South East Asia – a cluster of countries nestled between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean is one of the most popular gap year destinations. From volunteering and studying abroad to adventure traveling, you’ll find it all here. A perfect cultural experience will welcome you and take you out of your comfort zone at the same time. Prepare yourself for the ride of your life. Go open-minded and it will change you forever.
Types of Programs
South East Asia is one of the biggest volunteering hubs in the world. With so many developing countries clustered together you can find the perfect place to utilize your skills whether in the medical field, nature preservation, teaching and supporting local communities.
Every Southeast Asian country has their own dedicated organisations looking after volunteering projects. They can vary from just a couple of weeks to several months. Make sure you do your research, join message boards and volunteering forums to get more information before making that important decision on selecting the right opportunity for yourself.
What a place Southeast Asia is for all the thrill seekers out there. From zip line adventures in the rain forest canopy in North Thailand and Laos to motorcycling through rural Cambodia. Elephant carer courses and trekking through tribal villages are also popular adventures out there. You’ll find it all in South East Asia. Whether you do it yourself or go for an organized package option you won’t be disappointed.
South East Asia (together with parts of India) has been named The Banana Pancake Trail for a reason. One of in not the most popular gap year destinations attracts thousands of backpackers of all ages every year. There isn’t another part of the world that combines such a broad mixture of mesmerizing tropical islands, beautiful hills and rain forest covered mountains to trek in and hustling and bustling cities to lose yourself in. And with the added bonus of being relatively inexpensive, what more can you ask for? And if you’re willing to do a bit of research, you’ll even find some hidden and unexplored spots that you can keep as your little travel secrets!
From local cuisine cookery schools, local massages (each SE Asian country has their own traditional technique), yoga and meditation to Muai Thai boxing courses there are plenty of options to chose from.
Whether just a holiday course or a university education is what you’re after in SE Asia, there are options for everyone. Make sure you check out some of the Go Overseas study abroad guides (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) to get a better picture and understanding of what’s available in each country.
Planning Your Trip
Cost of Living in Southeast Asia
Most of the South East Asian countries apart from Singapore and Brunei will be relatively inexpensive for most travelers. A budget of $900 – $1300 per month will be more than enough (talking backpacker on a gap year obviously). Most countries have good currency exchange point network. It is always advisable to use either American dollars, British pounds or Euros as these are the easiest to exchange.
- Brunei: Bruneian Dollar (BDN) -$100 = 123 BDN
- Burma: Burmese Kyat (MMK), $100 = 85,700 MMK
- Cambodia: Riel (KHR), $100 = 401,400 KHR
- East Timor: US Dollar
- Indonesia: Indonesian Rupiah (IDR), $100 = 978,500 IDR
- Laos: Kip (LAK), $100 = 796,200 LAK
- Malaysia: Ringgit (MYR), $100 = 304 MYR
- Philippines: Philippine Peso (PHP), $100 = 4,093 PHP
- Singapore: Singapore Dollar (SGD), $100 = 123 SGD
- Thailand: Thai Baht (THB), $100 = 3042 THB
- Vietnam: Dong (VND), $100 = 2,085,000VND
You can refer to specific Go Overseas SE Asian country guides (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore) for more information on costs of living including accommodation and transport as well as food, drinks and attraction costs.
It is always a good idea to carry a few spare passport photographs and have American dollars with you to pay any visa application fees. Some of the South East Asian countries offer a 30 day (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore) or 21 day (Philippines) visa free stay on arrival (conditions may change while entering overland) to American and most European passport holders. If in doubt please check with the country’s immigration or a local embassy or consulate.
- Burma requires advanced visa and for most countries’ citizens (apart from China)
overland entry is prohibited (some exceptions apply, please check with your local embassy or consulate for details).
- Laos has a complicated entry fee system with different fees applying to different
nationals. Prepare yourself for a fee between $30 - $42. There also may be small additional charges for an entry stamp being put in your passport. You also need photographs to include in your application.
- Vietnam requires advance visa application that can be made by mail or in person. Applicants require valid passport, application form, correct application fee and 1 photograph (2in x 2in). There are several visa options including single and multiple entry and the correct fee can be confirmed with your local embassy or consulate.
- Cambodia: All travellers except citizens of Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam Thailand and Laos need a visa to enter the Kingdom of Cambodia. Tourist visas are valid for 30 days and the official price is $20. However this may vary if you are using agencies when crossing over land from any of the neighboring countries. If issued in advance, Cambodian visa will be valid for 90 days. To apply you will need one or two passport photographs. This depends on where the application is made. There’s also an option to apply for an e-visa in advance.
- Indonesia allows citizens of 64 countries to apply for a 30 day visa on arrival. The cost is $25. Extension for up to 30 days is possible at an additional fee of $25. Citizens holding passports from outside the 64 country list will have to apply in advance.
Culture and Etiquette in Southeast Asia
- Most of Southeast Asian countries are predominantly Buddhist and what goes with that is certain customs and traditions Western tourists may not be aware of.
- Feet are considered least and head the most sacred part of the body. It is impolite to point your feet at someone or pat or touch their head.
- Take your shoes off before entering temples, houses and residencies.
- There is culture of great respect to the elders everywhere in Southeast Asia.
- Haggling is an essential part of the buying process and that goes out to anything from purchasing souvenirs to booking local trips and adventures. The key is to approach it open-minded and with a smile on your face. Always come back with a significantly smaller offer to the initial price. Even though it may be initially declined, you are more than likely to be called back as soon as you decide to walk off. It’s just the way it is in SE Asia so go with it and enjoy it rather than getting frustrated.
- SE Asia is sadly notorious for the infamous tourist scams. There still are organized gangs operating in the main tourist areas trying to offer to good to be true deals and tell stories about main tourist destinations being closed. Make sure you decline any to good to be true offers as if they sound like that they probably are. If your taxi driver offers to take you somewhere else instead of your preferred destination, once again polite and firm ‘no thank you’ should get you out of the situation pretty quickly.
- It is quite frequent to be approached on the street by children selling souvenirs and drinks. This is a popular practice to get underprivileged families extra income but at the same time keeps children on the streets and out of education. Politely decline any offers and walk off. As much as it may feel heartbreaking it is best for the little ones’ future rather than being a quick and temporary fix.
To be blown away and lose yourself in the cultural fusion and mixture of colors, smells and some of the most beautiful landscapes you’d ever see in your life. For the friendliness and the smiles of people that often don’t have a lot but are happy to share their hearts with you. If you’ve been thinking about going stop and just go but be careful once you’ve done it once you’d keep coming back for more!
Health & Safety
Health and Safety in Southeast Asia
- Most of the SE Asian countries are relatively safe. The crime rates are low and common sense will keep you out of trouble in most cases.
- As in all other major tourist destinations the main things to look out for are pickpockets and bag snatchers in the busiest areas. Read more about the infamous tourist scams in the culture and etiquette section.
- If you’re concerned about any internal ethnic tension and political unrest please check with relevant travel advisories in advance.
- Large part of South East Asia falls under tropical climate so a good sunscreen and insect repellent are a must. Malaria protection is advised in some areas.
- Bottled water is available and safe to drink everywhere.
- In case of medical emergencies most of main tourist hubs have international medical clinics and small surgeries able to help with first aid and minor accidents. In case of serious emergencies Bangkok and Singapore are your best call with their highly advanced hospitals and English speaking staff.
Contributed by Marta Napierala
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