Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.

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First published 19th August, 2012

So we have another year of A-level results and another year of feverish travel planning as another year's worth of British students decide to take a gap year before hitting university. You'd be mad not to be fitting in a Southeast Asia sojourn as a part of your journey, so here's some advice to get the most out of your time here.


Cambodia
Don't miss Phnom Penh... or Koh Rong

Some find it dificult to look past Angkor Wat when it comes to Cambodia, but the capital Phnom Penh and stunning island of Koh Rong are both must-sees. Give each at least three days and don't be surprised when you end up doubling your time in each.


Koh Rong: Bloody awful.
Koh Rong: Bloody awful.

Highlight: Sunset cruise in Phnom Penh, slow days on the beach on Koh Rong.
Lowpoint: The "cocaine" in Phnom Penh is often heroin -- you're in Cambodia, not Cuzco. Watch out for snatch and grab robberies and stay in control.

Indonesia
Party in the Gilis, but get off Trawangan

The Gilis are just about the least Indonesian destination in Indonesia, but they're popular for a reason. They're very beautiful, moderately affordable and the snorkelling is great. Just remember there are actually three and allow an extra week to get of Trawangan and explore the other two -- Gili Meno and Gili Air.


The Gilis: When you'd rather be snorkelling.
The Gilis: When you'd rather be snorkelling.

Highpoint: Snorkelling
Lowpoint: The drugs freely available on Gili T are actually illegal and Indonesia enforces harsh penalties for drug use and trafficking.

Laos
Go to Vang Vieng but also go to Konglor cave

You're going to Laos so we're not going to tell you not to go to debauched party town Vang Vieng, but while you're in Laos, don't miss the lovely Tha Khaek loop.


A quiet day in Vang Vieng.
A quiet day in Vang Vieng.

Highlight: Boating through Konglor cave
Lowlight: Stay in control in Vang Vieng. People continue to die in situations that are avoidable.

Malaysia
Eat everywhere but eat on the street

The Malaysian capital is much more than you may expect and the backpacker quarter is slowly lifting its game. While you're there be sure to visit Batu Caves, but further afield don't miss Georgetown on Penang -- give it four days and allow for putting on a few extra kilos as the food is close to the best in the world.


Batu Caves: Let's build a big statue.
Batu Caves: Let's build a big statue.

Highlight: Street food in both cities.
Lowlight: Booze is expensive. Bring in duty free.

Singapore
Book beds in advance… eat in hawker stalls

People get put off Singapore because of the cost, but plenty of things to do are free, including loads of museums and even a bunch of islands to explore. Stay longer than a night, but book your accommodation in advance -- the best hostels in Singapore fill up fast. And learn to use the bus system - your wallet will thank you.


Singapore: Free stuff includes gazing at alien spaceships masquerading as hotels.
Singapore: Free stuff includes gazing at alien spaceships masquerading as hotels.

Highlight: Hawker food.
Lowlight: This can be an expensive town. Booze is pricey. The best accommodation fills fast.

Thailand
Check out the FMP then bail for a west coast island

Like Vang Vieng, experiencing the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha Ngan is a bit of a rite of passage for you and 10,000 other lunatics. But don't plan on spending your entire detox on Ko Pha Ngan -- instead head over to the Andaman west coast of southern Thailand.


Ko Surin: A perfect place to miss the UK.
Ko Surin: A perfect place to miss the UK.

Highlight: Snorkelling on Thailand's west coast.
Lowlight: Watch out for theft, druggings and random attacks by druken idiots at the FMP. Don't assume the person trying to sell you acid isn't a police officer. Where possible avoid bus travel at night (due to theft and accidents) -- train travel is preferable.

Vietnam
Double your time in Hanoi and get licensed

Over and over again people complain that they ran out of time in Hanoi. There is a shedload of things to do (though we've advised one of the best ways to experience Hanoi is to avoid all that), the streetfood is fabulous and the booze super cheap. Double however long you've allowed there. If you're planning on travelling by motorbike, get a motorbike license in your home country and read your travel insurance policy very, very carefully.

Highlight: A day spent in a series of Hanoi cafes just watching life go by. Ha Long Bay is also okay.
Lowlight: Scams in heavily touristed areas can become tiresome fast. Snatch and grab theft is a growing problem in the south as is the Filipino scam. Stay in control. Don't ride your motorbike when drunk -- duh.

