After completing university, I traveled in South East Asia for nine months from Sept 1990 to June 1991. Traveling almost twenty years later, there are some notable differences.
Internet – We are able to stay connected with friends, family, and vendors (like banks, utilities, travel agent, etc.) through email, online banking, and our travel blog. We can use the Internet to book flights and trains, to reserve accommodations, and to research things. Internet cafes exist in most cities, though Internet speed and reliability varies greatly.
Laptop – Carrying a small laptop has many advantages. It provides a secure platform for online banking, rather than a computer at an Internet café where our passwords could be compromised. We have with us electronic copies of our financial and tax records, our address book, our calendar (for important dates), and even the owners manuals for our electronics. We can work offline, composing email and blog entries in our hotel or during transport, and sending them later when we connect to the Internet. This allows us to do a much better job, and also saves on connection time charges. We can view and make backup copies of our digital photos. An unanticipated benefit is the ability to also take copies of the digital photos of people we’ve met, which are often more likely to contain images of us that our own. Where there is fast Internet access, we can use Skype for instant messaging, voice, or video communications without any additional cost. We even have some movies on the laptop that we can watch when we’re desperate for some Western entertainment.
Digital photography – In addition to the many general advantages of digital photography (instant preview, selective deletion, etc.), there are some that are specific to travel. My camera is smaller, lighter, and with a more flexible and powerful zoom lens than the SLR and three lenses I carried in 1991. I don’t need to carry film, or worry about it being fogged by x-ray scanners. The pictures can be emailed, published on our blog, and backed up to computer, other memory cards, or CD/DVD.
Digital music – Our iPods are invaluable for drowning out the noise on bumpy roads, and for beating the boredom on long bus or train trips. We carry our entire digital music library with us on the laptop, allowing us to change the music on the iPods. We can also listen to music in our hotel room through the laptop speakers.
Bank machines – Bank machines were rare in South East Asia in 1991, and weren’t connected to international networks. Today, we don’t need to carry travelers’ cheques, do expensive and time consuming money transfers, or carry as much cash. Travelers’ cheques generally aren’t accepted anywhere (except some banks), and where they are, they are usually accompanied by a non-trivial service charge. We can get local currency from a bank machines in almost all cities (except in Zimbabwe). This also virtually eliminates the need to use currency exchanges.
Cell phone – People can contact us and we can phone them. In India, where people speak English, we can also use it to conveniently book accommodations. Our phone operates on the GSM standard which is used almost everywhere. It is easy to get a new phone number and a pre-paid cell phone account by purchasing a SIM card for a couple of dollars in each new country. A slight exception was India where, after cell phones were used in the 26/11 terrorist attacks last November in Mumbai, people now have to provide identification and a local address to get a phone.
Smaller pack – I’m carrying a much smaller backpack than last time. This makes it practical to keep it with me on planes and buses, and to carry it more.
Trekking towel – We have microfiber towers will us, which are much smaller and dry quicker than cotton towels.
Reading glasses – The print in the guidebook is much smaller than it used to be, especially at night, which must be the reason why I need reading glasses now.