Boy, has the world of travel changed since I backpacked my way around south-east Asia for six months in 1990!
I set out then, as a twenty-two year old, with already quite a bit of travel under my belt, so I landed in Bangkok with confidence, if a little jaded, after a twenty-two-hour flight from London via Moscow with Aeroflot; hey…it was the cheapest ticket available! Every penny counted back then and I was hoping to make my trip last as long as possible. I was thinking about some of the differences between travel then and nowadays, as I see quite a few backpackers passing through the town of Hua Hin, Thailand, where I have lived for the past nine years.
I own an Internet café in the centre of Hua Hin (where I am writing this from) and they often come in to check mail and upload photographs to their Facebook page, download music to their iPods or fill in their online travel journals so their friends can see where they are and what they’re doing; sometimes they Skype back home.
Whoa…just a cotton-picking minute!!! Email? Upload photos? Download music? Skype and Facebook?
Right there we have five huge differences to when I was backpacking, and that’s without even thinking!
Packing for the Trip
Getting ready for the big trip was always exciting. I always made sure to pack enough music and books to keep the long trips interesting.
That meant spending time recording all my favourite songs on to five 90-minute cassette tapes (that was my ‘space budget’ for music – there was only limited backpack space available) and choosing as many books as I could cram in.
I would also pack a notebook to write my journal in, a camera and enough rolls of Kodak film to last a while, air mail paper and envelopes for writing letters back home and my address book with all the addresses and telephone numbers of family and friends.
It was surprising there was any room for clothes, shoes and toiletries after all that lot. In actual fact, often there wasn’t. The solution? A couple of t-shirts were sacrificed for a good cause – an extra book.
Once on the road, communication with back home meant either ridiculously expensive phone calls (I think I made one call in six months) or writing air mail letters.
Receiving letters involved telling your friends and family where you would be on such and such a date (e.g, “I will be in Kuala Lumpur on Nov 5th”) and then rocking up to the Poste Restante section of the main Post Office in that city or town, and hoping that at least someone (usually mum) back home had bothered to sit down and write you something.
Poste Restante would keep letters for a month or two, so if you arrived late it was OK, but if you got there earlier than expected the letters may not have arrived yet – and you had to suffer the worst fate of all – no news from back home. Boo hoo! That was such a horrible feeling.
Contrast that with walking out of the post office with a bundle of letters from loved ones and then rushing to find a quiet spot to catch up on all the news. That was the definition of joy and it usually brought tears to the eyes.
Keeping up with current events on the road either meant hoping to grab a copy of a local English-speaking daily paper or paying through the nose for a paper from back home which was usually a week or ten days out of date already.
The Modern Backpacker
All of the above can be handled by a small device about the size of one cassette tape that fits into the pocket– called a smartphone!
Modern backpackers can text or email back home, chat via BB or What App, talk via Skype, take pictures, listen to music and catch up on all the latest news, from the comfort of a local, Wi-fi enabled café, which are now common throughout much of south-east Asia.
I think I would have travelled with a much smaller backpack if smartphones were around when I was doing my thing.
But then I wouldn’t have experienced the tears of joy of receiving letters via poste restante!