A few thoughts on technology and travel

Having now spent a couple of months in Bangkok, we’re starting to realise that it’s amazing how much technology has changed the process of travel in only a few years.

On our “big trip” back in 2008, checking emails was a once-a-week occurrence, it was a careful choice which books to take (you have to carry them) and local maps were a vital (but hit and miss) requirement for sorting out local transport. When we were in Bangkok then, there were times when we’d easily spend 15-20 minutes tracing the bus routes on our local map, before actually hitting the streets to hopefully get where we were going.

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The trusty bus map

But now…

This time around, our smartphones and Google Maps have changed all that. Many e-books are free, and none are heavy. Not only will Google tell us where we are at any point, it’ll give us directions to wherever we want to go, which buses to catch, when to get off, and how often they come (ish). It tells us when the taxi driver goes off in an unexpected direction, and street view shows us what landmarks to look out for at our destination. No 3G internet access? Not a problem, there are apps (such as Locus on the android market) where you can download and store maps on your phone, and plot your location and route with GPS.

On a certain level, it’s almost too easy.

On our honeymoon earlier this year in Indonesia, we took a “short-cut” walking back to our hotel, and ended up on a dark street where everything was closed. Never fear, Google and GPS told us we were only two blocks away, second street on the left.

Knowing we can get ourselves “un-lost” fairly easily means we’re more willing to wander off the beaten path, into local neighbourhoods and windy side-streets, and discovering all sorts of interesting places that we probably wouldn’t otherwise see. For sure, sticking to the area of town on the map in the Lonely Planet guidebook is a thing of the past.

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Kristal reading at the bus station in Indonesia

Keeping connected with friends and family

The accessibility of the internet and social media makes keeping updated with the lives of our family and friends so much easier than before. Both of our smartphones have Skype and we can call and chat with people easily, without having to find a internet cafe with the right software. Being able to log in to Facebook and connect with friends helps make it feel like you are not so far away and that you are still in the loop.

We even found that using Twitter makes it easy to meet new people. When we arrived in Bangkok we both signed up to Twitter and started following some local expats and soon enough we were joining in events and meeting people in person.

More technology, less planning

Easy access to information on the go also means that planning isn’t quite so important, and when we’re out and about it’s quite simple just to decide where to go on the fly. The other day we decided to explore the canal boat transport near our apartment, but after a while waiting it was clear that lunchtime wasn’t the best time to catch boat traffic in our residential area. A quick look at the map showed another canal we could try 4-5 kilometres away, an internet search found this blog from locally-based Richard Barrow which suggested it was a busier route, and google maps told us what bus to catch to get there.

A month or so ago we took a weekend trip to Nakhon Pathom, a town a few hours from Bangkok. Having decided to go the night before, we got on a bus to the town, and used wikitravel to find a place to stay and things to do when we got there. When we got back, instead of burning our photos to dvd and sending them to NZ as a backup, we uploaded them to the cloud, also thankfully reducing the risk of them getting lost in the mail (although falling well short of this more sophisticated system).

The flip side of this convenience, though, is that getting lost isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be. Turning on the GPS doesn’t give the same experience as pulling out the phrasebook, asking directions and making a friend (although technology does fail us sometimes, and we have still found ourselves walking in circles and asking for help on occasion).

Trying not to take it too far

Just the same as everywhere, as this great post reminds us, it can be an effort at times to unplug. Although it’s handy to be able to take a quick photo snap on the phone at a moment’s notice, checking email while waiting in line at the phad thai stall probably isn’t the best example of enjoying the local atmosphere. With all of their usefulness, our number of digital devices also has a habit of expanding. Before, when we just had one small phone between us, now we have two large-ish phones, one tablet, and a bagful of chargers and adaptors. If we’re heading out of town for the weekend, this lot takes up almost as much space as my clothes.

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The gadget pile

When I bought my local sim card in the booth outside a nearby supermarket, the guy helpfully showed me how to turn off the data connection. At the time, I thought that was a strange thing to do, but now I can definitely see the point!

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