Southeast Asia is a fascinating melting pot of history, peoples, diverse cultures and dramatic landscapes ideally suited to an extraordinary educational travel experience. The program has a strong experiential focus. Participants get involved in service learning projects, have opportunities for meaningful connections with local people, gain knowledge of Southeast Asia's history, societies and environments, push personal boundaries and develop their leadership skills.
When we look at a map we tend to lump these countries together and assume they’re all the same. Yet nothing is further from the truth. Thailand is traditional culture fused with an embrace of our modern globalized world. Laos is relaxed, languid and seemingly half forgotten. Vietnam is a shot of adrenalin, full of stimulus and culturally rich. Cambodia just gets under your skin and into your heart in a way that no other country does. In fact, we feel that the region can’t be beat for the sheer diversity of cultures, histories and landscapes in a geographically small area.
We love this part of the world, and discover more each time we return. We have developed this program to enable you to experience the best each country has to offer. The very nature of traveling in South East Asia can be demanding. This reality necessitates a program that achieves a balance between action-packed experiences, cultural insights and some time-out, just to process it all.
This program can be combined with Summer, Fall, or Spring program options in other regions of the world (Nepal and Tibet, South America, New Zealand & Australia) for an in-depth and enriching global gap year experience.
“When my daughter Shira decided to take a gap year between high school and college, Pacific Discovery's Southeast Asia Program became part of that plan. What an amazing adventure it has been! The trip was very well thought out, each day packed with extraordinary experiences and meaningful interactions with peoples of different cultures. She saw remarkable things and learned so much. Her whole sense of the world shifted. Shira returned home with greater confidence, sure of her abilities to navigate any challenge. She gained a deeper understanding of other cultures and more clarity and insight about herself. All in all, a tremendously valuable learning experience.”
Ruth Weizman (mother of Shira)
Arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, having journeyed from ‘the West’ to ‘the East’. You'll be met by your Program Instructors and transferred to our group accommodation. In Bangkok, cultures entwine in a symphony of sounds, scents, sights and tastes – it is sensory overload! We have a day in Bangkok to begin orientation and for acclimatization.
Departing Bangkok we take the northern 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 riverside town. We continue our program orientation, and 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.
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 from Wat Suan Dok; a traditional Thai cooking course; an ‘Amazing Race’ around Chiang Mai; an introduction to yoga; and a Muay Thai lesson (Thai martial art) run by a Thai national champion. There’s also time to trawl Chiang Mai’s amazing 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. After clearing immigration, we 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 riverscapes – jungled hills, people fishing, kids playing on the riverbanks. We overnight ashore in the small village of Pak Beng. Our last day on the river takes us past the Pak Ou Caves, believed 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 traverse rice paddies, forest and limestone mountains. On our final day we return to Luang Prabang for some rest and relaxation.
Described by an 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.
After a night in Hanoi we head into the western foothills, to an area rich in minority communities. We'll explore by foot and bicycle, staying as a group with local families, helping out with rice production, food preparation and other initiatives the communities have underway.
We return to Hanoi and 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, temple finery, flower markets and everything imaginable being bought and sold on the streets. We’ll visit the tranquil Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, and an organization which provides education and vocational training for street children, giving them skills to pursue careers in the hospitality and tourism industries.
We travel to coastal Halong City, and embark on our traditionally styled ‘junk’ to explore spectacular Halong Bay. It’s studded with 1500 limestone islands rising sheer from the sea. We explore the coast and lagoons by sea kayak and cruise on our junk, navigating twisting passages amidst stunning Karst landscape and floating villages, home to a significant fishing and pearl farming community. On our final afternoon we return to Hanoi, then “all aboard” the Reunification Express for our overnight train journey to the old imperial capital, Hue.
We take a fun tour of Hue and its environs. Our ‘posse’ of motos joins the melee of bicycle traffic as it surges along tree-lined boulevards. From Emperors’ tombs to Buddhist pagodas, you’ll really get a feel for this city. Don’t leave home without your sunglasses, camera and a ready smile for your personal ‘motodop’ driver.
We continue south down the coast to our favorite Vietnamese town, Hoi An, which was an important trading port from the 17th-19th centuries. Wandering the streets, you really feel embraced by history. The town now has UNESCO World Heritage status and its profusion of old houses, quiet streets and covered bridges are being preserved and restored. These days Hoi An is renowned for its diverse architectural heritage, masterful tailors, abundant silks and superb cuisine. We spend an inspiring morning in a craft workshop at a vocational training organization. In our free time there’s a gorgeous beach nearby for sunrise dips and centuries 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 into the maelstrom of people, cyclos, motos, carts, trucks and taxis to zigzag our way 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, Vietnam’s rice bowl, is one of the largest deltas in the world. You’ll be in awe of its fertile abundance and beauty as we explore by bicycle and boat, visiting small farms and workshops, on islands among the myriad branching waterways and tributaries. Tonight we stay with a rural family at their guesthouse overlooking a Mekong tributary.
We travel through the Delta and cross the border into Cambodia, where we get a taste of culture and an understanding of life for the majority of Cambodians in the countryside by home staying with a wonderful Khmer family who all work in education. We will visit local schools to speak English with the students, participate in community life, and learn about effective grass-roots community development initiatives.
We farewell 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 NGO which 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 also spend afternoons with local high school students who are learning English and assist with their language development.
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. We’ll see the restoration of some temples and the disintegration of others as the jungle reclaims them. Explore elaborate twisting passageways, stone causeways and moats. 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’ll also visit a local children’s hospital to learn about the vital work they do in child welfare.
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 Krabi, then leap aboard a longtail boat for the fun trip to Railae Beach. Railae is a peninsula on the mainland only accessible by boat, surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, dense jungle and the clear emerald waters of the Andaman Sea. This is a world-class area for rock climbing, snorkeling and diving. We settle in to private beach homes for a few days of relaxation and reflection. 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 conclude with the flight home for Thanksgiving or Spring Break. 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.
Note: Each week there will be some designated free time in a town or city so that you can catch up on email and laundry, relax and have your own independent experiences with others in the group.
Open to high school graduates, university students and graduates, ideally 18-24 years. This is an excellent experiential study abroad semester or gap year option for students and graduates wanting to be exposed to and immersed in cultures very different to their own. This program is ideal for anyone of average fitness with an interest in conservation, humanitarian work, new experiences and different cultures. You need to be open-minded, and committed to and prepared for some physical work whilst on the volunteer components of 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. We expect you to join the 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 WiFi will be available often, except while on expeditions or at community stay. 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 or Western style food. Special dietary requirements and vegetarians are catered for. 85% of meals are included in the program cost. The remaining few meals are not included to allow a choice of when, where and what we eat. For the meals not included, you will have the option of dining out, or self-catering with others in the group. We recommend you budget the sum of $7-10 per day for snacks, drinks, and meals not included in the program cost (approximately $500 for the program).
Visas for all countries; All in-country travel and transport including four mid-program flights within Asia; All accommodation; Most meals; All activities, excursions, entry fees and adventure travel as described in the itinerary; Service learning projects in conservation and community development; Informal lectures from resident experts on history, culture, development issues; Experienced Program Instructors and local guides; Online image library for your program.