I recently embarked on an overland trip through Thailand and Cambodia. Asia is a truly fascinating place with similarities to Africa. I, perhaps rather naively, had a romantic vision of escaping from the madness of my everyday life and setting off into the remote wilderness of South East Asia and losing touch with the outside world. I was in for surprise.
As of 2008, there were 16 100 000 internet users in Thailand. In Cambodia and in Thailand there are literally tens of thousands of places where internet is available for public use, coffee shops, bars, restaurants and gas stations. Through USB modems and internet capabilities on cellphones, Cambodians are reconnecting with the outside world.
Throughout my journey; from central Bangkok, to Chiang Mai and Pai in the North of Thailand, to the home of the lost city, Siem Riep in Cambodia, and then south to the remote Thai Islands of Ko Phi Phi and Ko Toa, I was amazed how connected South East Asia is, regardless of how remote the location.
Unsurprisingly the cities are buzzing with connectivity. What I did’t expect was how Google and Facebook have become such a major part of Thai and Cambodian popular culture, and the genuine affection they exhibit for these brands.
I was sitting on the island of Ko Phi Phi amazed by how far removed I felt from the real world, but at the same time how easily I felt I could connect if I chose too. On the odd occasion I would come across someone on my remote stretch of beach and they would invariably be tweeting, updating Facebook or sharing photos via their mobile phone.
It was really driven home to me just how small the world had become when I was lying on a beach one afternoon nearly alone except for one gentleman sun tanning next to me joined by his family whom were sharing the experience via skype on his iPad. Sharing paradise was simply a click away.
It was my goal to not use any form of electronic device for three weeks, but it was nearly unavoidable in Thailand, even after going to great lengths to find remote villages you come across an industrious local who has taken advantage of the online explosion and set up an internet café.
Online Business, Unavoidable
In the small town of Pai in Northern Thailand on the borders of Burma and China, I met numerous Americans who have relocated to this small bohemian village. Their occupations? Affiliate marketers, SEO professionals, Web Designers.
The life they live is truly fascinating, culturally so different from any western lifestyle, geographically in the middle of nowhere and yet still they are entrenched in western business; remoteness really seems to be something of the past due to the rapid technological advancements of the last decade and a half.
Travelling itself has changed because of technology. I remember travelling through Africa in 2008, and how the feeling of being completely remote would sink in. I only had my travel book at hand to rescue me when I needed information. Now Google is there to save us, and lend information when needed.
Many small villages in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania and Botswana have no running water let alone an internet connection. In 2011 my travels clearly painted a picture of how far Africa still has to go in terms of developing digital technology and online infrastructure when compared with Asia. In Thailand, a country that struggles with spoken English, They have been able to market themselves as an English tourist destination through online marketing channels.
Menus, street signs, entertainment venues and even small shops cater for English speakers. It’s clear that Facebook, YouTube and Google have helped expose the western world to the wonders of Thailand and Cambodia.
The African Experience
YouTube provides a source of entertainment and education at a click, from internet cafes, to hostels. Recently I visited Port Alfred‘s local townships and was moved by the work being done there by Stenden, an international University based in Port Alfred. Students are provided with the opportunity to assist the community with IT skills.
A community centre has been established where internet and general PC skills are taught, including the basics of Microsoft Office. Anyone in the community can participate and they finish a few weeks later with a certificate.
One thing that really caught my attention, however, was the interest taken in YouTube and Facebook by this disadvantaged community. Kids were glued to screens in informal dwellings watching YouTube videos and posting on facebook. In the community there are many children without parents, all of whom are living in abject poverty. Yet they all, some as young as 7, speak English and know how to use a computer, and are extremely proficient on social media platforms.
As one of the community workers said, “Children in this community from the young age of 6 or 7 have far greater understanding of the world and have higher qualifications than their parents”.
One cannot doubt that online infrastructure and digital technology is making the world a smaller place, boosted by social media platforms, online information management and other agencies utilising this technology for a shared experience.
The adventurer trying to escape from the world, to feel lost in the wilderness and removed from the madness has to accept that this is becoming a concept of the past. Disconnecting has become a decision that has to be made consciously and will not be decided by the facilities around you.
This is for the greater good of mankind though, communication technology is facilitating education in developing countries and underprivileged communities.
Disenfranchised youth, quite literally, have the opportunity to communicate with the world, and become a part of the global village. I for one will be taking my iPad with me on my next adventure, Wi-Fi is everywhere!