Spending a gap year in Asia is a very popular choice with potential travellers, for the picture-perfect white sand beaches, magnificent temples and delicious street-food.
Destinations such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia have become the norm for those on their gap year in Asia and are now inundated with tourists and gappers looking to get the perfect travelling experience.
However, if you are after somewhere a little bit different or want to avoid the full-moon parties and crowds of Thailand, but still want the same attractions and experiences, these three new trending destinations really cut it for an unbeatable gap year in Asia.
Despite only becoming popular with gap year travellers over the last few years, Borneo has a lot to offer, from rainforests and conservation to beaches and diving. As Borneo is part of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, you have the chance to experience all three cultures in one epic trip.
Borneo is home to a huge variety of wildlife, much of which is unique and endangered, including the orangutan, the proboscis monkey and the green and hawsbill turtle. The natural landscape is also slowly being destroyed and ecotourism is on the rise, which is all the more reason to visit Borneo now – if the environment is not preserved then its beauty could disappear.
Watch turtles hatch and take their first steps to the shore at Turtle Islands National Park. Egg-laying season for turtles is between July and October, so this is the best time to go. While here, there are more than just turtles to see, there is also scuba-diving and snorkelling on the islands as well as mud volcanoes on Bakkungan Kecil.
A trip to the jungle could involve river cruises, hikes into the jungle with experienced guides and the chance to see species including gibbons, lemurs, tarsiers, some of the two hundred different species of bird living in Borneo. If you’re lucky, you might spot the slightly strange-looking proboscis monkey, with its large, bulging nose.
Orangutans are now considered critically endangered in Borneo, so while here, try and take the opportunity to see these amazing creatures while we still can. The best places to see them in their natural habitat is….
For a chance to really head off the beaten track, visit Indonesian Borneo – Kalimantan. This area is harder to get to but worth it for the amazing scenery, friendly locals and many more orang-utans than you’d find in Malaysian Borneo.
Volunteering in Borneo
A great way to get to know a country when you first arrive is to take part in a volunteering programme. This gives you the chance to explore a variety of places throughout a country whilst also contributing to the local communities that you will live with. It offers the chance to get off the tourist trail and get to know those hidden places out of sight from your regular backpacker.
If this sounds right up your street take a look at our 10-week program that will have you living in remote communities, trekking and living in a rainforest camp.
Getting there and around
Fly into Kota Kinabula International Aiport or Kuching Airport. Flights from London to Kuching usually go either via Dubai and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) or Singapore. Domestic flights are relatively cheap and so flying is one of the best ways of getting around, however, early booking is recommended as flights can fill up.
Cost of living
3 different currencies are used in Borneo depending on where you are: either the Malaysian Ringgit, the Indonesian Rupiah or the Bruneian Dollar. The cost of living is generally cheap - a good meal in an Indonesian restaurant would only cost around £5, with a bowl of noodles from a Malaysian market costing just 90p.
In Malaysian and Bruneian Borneo there are no visa issues, you can just walk straight in and get a stamp on arrival. In Indonesian Borneo you need a special visa for long-term volunteer placements, but going in as an ordinary traveller is straightforward, although you do have to pay.
Be aware that there are departure taxes from all Indonesian airports – so keep some cash on you for your departure (even for a domestic flight).
Not sure how to start planning your gap year? Don't panic! Download The Gap Adventure Blueprint Our comprehensive gap year advice guide, which contains several chapters on preparing for your adventure.
I'm Interested, Tell Me More!
Despite its complex and brutal history, more and more people are now choosing to travel to Burma, for a glimpse of its culture, history and friendly, peaceful Buddhist people – making it a perfect gap year destination in Asia.
Now is a great time to visit this mystical country as it is still relatively closed off from the rest of Asia and the Western world, therefore you are guaranteed to have a cultural experience like no other.
