Written by Alice McLeod on 20 / 06 / 2023
Gap Year Advice
Are you ready to embark on the gap year of a lifetime? If you're considering a gap year in South East Asia, look no further. Our comprehensive blog is your ultimate guide to uncovering the best travel route in this popular backpacker region. From bustling cities that pulse with energy to serene beaches fringed by turquoise waters, SE Asia offers an unparalleled blend of cultures, landscapes, and experiences. You can start in northern Vietnam, work your way down, then over the border into Cambodia, across to Thailand, and wiggle your way down. These countries are cheap and logistics are easy. You’ve got planes, trains and tuk tuks. These will get you across borders, between towns and off-grid super easily, safely, and cheaply. The food is brilliant and delicious, from the street food, to hostels rustling up delicious meals, to high end restaurants (if your backpacker budget miraculously stretches!). It's all there.
Here is a sample itinerary of what you might get up to:
There’s so much to love about Asia, the largest continent certainly has something for everyone, and it’s a gap year backpacker’s dream. With cheap accommodation, cheap food, and cheap travel, what’s not to love. So where to start to plan the best gap year travel route in Asia...
Well, let’s start by putting aside three months to properly explore this part of the world; Asia is the world’s largest continent, and you certainly don’t want to rush from place to place trying to cram it all in. We recommend planning your gap year travel route by picking three countries and spending a month in each. It’s tempting to try and do as much as you can in as little time as possible, but these countries need time to be fully discovered and enjoyed.
Cambodia itself is a country full of colour and culture, with beautiful beaches and tropical islands, but it’s the people that form the warm heart of this inspiring country. Cambodia has everything the region of Southeast Asia has to offer packed into one bite-sized chunk. There are so many amazing things to see on your gap year to Cambodia and that’s why it’s so high on our list of places to visit. When people think of places to see in Cambodia they tend to think of Angkor Wat, and with good reason— it’s a must-see. Siem Reap is the base for exploring the world’s grandest collection of temples and is a buzz with a superb selection of restaurants and bars. Choose from Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building; Bayon, one of world’s weirdest; or Ta Prohm, where nature runs amok (and where Tomb Raider was filmed). Beyond the temples lie floating villages on Tonlé Sap lake, where you can take part in adrenaline-inducing activities such as quad biking, or more cultured pursuits such as cooking classes.
The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, is chaotic yet charming, so hop in a tuk tuk and wind your way through the city and enjoy the busy, vibrant feel. The grid of streets is numbered which makes it fairly easy to get around once you get the hang of it. Experience emotional extremes at the inspiring National Museum and the harrowing Tuol Sleng prison, showcasing the best and worst of Cambodian history. Admire the towering buildings, ornate Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda, and pay a visit to the massive, art deco Central Market. Break up your days exploring the city by discovering the culinary offerings of Khmer cuisine, whether that’s Amok, the national dish of baked fish with lemongrass, chili and coconut, or deep-fried tarantulas.
After getting your fill of frenetic city life, head out to Kampot Province which offers atmospheric towns, national parks, cave pagodas, and tropical beaches. Kampot town is laid-back, with accommodation ranging from backpacker hostels to boutique hotels. Sleepier Kep is just down the road, and has its famous crab market, hiking in Kep National Park, and nearby Koh Tonsay which plays host to a number of coral reefs and white sand beaches.
Our final Cambodia highlight (although trust us, we have too many to count) is Battambang. This is the real Cambodia, far-removed from the jet-set destinations of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The third largest city in Cambodia, Battambang is the leading rice-producing province in the country. It unfurls along the Sangkae river and has some of the best-preserved French Colonial architecture in the country. Streets of French shop-houses host everything from fair-trade cafés to art galleries. Beyond the town lies a cluster of ancient temples, which, although not exactly Angkor Wat, do lack the crowds.
Cambodia is a fantastic country to explore, and to springboard into other countries from. If you want to see this beautiful country without the stress of planning it all yourself then take a look at our Cambodia programme— three weeks in this beautiful country working with Rachel and her amazing charity the Red Road Foundation. See the traveller highlights, but also roll up your sleeves and get stuck into volunteering and get a glimpse of the real Cambodia. From elephant sanctuaries to tropical islands, you'll see it all.
Perhaps when you think of Thailand your first thought is of Full Moon parties on the beach, but Thailand is so much more than that. Thailand really does have something for everybody, it’s fun-loving, vibrant, and dazzling. More importantly it’s seen as the gateway to the rest of Asia, and should therefore be high on your list.
