Being one of the youngest in my year, I was only 17 when I finished school. I decided to take advantage of being a year younger than my peers and take a year off to work and travel before university.
Of course, while I say that my age was the main reason for taking a gap-year, I admit that this was merely an excuse to satiate my travel addiction.
I spent the first five months of this year working full time as a waitress in a hotel. I won’t lie; scrolling down my news feed during breaks to see endless pictures of my school friends partying at university was not exactly fun. However, after five and a half months of travelling Southeast Asia, I can conclude that every gruelling hour of waitressing was worth it.
I began my travels on the island of Koh Samui, where I spent two months teaching English to the local children. While this experience was very rewarding, and I still miss the wonderful children whose ability to pick up the English language was astonishing, I also became aware of the disadvantages of choosing so-called voluntourism programmes. I will not deny that this volunteering group is a force of good in this community; during my stay, we were regularly thanked by locals for teaching their children. However, there were times when I could see that the company was so dependent on volunteer payments that it was forced to put volunteer satisfaction above community needs.
While I stayed on this island, I lived in a volunteer house with people similar to my age and older. We worked during the week and had weekends free to do what we liked.
Here are the top things I would recommend to do while in Koh Samui:
1. Bask in the sun at Thong Takhian Beach, also known as Silver Beach.
2. Visit Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park – kayak, walk and swim through this archipelago of islands. Although this is an expensive trip, the experience is worthwhile and it’s only a short distance from Koh Samui.
3. Wat Plai Laem – a collection of grand, intricately decorated temples which are situated over a gorgeous green lake.
4. Big Buddha Temple (Wat Phra Yai) – do not miss the enormous Buddha statue which towers over the surrounding area.
5. Get lost in Lamai’s large nightmarket – make sure to try some of the incredible food sold at the stalls, from classic pad thai to waffles!
I will always remember Koh Samui for its compassionate people and its gorgeous sunsets, which must be witnessed with a cold Thai beer in hand; I definitely had some of my most rewarding experiences on this island and leaving those children broke my heart.This was an incredible opportunity and I left wanting to do so much more…
I flew on towards Vietnam and faced my first major travel disaster; somehow I hadn’t technically checked in when I connected in Bangkok. I stood at the desk, staring longingly at the plane outside which was bound for Hanoi, begging the man at the desk to let me board. I will forever be indebted to him for letting me on the plane despite regulations. I was headed for Hanoi and, though I didn’t know it at the time, one of the best months of my life. I spent the first week in an amazing hostel: Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ma May.
When staying in hostels, do not worry about starting up conversations with the people around you; I have never met anyone in a hostel unwilling to chat and share their travel stories. This experience gave me the confidence boost I needed to talk to new people in fresher’s week of university.
After a week in Hanoi, I spent a month travelling down the country with a group of people similar to my age and we fell in love with Vietnam together.
Our travels began in the city of Hanoi, where we first experienced Vietnam’s thriving urban scene. At first, this bustling city may seem confusing so I would advise taking a walking tour (free from many of the hostels!) to get your bearings. At the city centre is the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which is worth a visit, although try to save this for a sunny day – I visited in misty March but, to be honest, the mist only added to the mystical atmosphere.
Almost every street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi is bursting with colour, from the lanterns, spices and propaganda posters being sold from the shops lining the streets to the multi-coloured motorbikes which rush by every few minutes. Make sure to try a Banh Mi – a baguette filled with a multitude of ingredients depending on your tastes. These Vietnamese baguettes are a result of French colonisation and are typically filled with various meats, pate, meat floss, cheese and a multitude of vegetables.
Following Hanoi, we travelled north to Sapa, which is known for its spectacular treks up and down the rice terraces which lie in the shadows of the larger mountains.
After this, we took a boat trip around Halong Bay, a beautiful collection of islands in north Vietnam which must not be missed.
After Sapa, we travelled back to Hanoi before boarding an overnight train to Hue. A trip to Vietnam is not complete until you have travelled on one of these trains, which cram passengers into little beds, four to a cabin; kind of like the Hogwarts Express but with views of rural South East Asia! The views from these trains are gorgeous and surprisingly comfortable, although many of my friends would argue against this.
When visiting Hue, our next stop in Vietnam, I would recommend taking bikes to the surrounding villages to visit some local markets and Thanh Toan Bridge.
Make sure to visit some of Hue’s most interesting historical sites, including the magnificent Tomb of Minh Mang and the Citadel.
After this, we took a bus to Hoi An, which is one of my favourite places in the world. Lanterns line almost every street and at night the whole city glows with colour. Riverside markets take place regularly and Hoi An’s famous tailors can make any item of clothing imaginable at reasonable prices. While you are here, why not try out a cooking class or two?
We then visited Mui Ne, a very quiet area of Vietnam but worth it for a sand dune surfing experience!
We concluded our trip in Ho Chi Minh City (previously known as Saigon), another of Vietnam’s bustling cities. Do your research and visit some of the many markets which take place here; Ho Chi Minh is a great city to get lost in. From Ho Chi Minh city there are many day trips to take so explore your ticket options available through hostels, hotels and local companies. The Cu Chi Tunnels are a must: climb through the tiny tunnels and learn about the war techniques used by the Vietnamese against the US. For a calming end to your adventure, take a boat trip along the Mekong River.
I took a month to visit friends and family in Australia, which was a nice little relaxing break from hostel life in Asia. I then travelled from Sydney to the Malaysian Perehentian Islands for my final month of travelling. I spent two weeks volunteering with Ecoteer, which runs sustainable, collaborative, community projects. We ran various classes at the local school, raised awareness about environmental issues and, in our spare evenings, we played volleyball on an adjacent beach before heading to a local bar; an idyllic life.
I concluded my year with three weeks on a neighbouring island. I spent my daytime completing scuba diving courses and my evenings patrolling the beaches for poachers as part of a turtle conservation project. I spent my nights here lying on the beach waiting for turtles to lay, gazing up at the clear milky way arching across the sky and chatting with other volunteers.
This was the perfect ending to a wonderful five months and so, to conclude, here are my top tips for travelling in the year before university.
1. Just do it! Take a break from reality for a bit and see the world!
2. Earn every moment – it does you (and your CV) some good to experience full-time work and it feels amazing to know that you have earned every moment on your travels.
3. Do your research – look for the best volunteer programmes, the most exciting hostels and the top things to do – Tripadvisor is life.
4. Eat everything! Pretty much all that you try will be delicious – yes, even those salty skewered mealworms on Khao San Road!
5. Take a break sometimes – travelling for extended periods of time is exhilarating but exhausting, so don’t feel guilty for having some Netflix time at the hostel.Enjoy your travels.
This piece was written for The National Student.