a backpacker mecca. You can live on around £5 a day. Your money goes a long way.”

What we say

“This region has always been hugely popular, but the downside is that every year another town or resort loses its largely-untouched lustre. In Thailand, westernisation is pulling and pushing at traditions. That means there’s all the more reason to steer clear of the hordes and find your own low-impact adventures, be it in the tranquil Indonesian islands, the quiet backwaters of Laos or the less-visited parts of Cambodia,” Andrew Buncombe, Asia correspondent, The Independent.

Should we be on the next flight out?

Yes

  • This is the backpacker trail, so it’s dead easy to meet other travellers
  • South-east Asia offers a wealth of attractions and historic sites in close proximity
  • Travel is much cheaper than in Africa or the Americas

No

  • All those fellow travellers mean it can be difficult to escape the crowds
  • Local traditions are under threat from the constant influx of tourists
  • English is widely spoken so you probably won’t pick up a language to put on your CV
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