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A Gap Year in South East Asia

Advice for travelling in South East Asia

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Why go backpacking in South East Asia?

South East Asia is a backpacker’s adventure playground, easily the most popular part of the continent for travellers. It’s all about having fun. People visiting for the first time can sometimes experience a slight culture shock, but the very things that create that will quickly become the bits you most relish: the chaotic cities, the weird and wonderful food, the rickety local transport and the other-worldly scenery. It’s also (from a Westerner’s perspective) a very cheap place to travel: music to any backpacker’s ears.

The starting point for the majority of backpackers is the Thai capital, Bangkok, famous for its extraordinary temples and palaces, and rampant nightlife. This often marks the beginning of what’s known as the South East Asia loop, which covers Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Burma can also be included in this trip, having recently opened up again to tourism. You can also head south from Bangkok, which will take you to the Thai islands (stunning), Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, which straddles the equator.

South East Asia is a perfect introduction to the wider continent of Asia, which can be slightly trickier to navigate. The region is a logical stepping stone for those who begin in Australia, both because it’s slightly more challenging to travel in and because it’s very kind on those inevitably dwindling budgets.

Tours in South East Asia

South East Asia tours

South East Asia is an incredibly popular region with backpackers and first-time travellers, particularly Thailand and Vietnam. Although the established tourist trail means it’s super easy to travel independently, guided tours can be a great way to make sure you don’t miss all the top sights, and meet some new travel friends along the way.

You might take a tour within one country and tick off all its hotspots, or embark on a longer journey that will take you to multiple destinations. Tours generally include all transport, accommodation, and other necessities, taking all the stress out of travelling. An expert guide will ensure nothing gets left off the itinerary, and you can experience it all with like-minded travellers.

Working in South East Asia

South East Asia jobs

South East Asia is a brilliant destination to work on your gap year. Paid work almost exclusively comes 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 East Asia comes in the form of teaching, which not only can really help boost your budget but also look fantastic on your CV. The bulk of TEFL jobs are in Thailand, but they can be found elsewhere too, particular in the rest of Indochina and Singapore.

You generally need a degree to be taken on as an English teacher and knowledge of the native language is not necessary – in fact, the less you know the better; the general rule of thumb is to communicate exclusively in English to the children as this makes learning easier. You also usually need a TEFL qualification; these are usually obtained in the UK but you can study abroad for them too.

Wages may not be high by western standards, but everything is relative; in the country you are teaching you can pretty much be guaranteed a very lucrative income by local standards.

Volunteering in South East Asia

Volunteer placements

South East Asia is also a great destination to volunteer on your gap year. Volunteering may involve teaching or other forms of childcare, as well as working with vulnerable people, animals, or the environment.

As with any volunteering project anywhere in the world you should think very carefully about your strengths, weaknesses and natural interests before committing to anything.

If you’d like to volunteer with animals in South East Asia there are lots of projects to choose from. Thailand and Laos are the best countries for volunteering with elephants whereas further south, on the Malaysian side of Borneo, you can volunteer with orangutans and various rehabilitation centres which care for the endangered species.

Cambodia is a popular destination for gappers who want to work with neglected children, many of whom are orphans, and also with landmine victims, of which there are many.

Further south, particularly around Indonesia, there are plenty of opportunities for environmental work, particularly in the form of marine conservation.

Budget accommodation in South East Asia

Accommodation in South East Asia

One of the joys of travelling through South East Asia is that accommodation – like most things – is incredibly cheap by western standards. However, while accommodation may be cheap, it in turn may not quite be up to the standards you’re used to back home. Generally speaking you get what you pay for, so if you’re only willing to put up $1 for a bed you can expect a slightly different experience to that which you might get for $100.

Finding and booking

It’s always a good idea to pre-book accommodation in South East Asia whenever possible. For those who have never visited before it can be daunting enough arriving in a brand new city without the added pressure of lugging your backpack around unfamiliar streets trying to find a bed for the night.

If you haven’t pre-booked your accommodation there is no need to panic: it’s extremely unlikely all the beds in any particular area will be full (unless there is a major festival occurring). South East Asia can be winged fairly easily, particularly the touristy parts, but it is a riskier strategy.

