Southeast Asia can’t be beaten for the sheer diversity of cultures, histories and landscapes in a geographically small area. Your days will be as varied as the countries you visit, with a fusion of hands-on volunteer work with elephants, connecting with locals during community volunteer projects, trekking through ethnic minority villages, and healthy doses of jungles and beaches.
Join us on this epic journey through the remote minority villages of Laos, the diverse landscapes of Vietnam, the world-famous Cambodian temples of Angkor Wat, all the way to the stunning beaches of Southern Thailand. This 70-day gap year program offers you an enriching fusion of community and animal rescue volunteer projects, cultural immersion, Vietnamese cooking, Buddhist meditation, kayaking, and of course, non-stop adventure!
✓ Want to relax on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world
✓ Are interested in immersing yourself in new cultures
✓ Love activities like rock climbing, hiking, and kayaking
✓ Are enthusiastic about animal welfare and community volunteering
✓ Want to discover spectacular temples, jungles, and vibrant markets
Before heading across the world to Southeast Asia, I’d had a rough couple of years. I was at a crossroads in my life. The program opened my eyes to whole new realms of possibilities, as well as giving me a chance to step back, take a deep breath, relax and reflect. The pace of the itinerary has been honed and perfected over years and years. There is a great mix of physical activity, cultural immersion, and rest time. The friends and experiences I made along the way gave me more confidence than I ever thought possible. I have Pacific Discovery to thank for that. I can confidently say that my time in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia has re-inspired me to be excited about my future. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world.”
- Trevor Cheitlin
Our Program Quiz can help you find your perfect Program match! Or get the full Program run-down in our catalogue. This catalogue provides information about Pacific Discovery's values and program design, as well as program descriptions and testimonials!
We arrive in Bangkok, having journeyed from the West to the East. In Bangkok, cultures entwine in a symphony of sounds, scents, sights, and tastes – it’s a sensory overload! Our first few days will focus on getting to know each other and creating a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals. Then enjoy a yummy meal at the market, where we can sit back and watch the hustle and bustle of market life around us. Hidden in the busy Bangkok streets are some of Thailand’s most beautiful religious and cultural sites, and this week we get to visit them and see their beauty in person. Including Wat Pho, The Grand Palace, The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Wat Arun, and many more!
After orientation, we take the train to the jungles and ruins of Ayutthaya, a historic city and kingdom in Thailand. This UNESCO World Heritage site was the capital of Siam for around 400 years and holds many grand monuments and temples. In Ayutthaya, we will head out on a tour of this magical city, seeing all of the sights and wonders that it has to hold, and all from a mountain bike!
Departing Ayutthaya, we journey to Sukhothai, another UNESCO World Heritage site that is famous for its ancient temples. 1000 years ago, Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand. Today it is a tranquil quintessential Thai town. We will explore the complex of temple ruins before continuing by minivan, north to Chiang Rai.
We make our way further north to the hills of Thailand, where we have some time to explore the sights of Chiang Rai. This city is a lot smaller and less developed than neighboring Chiang Mai and has the added advantage of featuring the striking all-white Buddhist temple Wat Rong Khun.
From Chiang Rai, we head to the countryside! We will spend a few days in a small hill tribe village to observe their simple way of life. A member of the Lahu community will talk us through the history of the village, their distinct traditional clothing, and the strong commitment to maintaining the Lahu way of life. We will also get hands-on by building a coffee nursery to help the community, head into the jungle, and learn about the irrigation purposes of the local dams. To end this immersive stay, we can join in a dance and cultural exchange during a traditional Lahu dance performance, also called the ‘Ka Kuk We’.
After we have said goodbye to our host families, we make our way to Chiang Mai. Although Chiang Mai is the third largest city in the country, it has the appearance of a large village. We explore the historic center during the day, and spend the evening browsing, shopping, and snacking in Chiang Mai’s night markets.
Everyone's favorite, we will be staying at an ethical elephant conservation park that aims to solve some of the problems surrounding elephant exploitation in Thailand. Despite a ban on logging, elephant habitat is still being lost and as few as 500 wild elephants are left in Thailand and they are threatened. Over 2,000 domestic elephants, trapped in the traditional elephant tourist industry, have a bleak future. We will be up close and personal with these kind and unforgettable animals for a few days, helping care for them and exploring the complex issue the animal conservation world is currently facing.
By the time we leave the sanctuary, we will have learned an enormous amount about elephant conservation, will be very sad to farewell these gentle giants and will feel incredibly satisfied at the rewarding work we have done to ensure their protection.
The rest of the week is all about empathy and understanding. We will be based in the forest just outside of Chiang Mai and work to support one of the minority tribes in northern Thailand. We will work alongside a transparent NGO that helps to empower at-risk girls to end trafficking and exploitation within their communities and works to break the cycle of poverty in Thailand.
