The idea of a young person taking time off before, during or after college to explore the world has been a long-standing tradition in other countries, but is just coming into its own in Canada.
In the United Kingdom, about 11 per cent of college students take a break called a “gap year” at some point during their post-secondary studies. The numbers are similar in Australia, but the break is known there as “going walkabout.”
Regardless of what it is called, the belief is that students who travel the world on their own broaden their horizons and become more mature. If planned well, a young person will learn valuable life skills during a gap year and develop increased self-confidence.
For several years, James and Daniel Williams of Red Deer had talked about taking time off from their college studies to tour the world together. Last winter, the brothers set off on a backpacking trip across Asia. Their goal was to see the world and make their money last as long as possible.
In six months, they visited China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, Pakistan and Kazakhstan.
Each country they visited had its special highlights and adventures, and since they were travelling as cheaply as possible, they tended to travel by bus and stay in places that facilitated interaction with locals.
“It’s nice to see the main tourist sites in a place, but we preferred to get off the tourist track,” explained James. “It was a little difficult at times, especially with a language barrier, but meeting the locals made the places we visited seem more real. I think we got a better feel for the culture than we might have had just by visiting the tourist hot spots.”
There were many highlights over the course of their journeys and the pair highly recommends this kind of travel to others — both young and old. Here are a few of their favourite and most memorable experiences.
China — Capital Area
After flying into China’s capital city of Beijing, the brothers began to explore the nearby sites. Although they saw many amazing things, the highlight of this part of China came during their second week in the area.
“We camped on the Great Wall for three nights,” said Williams.
“We went off the main tourist part of the wall and pitched our tent and slept in sleeping bags for three nights. Even though it absolutely poured rain and we were pretty much drenched, it’s an experience that I will never forget. There’s a real wow factor to spending the night on the Great Wall of China.”
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City proved to be a real highlight in Vietnam.
The museum contains a comprehensive collection of machinery, weapons, photos and documents from Vietnam’s wars with France and the United States. The museum tells the story from the Vietnamese perspective, but there are English translations for everything. You can learn war facts from both sides, information about journalist coverage, biological warfare and worldwide demonstrations for peace.
The pair really enjoyed the time spent exploring Cambodia and the two top highlights were seeing Angkor Wat and learning about Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
“Angkor Wat was absolutely amazing,” said Williams. “Built in the 12th century, the temple has become a symbol of Cambodia and is something visitors shouldn’t miss.”
The other thing the brothers said they will always remember about Cambodia was the infamous Killing Fields.
“Prior to my visit, I don’t remember ever learning about the genocide that took place in Cambodia,” said Williams. “It was a real eye-opener to learn about the atrocities that took place during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Some estimates put the total number of deaths during their four-year rule at more than two million, including those who died of starvation.”
Being in Thailand during Thai New Year or Songkran was an amazing experience for the brothers. Historically, people washed their hands as a symbol washing away bad thoughts and bad actions. Good wishes and words of blessing were also said while pouring water on others.
Today, Songkran has evolved into a huge water fight.
“We’d be walking down the street and get splashed by an old lady who we didn’t even know,” said Williams. “People carried water in buckets. They’d splash us and we’d splash them back. It was a lot of fun.”
After weeks of hot humid weather in Southeast Asia, a few days in Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands provided a wonderful break. The highlands are the smallest district in the state of Pahang and are located in the northwest corner of the state on the Titwangsa Mountain Rage.
“The highlands area is the leading producer of tea and flowers in Malaysia and we stayed at a tea plantation there,” said Williams. “It was a beautiful part of the country and I really enjoyed the fact that it got a little cooler at night.”
Purchasing motorcycles and driving around the countryside was the highlight of their travels in India.
“We went to a motorcycle dealer in Mombai and bought bikes,” explained Williams. “Since neither of us had ever operated a motorcycle before, we practised for a couple of hours on the road right in front of the shop. There were a bunch of Indian guys watching and helping us and just killing themselves laughing.
“After we figured the bikes out, we travelled around the country on them. It was a great way to get around, but the traffic was a little dangerous at times. My helmet had a note inside that said it was a collector’s item and should not be used while operating a motor vehicle. I tried not to think about that too much.”
The pair travelled to Pakistan to visit a family friend who was living there while teaching in a foreign school. Although it is not a typical tourist destination, they were very impressed with the visit.
“The mountains in Pakistan are absolutely breathtaking and we really enjoyed hiking there,” said Williams. “Pakistan has some of the tallest peaks in the world. Five of the 14 peaks in the world that measure over 8000 metres are found in Pakistan. The people there were all very friendly and gracious. We were pleasantly surprised by our visit.”
The final stop on their Asian trip, Kazakhstan was a surprise.
“Kazakhstan was probably one of the most developed countries we visited,” said Williams. “Most people think of the movie Borat when they think of Kazakhstan, but it doesn’t fit any of the backwards stereotypes that are implied in that film. Kazakhstan felt like a European city.”
A note about the Canadian Embassy: While travelling by bus from Pakistan to Kazakhstan, the Williams brothers became stuck in western China during a time of political unrest. Although the political riots were taking place about 300 km from the city in which they were staying, it made it impossible for them to travel onward for a time or to email or call internationally.
Their parents became concerned when they hadn’t heard from them in two weeks and contacted the Canadian Embassy in China, which was able to track the pair down to the hostel where they were staying in Western China.
“It’s nice to know that your country is watching out for you when you travel abroad,” said Williams. “The Canadian Embassy really came through for us.”
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.