The Death Of The Gap Year?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The gap year is a foreign concept to most Americans — most high school graduates here head straight on to college. But for the British, the gap year is a hallowed institution, the year-long break before Uni (that’s university to you Yanks) where the budding minds of the best and the brightest head off into once was the country’s imperial backyard to expand their horizons and hone their skills for their upcoming education. Or it’s a chance to get completely bombed on some island in the Gulf of Thailand with tens of thousands of other sub-25 travelers and do a lot of nothing until the real world catches up — a spring break that never ends.

And this is worrying some back in the U.K. who, in this recent Guardian exposé on the life of a gap year traveler in Thailand, are concerned that for the 160,000 who take off that year, “the golden age of the gap year is over.” No longer is the time off “used in a focused way to support an application to the course or university you are targeting,” but as the article explores in the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand, the gap year is now epitomized by the Full Moon Party that happens there every month. And oh yes, there will binge drinking.

Like Richard from “The Beach,” the Guardian‘s author begins his adventure by touching down on Khao San Road, where much to the author’s chagrin, life seems to be no different for gap year travelers than back home in London, what with the sports bars, Western music, and hordes of tourists. Forgoing the normal bus trip — most people take a plane now anyway — his next stop is Koh Phangan, a short plane trip and ferry ride south where he runs into a couple Brit backpackers who explain to him their distaste for tourists, a slightly odd attitude given their surroundings:

We’re sitting on the side of a dirt track near the centre of Had Rin, the main tourist town on Koh Phangan, and venue for tomorrow’s Full Moon Party. Tourists are whizzing past every 30 seconds on mopeds belching out acrid fumes. Every second shop is an internet cafe packed with tourists checking Facebook. Every third shop is a travel agent’s filled with tourists plotting their next move. It’s an odd place to visit if you don’t like tourists. And particularly if you yourself are one.

Most have come for the all-night party that is host to crowds of between 10,000-30,000 revelers, a party that seems even the DJ’s have become bored with working. Toilets overflow, urination occurs in the sea, and Black Eyed Peas songs are played — a far cry from the first party thrown by Sutti Kuasurkul — the man who started it all — back in the mid-’80s. He still lives there, and owns a hostel nearby, but won’t even answer questions about what’s come of his creation. The “beach” has been discovered.

And what of those who say this has nothing to do with travel to Thailand? So be it responds one backpacker:

This isn’t a Thai experience . . . this is a party experience. Chiang Mai and Bangkok, you get a Thai experience. Koh Phangan is a party place . . . We’ve gone through the Thai experience,We’ve seen it, we’ve done it. So for us this is just a nice way to cap it off and celebrate what we’ve achieved, all that we’ve been through. A lot of people just see the Khao San Road and here — and they’re tourists. They’re not travellers. They’re not going to learn anything here about Thai culture. Whereas going to places like Chiang Mai, you just learn so much about their culture of respect, and the emphasis they place on those . . . those aspects.

[image by Evan Rosenfeld/Flickr]

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