We make our way to Pai, a relaxing town nestled in a forested valley. Changing gears, we enjoy three days of reflection and insight at a peaceful Buddhist Meditation Retreat taught by Thai monks. We begin our days with chanting and meditation, before getting a Buddhism and meditation workshop. We will also head out into the open to discover meditation with nature, the perfect way to find inner peace.
We travel further north to the town of Chiang Khong, on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. From any vantage point in the town, we can gaze across the waters to the Laotian town of Huay Xai. Tomorrow… new country, new currency, new language, new food! Our first official border crossing. We cross the Mekong River to Huay Xai, Laos, and begin our journey down the Mekong River.
We begin our 2-day boat journey down the Mekong River with plenty of space to lay back and enjoy the river views – jungled hills, people fishing, kids playing on the riverbanks. Our last day on the river takes us past the Pak Ou Caves, believed to be the most spiritually significant site in Laos and containing hundreds of Buddha images, before continuing to Luang Prabang.
From Luang Prabang we embark on a 4-day trek through a remote region of northern Laos, overnighting in ethnic minority villages. We'll develop our resilience, our teamwork and our understanding of life in marginalized rural communities. In the evenings, we will listen to fascinating folktales about the origins of the Khmu and Hmong people, practice a few local Lao phrases, pick up a game of football or volleyball with some of the village children, and perform a baci or other traditional ceremony. During this trekking, we will be amazed at the villages nestled into steep hillsides as we hike through rice paddies, tropical jungle, and limestone mountains. On our final day, we will return to Luang Prabang for some rest and relaxation.
Described by a program alumni as a town of ‘colonial-French-Buddhist-jungle-rainforest fusion’, this World Heritage City – with its glistening temple roofs, crumbling French colonial architecture, and fantastic food, is hard to leave. We explore the temples, visit an impressive waterfall nearby, and wake at dawn to watch the colorful procession of monks collecting alms (their day’s food) from the local residents.
We fly from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, the cultural heart of Vietnam. Our Laotian Kip becomes Vietnamese Dong and we’ll have the chance to try another new language and take part in local life at streetside restaurants and markets.
We base ourselves in the Old Quarter of the city, where daily life spills out onto the street. Enjoy some free time to explore the colorful streets of the Old Quarter, where streets are named for the products they sell. See artisans creating a myriad of products, gravestones being carved, silk merchants haggling, flower markets, and everything imaginable being bought and sold on the streets.
During this time you’ll have time to plan before commencing the student-led section of the program between Hanoi and Hoi An. We will split the group in half, with one instructor accompanying each small group. Each group is given a budget and date they need to arrive in Hoi An. Then each group plans and executes their own travels and manages their budget.
Wandering the streets of Hoi An, you really feel embraced by history. The town now has UNESCO World Heritage status and its old houses, quiet streets, and covered bridges are being preserved and restored. Hoi An is renowned for its diverse architectural heritage, masterful tailors, abundant silks, and superb cuisine. While we’re here, we will use local ingredients to cook our own authentic Vietnamese dishes during a cooking workshop!
Finally, the time has come to explore majestic Cambodia. We will spend the first few days exploring every inch of Phnom Penh, from the beautiful Buddhist temple Wat Phnom to the wonderfully chaotic Russian Market, undoubtedly one of the more interesting markets you’ll ever visit. We also uncover the tragic history of the Khmer Rouge regime with a visit to the infamous Killing Fields and to Tuol Sleng Museum, a former Khmer Rouge prison turned museum.
We then transfer to Temple Town, otherwise known as Siem Reap! We will start our day to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. After exploring the inside of this incredible temple, we will head to Ta Phrom Temple, made famous by the Tomb Raider movie! This beautiful temple has been reclaimed by nature, with trees and plants growing throughout.
The next morning, we will learn about the nature and wildlife conservation efforts of the Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, before visiting Apopo Center and its unique inhabitants. The countryside of Cambodia is littered with unexploded landmines and this organization has found a fascinating way of locating these landmines: specially trained rats! We end the week with a boat ride through one of Cambodia's floating fishing villages, where the residents live in wooden houses floating on the water, or on stilts.
This week starts with one of the highlights of the trip: homestays! A small Banteay Chhmar Community will welcome us and introduce us into their way of life. You’ll love hearing their stories, but there’s no better way to fully integrate into a community and get an authentic cultural experience than by working alongside the villagers. We might harvest some rice and cassava, plant vegetables, or give rice flattening a go, all depending on the season and needs of the farmers.
We then make our way to the quaint riverside town of Battambang, featuring friendly Khmer people and beautifully preserved colonial architecture. For the next few days, we will explore the markets and French colonial buildings on foot and by bike, hop onto a bamboo train, visit a memorial site for the victims of the Khmer Rouge, and watch millions of bats take to the skies from the caves of Ship Mountain. A few Cambodian families will also show us how they have been making traditional products like dried bananas and bamboo sticky rice for generations. We get to taste and experience the pleasures of these products fresh off the fire.
