Q&A: Laura Pettitt’s Gap Year

Hi Laura! Thank you so much for speaking to Anthem about your gap year. I definitely feel like a gap year wasn’t seen as an option as I never found out anything about them, so I’m hoping speaking to you might help other people see it as one!

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BMP Farmhouse on Elephant Care Day

So to begin, you’ve been back home for a little while now, what’s it been like settling back in after a 3 month trip?

It was crazy how quickly I adapted to being back actually. I’ve been home for just over 2 months but within a few days of being home I’d settled back into old routines and full time work. I was really worried about getting proper post-travelling blues and even cried on the plane coming back, but as much as I loved travelling, there is something so comforting about being home that you can never properly replicate in a hostel, especially as I spent the last few weeks travelling on my own. I don’t think I’d realised how much I missed my friends, but the second I look back at my photos or someone mentions somewhere I went, the prospect of booking a flight for the next day becomes very tempting.

 

Is there anything you miss?

Ah so much! Probably the most prominent thing was how cheap travel is over there; we did a couple of internal flights in Malaysia for £8. I’d pay that for a 20 minute train journey here. Obviously living costs are cheaper in the parts of Asia I visited but even relative to that travel was seriously cheap, and it makes it so easy to do and see more. Asia especially was so chilled and laid back. You run to get a bus that’s due to leave and end up sitting on it stationary for 2 hours. In India we asked about paragliding and 2 hours and £25 later we’d been driven up a mountain in a Jeep to paraglide off the Himalayas. It’s weird because it felt like life was moving at a much faster pace while we were travelling but it was also like the calmest and most stress-free time of my life.

 

Is there anything you’re glad to have back?

It is so nice to not sweat all the time. Honestly between landing in Bangkok on March 2nd and flying to Singapore at the end of May I’m pretty sure there was just a constant layer of sweat on my skin (which resurfaced a month later when I returned to Asia). The heat was great when lounging around on the beach but it was borderline unbearable at times so I don’t miss that. Although there’s obviously poverty in England, it’s so much more blatant in parts of Asia that it’s almost nice not to see it. That’s the most awfully privileged sentence I know, but it becomes depressing seeing all these people living in unimaginable conditions who you just can’t help. Sure you can buy them some food or sponsor a child or whatever but it just becomes a bit depressing knowing you can’t sustainably change their lives. You kind of have to detach yourself from it after a while or you’d just spend the whole time deeply depressed over it

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Halong Bay, Vietnam

Could you walk us through the trip?

So I flew out to Bangkok with 2 of my best friends from school on March 1st, we spent a couple of days there looking around markets and temples, and then got a night train to Chiang Mai. We spent about a week there, did a 2 day jungle trek and an elephant care day (it was so great we got to feed them and swim with them), and then spent 20 hours on buses to Laos. We stayed in Luang Prabang for a few nights which we loved, right on the Mekong River where there was a really good night market and waterfalls. They also randomly did such good baguettes in Laos! Then we got a bus to Vang Vieng, also in Laos, the most bizarre place with loads of “happy bars” and everyone goes tubing (going down the river in a massive rubber ring). Just a really bizarre place! We then had a 32 hour adventure on buses (on my birthday so that was fun) to get to Hanoi in Vietnam. It was the craziest place which was just constantly loud and we almost got run over so many times.

We spent about a week there and then flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for a week. There was so much to do and see and we went on a lot of day trips to places like the Cu Chi Tunnels, and Halong Bay. It was really cheap, and a nice mix between traditional and western, and the street food was incred. Then we got a night bus to Cambodia where we stayed in Pnomh Penh. We went to S-21 and the Killing Fields and learned about Cambodia’s horrible history (would definitely recommend a quick google or a watch of the film The Killing Fields to learn more) which were so shocking and sad but definitely worth learning about. Then we went to where there are loads of temples, the main one was Angkor Wat, and we went to them at sunrise. After Cambodia we headed back to Thailand, this time to the south islands. We went to Phuket, Krabi and Ko Phi Phi which were all idyllic honeymoon type places where I went scuba diving. Then we headed to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. We basically booked our main flights in England so we just knew we had to be in Singapore by the end of May, and so ended up with a couple of weeks in Malaysia. I knew nothing about it but ended up loving it! After a few nights in KL we got a bargain internal flight to a little island called Langkawi. We spent a few days lounging on the beach and then flew to Penang, which is described as Malaysia’s food capital. It was amazing and we ended up missing our return flight (it was only £12 to be fair) on purpose because we weren’t ready to leave.

