Why gappers are heading East

China, Borneo and Japan are the new destinations for young people with a year to fill, says Nick Jackson

Go west, the Pet Shop Boys told us in 1993. Nonsense. Every gapper knows that the East is where it's at, whether it's to travel back in time in Borneo's jungle, see the future in Japan's metropolises, or just figure out the meaning of life on a beach in Thailand.

The only problem is that travel guides lead the legion of backpackers to the same spots each year, attracting the inevitable band of pickpockets, ageing hippies, and drug dealers-turned- police informants.

If you are looking for adventure, however, and a chance to do some good as you go, then it pays to look beyond the beaten track and to community projects, which are increasingly available in new destinations such as China.

"China at the moment is on a completely different plane," says David Gill, who heads Changing Worlds, a gap company that is starting an English-teaching project in China this year. "In 10 years' time it will have changed completely."

Alternatively, you can't get more off the beaten track than hacking out a jungle trail with machetes in Borneo. Sean Lambert, 27, quit his job in the City earlier this year and spent six weeks in the jungle, sleeping in a hammock, to clear a path for eco-tourists in Borneo. It was part of a four-month stay in the country doing conservation work and teaching with the charity Trekforce Expeditions.

"I absolutely loved the jungle," he says. Sleeping under the stars, hacking your way through the jungle and building bridges over streams may seem a bit Indiana Jones and alpha male, but with training arranged by Trekforce in the UK, and acclimatisation in Borneo, Lambert says that anyone willing to work can give it a go.

The group with which he worked included both men and women, from school-leavers to thirtysomethings. Lambert enjoyed the camaraderie. "People's real personalities came through," he says. "Everyone's true character is quite awesome when they put their fakeness aside."

If the idea of being woken up in the middle of the night by beasties gives you the heebie-jeebies, Japan might be more your bag. "It's like going to another planet," says Lucy Battery, who spent six months working in Kitami in her gap year. "It's very strange, a weird and wonderful place." Battery, 20, watched Lost in Translation just before she went. "Some of the things that seemed far-fetched in the film didn't once I'd lived there!" she says.

Battery worked in a Red Cross hospital in the city of Kitami, on the northern island of Hokkaido, for six months as an auxiliary nurse, on a trip organised by Gap Activity Projects (GAP). Living with her gap-year partner in a flat near the hospital, going out with other volunteers for dinner and karaoke, it was Battery's first taste of life away from family and friends.

You don't need any special training or science background to do a medical placement with GAP, but hospital work wouldn't suit everyone. "There are jobs that aren't so nice, like when a patient's sick on you, say, so it's not for everybody, but for me the whole experience was fantastic. It was the best time in my life."

After working in Kitami, Battery travelled around Japan, Australia and New Zealand, all under her own steam.

Other gap companies combine community work with travel. When Angela Green was organising a gap year, she wanted to do more than just party. "Everyone I know who has been to South-east Asia just went to Thailand," she says. "I thought it would be interesting to see a different culture." Green, 19, spent two months last year building houses with a Buddhist charity in Seam Reap, Cambodia, as part of a tour of South-east Asia and China organised by the gap company Venture Co. "It was amazing," she says. "We worked with local builders and, by the end, we were pretty good at it."

After Seam Reap, her group cycled through Vietnam and into Laos, where they visited an Akha tribal village. "It was the highlight of the trip," she says. "They were so lovely to us." The rice whisky may have helped - they visited the village over the Laos New Year, and spent the day sitting in the chief's hut drinking with him from 11 in the morning.

The tour ended with a boat trip in China. Being in a group gave Green more confidence and meant she could be more adventurous. "I'd recommend it to anyone," she says. "There's only so much you can learn from a guidebook."