Eat Your Heart Out, Phileas Fogg
Twenty First Century Travel
It’s 1989 and I’m sitting in the restaurant of my Backpackers on Khao San Road in Bangkok. I’ve spent the past two hours chatting with this couple from Basingstoke and I’ve just decided to go with them to Phra Nang Bay tomorrow morning. Only this afternoon, I had decided to stay in Bangkok a couple more days so that I could meet up with the guys from Leeds (who are flying in from Kathmandu). However I agreed with them that if my plans changed (which they now have), I could leave a message Poste Restante. I’ve no idea where Phra Nang is, other than it being a ten hour bus journey and another hour or so by boat. But I’m told that Railay Beach is supposed to be phenomenal!
I can still remember the buzz that I got from my first travels. Having shaken off the shackles from school, uni and then work that had previously forced me to adhere to a particular timetable or deadline, I loved the idea of drawing my own path, shaping my own destiny if you like, as I went along. Such were the ‘on the hoof’ decisions I made when I last went ‘serious’ travelling. Those were the pre-internet, pre-mobile days and so you would be forgiven for thinking that all these sorts of decisions had to be made in the present and future decisions could only be cast in stone. It’s true that it was harder to keep in touch with fellow travellers that went off in different directions and inform them of any changes in plans — but it was not impossible. There were two ways you could do this 1) leave a message on a predetermined noticeboard somewhere and hope that nobody removed it before the intended person saw it 2) send or leave a letter with their full name on it care of the main post office and mark it Poste Restante.
This was a method back then, (which apparently still exists today though I haven’t tried it), by which you could send a letter to Bert Smith, c/o Poste Restante, Bangkok Central Post Office, Bangkok, Thailand. Bert could then turn up with his passport and collect any mail sent to him that way. The letter would be held for a month and then discarded if not collected.
I used this method a couple of times travelling through Asia in 1989 en route to Australia and it was always very exciting when you would turn up on spec and find something there.
In eight weeks, I travelled through five countries. I had a flight booked at the beginning, one at the end and one in between (Kathmandu to Bangkok). Otherwise, I filled in the gaps as I went along with only the ‘Yellow Bible’ (Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia On a Shoestring) as my guide. As a solo traveller, I met people in hostels, got friendly and if we were travelling in the same direction, would tag along for a few days here, a week there. And at times, I would even alter my plans if I could.
When I returned to Khao San Road some fifteen years later in 2005, things had changed. Not so much the road itself — although there was a bit more neon than there had been, the pirate cassettes had been replaced by pirate compact discs, otherwise the place was still deliciously frantic. However, all the travellers had mobile phones. I am assuming therefore that they would never lose contact with the people they met unless they wanted to purposely ditch them.
Twelve years later still, people need never head somewhere that they know nothing about — all they need is to consult their pocket teleputers for photos, reviews and tips on how to arrive, where to stay and the bar which serves the best mojitos.
I have recently benefited from or been cursed with (your opinion will depend on whether you’re nostalgically old or iphone young), the same technological advancement. In a couple of weeks, I am set to embark on an eight week adventure up to the most northerly point of Australia — Cape York, and then back down to Southern Queensland. I shall be covering a distance of some 9,000 kilometres. Rather than throwing caution to the wind as I did back then however, I have researched my whole trip and apart from a couple of days here and there, I have booked all my accommodation, flights, car hire, bus passes etc. I’ve even researched the ferry timetables to the 3 or 4 islands I shall be visiting on my way. Give me a day and a time in June or July, and fingers crossed there have been no disasters, I should be able to give you a fair guess of where I will be and the sort of thing I will be up to. I couldn’t even tell you that when I was working….
And I still can’t decide whether this is old age that has driven me to this peace of mind or whether it’s just because I can. It has been an obsession this past month to get it all sorted — as soon as one venue was booked, I would move on and book the next. Nothing to chance. It’s like I have already been on the trip and all I need now is the photo evidence to back it up. As a seasoned traveller who was previously not phased about arriving at a bus station at 9pm and just winging it, I’m not sure whether I should be smug with myself or ashamed.