Ideas for a Senior’s “Gap Year” in Asia
Gap years are not just for youngsters, we are finding more and more people of all ages and stages of life are seeking to take time out, explore the world and have a meaningful break away. Gill Hibbitt from Bournemouth recently found herself newly and happily single and decided she wanted to take time out.
She chose to take her gap year to Asia for her senior citizen”s break and has written this article with information about how she planned the trip, ideas for things to do, worthwhile projects she participaited on and she also shares her experiences of how she got on. We hope her experience in Asia will inspire you to do something similar too.
How I Planned My Trip
- Stage 1: Look at a map and get an idea as to where I’d like to visit, along with visa and vaccination requirements for each country.
- Stage 2: Decide when.
- Stage 3: Sort out flights and travel insurance (365 day insurance).
- Stage 4: What would I like to do and where (general travel, trekking, cycling, volunteering, culture).
- Stage 5: Do an online TEFL course (Teach English as a Foreign Language Course).
Tick to all the above and off I went on 6th September 2014, India-bound. South to North. A country full of magnificent colours, smells and sounds.
My India gap year itinerary:
Kerala: Flight booked into Cochin (south). Kerala with it lush greenery, slow-pace, beautiful beaches and plethora of houseboats to take you on the waterways.
Tamil Nadu: From here by train to Tamil Nadu where I spent a week revisiting projects from when I’d been a volunteer with SCAD (Social Change and Development. A great way to meet villagers in their own environments, and understand the work of charities whose aim is to help people towards self-sufficiency - well off the tourist track.
Goa:Another train journey to Goa - just out of season. Magnificent beaches and spice plantations. In season trekking is on offer. Here I found a day trip round N Goa really good and lots of fun.
Mumbai: by plane. Busy, busy place. Did some volunteer work in India at PETA office - a dedicated team who stand up for and help animal welfare. Also joined in the International March for Elephants and Rhinos on 4th October. What a magnificent atmosphere.
Rajasthan by train to Jaipur. The land of forts. Here I booked a car and driver and visited some splendid forts, to Jaiselmer where I was lucky enough to have arrived in time for a Folk Festival being held at the Fort - from the famed Pink Palace of Jaipur (please avoid the elephant rides at Amba Fort - it’s terribly cruel) to the Holy City of Pushkar (watch out for false holy men!) to the desert city of Bikaneer. Audio guides by English-speaking Indian people gave a real sense of the past. We certainly covered some miles. Better to have an idea as to what you want from each place as the company provided the car and driver who took me to the forts and hotels, without much other info. Stayed at some great hotels. However for solo travellers who enjoy other people’s company as and when, hotels in backpacker areas tend to be friendlier (I found.)
Agra: Next up: Volunteering at SOS Wildlife - saving dancing bears and elephants. Absolutely fantastic being with these magnificent animals and knowing I was contributing to giving them the lives they deserve. We helped build enrichment climbing frames for the bears and went on long walks with the elephants. The work done by these dedicated people is phenomenal.
They are currently on a mission to save circus elephants in India. As well as one of the elephants who used to spend her days hauling tourists up the hill to the Amba Fort under blistering conditions, has now been rescued and is on the long road back to wellness.
Taj Mahal: 40 years after I passed the Taj Mahal at night (as a hitchhiker), I finally got there in daylight. It was spectacular - whilst busy there was a certain serenity there which added to its’ beauty.
Amritsar: By train.The Golden Temple. I stayed in a per donation dormitory. Extremely basic with 2 other random girls yet very convenient and safe to visit the Temple at night. A few feet from our dorm was an open area where hundreds of pilgrims simply slept on the floor. The place was vibrant. Loads of volunteers. Free food for anyone who wanted it. Amongst all this goodness, warnings about protecting your belongings.
Delhi: By train. Arrived to mayhem with drivers plying for my trade and being a tad dishonest about prices! I battled my way through and got to a prepaid vehicle booth which was about half of what the drivers told me was the going price! Checked in at a pre-booked backpackers hotel - down a dodgy looking alley to a clean and safe hotel.
I hired a taxi to visit the various sites - much using of horn and shouting. It worked. Just ask the hotel about the main sites if you are unsure and they’ll sort it.
