Getting work done on the road when you visit another state for a few days is one thing, but flying halfway around the world with your laptop bag is a whole other ball of wax. The 13-hour flight, foreign power outlets, lack of or spotty Wi-Fi, and the pain that is hauling all your stuff onto ferries, tuk-tuks, and buses every few days can sure put a damper on mobile computing. I just spent the last nine days in beautiful Thailand with two friends who have been backpacking through Southeast Asia for several months. While it wasn't an official working vacation (quite the opposite), I still learned a few back-breaking lessons about computing in that region firsthand and from my pals.
First, disclosure: I only visited Thailand, and it was my first time. Beyond what the guide books told me, I didn't know much what to expect. Turns out the place is very well set up for tourists. My friends and fellow travelers Donna and Anna reported that in other countries they'd visited—from Cambodia to Laos to Myanmar— it wasn't as easy to get online (or get a Whopper, for that matter) as it was in Thailand.
To Laptop or Not to Laptop
This trip to Thailand was a true, unplugged, work-free vacation—so beforehand I debated long and hard whether or not to lug my 15-inch MacBook along with me. Freaked out by the prospect of the long flight without the ability to watch a DVD or otherwise occupy myself with a keyboard, I decided to bring it.
I barely used the machine on the plane (which was too cramped, easier to sleep) and I hardly caught a Wi-Fi signal the entire trip. Bringing the laptop isn't just bringing the laptop—it's bringing cords, DVDs, noise-canceling headphones, and if you want longer usage on the plane, an extra battery. This all adds to your baggage bulk.
There were internet cafes on every street in the heavily-trafficked areas, where I could've easily downloaded photos and checked email without the extra weight. There were a few times when I had to leave my laptop bag somewhere that seemed less than secure, so I worried about it getting stolen. When we all got caught in an intense tropical rainstorm I almost soaked the thing (note to self: next time, bring a plastic bag).
Before I arrived, I was sure that once my laptop-less travel companions saw how cool it was to download photos whenever and wherever you wanted, they'd wish they had a laptop, too. Not true—in the end, when I asked them if they had the lightest laptop in the world, like the MacBook Air, they both said they wouldn't carry it with them. It's a luxury item, even when you're on the road that long, and computers are widely available and cheap to use at internet cafes.
If I had to do it again, I wouldn't have packed the laptop, but I would have packed rain gear and a roll of toilet paper. Believe me: It is a humbling experience to be caught in a public bathroom with no toilet paper, but with what's essentially a five pound calculator in your bag.
Power Outlets and Charging Your Gadgets
The power outlet situation varies from country to country in Southeast Asia, but in Thailand, though the voltage is different, the outlet itself does accommodate U.S.-style plugs. Both my cameras, my cell phone, and the MacBook had no problem charging from the Thai outlets. But my friends' Nintendo DS, a unit that's apparently super-sensitive to outlet voltage, required a voltage converter to charge correctly in Thailand. (The voltage converter is a heavy brick that they're irritated about carrying.) In other countries, they used a set of global plug adapters to charge the few gadgets they brought (cameras, an international mobile phone, and the DS).
The one electricity issue that surprised me was this: At two of the three moderate to high-priced hotels I stayed at (between $26 and $80/night), the power was only on in your room when you were there. You'd have to place your room key in a slot to enable it. This is a pretty ingenious savings measure on the part of the hotel—electricity is expensive in Thailand, especially on the islands—but it means you can't leave on the A/C, or charge your gadgets while you're not in the room. A few nights I forgot to plug things in to charge while I slept, so the next day I had to haul around dead gadgets. Bummer.
Storage and Gadget Safety When Traveling On-the-Cheap
The biggest burden of carrying the laptop and various other gadgets was just the worry about their safety and security. Twice we left our bags near the front desk of a hotel we were checking into later—once in the front, out in the open, for anyone to grab really, and once in the back—and both times I breathed a big sigh of relief when I saw my laptop later. If I had to do it again with the laptop, in addition to doing a full off-site backup before I left (which I did), I would've locked my entire home directory in a TrueCrypt container in case the machine did get swiped.
In two rooms we stayed in, there was a comforting safe for valuables, which just fit the laptop, cameras, and our money and passports. My friends told me that lower-priced guesthouses and hotels generally don't offer in-room safes.
The Ubiquitous Internet Cafe
In the popular tourist areas in Thailand, there were internet cafes on almost every street, and usage was super-cheap: often 10 Thai Baht (30 cents) for 10 minutes. All the machines at cafes that I saw where Windows XP PCs, most equipped with headsets with Skype pre-installed, as well as chat applications like AIM and ICQ and some even with Firefox. Here's a sign from one such cafe on Ko Phi Phi:
Most cafes I saw seemed well-run with clean machines that appeared well-maintained, with one exception. At a ferry station in Krabi, a few coin-fed PCs had what looked like Google's search page in Thai up in Internet Explorer—except that the page title read "Hacked by Godzilla." When I closed the window, behind it there was a pop-up dialog for software named something like "Keylogger Hunter" asking for a license key. Needless to say, I wouldn't have typed any passwords on this machine. If I were using internet cafes, I would change my passwords, often, and run Firefox from a thumb drive.
Dealing with Photos
My photographer friend Donna doesn't have a laptop with her, so she uploads photos to Flickr directly from her camera's memory card from various internet cafes. When she has enough photos to fill a DVD, she burns three copies: two to carry in their bags, and one to mail home for extra redundant backup. As you can see, at many internet cafes you can "burn digital camera" to optical disk:
The cheapest way to call the U.S. from Thailand was using Skype at the internet cafe. My pals loaded up on SkypeOut credits before they left, and after several months of calling, they've only used a few dollars. The only downside to using Skype in public internet cafes (often without separators between machines) is that you find yourself and others yelling things l ike, "Hi Mom? Mom! I'm in Thailand!!" Privacy could be hard to come by; fewer cafes than you might think offer private Skype booths.
Those Crazy Pirates
Forget Usenet or BitTorrent—Thailand is a pirate's heaven. At a big, shiny, Bangkok mall—not some back alley—vendors offered books full of colour copies of DVD covers, CD covers, and software packages. You point out the one you want, haggle for your price, and pay. The vendor runs around the corner, burns you a DVD and you're done. Just to see what would happen, I spent 300 Thai Baht (about 10 U.S. dollars) for a copy of iWork in Bangkok (which retails for $80 from the Apple Store). You can also plug in your iPod at many venues, and load MP3's of full pop music albums for a small fee. On the street you could buy fake ID's: student ID's, press badges, or even TEFL ID cards.
The Bottom Line
If I had to do the trip over again (and I hope I do), I would have definitely left my laptop behind, and opted instead for a thumb drive loaded with portable apps (like Firefox with my extensions and bookmarks and portable IrfanView for captioning photos). I would've brought several more roomy flash drives for temporarily offloading photos from my digital camera memory cards in between DVD burns. That would've been a lot lighter and easier. Also, I would've carried rain gear. And toilet paper.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, is still daydreaming about Thai beaches, fresh coconut juice, and noodles. Her weekly feature, Geek to Live, appears every Tuesday on Lifehacker AU.