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Monkey Island, Thailand

From there we got a coach to the Cameron Highlands which were so much cooler (in temperature) than everywhere we’d been previously, and we spent a couple of days doing a bit of walking and visiting the tea plantations. We got a coach back to KL and after a couple of nights got a coach to Singapore. We spent 3 or 4 nights here, looking at the quirky little shops, food halls and a trip to Universal Studios before an overnight flight to Melbourne. Here we had a week in a vile 16 bed dorm but spent the days looking round the city before being joined by my friend from work, Abi. We then picked up a camper van and set off on a 2 week adventure. We went to Great Ocean Road where we saw koalas up close (they’re so soft!) and then drove to Sydney. We made a spontaneous decision to go all the way to Byron Bay which made a couple of long days of driving and some nights parked at the side of the road (and one in a stranger’s back garden). We only stayed in Byron for 2 nights but all loved it and then headed to Sydney. Abi flew home and we went to spend a week with Lauren’s (one of the three original travellers) family friends in a place called WoyWoy. We had a really nice week living in a proper house eating home cooked meals exploring the little town and also spent a night in Sydney and one in the Blue Mountains before the others flew home.

Originally we were all due to fly back together on June 2nd but I wasn’t ready to leave so flew back to KL, spent 2 nights there, and then went to Delhi. I was met at the airport and spent 16 days volunteering, helping women learn English and helping slum children with their English and Maths, and the evenings and weekends visiting Delhi, the Taj Mahal, and an amazing place called Dharamshala. The whole thing was incredible and so surreal, we were followed round a water park like celebrities, asked for photographs by virtually everyone we met, and I went paragliding in the Himalayas. Sadly after 16 days it was time to leave, and I had 2 flights to get to Bali. This was my first proper extended solo travelling, and I spent a couple of nights in a place called Ubud. I saw lots of monkeys, did some yoga, and ate a lot of green vegan food. It was so chilled out there, but I spoke to virtually no one and it was all just a bit surreal. I then got a mini bus and a boat over to Gili T, possibly one of the nicest places on earth. It’s such a small island that the only public transport is horses and carriages. The sunsets are amazing (though I never witnessed them properly because I got lost). It’s beyond beautiful and I spent a couple of nights there, went out with people from the hostel I was staying in and also got practically adopted by a lovely Indonesian family I met on a snorkelling trip who kept taking me out for food and said I was welcome to stay with them any time. On June 25th I had to head to the airport which I was very sad about, and had my final 2 flights to get home. I finished off my 4 month adventure on a trusty national express coach driving through rainy England.

 

How did the idea to travel these places begin?

I’d always had a strange fixation with India and Vietnam (which ended up being among my favourite places). India became a bit of an obsession after a year 8 Geography project, but I remember discussing Thailand/Laos etc in the common room at school in year 12. A couple of my brother’s friends had travelled a similar route a couple of years before, and then we spoke to people at STA and came up with a route, but pretty much everyone does the same thing. Everyone you speak to out there has stayed in virtually the same places as you – it’s almost funny.

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Torquay, Victoria

 

Did everything go to plan?

Amazingly yes! I was constantly expecting to miss a bus or a flight, be scammed out of all my money and so on, but everything was fine! I feel very lucky because a few things could have ended in disaster; I left my card in an ATM in Bangkok and someone shouted after me and gave it back, I left my passport in a hostel in Singapore and managed to just hop on a bus to get it back. I even managed to get on the metro in Delhi and have the doors close before my friends could get on, but even during rush hour when it was packed, nothing bad happened to me.

 

What was it like travelling with friends?

Most of the time it was great, but I just think being with the same people all the time is always going to cause a few minor disagreements. We never really argue at home but obviously you’re not spending every moment together. I mean, we shared a room for 3 months, and sometimes you just won’t all agree on something, or someone will just be in a bad mood. I definitely argue a lot more with my family at home. It was really nice to be able to experience everything together, and laugh at funny stories both at the time and now. I did enjoy the little bit of travelling I did on my own, but I’m really glad I was with them for the bulk of my trip.

 

Could you tell us about the preparation for your trip?

