Melissa is stepping down from leading our Southeast Asia Semester Program after five years and here shares some thoughts and experiences. Enjoy!

Cooling off while trekking in Laos


Now in the role of a trip leader for the Pacific Discovery Southeast Asia program, I often re-visit my first experience as a participant. I am forever questioning what exactly made the two months of memories and relationships so monumental? What changed in my deeper understanding of the world? How can I share this with others?

A participant once came to me and said: “Today I trekked into the world’s 5th largest waterfall, sampled my first wasp larvae during lunch, and sang in a circle with Thai teenagers in a new language. All of this in one day!”

It would be a slight exaggeration for me to classify all days of the program are filled with such excitement. Of course, there are the days where we ride in a cramped minibus, shifting and shaking on a dirt road in Laos for 8+ hours. And there are group dynamics that need to be carefully recognized and dealt with. More often than not, there is a participant who is experiencing a harder time adapting to the faster pace of group travel and missing the familiarity of home. As a leader, knowing when to devote more time to a certain group member is key.

Former Emperor's palace, Hue, Vietnam

On the Southeast Asia program, we spend our last four nights relaxing on the beaches of southern Thailand. On the final night of program, we have a special evening where we conduct our last group debriefing as unified travelers and family. After sharing a meal of Thai curries and noodle dishes, each person presents a homemade gift in the honor of their ‘Secret Buddha’—the name of a group member they chose from a hat 55 days earlier in the trip. The gift usually reflects funny moments shared by the gift giver and receiver, with a personal touch. For me, as a trip leader, this commemorative time often highlights the brilliance of what participants have gained—courage, the bond of friendship, an ‘awakened’ creative mind, and insight into one of the most fascinating pockets of the world. Most people vow to travel to Southeast Asia again and, of course, we will never forget the bond of group travel.

On a personal note, the time has come for me to ‘hang up the Southeast Asia hat.’ I consider the relationships that I have built with local guesthouse owners, tour operators, even the old man who sells the best Thai coffee on Thanon Prah Athit in Bangkok. I consider the reward of being invited to share such genuine experiences with young people who are on the brink of transformation. How lucky I am to find such a meaningful and fulfilling job position in such a spectacular location on this Earth!

Gifting photo's to Phnom Penh's KDFO orphanage


A huge THANK YOU from The Pacific Discovery team Mels for all your hard work over the years and belief in what we're all about!! We wish you all the best with your future plans.


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Author Melissa Raftery Posted

Program Southeast Asia