Also known as Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, this is a Buddhist pilgrimage site and one of the most famous landmarks in Burma, particularly as over 80% of the country’s population are practising Buddhists.
Alternatively visit this glorious pagoda in Yangon, covered with gold, diamonds and rubies: a perfect photograph opportunity. Beautiful as they are, you should pick and choose a couple of these Pagodas to visit, or risk getting lost in a sea of golden spires.
Although this is a fairly tourist-centred location, it is worth a visit for a chance to soak up the Burmese culture. A great chance to see temples, stilt houses, floating gardens and many other traditional Burmese sites.
Bogyoke Aung San Market
A huge market based in Yangon (Rangoon) – consists of over 2000 shops, the perfect place to pick up a few gap year souvenirs to bring home.
Getting there and around
Most people choose to fly into Yangon via either Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. Alternatively, fly into Mandalay International Airport. When leaving make sure you have some money to spare as the departure tax is $10 for foreigners.
Domestic air services are limited and often over-stretched, and so a better option for travelling around Burma is buses. These are cheaper than alternative modes of transport, if a little unpredictable with their timings - one of the downsides of Burma being a new destination for foreign travellers is that the infrastructure is not quite up to the standards of other more popular destinations.
Top Travel Tip: it is considered bad luck to ask anyone on your journey when they think you will arrive as this is thought to conjure up bad spirits.
Cost of living
Local currency is the Myanmar Kyat. A meal at a local restaurant or from a street stall should only cost you about £1 and travel on buses can be as little as £5.
You’ll need to get a visa to enter, and these last 28-days, you can apply for these online and they cost US$50.
If you have a real desire to head off the beaten track then be careful in Burma as the far Northern, mountainous area, the Western Chin State and the far reaches of the southern Mon State and Tenasserim region are generally off limits to tourists unless you have specifically applied for a government visa in advance.
For those who want to visit Indonesia but escape the crowds of the more commonly travelled Bali and Lombok, Sulawesi is the perfect option and would definitely give you a talking point on account of its uniqueness.
Sulawesi is the eleventh-largest island in the world and is situated between Borneo and the Maluku Islands and is easily recognisable due to its octopus-like shape.
Tana Toraja Highlands
These are the ancient sites of the Torajan people and have remained unchanged for nearly a hundred years.
Here you can see the famous hanging burial sites of Sulawesi as well as huge green paddy fields full of buffalo, cave graves and traditional Tongkonan houses with their upward-sloping roofs.
Manado is a bustling city, in contrast to quieter parts of Sulawesi, such as the Togian Islands. It is often used as a stop-off point for going snorkelling and scuba-diving in the Bunaken Marine Reserve. But in Manado itself you can visit temples, markets and the breath-taking Lake Tondano.
Bunaken Marine Reserve
Amazing for snorkelling and scuba-diving and you can either base yourself here and day-trip to the reefs or stay on the islands. There is no shortage of places to stay whichever you do and there are a variety of dive operators to choose from.
Another brilliant snorkelling and diving location, where you can see turtles, sharks, octopus and a huge variety of fish. Wakai is a good place to base yourself as it is easy to travel out to other islands from here. If you’re after an unspoilt diving location off the beaten track then this is definitely the place.
Getting there and around
Fly into Makassar, which is the largest and most populated city in Sulawesi, the capital of the south. You can also fly into Manado for access to all of North Sulawesi. Roads are fairly well covered by public transport, but the most efficient way to get around is by using shared taxis or minibuses. There are also ferries, but these are known to be unreliable.
Cost of Living
Sulawesi uses the Indonesian currency Rupiah. A simple meal in a local restaurant in Manado can cost you as little as £1.
You will need a tourist visa on arrival in Indonesia, which lasts for 30 days.
Over to you
So there we have it, the three destinations we recommend for your off-the-beaten-track gap year in Asia. Now it’s time for you to start planning!
Next week we’ll have the same for South America so be sure to check in again...
on 13 / 07 / 2016