Thinking About a Gap Year? Stop Thinking and Start Booking
Editor's note: The following was written by one of our part-time students, David Kennedy, who was recently awarded his LLB. Congratulations to David. I'm also editing this after spending a full day typing and reading emails and correspondence, so apologies for any typos I've missed.
A bit of background:
It is a fairly common path for people to complete school, move on to university and then go on a gap year before returning to reality (I have to warn you now, with quite a sore bang!) find a job and settle into working life for the next 40 odd years (depressing thought)
I like to be different and have taken that natural order and mixed it a little. I left school when I was 16 with one Higher (a B in History) and started working right away. As the years went by I wanted a change and it was a spell of jury service that sparked my interest in law. I didn't know how I could go about that while still working full time (truth be told I had got used to having money and wasn't enamoured by the idea of that changing, I also had plans to buy a house). I took on a law taster course at Glasgow Uni and it was there I discovered I could study law part time at Strathclyde while still working full time, the best of both worlds. I completed an Open University access course and was accepted into Strathclyde to start in 2016.
It was around this time one of my best mates, Ross, had booked himself a round the world trip and was taking a year out. I had always fancied going to Australia for a year and had researched the idea extensively when I was 19 but too many self doubts meant I never bit the bullet. Anyway, during a night of heavy drinking in Driftwood, Ross was detailing his plans to me and another mate, Dave. I said to Dave we should do something like that before we all have mortages etc. So, after a few more jagers, we booked ourselves a one way ticket to Australia, leaving around the same time I was due to start the LLB! Luckily I was able to defer entry until 2017. Even luckier, my work agreed to me taking a year of unpaid leave.
Two weeks after finishing up at work and after milking the leaving do's dry, I was on a plane heading to Sydney. I spent almost the entire journey thinking 'wtf have I done'. I had left a good job, patched starting a law degree and left nearly all my family and friends behind.
Australia seemed to me the perfect place, I spoke the language (well a thick Glaswegian accent is still a barrier in most English speaking countries!), the sun is always shining (so I thought) and most importantly they do a fantastic visa called the Working Holiday Visa. This visa allows you to work for an employer for up to 6 months but it has no limits on the amount of places you can work or whereabouts in Aus you work. (and its Aus and Aussie, not Oz and Ozzy, a few were quite precious about this!)
Initially I stayed for 2 weeks in a hostel. Hostel life is either for you or it's not and for me its ok, I love the social aspect, sharing a bedroom with 6 strangers, not so much! By the end of the first week we were using every minute to search for a houseshare. My tip would be, unless you plan on the hostel life the whole time, start looking for flat shares ASAP on arrival as you only hear back from about 10%.
We got lucky and secured a couple of private rooms in a massive houseshare. There was about 22 housemates. That sounds awful but actually it was great. It immediately gave me 20 mates. All from different countries and so the house was a melting pot of different cultures and it was amazing to get to know everyone. I can proudly say that, thanks to me, there is some Koreans, Italians, Brazilians, Mexicans, Americans and Turkish folk who absolutely love blasting 'bits n pieces'. I also saw the joy of the Brazilian housemates having their first experience of a Yorkshire pudding as part of a Christmas dinner. Also discovered that day that Christmas crackers are only a British thing. Getting sunburnt on Christmas day was certainly different to normal too.
The experience of living in that house alone made the trip worthwhile but that house is actually just a mini version of what Sydney is like. It is a city of people from around the world and everywhere you go you will have the chance to meet folk who have amazing stories to tell and through that you end up learning about different cultures and the quirks that come with them.
I ended up getting a job in the finance team of a law firm down under, similar to what I do here. My experience meant I was getting a very good wage (c. $60K). (To put Aussie wages in context, bar work in Australia will pay you around $25AUD an hour, about £13.80!). My initial plan was to try something different like bar work but I decided I couldn't handle being on the 'wrong' side of a bar or the unsociable hours.
It is true that Australia does have a higher cost of living but if you get yourself a decent, fairly priced place to live and are smart with your money you can still earn far more there than here, they have Lidl's for cheap food and booze and there is always the famous 'goon'!
Given that both my mate Dave and I had well paid jobs in Sydney we worked out that we could work for the first 6 months before travelling around Australia and then SE Asia.
Sydney is a fantastic city to live, it is surrounded by incredible beaches and massive national parks. I was gutted when the time came to leave but was excited to see more of Australia. (Top tip: Sydney public transport fares are capped at $3 on a Sunday so you can travel all over the city for $3)
We flew north from Sydney to Cairns. The plan was to get a hop on/hop off bus from Cairns to Melbourne, c. 2800 miles. It is sometimes hard to comprehend the sheer size of Australia.