Insurance
Grow a brain, get insured

If you can't afford to travel without adequate insurance coverage, you can't afford to travel. It's that simple. We recommend World Nomads, which isn't the cheapest of policies, but they are who we use ourselves, every single time we travel. The travel insurance market in the UK is extremely price competitive -- shop around but read the policies very carefully and watch out for exclusions and limited payouts.


Insurance: Does your cover include  riding on the roof of the bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang? If so, do it!
Insurance: Does your cover include riding on the roof of the bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang? If so, do it!

Highlight: Never needing to use your travel insurance.
Lowlight: Finding out that your medical coverage excluded activities in Southeast Asia (see point 54,876 in 2-point text on page 453 of your policy).

RTW flights
Shop around but be sure to call Stuart

If you're going to travel around the world, not surprisingly a round-the-world ticket can be a sound investment -- not always though. Look at your route planning, see what works with low-cost carriers, though be wary of their neverending surcharges. Saving $10 by spending 14 hours waiting for your next flight isn't always the most intelligent way to save money. Consider getting a RTW ticket that takes you to a hub (say Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Singapore) and then do all your regional flights with an LCC like AirAsia, Jetstar or Tiger. When flying domestically in Indonesia we would only fly Garuda or AirAsia. When researching your RTW, call Stuart at RTW Flights -- he knows his stuff. Really.


RTW flights: Be sure to book flights that includes fluffy white clouds.
RTW flights: Be sure to book flights that includes fluffy white clouds.

Highlight: All this planning is loads of fun. Finding out that saving yourself $300 on flights just got you an extra 10 days in Thailand.
Lowlight: Scummy add-ons that all the airlines carry on with.

Lingo
Hello, good bye and thankyou

You're on a year-long trip going to perhaps a dozen or more countries. We don't expect you to gain fluency in the language of every country you travel in, but anyone can learn the very basics: hello, good-bye, thank you. Try it with a smile and the locals will laugh with you, not at you.


Lingo: How do I say "Can I take your photo while your friend picks your nose?"
Lingo: How do I say "Can I take your photo while your friend picks your nose?"

Highlight: Having even a rudimentary interaction with a local that doesn't involve saying, "Can I have two beers please?"
Lowlight: Travelling the entire year without learning a single word of local language.

Slow down
Less is more

If you're travelling every other day, you'll need to holiday at the end of your holiday to take a breath. Look at your itinerary and cut it in half. You need AT LEAST three weeks to have an enjoyable top to tail trip of Vietnam. You cannot "do" Southeast Asia in a month. Plus, with a slower itinerary, you've got some play up your sleeve should you want to reorganise.


Slow down: Plan all your travels by cyclo.
Slow down: Plan all your travels by cyclo.

Highlight: Realising you have a week up your sleeve so you can stay that extra four days in the hammock.
Lowlight: Spending your entire trip on the move. Seeing everything and experiencing nothing.

Take care
Roads are just as hard in Asia

If you fall off your motorbike you'll find that the road is just as hard here as it is in your home country. Wear a helmet. Dress sensibly. Don't ride drunk. Other random tips: Don't get trashed and walk home alone at 3am carrying a $2,000 camera on your shoulder. Don't flaunt your wealth. Stay in control. Never hit a police officer. You're not special and you're not entitled to special privileges like smoking weed in a cafe in Singapore.


Safety: Always stick your head out the train window.
Safety: Always stick your head out the train window.

Highlight: Staying alive.
Lowlight: Not.

Lend a hand
Some pointers for volunteering

Volunteering is growing in popularity. Consider why you want to volunteer. What are you trying to achieve? Who are you trying to help? If you're not willing to pay to volunteer, think about why not. Research the various organisations carefully. Many of them are scams. Never volunteer to work in an orphanage -- children are not there for tourists. What skills do you actually have that will be helpful? Research, research, research and choose carefully. It's not about you.


Volunteering: "I flew here from Toronto to turn earth".
Volunteering: "I flew here from Toronto to turn earth".

Highlights: Contributing in a meaningful manner that benefits the recipients.
Lowlights: Find out that the $3,000 you paid to dig holes in a paddock in the middle of nowhere deprived a local of a job and bought the organiser's son a MacBook Pro.

Have fun
You'll learn loads and have a blast doing it

You've learnt loads in the last decade or so of education. Travel is the next step and can be a fabulous experience, but you need to earn it. To get the most out of your trip, make the effort to learn about the people, countries and cultures you're experiencing. Take what you learn and treasure it.


Travel is one of life's great adventures.
Travel is one of life's great adventures.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


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