Leave the traditional classroom far behind, as we journey to the heart of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Gap Asia is a unique blend of education, service and exploration of these intriguing and ancient cultures. Our exclusive access to people and places, developed over decades, gives us a window on aspects of China and Southeast Asia rarely experienced by outsiders. Standing knee-deep in the rice paddies of China’s Chengyang Dong, we discover a way of life that has remained virtually unchanged throughout the centuries. We meet with village leaders to learn how their community thrives in an increasingly globalized world. In collaboration with a Chinese middle school, we teach English classes to students that have never before interacted with native speakers. Settle into village life in Cambodia, where we learn about efforts to combat human trafficking, starting with education and income generating opportunities. Be a part of the change by getting your hands dirty building bio-sand filters for rural villages, and facilitating computer classes for over 200 students. We partner with local mahouts and biologists at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center deep in the northern jungle, to understand the true value of conservation as we care for and rehabilitate Thailand’s indigenous elephants. Sharing laughter with Thai students in our own language camp, we feel how service transcends boundaries. Together, we discover the many lessons this fascinating corner of the world can teach us.
“In the first few weeks of the Asia Gap Semester, my perspectives of myself and the world have already been altered and widened to a once unimaginable degree”
— Isabelle D., Philadelphia, PA, Asia Gap Student
Orientation in Beijing
Although our trip begins when we meet together in Los Angeles prior to our flight, our semester truly begins in Beijing, China. Here we begin getting to know the other members of our group and also begin exploring our new home for the next six weeks. We also map out our group itinerary, personal goals, the Milestone projects for the “Five Essential Components” of our curriculum and brainstorm ideas for our Capstone project. Taking the time to enjoy our new surroundings, this ancient city offers an intriguing view of ‘old and new’ as skyscrapers blend with classic architecture typified by the Forbidden City. No visit to China would be complete without visiting the iconic Great Wall; we spend two days trekking the wall, taking time to learn its rich history and marvel at its construction.
Nujiang River Gorge
From Beijing we travel to the Yunnan province, home to many of China’s ethnic minority groups. Hiking from village to village, we take in the sights of rural China, noticing the vast difference between the bustle of Beijing and the quiet of the countryside. Until very recently, the villages along the Nuijang River Gorge were relatively cut off from the rest of China and did not receive much assistance. We lend a hand in local schools, teaching English in villages that have never before met native English speakers. Meeting with village leaders, we discuss the pros and cons of tourism and witness the many ways an increased connection with the outside world impacts people’s lives.
Although many villagers here struggle with poverty, there are organizations in place that are raising the standard of living for many people. One such project is “Threads of Yunan.” Started in 1999, this organization provides training in literacy, hygiene, nutrition, and money management to local women. It also allows these women to use their artisan skills of weaving and handicraft to earn money, part of which the women donate back to a communal village fund. We are grateful to meet these women, hear their unique stories and help them with their work.
Bifengxia Panda Preserve
From Nuijang we travel to Chengdu and the Bifengxia Breeding and Research Center. Continuing our work in the Environment and Conservation theme, we work closely with our dedicated Chinese partners, learning from them the steps that are being taken to protect the Giant Pandas. The Giant Pandas are one of the most amazing and captivating species on Earth, and also one of the most endangered. The population estimate of pandas living in the wild range from 1600 – 3000; farming, deforestation and other development have driven the pandas out of most of their natural habitat. We lend a hand, assisting in the care of the pandas; we feed and help to keep both them and their habitat clean. Through our interaction with the pandas and their caretakers we gather information for our independent projects.
Hamagu Village Stay
From Chengdu we travel to the foothills of the Himalayas, making our way to the remote Tibetan village of Hamagu. As part of an effort to increase tourism in this area, the Chinese government offered to replace the worn and rutted yak trail into the village with a paved road. Unlike many of the neighboring villages, the elders of Hamagu refused this convenience, believing that the “mass tourism” affecting much of China would dilute their Tibetan culture and bring little lasting benefit to the community. Rather, they have embraced an eco-tourism model, opting for few visitors but ones who will stay longer and arrive with a purpose.
In the village we learn from the elders who had such foresight and care for their community. Through interviews, group discussions and immersion into village life, we discover how this community is maintaining its agriculturally-based lifestyle in light of increased globalization. Working alongside our new friends, we make improvements to the village infrastructure by constructing an irrigation system for the fields.
Exploration in Hanoi and Sailing in Halong Bay
After a short journey to the capital, we find ourselves stepping into bustling city of Hanoi. Wandering the back streets of the Old Quarter, we sample Pho, and gorge on delightful cuisine, while visiting must-see sights, such as Ho Chi Minh's tomb and the One Pillar Pagoda. The next few days we experience the breathtaking views of Halong Bay from aboard a traditional junk. Basking in the warm ocean breezes and sleeping on deck for a two night excursion, we kayak to your own private island, surrounded by the mystifying limestone cliffs of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Urbanization and education in Sapa Valley
For the next week we live in the hills of Sapa Valley, immersed in the culture and lifestyle of the Vietnamese Hill-tribe people. Finding enchantment in the plunging valley of cascading rice terraces, surrounded by towering peaks, we study education and urbanization by conducting site visits to remote schools and communities, and partner with a local non-profit. Tying up our laces, we enjoy a trek through the Hoang Lien Mountains, skirting Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak.
