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A Gap Year in South Asia

Advice and inspiration for travelling in South Asia

Explore destinations and experiences

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Why go backpacking in South Asia?

South Asia exemplifies the diversity of the Asian continent, offering the likes of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Most gappers start with India, a chaotic destination unlike anywhere else, eager to suck visitors into its vibrant culture. It’s home to one of the world’s most popular tourist hotspots, the beautiful Taj Mahal, and from there many choose to see what else the country has to offer by travelling like a local on trains or buses. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Where you go next depends on what you fancy. Afghanistan and Pakistan have loads to offer, but require some planning to ensure your safety, whereas the Maldives offer incredible wildlife and some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever set eyes upon. Moving around South Asia can take a bit of planning prowess, but it’s more than worth it.

Popular countries in South Asia

Tours in South Asia

South Asia tours

South Asia is a popular region for travellers who want to see exciting, vibrant places, hike across stunning landscapes, or take a spiritual journey. Whatever you’re after, guided tours can often be the best way to make sure you find it.

You can take a tour that focuses on a single destination – such as India – and packs in everything the country has to offer. Or you can take a longer journey that includes multiple countries along the way. The advantage of tours is that expert guides and planned itineraries ensure you don’t miss out on anything, transport, accommodation, and other concerns are taken care of for you, and you can travel alongside like-minded travellers. Depending on your goals, a tour can be the best way to see South Asia.

Working in South Asia

South Asia jobs

South Asia is a brilliant destination to find work on your gap year. Paid work comes almost exclusively in the form of teaching English as a foreign language – more commonly known as TEFL – in local or specialist language schools.

Almost every paid job in South Asia comes in the form of teaching. This is not only a great way to boost your budget, but also looks fantastic on your CV. The bulk of TEFL jobs are found in India, though it is possible to find teaching work in Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Generally, you’ll be expected to have a degree in order to work as an English teacher. Fortunately you do not need to speak the native language, as you’ll be paired with a native teaching assistant, and encouraged to speak entirely in English to help your students learn.

As well as your degree you will also need a TEFL qualification. These are usually obtained while you’re still in the UK, but courses can be taken abroad. A standard TEFL course is only a couple of days long. There are some schools that will accept people without a degree or TEFL, but chances are these schools will not be well organised and may not treat their staff well.

We recommend doing some research before accepting any teaching job abroad. Chances are you’ll be fine, but some unscrupulous schools have been known to withhold pay, or terminate your contract early to avoid paying for your flight home. Look for reviews and testimonials online to put your mind at ease.

Volunteering in South Asia

South Asia volunteering

South Asia is also a great destination to find a volunteering placement on your gap year. Volunteering placements usually involve working with vulnerable people, animals, or in conservation. The only country in the region where you won’t find such work is Bhutan.

There are abundant volunteering opportunities in South Asia, particularly in India and Sri Lanka, with placements to suit all kinds of travellers. One of the most popular is working with elephants and other vulnerable animals in Sri Lanka, as well as marine conservation projects, but it might be teaching sports in Nepal or a medical internship in Delhi, India.

As with any volunteering project, anywhere in the world, you should think carefully about your strengths, weaknesses, and natural interests before committing to anything. Once you’ve committed, it’s important to see your placement through to the end.

Budget accommodation in South Asia

South Asia accommodation

One of the chief benefits of travelling through much of South Asia is that accommodation – like many backpacker staples – is incredibly cheap, by western standards at least. The downside is that it often may not meet the standards you’re used to elsewhere.

Generally speaking, you get what you pay for, meaning a bed that costs you the equivalent of £1 per night is going to have a touch more ‘character’ than one costing £10. Some places are also more expensive than others, with more popular countries like India and some areas of Nepal likely to cost more than Sri Lanka. You’ll also pay more the closer your accommodation is to big tourist spots, and in bigger cities.

Finding and booking

We recommend pre-booking accommodation in South Asia whenever possible. If you haven’t visited the region before it can be stressful enough without the added pressure of dragging your backpack around unfamiliar streets trying to find somewhere to rest your head.

Still, if you haven’t pre-booked there’s no need to panic: it’s unlikely every single bed in a given area will be full up (unless some kind of major festival or public holiday is happening). You can wing South Asia if you want, particularly the touristy parts, but it’s certainly a riskier strategy.

Hostels, hotels & guest houses

Hotels are generally the most common form of accommodation in South Asia, the low prices meaning it’s not uncommon to find fairly luxurious accommodation for a fraction of what you’d pay in, say, Europe. This means you get the pleasure of a private room and bathroom without breaking the bank! Your chances of finding those kinds of prices are better in the down season, and in areas away from the main tourist trail.