Cairns is like a different world to Sydney, it is very chilled and laid back. This could be because of the tropical climate, it was about 40 degrees and the humidity was unbearable. But what better way to cool off than to be thrown out of a plane?
Skydiving was amazing; during freefall I went through a rain cloud and I suddenly understood how turbulence makes a plane shake. After being battered by the clouds I emerged (soaking wet) into the Aussie sky and as I gently came back to Earth I was thinking that going on this trip was the best decision of my life.
From being up in the clouds I went beneath the waves and swam in the Great Barrier Reef. An incredible experience and thankfully no sharks!
My route down the East Coast took me to Mission Beach, Hervey Bay, Townsville, Magnetic Island, Airlie Beach, the Whitsundays, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Surfers Paradise, Byron Bay and other places that I can't remember the name of.
To tell you a bit about these places would take too long, everyone will have their favourites but for me it was Airlie Beach, The Whitsundays, Gold Coast and Byron Bay. The latter does have folk who look like they have been sitting there with their guitars since a 'trip' in the 60s.
Melbourne was ok but in a case of Melbourne v Sydney (a bit like Glasgow v Edinburgh) I'm definitely Team Sydney (to be fair I was only in Melbourne a week and 6 months in Sydney). From Melbourne we flew to Perth. I really liked Perth and if you ever thought of moving to Aus but the distance scares you, Perth is 5 hours less flight time than Sydney, it is also not as far ahead on the clock!
Perth was the final stop in Australia. I was gutted when I left Australia, I had met so many great people and learned so much about another country and the culture within it. The wildlife and natural beauty are a must see. Fear not, I only saw one spider that can kill and one huntsman, the latter was the size of a football with 8 legs! Seeing wild koalas and kangaroos is pretty cool too. I had also learned that the worries I had on the plane going were nothing to worry about. I had a place to live and a good job within two weeks of arriving and was capable of quite easily creating a new life on the other side of the world. From Aus it was on to explore SE Asia.
One of the best things about SE Asia for a backpacker is how cheap it is to get around. I booked about 7 flights to take me from Australia to Bali, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia for around £400. Some of the highlights are below:
This was my first experience of the roads in Asia and it was terrifying, genuinely, it was like being in the wacky races and I was very grateful to arrive at our hotel in Ubud in one piece! In Ubud I got my first taste of the millionaire lifestyle when I lifted 1.5 million from a cash machine (about 70 quid!). Beware in Ubud the 'cute little monkeys' are actually thieving little b*stards! I saw several people lose their phones to the monkeys which roam the streets. Ubud is a fairly quiet town but it is a good place to visit the rice fields. From Ubud we moved onto Seminyak and Kuta.
Kuta Beach is party central in Bali. The SkyGarden was great, 150,000 rupiah for all you could eat and drink from 5pm-9pm (about 10 quid!) Needless to say I can't remember much after 9pm.
Thailand is incredible. The food is amazing, everywhere you look! (Beware: if they ask you if you want 'Thai spice' or 'British spice', choose the latter!) There is so much to do in Thailand and unfortunately I only had 2 months in SE Asia. You could probably spend a month in Thailand alone, same with Vietnam. I went to Bangkok, Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands. The latter two being my favourite. Saw some live Muay Thai boxing in Phuket and the Phi Phi islands are stunningly beautiful. Pictures of the Thai King are everywhere but beware, any critique or derogatory comment about him and you will be on banged up abroad (for about 15 years!)
This was my favourite country of my trip, other than Australia, and I was only down south. We stayed in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). From there we went on a tour of the Ku Chi Tunnels where the Viet Kong fought America. It was incredible to be in the tunnels and learn about the cunningly clever techniques the Viet Kong used to fight the US. Here you can also fire AK47s and Anti Aircraft guns, very cool, like Call of Duty Live! Again, the food in Vietnam is incredible.
I also went on a boat tour down the Mekong Delta. This trip was a great experience, me and my mate were the only Westerners on the trip and despite an obvious language barrier you can get by with pointing and smiling (google translate helps too!). Somewhere there is a family in China showing their friends a video of them laughing at me trying to eat with chopsticks.
Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were good too but to be honest I wish I had spent less time there and more time in Vietnam and Thailand. If you do find yourself in Hong Kong, 'Mr Wongs' is an absolute must visit for food and drinks. He is off his rocker and loves the Scots.
I could (and do) go on and on about that year. It was an incredible year and I am glad that I bit the bullet and went. As clichéd as it is, travel really does broaden the mind and you will discover incredible places, people and even traits about yourself you never knew you had. If you are thinking about doing something similar and are worried about not finding work etc, put all that to the back of your mind and just get it booked (once Covid passes) I'm more than happy to give you tips. Years from now you will never regret going (even if it didn't work out as planned) but one thing you will regret is wondering what it might have been like had you gone!