So I told my family I wanted to take a gap year back in about year 11, no one took much notice and just kind of assumed I’d change my mind. When it came to UCAS and stuff suddenly they all got a bit like “is this a good idea, should you be doing it” but I’m very stubborn and I think they probably realised I was going to go regardless of what they thought. In August after year 13 we went to STA and booked our flights to Bangkok, from Singapore to Melbourne and Sydney to home (I ended up changing my last one) and started discussing stuff like budgeting. My summer job let me stay on and I worked until February with the goal of saving £4000 to spend out there plus the initial £1500 for flights and loads of other little costs. We had to start getting vaccinations about 4 months before. We needed Hep A (and a booster after we flew home), 3 Hep B ones (they’re meant to be around £100 but for some reason I wasn’t charged…), and a typhoid vaccination. We also had to get malaria tablets – you just book an appointment with a nurse, tell them where you’re going and they advise you on what to get. You can get other optional vaccinations like rabies but after a bit of research I opted against it. Also just a tip for anyone going travelling; malaria tablets are about half the price of high street pharmacies if you go to the ASDA pharmacy. Don’t pay double for the same drug!

I didn’t start packing until a couple of weeks before, and I basically bought loads of back up stuff for my phone and camera because I was so paranoid about not being able to take a million photos of everything. With packing it’s definitely a case of less is more, and I wish I’d taken less clothing, especially as a lot of what I packed was too warm to wear. You just need a couple of thin cotton tops, dresses, and shorts. We took a lot of medical stuff though you can buy everything out there. I would advise anti-sickness and Imodium just because you don’t want to find you don’t have any on a long bus journey, trust me. I also really recommend a portable phone charger for the same reason. Packing isn’t too difficult because everything is so cheap out there that if you’ve forgotten something it doesn’t matter.

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Taj Mahal, India

 

Were there any surprises?

I was surprised by how western everywhere is! Walking down the road in Cambodia and coming out of the airport in Delhi to see Costa Coffee or Domino’s is so surreal, and that took some getting used to. Also nearly everyone we encountered spoke such good English which I kind of expected but like crazy good! It was so impressive and made me feel a bit stupid!

 

What were the highlights? What wasn’t as good?

Oh God I can’t narrow it down! I did some crazy things like seeing the Taj Mahal, scuba diving in Thailand, paragliding in the Himalayas. All of those were so amazing, but just lying on a beach with friends and even just bus journeys through such interesting landscapes were fun too. Getting street food in Vietnam and the curries in India also just stand out in my mind. But it was just so good. Night buses are definitely not something I miss, though. They’re cheap and convenient but honestly after spending a couple of hours trying and failing to find a comfortable position, and the one time my friend was sick all over my stuff at the start of the journey… That I wouldn’t mind skipping. I also found the heat difficult to deal with, it made it hard to do things during the day and I was tired a lot as well. It was great again for beach days but that was about it.

 

Would you do it again? Where would you like to go next?

It’s practically all I think about! I would love to go back to where I volunteered in India to see the children again, and stay for a longer time, but I would also love to revisit Vietnam and Malaysia. I wouldn’t turn down a trip to anywhere I went though! Eventually I would like to travel around South America but I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of Asia yet!

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Chiang Mai, Thailand

 

What’s next for you now that you’re home?

I’ve spent my summer working full time at my old job, now I’ve just got a couple of weeks left and then I’m off to Bath to study psychology.

 

Do you feel you learned anything from travelling that’s affected you or changed you?

I have definitely relaxed with money a lot. I used to kind of fuss over spending but I’ve just calmed down and realised that spending a bit more for something fun is worth it. And after you see the conditions some people are living in you realise how fortunate you are to be able to do stuff like go out to eat and plan holidays. I haven’t gotten crazy generous but definitely more so. I also feel more appreciative of pretty much everything. Even just appreciative or the place I live, and having a house, and healthcare system. It isn’t until you see first-hand what it’s like not to have those things that it hits you how lucky you are.

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Penang, Malaysia

Finally, do you think it was worth the money you spent?

I really do. I know we could have done things for cheaper and in future I would book flights myself, and skip the luxury Contiki holiday, but I still think we budgeted well. I was very fortunate to be in the position of living at home, not paying bills or having financial obligations which meant that almost everything I was earning could go towards travelling. Although the 12 hour shifts in the run up were a bit hellish, it was so so so worth it when we were out there. It’s easy to limit yourself, and not do expensive activities but I definitely think it’s important to find the balance between travelling on a budget and missing out.

 

You can read even more about Laura’s travels on her blog: http://the-perks-of-being-laura.blogspot.co.uk/ 

 

Words by Briony Brake and Laura Pettitt
Photos by Laura Pettitt

 

 

 

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