While it’s totally acceptable (and enjoyable) to be a beach bum and spend your days sipping fresh coconuts and topping up your tan… there’s a lot more to be gained from a backpacking trip to Asia.
If you’re interested in gaining new knowledge, bagging new skills and working on your personal self development, there so many opportunities for you! From arts and languages, to physical wellbeing and even permaculture and natural building, there are many fantastic courses in Asia. And, they will cost you a fraction of the price of what the same course would cost back home. You can return home with an arsenal of new skills and qualifications that could move your life in a totally new direction.
So, if you think you might like to add more strings to your bow whilst you travel, read on!
1. Yoga Courses
Best places: India, Thailand and Cambodia
Whether you’re brand new to saluting the sun or you’re an experienced Yogi / Yogini, there are many different yoga courses to try out in South East Asia. If you’re serious about yoga and have practised regularly for at least one year before-hand, you may be thinking about taking a Yoga Teacher Training Course (TTC) where you’ll delve into all of the aspects of this ancient science, and submerge a qualified yoga instructor! The first certificate is 200 hours (approximately four weeks of intense training) and costs anything from 1000 USD to 3000 USD depending on where you decide to do it.
One of the cheapest and best places to take a TTC is India, in particular, Goa, or the Yoga hub of Rishikesh. Once you’ve got 200 hours under your belt (and believe us this is no easy task!), you may be interested to deepen your practise and skill set as a yoga teacher and continue with a 300-hour qualification where you’ll go more in-depth into Yogic philosophy, lifestyle and self-practice. (You must have completed the 200-hour course before you embark upon the 300-hour.)
If you’re interested in yoga as a way to approach and potentially heal disease and injuries, perhaps a Yoga Therapy Course (100 hours) may be of interest to you. This three week to one month course looks at all aspects of yogic health and wellbeing, from nutrition to Ayurvedic medicine, to psychological trauma and rebirthing. There are also specialised yoga courses for pregnancy, children, seniors, different types of yoga (Ashtanga, Yin, Sivananda) or yoga on a paddle-board - you name it, you'll find it!
However, if you’re at the stage where you’re just learning the difference between a downward facing dog and a stray dog, a one or two-week yoga retreat may be more up your street.
There are too many TTC’s and Yoga Retreat Centres to mention here, but if you’re looking for Yoga hubs, check out: Arambol, northern Goa / Agonda, southern Goa / Rishikesh, north India / Pai, Thailand / Chiang Mai, Thailand / Bali, Indonesia / Koh Phangan, Thailand, Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Links to related articles:
- Daily TTC Diaries - Part 1 – A journey of 200 hours starts with 1 hour…
- Daily TTC Diaries - Part 2 – No one said it was going to be easy…
- Daily TTC Diaries - Part 3 – The final week and qualifying as a yoga teacher!
2. Meditation Retreats and Courses
Best places: India and Thailand
One of the most popular meditation retreats to do in Asia is a Buddhist Vipassana Retreat. These typically last 10 days, or (if you can handle it and you've passed the first test!) you can do the longer retreat which is 21 days. During the retreat, you are not allowed to talk (or even to make eye contact) with another person, and you will meditate for several hours a day, focusing only on the breath and bodily sensations. Many people have life-changing experiences during these retreats, though some may find them more challenging than others (me!).
Recommended places to do a Vipassana retreat in Thailand include Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Centre in Chiang Mai, Tam Wua Forest Monastery in Mae Hong Son and Wat Suan Mokkh in Surat Thani. In India, there are many centres that follow the S.N. Goenka style of teaching, for example Himachal Vipassana Centre in Dharamsala.
If you’re interested in meditation, but not sure if you could handle total silence, why not check out Tushita Meditation Centre in Dharamsala with their the Introduction to Buddhism 9-day course. Dharmsala, the seat in exile of the 14th Dalai Lama is (as one may expect) full of meditation courses, as is Rishikesh, the biggest hub for Yoga in India, which has many ashrams offering different types of meditation courses. For Zen Buddhism Bodhi Zendo in Tamil Nadu has been recommended to us, a retreat centre set in the beautiful mountainous surroundings of the Western Ghats.
