The way that backpackers travel is constantly evolving. Each trip I take I can see the way that technology is developing and adapting to various countries, mixing traditional street sellers with app orientated travelers. I felt that more so during my Philippines trip than any other time, with technologies becoming intertwined in how we travel.
Rewind back to when I was 18 and first heading off around the world. I had my Rough Guide to SE Asia, plane tickets booked for every couple of months and a rough idea of a loop that could be taken. I got off of my flight into Chiang Mai and asked the tuk tuk driver to take me to a café in the downtown area. There I bought a smoothie and opened up my guidebook to have a read about where I’d landed and the places it recommended staying. I hauled on my (overly large) backpack and wandered to a place that had a good description in the guidebook and asked if they had a room that I could stay in for a few nights. No pre-booking, no online research of how much time to spend or really of what to do. I relied on mainly what other backpackers recommended and the guidebook’s advice. The longer I travelled for in that trip the less reliant I became on the guidebook and the more I just went by where people said they’d enjoyed.
My first ever travel blog was typed in a variety of internet cafés around the world. I’d have to pop in and buy an hour’s time to write whilst the boys around me played computer games as opposed to tapping my touch screen to write whilst on free WiFi. That’s because the multitude of traveler cafes didn’t offer free WiFi, instead they had big TVs that showed friends on an endless loop. Forget blogging off my phone, it didn’t even have Whatsapp, it was email to touch base back home, and searching Hostelworld for a place to stay in Chiang Mai would probably have returned about 3 results rather than the 169 options it currently gives you.
Now the thought of arriving into a popular place – such as Chiang Mai – without anything booked seems an unsettling idea. The majority of the better hostels will nowadays have an online presence and many of the other backpackers have been online and reserved their beds. You would eventually find somewhere, but maybe not until you’ve spent an hour of your day wandering hot sweaty streets with your backpack and being turned away from countless places as you see the stream of modern backpackers jump off their tuk tuks (or out of their Ubers) and walk straight in flashing their reservation number.
Yet the charm of arriving not knowing where you’re staying, checking out a couple of places, haggling down on the cost, is lost with this businesslike transaction. Those hidden gems stay hidden to you and the hilarious interactions that can happen as you’re wandering the street vanish with it.
My trusty guidebook has also slowly fallen by the wayside. Once an object that would be top of my travel list, it gradually got downgraded to something that I could just download onto my e-reader and finally for my Philippines trip something that didn’t need to be thought about.
Here’s why. When arriving in a new place nowadays a quick google search on the free wifi will give you countless lists of people’s most recommended places to see and things to do – often itemised into a handy chronological order to make the most of your time. Add into that the google maps that you pre-downloaded and you can quickly hit the GPS button to find exactly where you are and figure your way around the top sites. When I hired bikes in the Philippines, the paper map the guy gave to me was scarcely glanced at as I dropped it into the bottom of my bag, google having already plotted the entire route.
Do these modernities ruin the beauty and mystery of travel?
Personally I think that that is based on your perspective. There is nothing stopping you from ditching all your gadgets and relying on the old fashioned methods and many people do. I still refuse to purchase a local sim card whilst travelling, finding that being constantly still connected is a step too far for me, but I know many people do and say it can make travel so much easier. I also think a big factor is how much you have of the biggest luxury, time.
My recent trips have been more restricted by how much vacation I can squeeze out of my school rather than the freedom of months on end I had on previous trips. With an open ended calendar one can afford a few extra days in places and wandering streets searching for accommodation isn’t as much of an issue. When you have a tighter schedule and want to arrive and then have a full afternoon to start sightseeing in a location, being able to know where you’re arriving to and drop your bags straight away is a big boon.
When my contract ends in a year’s time, I will embark on my next longer adventure. I don’t know how I will approach this, or what I will find as I move across continents. Will the me that wants to just arrive and discover places still be present, or will I feel more comfortable having organised the basics beforehand. One thing I do know is that my favourite pastime of just wandering around mazes of streets aimlessly and finding random spots to eat and drink in will never fade, no matter how fancy our technology becomes.