Angkor Wat and Orphanage Work
Making our home in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we find ourselves busy balancing work at the nearby orphanage and school, with visits to the amazing sights of this charming city. Experiencing one of the World Wonders at sunrise, we take in the majesty of Angkor Wat, wander down tree-lined narrow streets, and improve on our bartering skills at Siem Reap's famous night market, all the while observing the differences in this new country. Having the opportunity to impact hundreds of Cambodian youth at the Elma school, we learn about Cambodian education successes and failures, lending our services as best we can.
Learning about and working to combat Human Trafficking
For the next 10 days we bunk up dormitory style on the grounds of our partner organization outside of Phnom Penh. Partnering with a local organization whose mission is to combat human trafficking, after effects of the Khmer Rouge era, we learn about their efforts to provide education and employment opportunities to locals. With a focus on women and children, we will have the opportunity to assist in the hospitality school, work on bio-sand water filters and tutor in the local school. Sharing meals with locals, facilitating computer classes and English lessons, conducting site visits and constructing clean water filters, we learn about the many successes that have taken place in this organization which is based in one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia.
Bangkok Orientation and Exploration
Though only a short flight from China, we arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, eager to embrace the friendly people and culture awaiting us. While in Bangkok, we explore the canals by long boat, sample incredible Thai delicacies and visit the great sights of Bangkok including the famous Grand Palace and the Reclining Buddha. These days are busy exploring our new surroundings, as well as participating in a thorough orientation of our new home country.
Public Health and Education in Lom Sak
Traveling north from Bangkok, we arrive in the small village of Lom Sak. Lom Sak and the surrounding villages will be our home for the next 3 weeks, as we live, work and immerse ourselves in the lives of local families. We truly become a part of the family, as our gracious hosts invite us into their lives and show us the hospitality for which Thailand is famous. The Thai people love to show guests their country and we benefit from family tours not only around town, but also weekend trips to famous temples, Nam Nao National Park and other adventures.
During our time in the Lom Sak area, we give back to the community by teaching English in local schools. Our orientation in Bangkok has prepared us with effective teaching tools and we work alongside local Thai teachers to develop and implement exciting curricula for our eager students. We also volunteer our time and efforts at Lom Sak Hospital. A testament to “ground-roots” village improvement, the hospital was built entirely by contributions from the local community. We feel honored to be of assistance in this worthwhile endeavor and gain practical knowledge and experience as we shadow health care professionals, helping them during their rounds.
Kanchanaburi Orphanage Work and Elephant Rehabilitation
Having gained a thorough understanding of Thai culture and a basic grasp of the language during our village homestays, we feel well-prepared to dive into our next adventure. We travel to the small town of Kanchanaburi where we will live and work in a local orphanage. Here we touch on elements of both the “Public Health” and “Literacy and Education” components of our curriculum. In addition to joining in the daily activities of the children and learning about Thai public health services, we design and facilitate an “English Camp,” an opportunity to truly connect with the Thai youth and get to know them on a more personal level. During our time here, we take side trips to the historic River Kwai, the nearby floating markets and several local Buddhist monasteries.
During our stay in Kanchanaburi, we also delve into the “Environment and Conservation” component of our curriculum as we work with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Here we learn the basics of elephant biology and how to care for these incredible animals. From our dedicated partners at the conservation center, we learn firsthand of the plight of Thailand’s indigenous elephants and what is being done to help this species. We continue journaling and collecting interview material for use in our Capstone Project.
Gulf of Thailand Exploration, Koh Tao SCUBA Diving and Reef Clean-Up
We end our time in this wonderful country by relaxing on the Gulf of Thailand’s serene beaches. Off the island of Koh Tao we explore the incredible array of multi-colored fish and corals populating Thailand’s extravagant reefs. During the day we complete our PADI dive certification while at night we enjoy the quiet beauty of Koh Tao. In addition to learning about the coastal and reef ecosystems, we have the chance to give back by helping to clean the reef during some of our dives. Those new to diving will have the chance to earn their Open Water Diver certification, while experienced divers can earn their Advanced Diver certificate.
Back to Bangkok
After three months of unbelievable adventure, education and eye-opening experiences, we head back to Bangkok for one last glimpse of Thailand. We present our Capstone Projects, summing up our particular field of interest and giving structure to the many experiences we’ve shared together. As we board our flight back to the United States, we say goodbye to Asia but know that we are returning home with incredible memories and a broadened perspective.