From Touring to Learning: Alternative Travel in Southeast Asia

Photo by Randal Thatcher From Touring to Learning:
Alternative Travel in Southeast Asia

By Nicole Rosenleaf Ritter

When you peruse the pictures of beaches, hiking trails, pulsating cities, and quiet resort villages, you could decide that a trip to Southeast Asia would be best without any planned activities whatsoever. You could spend endless days on a lounge chair, being served exotic drinks and watching the sun rise and set, and perhaps be perfectly content.

But before you’re lulled into this idyllic vision, consider this: Southeast Asia ranks among the top world destinations for alternative travel – that is, travel that teaches, travel that challenges, travel that rewards adventurous souls in ways vegetating on a beach never will.

The region is rife with possibilities for immersing yourself in the cultures of the host countries through volunteer work, language learning, cooking schools, traditional arts and crafts, and much more. Finding avenues to pursue your specific interests will probably be easy; more difficult will be choosing one option among the many possibilities.

The kind of program you choose is based largely on your comfort level in the destination country. Many first-time travelers to Southeast Asia opt for an organized tour that offers a number of activities that interest them.

The good news is that "organized tour" doesn’t have to be a dirty word anymore, given the increased numbers of intimate, well-connected, and culturally sensitive tour operators. In the case of most of these "niche" operators, you needn’t fear 70-passenger buses and matching white hats.

  • Cultural Tours

One such operator is Danu Tours, a company that offers guided tours to the island paradise of Bali (and elsewhere), under the watchful eyes of Danu leaders Judy Slattum and Made Surya. Danu’s tours to Bali include instruction in everything from the local language, to Balinese dance and Gamelan music, to batik and acrylic painting, to wooden mask carving.

Moreover, cultural exchange with Danu is not one-sided. The company organizes opportunities for travelers to give back to the communities to which they travel. Danu participants can donate eyeglasses to a mountain clinic, sponsor young people who otherwise would not be able to continue their schooling, or give money for costumes for a traditional dance troupe and for classes for talented low-income students. In the school sponsorship program, there are now 30 students and sponsors.

There are many other tour operators who offer culturally sensitive and enriching tours throughout Southeast Asia. Consult GoNOMAD’s TOURS and ALTERNATIVES LISTINGS for specific operators.

  • Volunteer Vacations

For travelers who want to give more than money back to the community they visit, a volunteer program is the perfect choice. Sometimes traveling through local organizations can be the most rewarding for deep cultural immersion.

Global Volunteers has short-term (2- or 3-week) service programs throughout the year in communities of the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam. Volunteers work in teams of 10 to 15 people, and during free time, they tour the Mekong River Delta, the infamous Cuchi Tunnels, Buddhist shrines, cultural centers and other sites. (See Global Good for more on volunteer vacations)

Involvement Volunteers Association Inc. (IVI), a worldwide operation based in Australia, offers programs of individualized and independent volunteer program in Southeast Asia as part of their global progam.

Tim B. Cox of IVI explains that Involvement Volunteering is designed for those that are honestly seeking to pass on something to others and are then looking for an organization that is able to assist them to help where they will be able to gain something. IVI volunteers live with local families and are self-directed, choosing their own projects and goals, though support is available to them via email and phone from IVI and from the IV Associates in many countries.

  • Learning Vacations

For specialized interests, such as intensive language lessons, cooking, massage, music, photography or other singular pursuits, consider a learning vacation program. Many alternative travel tour operators offer educational opportunities across the region.

Ban Sabai Thai Cooking School, based in Australia, offers twice yearly culinary tours to Thailand. In addition to attending markets and visiting restaurants, students take cooking courses in both Bangkok and Phuket.

You can also seek local instruction in many interests, either once you arrive at your destination or through pre-trip research. In addition to schools and institutes, consider hiring a private instructor once you arrive. Post notices at cafes or schools to find a local expert. Thailand, in particular, has a wealth of opportunities for the traveler who wants to arrange his or her own learning program.

Given the wealth of possibilities for active, educational, and rewarding alternative travel in Southeast Asia, there’s no excuse to lounge about. Forgo the beachside daiquiris and travel the GoNOMAD way!

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