Hostels aren’t as common as you might think in South Asia, the general affordability of hotels making it unnecessary to bunk up with snoring strangers in a dormitory. They are around if you look, particularly in popular tourist areas and cities like New Delhi and Kathmandu, where you will also pay the highest prices. If you’re looking to meet people and make friends, the social aspect of hostels make them a great option.

Guest houses in South Asia are most commonly found in more remote regions – sometimes they’ll be your only accommodation option! Think of them as a mix between hotels and hostels: the privacy of your own room with the laidback vibes and cost of a hostel.

How to get to South Asia

Getting there

The easiest and most affordable way of getting to South Asia from anywhere in the West is to fly, though there are other travel options, including by train or boat (obviously these will take quite a bit longer). The way you travel will often be dictated by your itinerary, so planning your route well ahead of time will make your travel options much clearer.

Travelling overland

It is possible to reach South Asia by train, but routes require a great deal of preparation, a lot of time, and can be dangerous. You can’t simply buy a single ticket and go.

So while you can take the train from the UK to India, it’ll take two or three weeks across numerous different trains, and pass through an area of Iran not considered safe for travellers. However adventurous you’re feeling, we recommend giving this one a lot of thought.

Getting around South Asia

Getting around

Transport in South Asia is usually easy to use, whether you’re travelling locally or long distance. In most places people will speak enough English to help you out, and much of the region is extremely used to tourists, allowing an extensive network for travellers to have developed over the years, though it can be more difficult in parts of Sri Lanka.

Wherever you want to go, you shouldn’t have much trouble getting there.

Short haul flights

If you’re tight on time, domestic and short distance flights are your best option, although it may put more of a strain on your budget. Flights may also be more restricted to key cities, meaning they’re not always a good option for reaching somewhere more obscure. 

The national airlines are your safest choice for flying within South Asia. Low-cost and discount carriers sometimes have dubious safety records. Be sure to do your research before you travel – sometimes it’s worth spending a little more to ensure a safe flight.

By train

Not all South Asian countries have rail networks (looking at you, Nepal), but where they exist trains can be one of the most enjoyable ways of moving around the region. They’re reasonably cheap, fast, and give you a good chance to enjoy the passing landscape.

India is famous for its railways, which can take you all over the country. They can be as chaotic as their reputation suggests, but as long as you plan ahead you shouldn’t have any problems (you can also pay more for a better class ticket and escape the crowds).

Trains in Sri Lanka are similarly effective, connecting capital city Colombo to any major area you could wish to visit. You can expect some spectacular views along coastal routes and up through Tea Country.

By bus

Buses are the ultimate fail-safe mode of transport in South Asia. Choose any two points on a map, and chances are a bus (or several buses) will get you between them.

There are generally two types of bus in South Asia: tourist buses are more comfortable and often a little more direct, but you pay more for the privilege, while local buses are incredibly cheap but you might be sharing your seat with a dozen chickens. Local drivers often don’t speak English, which can make navigating a bit more difficult.

A popular backpacker trick in South Asia is using overnight buses. These allow you to cover long distances while saving the cost of a night’s accommodation. Double win!

By taxi

In most cities in South Asia you’ll be able to find local taxis to ferry you short distances. They’re usually cheap, but always keep an eye on the meter and make sure it’s been reset before your journey begins. If there is no meter, agree a set price before you get into the cab, or find another one.

What visas do I need for South Asia?

Visa information

The information featured on this page applies to UK residents only. Visas in South Asia vary from place to place, and eligibility will depend on your own nationality. So while this information is intended to help, we recommend giving us a call or speaking to your travel agent to find out exactly what documents you need for each country you’re planning to visit.

All countries in South Asia require foreign nationals to hold a valid visa when entering the country.

Visas in advance

If you’re visiting India you’ll need to gain a visa in advance, which can easily be done online. A standard tourist visa will allow you to stay in India for up to 60 days, and to leave and re-enter the country once during that time, which is convenient if you plan to move around the region.

Visitors to Sri Lanka will also need a visa. This can be obtained upon arrival, but this has been known to cause delays or problems, so it’s recommended you get a visa before departure. A tourist visa will allow you to stay for up to 30 days.

Visas on arrival

You will need a visa to enter Nepal, but these are easy to obtain when you arrive at Tribhuvan International Airport, subject to filling out a form and providing a passport-style photograph. You can apply for visas allowing 15, 30, or 90-day stays, the price going up accordingly for each. Visas can be changed to multiple-entry visas in Nepal for a small fee. Visas are also available in advance.

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