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The benefits of delaying your gap year

I don’t believe in regret. Things always happen for a reason. So when I went backpacking around Asia at 29 years old, I had a cultured, socially and environmentally responsible experience that didn’t involve tubing in Vieng Vang, destroying beaches in Koh Phangan or exploiting workers in Xi’an City.

Travelling around Asia was something I started planning when I was 15. I was fascinated by Chinese culture, I had a slight fixation with Harijuku style and I had a desire to walk around Angkor Wat. Every picture of wooden boats on turquoise water had me seething with envy. I decided before I turn 30 I must do this dream trip. I booked a flight to Beijing in the New Year to start a 3-month trip that included the well-trodden backpackers trail of South East Asia, plus Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and ending in Japan.

I had my first panic attack on the flight to China. That’s when reality set in. I’d given up a good career, I’m hardly flush and I was unemployed, I’m a woman travelling alone, I’d walked away from an on/off relationship and I’d left the sanctity of my home. I’m not going to lie, the first couple of days were tough. I didn’t ease myself into it, I went to China where people couldn’t really speak English, it wasn’t geared up for foreign tourism and I booked into a dorm room. Once I (and a couple of friends) had a strong word with myself, I pulled my socks up and got stuck in.

What I experienced was different from other travellers I encountered along the way. They were all in their late teens, early twenties and they wanted to party in sunnier climes. They were hunting for the next full moon party, the bar crawl and the buckets of amphetamine laced booze. I, on the other hand, chased beautiful remote beaches in Malaysia, coffee with blind Thai artists and conversations with French ex-pats in Laos. What I did was absorb the culture, food and lifestyle of the locals, appreciate the majesty of a country’s antiquity and its courage under fire.

I learnt the Vietnamese didn’t wallow in the aftermath of war, they were ambitious and progressive people who just 40 years previously endured triple the amount of bomb tonnage than the second World War, Agent Orange and napalm. Cambodians, still struggling post Khmer Rouge, showed me unrivalled humanity. And I was a refuge for Thai girls getting away from grubby Western men.

It could’ve easily been so different. Had I experienced museum visits with a fuzzy head, boat trips with hangover and the constant haze of drunkenness, I would’ve missed so much. What I walked away with was a cerebral and well-rounded experience that enriched my life and had a profound effect on me, more than any hedonistic holiday ever could.

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