Most people fly into Bangkok, so it makes sense to start your journey there; spend your time weaving through the colourful markets or marveling at the glittering temples. Head up to one of the city’s famous sky bars on your first night and get your bearings in this sprawling metropolis. Party animals will love the Khaosan Road (although be wary of pickpockets), and this famous street is perhaps the most well-known in Thailand. Known as the “backpacker ghetto” Khaosan Road can see up to 50,000 tourists per day in the high season, and it offers everything from dirt-cheap “mattress in a box”-style hostels, to reasonably priced three-star hotels. It’s also a base of travel and coaches leave daily for all major tourist destinations in Thailand, and there are relatively inexpensive travel agents who can arrange visas and transport to the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Vietnam. If you’re visiting the Khaosan road just prior to the traditional Thai New Year (Songkran festival) of 13-15th April, then prepare for major streets to be closed to traffic due to them being turned into massive arenas for water fights.
You can’t visit Bangkok without going on an eating tour around the city to experience the varied national menu that’s built around the four fundamental flavours: spicy, sweet, salty and sour. Get adventurous and try some new things, you won’t be short of street food places to try, and if you’ve ever wanted to eat a scorpion then now is your chance. Lunch on the go has never been so easy (or so cheap!).
From Bangkok head North to Chiang Mai— the cultural capital of the north. You can catch a 1.5 hour flight or a 13-hour sleeper train if you fancy a novel (and at times bizarre) experience. Chiang Mai is beloved by culture geeks and temple-spotters, with an old city that’s jam-packed with temples born during the time of the once-independent Lanna kingdom. Hire a bicycle and explore the winding side-roads, whilst the scenic countryside boasts jungle treks. You also must also find time for a Thai cooking course whilst you’re in Chiang Mai— how else are you going to return home and impress everyone with your culinary expertise? Some courses first take you to the food markets so you can see the very start of the process, and some will even pick you up if you’re in close radius to the cookery school. Once you’ve had your fill of pad thai, head to the historic UNESCO city of Ayutthaya. This city was founded in 1350 as the second capital of the Siamese Kingdom and was attacked and razed by the Burmese army in 1767. The city was never rebuilt in the same location, and today it remains an extensive archaeological site. Cycle around the brick and stucco ruins and try to imagine what the city would have looked like in its prime. On the outskirts of the city there are several more attractions, including an enormous handicraft centre (get those souvenirs bought for everyone back home), and the most eclectic royal palace you will ever see.
If you’re an animal lover, then you have to take a visit to the Elephant Nature Park. It’s important to note that this is not a zoo, this is a rehabilitation centre filled with elephants that have been rescued and rehabilitated from their logging days. Transport is included from each city office, bus station, or the hotel you’re staying at. See the herds of elephants and hear about their individual histories. The elephants are free to interact and play in natural surroundings including the nearby river, custom built pools, and mud pits, so this is really special to see. The money you pay for your visit goes straight towards their foundation, so it’s a really worthy cause!
Once you’ve experienced the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, and then the dense jungle of Chiang Mai, you have to head to Phuket, Thailand’s largest island, for some time chilling on the beach. You can fly there very cheaply and it only takes three and a half hours or so. Phuket is home to some of the most stunning tropical islands famous for white sand beaches, snorkeling, and scuba diving; it also has a large Chinese influence so expect traditional Thai cuisine to take on its own distinct character. Head to Laem Phromthep viewpoint at the southernmost point of the island for some of the most beautiful sunsets in all of Thailand.
It's not all cocktails on the beach though, head into the Phuket Old Town to explore the history of Phuket and the different diverse ethnicities and religions that came to reside and make a living as merchants here. On Sundays there’s a market called Lat Yai where you can have a wander around and try some local food. If you manage to time your trip with the Chinese New Year, then you’ll be able to witness the Old Phuket Festival, which is held just after. This festival shows the local life and culture of Phuket; during the festival prominent roads are closed and pedestrianised to make room for spectacular parades of local culture, food stalls, and traditional costumes. There are major temples in both Chalong and Thalang, and if you head to the north of the island then you’ll find two national parks and a smattering of wildlife sanctuaries.
You really could spend months and months in Thailand and still not see it all! It’s such a vibrant and beautiful country, but still maintains its strong cultural identity. Thailand’s cheap cost of living means it attracts travellers from all over the world, so a visit here would definitely leave you with a few new friends! Perhaps it’s the food that best expresses the fundamental aspects of Thai culture: generous, warm, refreshing, and relaxed.