Types of accommodation

The kind of accommodation you get in South East Asia will largely depend on the region you are staying in. If exploring the Thai islands (and you definitely should) you can expect to stay in beach huts and bungalows, which are usually very kind on the budget.


All the major cities in South East Asia have hotels, some grander than others, and most are very affordable. You should be prepared in the cheaper hotels to be hassled a fair bit by staff trying to get you to buy tours, but this is nothing to worry about, and can be quite handy if there are no obvious tour companies in the vicinity.


Hostels can be surprisingly hard to come by in South East Asia. Because other accommodation is so affordable there is less need to bunk up with a load of strangers in dorms. You will find them, however, on places like the Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, and other backpacker hubs.

Beach huts

Beach huts and bungalows are most commonly found on the islands of South East Asia and are great fun, not least because they are sometimes literally on the beach. Bliss! Standards range from basic to luxurious: which one you go for is up to you.

Guest houses

Hostels can be surprisingly hard to come by in South East Asia. Because other accommodation is so affordable there is less need to bunk up with a load of strangers in dorms. You will find them, however, on places like the Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, and other backpacker hubs.

Getting to South East Asia

Getting to South East Asia

The majority of people reach South East Asia via a flight to either Bangkok or Singapore, both of which can be flown to directly from London. The capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur is also a popular entry point, as is Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. Other major cities which receive international flights are Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, and Phuket, the largest of the Thai islands.

The flying time to Bangkok from London is around 12 hours direct, though keep in mind some of the cheaper fares will include a stopover in somewhere like Dubai for a few hours, which can really pile on the time it takes.

It’s possible to reach South East Asia by train, but the only route available is into Vietnam from China. You can actually travel all the way to this entry point by train from Europe, via the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow, which is an epic travelling experience in its own right and certainly makes for a better story than hopping on a plane. However it is more expensive than flying in the long run and will obviously take considerably longer.

Getting around South East Asia

Getting around South East Asia

Backpacker transport in South East Asia is very easy to use, whether it’s long distance or just local. Most people speak at least some English and the region is extremely used to tourists so has created an extensive network for travellers.

Short haul flights

If you are tight on time it can sometimes be an idea to use domestic or other short distance flights between destinations, as overland travel in South East Asia, while cheap, can be time consuming. There are many discount carriers to choose from, and the key cities double as the key transport hubs.

Train travel

One of the most enjoyable ways to travel through South East Asia is by train. Some countries are still without rail networks – most notably Cambodia and almost all of Laos – but most have pretty good routes in place. Vietnam has a rail route which runs from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north, and the Thai capital Bangkok is connected to Chiang Mai in the north, Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and all the way to Singapore via Malaysia due south.

Bus travel

Buses are one of the most fail-safe  means of transport in South East Asia: the combined network of tourist and local buses will get you pretty much between any two points you care to mark on a map. Most backpackers opt for the tourist buses, so called because they are slightly more expensive and comfortable than the local versions. Buses are often used for overnight travel, which created a double win: a long distance is covered and you simultaneously save on a night’s accommodation.

What visas do I need for South East Asia?

Visa requirements

This information applies to UK residents. While this information is intended to help, you should always speak to your travel agent to find out exactly what documents you need for where.

No visas needed

Many countries in South East Asia do not require visas from UK residents; these include Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. For these countries you will have to fill out a document on arrival (these are usually handed out on the plane before landing) which just indicates how long you plan to stay in the country. You are usually limited to stay for up to 30 days, and for anything longer than that you’ll need to obtain a proper visa, though keep in mind this can be done in the country rather than in advance.

Visas on arrival

Some countries in South East Asia will offer visas on arrival, which means you don’t have to worry about booking them in advance from your home country. These countries include Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia. Upon arriving in any of these countries you will need to show your passport has at least six months validity and also proof on onward travel. Visas for all three countries cost between £20-£30.

Visas before arrival

As regards Vietnam and Burma, you will need to obtain visas in advance from the nearest embassy, and if you don’t you will be refused entry to the country and in all likelihood be turned back, which is no fun. Visas for Vietnam are typically limited to 30 days and will cost about £60 if buying in London. A visa for Burma will cost about the same and offer the same conditions if buying from the UK.

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