Experience an inspiring travel semester abroad on this Southeast Asia gap year program through the Buddhist countries of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
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 semester offers you an enriching fusion of community and animal rescue volunteer projects, cultural immersion, Thai cooking, Buddhist meditation, snorkeling, and of course, non-stop adventure!
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 homestays, camping under the stars on an overnight rafting trip, and good doses of jungles and beaches.
This gap semester program is perfect for high school graduates, college students, and graduates, and gap year students, ideally 17 to 22 years old. Optional transferable academic credit is available to all participants
Arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, having journeyed from the West to the East. In Bangkok, cultures entwine in a symphony of sounds, scents, sights and tastes – it is sensory overload!
Departing Bangkok we take the train to Sukhothai, a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site, famous for its ancient temples. 1000 years ago, Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand. Today it is a tranquil quintessential Thai town. We base ourselves here for an in-depth program orientation where we focus on getting to know each other and creating a positive and reflective group culture to support us in realizing our program goals. We’ll also explore the complex of temple ruins by bicycle before continuing by minivan, north to Chiang Mai.
After a refreshing night in Chiang Mai we head into the countryside and spend two days learning climbing, rappelling and caving. We camp nearby, and practice our conversational Thai at the local market.
Based at the Elephant Nature Park, a center that cares for elephants and educates about the problems elephants face today in Thailand. We spend the week doing varied and valuable work at the center, from planting trees and maintenance, to bathing and caring for the elephants. By the time we return to Chiang Mai, you’ll 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 you’ve done to ensure their protection.
We embark on an overnight rafting trip through 40 miles of deep jungle, enjoying about 60 rapids up to class 4. We’ll discover hot-springs, waterfalls and gorges on the way and spend a great night camping beside the river. On our return from trekking we will stay two nights in Pai, a relaxing town nestled in a forested valley. Changing gears, we then have 3 days of reflection and insight at a peaceful Buddhist Meditation Retreat taught by Thai monks.
Based from our comfortable guesthouse in Chiang Mai, we cram these days with a variety of experiences: an overnight Buddhist meditation retreat run by monks, a traditional Thai cooking course, an ‘Amazing Race’ around Chiang Mai, an introduction to yoga, and a Muay Thai lesson (Thai martial arts) run by a Thai national champion. There’s also time to explore Chiang Mai’s night markets and food stalls.
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 challenging 4-day trek through a remote region of northern Laos, overnighting in ethnic minority villages. We'll develop our resilience, our team work and our understanding of the life in marginalized rural communities. We'll be amazed at the villages nestled into steep hillsides as we hike through rice paddies, forest and limestone mountains. On our final day we 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 become 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 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. We spend a morning in a craft workshop at a vocational training organization. In our free time there’s a gorgeous beach nearby for sunrise dips and century old buildings to check out. People watching on the riverfront with an icy fresh juice in hand is hard to beat!
A flight south takes us to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), a city of stunning contrasts, bursting with energy and a 24-hour go-go-go attitude. We visit the legendary Cu Chi Tunnels – over 250kms of tunnels, in some places several floors deep, where Viet Cong forces built pseudo-cities underground, enabling them to infiltrate and control large areas around Saigon virtually undetected. Back in Saigon we venture out to the War Remnants Museum, a chilling memorial to the atrocities of the Vietnam War. We lighten up with a stroll around the unusual Presidential Palace and Ben Thanh, Saigon’s central market – a great place to stock up on fresh-baked croissants and fine roasted coffee from the highlands.
The Mekong Delta is one of the largest deltas in the world. You’ll be in awe of its beauty as we explore the area by bicycle and boat, visiting small farms and workshops on islands. Tonight we stay with a rural family at their guesthouse overlooking the Mekong river.
We travel through the Delta and cross the border into Cambodia, where we get a taste of culture and an understanding of life for most Cambodians in the countryside by home staying with a wonderful Khmer family. We will visit local schools to speak English with the students, participate in community life, and learn about community development initiatives.
We say goodbye to our Khmer family and travel to Kep and Kampot on the south coast. Over the next four days we volunteer with an NGO and a marginalized community in poverty, to build two simple homes for community members. This will be a challenging and rewarding project.
When not working on the project, we visit Epic Arts and participate in a movement workshop. Epic Arts is an organization that promotes 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.
We uncover the tragic history of the Khmer Rouge regime with a visit to the infamous Killing Fields and to Tuol Sleng Museum. We visit the amazing Friends Café, run by Mithsamlanh, an inspiring NGO providing vocational training for some of Phnom Penh’s 20,000 street kids. There is also time to immerse ourselves in the wonderfully chaotic Russian Market, undoubtedly one of the more interesting markets you’ll ever visit.
Leaving Phnom Penh, we drive to Siem Reap. From this interesting town we explore the impressive remnants of the Angkor Empire. The Angkor Wat temples are the largest temple ruins on earth. Through mammoth carved stone panels, stories unfold of historical events, tales of gods, and legends. Wonder at the civilization that created them – at its peak with a population of one million people, it exceeded the size and complexity of any other city in the world!
We travel overland to Thailand via the ‘Wild West’ Cambodian border town of Poipet. You’ll be amazed how welcoming Bangkok feels compared with your first day in Thailand, almost two months earlier. We’ll have some free time to explore the city together and enjoy its fantastic street food and urban culture.
We take an early morning flight from Bangkok to Phuket and travel overland to Khao Sok National Park. Based from a jungle lodge we spend three days hiking, kayaking and exploring this amazing jungle environment. 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.
From Khao Sok we travel to Krabi, then go on a boat trip 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. This is a world-class area for rock climbing, snorkeling and diving. We settle in to private beach homes, the perfect spot to reflect, process and celebrate over two months of incredible personal growth and impactful experiences.
One day we go cruising and snorkeling, where you can see colorful soft and hard corals and an astounding diversity of fish. Another day we have a choice of options including sea kayaking or rock-climbing. There’s time for relaxing on the beach, swimming, reminiscing about our adventures, and preparing for our transition home.
A short boat ride back to Krabi and flight to Bangkok signals our return home. Some of us will fly home, others may continue on to new destinations or stay on exploring in the region. All of us will carry a lifetime of memories, insights and bonds formed during this incredible experience together.
*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.
This gap year program is perfect for high school graduates, college students and graduates, and non-students, ideally 17-22 years old. Anyone with an average fitness level and an interest in conservation, humanitarian work, new experiences and different cultures will have a great time on this gap semester! You need to be openminded, and prepared for some physical work during the volunteer projects on the program. You don’t need to have had previous experience with international travel or any of the activities offered.
The program is a shared group experience. Join this program with an open mind and a willingness to work together with your group mates to make the program an amazing experience for the whole group. Additionally, the program will be as much about the inner journey of personal growth and learning about yourself as it is about what you will experience in the outer physical journey. We expect you to be open to learning and challenging your ideas and assumptions.
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 often, 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