If you already have a passion for meditation and you’re interested in becoming a meditation teacher yourself, you may like to take a Meditation Teacher Training Course. Shree Mahesh Meditation School in Rishikesh, India offers a 28-day 300-hour Meditation Teacher Training Course giving you insight into Eastern vedic and modern Western meditation techniques.
Best places: India and Sri Lanka
In Sanskrit, ayur means ‘life’ and veda means ‘knowledge or science’, therefore Ayurveda is literally the knowledge of life, or knowing oneself better in order to maintain good health and wellbeing. Many people travel to the birthplace of Ayurveda, India, to find out more about this ancient form of healing which is all about maintaining a balance within the body of the five elements: earth, air, fire, water and ether. There are many courses throughout India which can teach you more about Ayurvedic medicine and practise.
The Kerala Ayurveda Academy, in South India offers 3-day to 6-week courses on everything from Ayurvedic diet to massage to cookery. The Hemadri Ayurveda Centre in Rishikesh offers 10-day courses in Ayurveda and Yoga, as well as Ayurvedic massage and therapy. The School of Holistic Yoga and Ayurveda offers Ayurveda courses in Goa. The basic course lasts 10 days and covers the tridosha concept (body constitutions - vata, pitta, kapha), the concept of rasas (taste), the panchakarma therapy (five-fold detoxification treatment) and much more.
At this stage, if you’re just interested in finding out your dosha (which body type are you), then check out Banyan Botanicals dosha quiz!
Links to related articles:
4. Music and Dance
Best places: Bali, Indonesia, India and Cambodia
Do you want to learn to play the exotic instruments of Asia? The world’s largest instrument, the gamelan from Indonesia or the double-stringed sitar from India? Or perhaps you’d love to learn Bollywood dancing or the graceful Apsara dancing from Cambodia?
Mekar Bhuana in Denpasar, Bali offers lessons and workshops in rare or extinct Balinese gamelan music and dance. You can choose a workshop of one hour, half day, full day or longer, up to two weeks. Each workshop includes historical and technical explanations of the instruments and the music by researchers and experts. Also check out the Pondok Pekak Library and Learning Centre in Ubud, which offers informal lessons of 1-3 hours in Balinese Gamelan and Balinese Dance, as well as fruit carving, jewellery marking, Bahasa language, painting and wood carving! You can also learn at the Indonesian Artists’ Institute, a local university which offers a year-long program in traditional Balinese arts.
(In fact, if you’re serious about your art, local universities are a great place to look for longer courses in the arts, music (and also languages). Many Asian countries will offer special education visas that will allow you to stay for one year or more, whilst you study.)
In India, you can take courses in the sitar and tabla, two instruments that originate from India, or even Indian classical singing. Arambol Music Academy in the hippie north Goan town is popular amongst tourists who wish to learn the tabla informally. Or check out the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya Music Academy in Pune which teaches the tabla, harmonium, and ancient dance forms, the Kathak and Bharatnatyam.
In Cambodia, learn to dance like an Apsara dancer with all of the exotic had movements by taking a lesson at Apsara Pich, a traditional Khmer Dance School in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The school was founded by Sen Pich, a dancer for 20 years who wanted to share her cultural love with tourists. The cost is $30 USD / month for three, one-hour classes per week. In Thailand, Suai Thai Massage School in Phuket offers classes in Thai traditional dance. In India, Bollywood dance classes are popular in all major cities and tourist areas. If you’re interested in any kind of dance, the best thing to do is look out for advertisements on noticeboards as you travel, to find out what’s on in your area right now!
(Festival workshops are also a great way to gain a taster of music and dance in Asia, for example there are workshops taking place at The Bali Spirit Festival and the Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo).
5. TEFL Course
Best places: Anywhere!
A TEFL course is one of the best qualifications that you can gain, that will allow you to earn money as you travel, as an English Teacher. All over the world, from Chile to Vietnam, people want to learn English, especially from a native English speaker, so your chance of finding a well paid job is good!
There are two types of TEFL courses, TESOL and CELTA.