When many think of Vietnam they are reminded of the tragic impact of the war, however there is so much more to be inspired by— this country dates back to 3 rd century BC, and is a dynamic mix of its past ruling influences. Plan at least a month to see everything this fantastic country has to offer, from the surreal seascape of limestone islands in Halong Bay, to the tsunami of motorbikes in Hanoi. Vietnam is long and thin, so if you’re coming from Cambodia or Thailand then we recommend you start at either the north or south of the country and travel up or down.
Fly into Hanoi, the
country’s capital, home to a special combination of faded classical
buildings and ancient pagodas. Hanoi is a fun and vibrant place, which
mixes ancient and dynamic, and where it might take you ten minutes to
cross the road due to the never-ending stream of motorbikes. Take some
time to wander around the Old Quarter, sample some Vietnamese street
food, and pick up souvenirs for next to nothing. Food in Vietnam is
perhaps Asia’s best kept culinary secret. It all boils down to the
freshness of ingredients, chefs shop twice a day to collect just-picked
herbs from the market. The result is incomparable textures and flavour
combinations. Wherever you are in Vietnam you’ll find amazing local
canh chua (a fish and vegetable soup) or good ol’ pho.
From Hanoi you must travel east to Halong Bay, which is a stunning combination of limestone peaks and sheltered beaches. It’s one of Vietnam’s top tourist draws, but with over 2000 different islands, there’s plenty of superb scenery to go around! Halong City is the main gateway to the bay, but its sprawling skyscrapers are a somewhat disappointing doorstep to this beautiful site. Many travellers opt for cruise tours that include sleeping onboard within the bay, you can then explore the World Heritage site of lagoons, floating villages, and secluded beaches. Wake up early to see the magical misty dawn, or rent a kayak to explore the grottoes and bays. Some travellers choose to skip the main bay completely and head straight for Cat Ba Island where trips to the less-visited but equally beautiful Lan Ha Bay are easily set up.
From Halong Bay head south down the country to Hoi An— Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan and atmospheric town. This stunning ancient town is bustling with gourmet restaurants, trendy bars, quirky boutiques, and expert tailors. Another bonus is that the 21 st century curses of traffic and pollution are almost entirely absent here. Head straight to the Old Town to see it’s incredibly preserved legacy of Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, and ancient tea warehouses. Tourist businesses are slowly replacing the rice fields, but down by the market and over on Cam Nam Island, life has changed very little. Hoi An really has it all, learn to cook like a local, tour the temples and pagodas, then hit the fantastic An Bang Beach for sundowners.
If you want to see
all the highlights of Vietnam without doing any of the planning
yourself, then take a look at our
Vietnam volunteering road trip.
In addition to visiting some of the best parts of Vietnam, you’ll
combine animal conservation, river cruises, and community volunteering.
From Vietnam it couldn’t be easier (or cheaper) to travel around south
east Asia. So what are you waiting for?
If you’re thinking Asia, it gets a big thumbs up from us. If you’re a bit nervous and don’t know where to start, head to the Asia section of our website where we have 4 week programmes to Cambodia and Vietnam. These programmes are ideal for meeting other people, getting off grid and including a community volunteering element in your gap year travel plans.
The four-week trips are a time to really gain confidence, to learn how third world hustling bustling countries work. After which, a lot of people choose to add on phases, months even, of independent travel which we assist with through our independent travel resource which you get full access to when you join a Leap programme.
Do I need a visa to travel around South East Asia? Yes, you'll need a visa for most countries in South East Asia. Nowadays you can often get your visa online as well as on arrival, but MAKE SURE YOU CHECK! You don't want to be arriving into a country just to find that you should have applied for a visa beforehand, and not be allowed entry. The best place to find up to date information about entry requirements is the FCDO.
Should I take a backpack or suitcase on my travels around Asia? Backpack every time! You'll quickly get tired of lugging a suitcase down uneven roads and around cities, and it's liable to getting damaged as you wrestle it onto tuk tuks and boats. A backpack and some packing cubes will stand you in good stead for your travels.
What's the best mode of transport around SE Asia? You'll find yourself taking all sorts of modes of transportation, from planes to boats. Flights between countries can often be found cheap, but overnight buses are also popular (sometimes it's worth paying that extra £5 for one of the nicer, VIP overnight buses - trust us). Day to day, you might be tempted to rent a moped/motorbike but check your insurance before you do as many policies won't cover you for this. It can also be dangerous, especially if you're not used to driving a moped on busy streets; you should always wear a helmet.
Do people speak English in SE Asia? In more touristy areas you might find that more people will speak some English, but we always recommend that you make some effort to at least learn 'hello', 'please', and 'thank you' in the native language.
on 20 / 06 / 2023