A 5-month gap year in Thailand, Vietnam, Australia and Malaysia
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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.
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