Of special beauty and peace for me was the Swaminarayan Akhardam Temple
Here is how my Thailand gap year went:
Next Up: to join the i-to-i TEFL programme. Programme included collection from Bangkok airport, 2 nights at a lovely hotel near Ayuthaya, a visit to the ancient ruins, and an orientation session before going to teach in Thailand at various schools. 46 peeps .. 2 - 3 to a school.
Wow - this was a bit different from how I imagined it would be. Initially it was more to do with “Crowd Control” - the children are very boisterous and their teachers simply disappeared. After a while I asked for a teacher to be present so I could teach the kids something rather than spending my time breaking up fights etc (call me old-fashioned, if you will). That worked pretty well. Many of the children were gorgeous and in Thailand you are allowed to give them a cuddle! Teachers were super too. So a worthwhile experience so long as you ask for a teacher to be present for crowd control.
We had week-ends off and were based about 45 minutes bus journey from Kanchanaburi - a town steeped in history (Bridge over the River Kwai), surrounded by beautiful mountains and temples. A delight to visit. We were also within easy reach of Bangkok with its mixture of vibrancy, beautiful temples, parks, The Royal Palace, the waterways where you can use boats as public transport and of course, gross Western men canoodling with desperate Thai women - yuck!
The i-to-i TEFL programme also included 5 days on the island of Koh Samet at the end of our internship - a reward! Here people could sunbathe, go on boat trips, snorkel, hike, drink - whatever.
My last week in Thailand I spent volunteering with elephants at the Surin Project. I loved being amongst the elephants and the mahouts were superb. Lots of walking with the eles .. letting them walk at their own pace, enjoying a life away from shackles. I spent Christmas volunteering in Thailand and what a great way to spend Christmas amongst the volunteer co-ordinators, Wills and Kirsty, the mahouts, and the other participants who really cared for the elephants and knew how to laugh too!
On to another of the SEF elephant projects. This volunteer program in Cambodia focuses on planting and protecting the remaining trees from illegal logging. I had a great 2 weeks there. The first week with a bunch of volunteers from Reach Out and the second week with various volunteers from Oz, UK and Belgium. Apart from observing the eles and accompanying them on their walks, we also helped build the walls for toilets, did some work on firebreaks, cut food for the eles and taught some English at a local school. Another project where age is irrelevant and people are welcomed from all walks of life .. accompanied or solo.
After this project, one of my besties flew in from the UK to join me for a bit of my gap year in Cambodia.
We did a tour of Cambodia and visited the amazing temples of Angkor Wat over a couple of days ($40 for a 3 day pass). Hiring a tuk tuk driver to take us from temple site to temple site was an easier option than cycling in the blazing sun and working out the route!
Spent hours walking around the area - riverside walks, into the buzzy centre, back to our more chilled hotel (Golden Mango Inn), before heading off to Sihanoukville. Bus journey should have been 10 hours on 1 bus. Instead it was 18 hours on 2 buses including a stay at one of the Phnom Penh bus stations for nearly 3 hours - a rather grotty one! A good book solved that!
Sihanoukville: beach territory - both for tourists and one of the best places to go scuba diving in Cambodia. When we got past the main touristy beaches, full of beer swillers and gross Western men with younger local women, we walked along stretches of white sands and crystal clear seas - beautiful by day - warnings about not walking there in the dark. Lots of warnings about being robbed. Dotted along were eateries/chill out places.
By chance we came across a flyer about an eatery which supported and provided training for helping ex-street children in the hospitality industry, helping them to create a better future. We headed there that evening and it was magnificent, set amongst trees in a beautiful environment, with the service and food being exceptional. A credit to everyone involved.
Boat tour: We chose a boat tour which included an option for a jungle walk and waking through the mangroves. Yep - that was us. Boat trip was pretty rocky, the snorkelling a tad tricky due to rough seas and the beach we went to was stunning with clear waters. 4 of us went off with the guide on the jungle trek and through the manky mangroves (who’s bright idea was this part??). A quick dip in the warm, clear waters afterwards and back to the boat.