A four-week TEFL course will equip you with the skills that you need to teach English as a foreign language, and if you take the course with a reputable school, you’ll have a certificate that is recognised worldwide. The four-week course typically costs around $1000 USD, and during the four weeks you will conduct practise lessons in actual schools and be taught how to find a job as a newly qualified TEFL teacher. TEFL courses are also available online, although the practical four-week courses are the most valued amongst language schools across the world. TEFL Courses are available all over the world, so just make sure that you choose a respected school with good testimonials that is certified by either 'TESOL' or 'CELTA'.
The CELTA course is the original TEFL certificate that has been running for over four decades. It is the most internationally respected TEFL course and is stamped with approval by none other than Cambridge University. The cost of a CELTA can be more expensive than other TEFL courses, up to $2500 USD for a course of 4-6 weeks. However, CELTA is often seen as the most prestigious of TEFL certificates as it is regulated by the University of Cambridge.
Best places: Anywhere!
Learning a foreign language is a fabulous skill to pick up whilst you travel (particularly Asian languages which can be amongst the most difficult to learn!). Often the best place to head if you’re looking to seriously study an Asian language are local universities, which will offer you the bonus of an education visa whilst you study.
In Thailand, you can learn Thai in many of the main towns and cities. In the cultural capital of Thailand, Chiang Mai, you can take a 15-day course at ‘We Learn Thai’ for 4,900 THB, three hours / day, five days / week. In addition, Chiang Mai University offers a one year Thai Language and Culture course which costs 35,000 THB for 216 hours of instruction.
If it’s Mandarin you want to learn (currently the most widely spoken language in the world), of course you’re best off going to China! In India, many people learn a variety of Indian languages at the Hindu Guru Language Institute in Delhi which offers daily classes and courses. Or, check out ‘Hindi Lessons for Foreigners in India’, which is an organisation aimed at training the expat community in Hindi, based in Bangalore.
Links to related articles:
- Can You Really Call Yourself a Traveler if You Don’t Speak the Language?
- Travelling Classroom: One Month Language & Adventure in Ecuador.
Best places: Thailand, Borneo, Bali & the Philippines
Becoming a Dive Master is another excellent way to earn money as you travel. Dive Masters can find work in hundreds of exotic locations worldwide, helping tourists to explore the wonders of the underwater world. Not a bad job hey? Thai diving hub, Koh Tao, certifies thousands of backpackers with PADI and SSI courses each year, but if you want to turn your diving hobby into a career, you can take a course to become a dive instructor with many reputable schools on the island. Look out for courses that are PADI and SSI approved. (Check out dive courses here.)
A Dive Master Certificate typically takes 60 days to complete and costs around 1000 USD. It is the first professional dive qualification to allow you to become a qualified dive instructor. The two-month course involves in-depth theory lessons, skill circuits, swim tests, dive guide experience, assisting instructors and oxygen provider course. The course offers the freedom to go fun diving whenever you like and schedule your own course.
Once you have completed the Dive Master course and you have been a certified diver for at least six months, as well as having logged over 60 dives (100 logged dives to take the instructor exams), you can apply to do the Instructor Development Course, a more in-depth form of training. The training consists of two components, the first being the Assistant Instructor Course, followed by the Open Water Scuba Instructor Program (OWSI). As you progress, there are also various other courses such as the Emergency First Response Instructor Course (EFR) and the Staff Instructor Course.
As well as Koh Tao, Thailand, other good places to take a Dive Master Certificate include Koh Phangan and Koh Phi Phi, both in southern Thailand, Bohol and Cebu in the Philippines and Bali, Indonesia.