Next stop: Kampot! Near this sleepy riverside town, we will visit the community of Trapeng Songker that works hard on mangrove conservation. A boat brings us to an area where we help to plant mangrove trees in aid of the natural conservation of the area. On our way back to Kampot, we stop at a salt farm and local pepper plantation, showcasing the production of these local products.
We also visit Epic Arts and participate in a movement workshop. Epic Arts is an organization that promotes the integration of people of all abilities using the arts as a form of expression, empowerment, education, and employment – vital in a country where an estimated 1 in 250 people have some form of disability.
It’s time to say goodbye to peaceful Kampot and head back to Thailand. After a visit to quick visit to Bangkok, we will travel to Khao Sok National Park. Khao Sok National Park is a remnant of the oldest and most diverse rainforest in the world and is home to the largest flower in the world. Based from our very own treehouse, hidden amongst the jungles of this National Park, we will explore the area. We spend our days hiking and exploring this lush green jungle environment. It’s also time to open your mind and free your soul with a full day of yoga and meditation. There isn’t a place in the world more perfect to find inner peace than Khao Sok National Park. Bursting with beauty and tranquility, you’re sure to find your peace here
Say goodbye to the jungle and hello to the beach as we head back down South to Railay Beach! Railay is a peninsula on the mainland only accessible by boat, surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, jungle and the clear waters of the Andaman Sea. It’s one like no other, and you are sure to fall in love with its golden sand and crystal clear water! We’ll also head over to the famous peninsula of Railay beach. Get high with a bit of rock climbing before taking out a kayak to explore the islands.
A short boat ride to Krabi and a flight to Bangkok signal our return home. It’s been a wild ride and now it’s time to bid farewell to Thailand, your new friends, and your guide, as you hop on board your flight and head off on your next adventure, wherever that may take you! In the evening we will enjoy a final night dinner, to reflect on our time in Thailand, share hugs, laughter, memories, and photos.
*Each week there will be some designated free time so that you can catch up on email, laundry, rest, and explore independently with others in the group.
**Pacific Discovery reserves the right to alter and/or change the order of the itinerary, the focus of the projects or the activities themselves due to dates, availability, and safety precautions.
✓ All in-program travel and transport, excluding flights
✓ All accommodation
✓ All meals
✓ All expeditions, activities, excursions, volunteer projects and entry fees as described in the itinerary
✓ Experienced Program Instructors and local guides
✓ Informal lectures from resident experts on conservation and eco-tourism
✓ Experiential core curriculum that pushes students to reflect and ask questions of themselves
✓ Visas for Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia - Visa not required for Thailand for most nationalities
Medium Activity Level: Anyone with an average fitness level and an enthusiasm for the outdoors and new experiences will have a great time on this gap semester! You will need to be prepared for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program, like trail building or the removal of invasive plants.
Low Camping Level: You will spend most of your nights on this gap year program in comfortable guesthouses and modern hotels.
Medium Service Learning Level: You will be able to make a difference to the local community during your stay. Be prepared to get your hands dirty and do some hands-on learning about local issues.
Our accommodation will vary from simple guesthouses and community homestays with shared facilities, to modern hotels with private bathrooms. Laundry and Wi-Fi will be available some days, except while on expeditions or on homestays. Accommodation is diverse, comfortable and carefully chosen to fit our needs.
Food is undoubtedly a highlight when travelling in Asia and throughout there will be the opportunity to eat authentic Asian food. Special dietary requirements and vegetarians are catered for. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the program cost. Any snacks are at an additional cost, which we recommend budgeting around $10 per day for.
All meals are eaten out at restaurants due to the local culture and accommodation. An average day on program would consist of the following:
Camping meals will be adjusted to the cooking equipment at hand
To make things easy for you, we partner with a full service travel agency that can arrange flights, appropriate travel insurance and post program arrangements for our students.
They have access to a "Cancel For Any Reason" or CFAR travel insurance for US citizens in participating states. This optional travel insurance product allows travelers to cancel for any reason whatsoever up to two days prior to departure and still receive a significant refund. This allows you to keep planning for the future while avoiding the stress and the financial worry of canceling a program if you need to.
Our program locations and itineraries have been carefully selected and modified to minimize risk of exposure to anyone outside the group with most being located in rural areas. This allows for a more focused learning environment, as well as a safe haven from the stress of our modern world.
We've been working hard and watching closely to any CDC recommendations about group sizes and testing requirements to come up with options that will allow you to have a safe, healthy, and stress-free Gap Year experience. We do the hard work so you can come and enjoy the fresh air, adventures, and new friends!
We have been running successful gap year programs in Spring, Summer and Fall 2021. The students shared their experiences in testimonials and wrote their stories down in blog posts - feel free to have a look.
Check out the information on our COVID-19 page to find out more about our Covid-19 policies, procedures and updates.