Phnom Penh was our last port of call in Cambodia. We selected the slightly more expensive mini-bus option and got to destination in 4 hours rather than the 7 advertised to go by the big bus. Great hotel (Rose Emerald).
Sightseeing here was very sobering as we visited the Killing Fields (Choeunek Genocidal Centre) and the Tuel Sleng Musuem, the converted school where people were detained and tortured before being sent to Choeunek. Very sad and pointless. So much cruelty. So many wasted lives and a country still paying the price. There are extremes of poverty. Many people were sleeping on the streets. It’s not all gloom. It is a lively place. A lot of investment is taking place. Trendy bars, seedy bars .. the usual.
And .. there’s another branch of the Tree Alliance Project here. Again superb surroundings, lovely staff and teachers .. it gave us the feel good factor about munching whilst helping a good cause!
We flew from Phnom Penh to Dalyan and then by taxi to Hoi An where we spent a good introduction to our gap year in Vietnam - super week, getting clothes made and joined a great Vietnam tour to areas we wouldn’t have known existed.
We booked with Heaven & Earth Bicycle Tours. Very mixed terrain. Fab leaders (2 of them to 4 of us). Visited local industries with no pressure to buy anything. Cycled back into the heart of Hoi An which confirmed that we could indeed cycle in the town! Prompted by this we hired bikes and explored the area and cycled to their gorgeous beaches. Deceptive too - witnessed a spectacular rescue with the rescuer heading out in a basket boat. Breath held. Success.
Cycled out to Marble Mountain. This took about 1 hour 20 mins going towards Dalyan, on the dual carriageway which was virtually empty. At destination, we simply left bikes with a cafe where we drank coconut water and went into the mountain which was spectacular - so much more to it than appeared from the outside. Loads of steps, nooks and crannies.
Another highlight: Hiking in the Prao Mountains. Superb scenery. Rough terrain. Need to be pretty fit. Very slippery on our day. Our leader kept expressing his concerns which was a tad disconcerting but we made it!
Dalat: We went by overnight sleeper bus to Nha Trang where we changed buses and went on up for a further few hours to Dalat. The City of flowers and lakes. We booked a tour with our hotel and embarked on mountain rides as pillion passengers up and away from the city visiting waterfalls, markets and clambered up a hillside, just for some exercise on our way to the leaders home village where people still live in the old ways although the government is building new homes for some of the people. Here we had a splendid lunch and then visited the home of one of the villagers. It was very basic and had served her for decades. Other local ladies came to visit and we had a “chat” - well our leader interpreted, and we learned about the cultural differences between village life and city life. Returning to the home where we had lunch, we were introduced into the world of local fruits sampling them as fresh as fresh could be. Hairy ride back as darkness fell and we entered the chaos of the city!
Trekking: The Langbian Mountain Trail. What a great trek. We caught a local bus out and then spent the day trekking up the mountain, once again through a variety of terrains - rugged and spectacular. Up and up we went .. finally we reached the summit. Whilst the day wasn’t very bright we still had a good view from there way above the world!
Another bus journey took us to:
Ho Chi Minh: A city which lends itself to walking. We had a delightful hotel (Yellow House Hotel) downtown near the bus station and from where we could walk to the main places of interest, such as the Reunification Palace and the War Remnants Museum, where once again we were reminded of the horrors of war. This was further emphasised when we booked on a tour to the Cu Chi Tunnels, giving an insight (through a visitor’s eyes, rather than the stark reality of living the experience) of both the ingenuity of those building the tunnels, living underground and the cruelty involved in devising camouflaged traps to spike the enemy to death. Here we were able to crawl along one of the tunnels which has been widened to allow for bigger Western bodies - not for the claustrophobic.
We didn't volunteer in Vietnam but were in Saigon for the preparations for the Lunar New Year and what a delight that was. I have never seen so many flowers in my life - the place was alive with flowers everywhere. We happened on a practice run for a show (singing, dancing, drumming) which was later aired on TV. The sheer vibrancy of the place was stimulating. Again opulence and poverty, hand in hand.
Then it was time for my friend to return to the UK - Feb 16th and the next day I headed back by bus to Cambodia for some dental treatment.
By Gill Hibbitt