Links to related articles:
- Learn to Dive in Thailand: Taking the First Plunge
- A Day in the Life of a Dive Instructor, Koh Tao v A Day in the Life of a Western Office Worker
- Have Job… Will Travel! 5 Stories of People Who Work Abroad Doing What They Love
Best places: Thailand, Bali, India
Massage Courses are becoming more and more popular across Asia, as people increasingly see the benefits of massage therapy in maintaining a healthy body and mind. If you’re interested in Thai massage, then obviously you should head to Thailand to learn the basics of this ancient art, which had often been called ‘lazy yoga’. One week or five-day massage courses are very popular and cost around 8,000 - 10,000 THB (around $200 - $250 USD). Recommended schools include Wat Pho Massage School in Bangkok, a very traditional place to learn Thai Massage, or Sunshine Massage School in Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is actually a great place to take a course with many schools offering short or long-term courses. If you’re short on time you can also do a one-day course which costs around 2,500 THB, offered by a few places including Chantima Massage School in Koh Phangan. Read more about the different massage schools here.
Across Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai and Bangkok, you will find courses in many different types of massage, including reflexology, Swedish oil massage, lymphatic drainage massage, body scrubbing, facial massage and tok sen massage. Which massage course you choose in which location, depends on what type of massage you would like to specialise in.
In India, you may be interested in learning Ayurvedic Healing Massage. You can find many courses across Kerala and Goa, which are big centres for Ayurvedic Medicine. Rasovai in Goa offers 10-day courses which have been recommended to us, costing 35,000 rupees. Aithein Massage School in Agonda Beach offers four-week Ayurveda Massage course, an Indian Head massage course and Marma Points Massage Course.
In Bali, Indonesia, check out the Bali International Spa Academy which offers many different types of courses in massage and spa treatments.
9. Permaculture and Natural Building
Best places: Thailand, India, Laos
Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone grew at least some of their own food? Permaculture is an efficient system of agricultural design that is focused on making the best out of the natural eco-systems that we have, and at the moment it’s becoming more and more popular to learn. The main certificate in Permaculture is the Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) which is a recognised, 72-hour (10 days - two week) introduction to permaculture, as set forth by founder of the movement, Bill Mollison. There are many permaculture courses in Asia located in hippie hubs out in the countryside.
In Thailand, Rak Tamachat Natural Living Education Centre in the non-touristy north east (Isaan) offers an excellent variety of permaculture design courses. Their 11-day Permaculture Design Course (PDC) is all inclusive and costs 750 USD, whilst their 5-day Natural Building Course costs 450 USD. If you want to do both courses back to back, that’s 17 days learning and will cost 1,100 USD.
Also in Thailand, the Pun Pun Centre for Self Reliance offers courses in everything from land design to city gardening, organic gardening, natural building and water systems. The Panya Project also offers the PDC costing $775 USD for the 72 hour, two week course which includes accommodation and food. The Panya Project also offers natural building courses, check their website for schedules. Finally, if you’re looking for something less formal (and free) and you just want to volunteer in northern Thailand in an organic environment, check out the Mindful Farm.
If you’re looking for a PDC in India, try looking at the international community of Auroville and Sadhana Forest in Tamil Nadu, ‘Soil, Sun, Soul’ in Goa and The Jungle Oasis Permaculture, also in Goa.
In Laos, check out the Sae Lao Project, which offers the 72-hour PDC at 600 Euros in the beautiful village of Ban Nathong, 7km West of Vang Vieng. The cost includes dormitory accommodation and food.
Links to related articles:
Best places: Anywhere there’s yummy food!
One-day cooking classes are a very popular activity for backpackers in Asia. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to cook those delicious Vietnamese spring rolls, Thai green curry, Cambodian fish amok or an Indian thali? One-day cooking courses can cost anything from $15-$30 USD and usually include a trip to the local market to source ingredients, preparing around five dishes to your particular taste, and then eating them all! Make sure you arrive with an empty stomach!
Many schools will give you a recipe booklet to take home so that you can impress your friends when you get back. There are also specialised cooking courses for vegetarian cuisine, vegan, raw, Ayurvedic cooking, even fruit and vegetable carving!
If you’re a serious foodie and interested in learning some serious culinary skills whilst in Asia, you may like to apply for a fully blown chef training course, from 5 days to 20 days. In Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai, Thailand you’ll find professional chef schools, as well as in Mumbai and Delhi in India.
Written by Nikki Scott - Founder of South East Asia Backpacker Magazine and author of the book, 'Backpacker Business' - One girl's journey from wide-eyed traveller to worldwide entrepreneur.