We live in a world surrounded by high tech electronics. Rarely do we leave home without a smart phone. We also have digital cameras, video players, laptops, tablets, smart watches, Bluetooth speakers, fitness trackers, heart rate monitors, etc. But when you’re traveling like we will be, electronics are both good and bad: they can either enhance your experience, or cause more trouble than they’re worth. Think about these pros and cons:
Pros: they can record your experience in audio, photos, or video, allow you to communicate with the world, entertain you on a flight or a van ride, or allow you to access information that you may need.
Cons: they are expensive, heavy, delicate, require power, and are a target for theft. They can also isolate you from the travel experience; I’ve seen too many people so obsessed with electronically recording everything around them, or so busy on their texting/email/Facebook/Instagram applications that they miss the true experience.
So before bringing every electronic toy you own, think about if the pros outweigh the cons. Also, try to bring devices that will do multiple things (such as a smartphone). Here are my suggestions for electronics:
Laptop: Leave them at home. Seriously. They are heavy, delicate, expensive, and require lots of power. Unless you are planning on blogging extensively, video editing, or doing some heavy duty work, you won’t need it.
Tablet: If you insist on bringing something that has a bigger screen, or need to do some light-duty work (blogging, journaling, etc.), consider a tablet. They are much lighter, typically less expensive, last longer on battery power, and can do most of the work a laptop can do. And nowadays, high-end tablets are nearly as powerful as general-use laptops. If you need to type, and hate the onscreen keyboard, consider a bluetooth keyboard, which are pretty comparable to a regular keyboard. If you have a Microsoft Surface, you may already have a built in external keyboard.
Smartphone: This is one item that I highly recommend bringing. An iPhone or Android phone is very handy as a music/video player as well as small computer. Some music will help with the long flight and van rides. You can also watch videos and play games, and access information and the web when we do have WiFi connection. Just make sure you have music/movies downloaded, since you won’t have consistent WiFi connections, particularly if you have a streaming service like Pandora or Apple Music. If you have paid accounts with these services, you can usually download songs or playlists onto your phone or tablet so you can play them without an internet connection.
A good smartphone can also double as a translator, map/GPS device, travel guide, voice recorder, video camera, eBook, still camera, alarm clock, and even a powerful flashlight. In fact, video and still cameras on the latest iPhone/Android phones are so good, I leave my compact camera and HD video camera at home and use my iPhone 12 to take photos and videos, particularly when I don’t want to carry my digital SLR.
Just be sure to put your smartphone on airplane mode as soon as we leave the country, unless you have an international plan! Otherwise, your phone will be active abroad and subject to international rates, which can run $2 per minute and several cents per byte of data. It’s not unknown for people to be billed several thousands of dollars because they forgot to turn on airplane mode on their phones while traveling abroad.
You also have the option of getting a local Thai SIM card for your phone, as long as it’s unlocked (check with your provider). That will allow you to use your phone with a local Thai phone number, as well as give you access to data when WiFi is not available. I have more details on this on another post.
Headphones: Whether it’s on long van rides, sitting on the beach, or listening to music on the plane, a set of headphones is a lifesaver. Make sure you pack some. But should you bring wireless or wired? Earbuds or over-the-ear headphones? Wireless Bluetooth headphones are now ubiquitous, and are my first choice for travel given how convenient they are. I also prefer earbuds given how compact they are compared to full over-the-ear headphones. I personally use Apple AirPod Pro that work seamlessly with my iPhone and my MacBook laptop. They have the added advantage of having active noise cancellation, which is great on the plane or van, and even at night when I sleep in a particularly noisy hotel room.
There are a few drawbacks to wireless earbuds. One, they need to be recharged, so you may run out of juice, although most earbud holders double as batteries that recharge constantly. Two, they are really easy to lose, given how small they are. And finally, this may be a minor point, but you can’t use them in conjunction with the entertainment system on the plane, since they are wireless. You’ll have to use the earphones provided by the airlines. If you’re not an audiophile snob, the free earphones are usually fine for watching movies on the plane.
But even with the drawbacks, I’m a huge fan of wireless earbuds for travel given how small and compact they are, and how one with active noise cancellation can almost double as earplugs.
Digital Camera/Video Recorder: As I mentioned above, I use my iPhone 12 as a compact camera and video recorder. The new iOS and Android phones have excellent high-resolution cameras and can record in full 60 fps HD video (and sometimes in even higher resolutions and higher frame rates). If you are a casual photographer and/or videographer, your smartphone may be all you need. And even if you are serious, iPhones are now being used by professionals to shoot music videos, commercials, and even TV shows on major networks.
However, smartphones do have limitations as still cameras. For example, most smartphones do not have manual controls, or optical zoom, which can limit your creativity. You can’t swap lenses (although there are accessory lenses that attach to smartphones now, and newer phones nor have multiple lenses, a wide-angle, standard, and telephoto). And smartphones are not great for action photography. So you may consider bringing a dedicated still camera on the trip. If you are going to consider bringing a separate camera, consider either a digital SLR or a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. They are more expensive than a point-and-shoot, but nowadays, an iPhone has the same capabilities as a point-and-shoot, so why bother?
As for the detailed difference between a digital SLR (dSLR) and a mirrorless camera, you can read about it here. Briefly, a dSLR is similar to film SLRs of a bygone era, with manual controls, interchangeable lenses, and a mirrored viewfinder system. A mirrorless camera has interchangeable lenses, manual controls, but no mirror, so is not limited in size by the optics of a mirror system, and are therefore smaller and more compact. Both are very good, very versatile, and your choice usually depends on your specific needs and preferences.
My personal system is a mirrorless Fujifilms system. I will be bringing along a Fujifilms XT-2 with a variety of lenses and accessories. I chose this system because the lenses and the body are far lighter and more compact than my old Canon 5D Mark II, and mirrorless technology has advanced to the point that they match the capabilities of dSLRs, and even exceed them in certain ways. They also both take professional quality HD video. I will have a detailed write-up of this if you’re interested.
If there is are limitation of smartphones or a digital SLR as video recorders, it is that they are either bulky and heavy and/or delicate and not weatherproof. This is where a GoPro-style camera is really fun to have. Between the rugged, compact nature of the GoPro, along with the various mounting options, you can get really creative in your videography. And the video quality of modern GoPros are professional-level, with excellent image stabilization. I will be bringing my GoPro Hero 10 Black, along with a variety of mounting options, so we can do some creative videography of the trip.
External Battery: If your items don’t have enough battery life to last an 8 hour van ride, or a 13 hour trans-Pacific plane ride, you may want to invest in an external battery. These have become incredibly cheap, and can recharge a number of devices, including smart phones and tablets, usually multiple times, depending on the size and capacity of the battery. They usually charge through a USB port, so if your device charges via USB, this will work. I have a couple of these and they are lifesavers when I don’t have access to an outlet.
External Bluetooth Speaker: The only other electronic device that I entertain bringing is a wireless Bluetooth speaker, just because I like to have music and don’t always like having headphones on. Plus, they double as an external battery that will charge your phone/tablet in a pinch.
Other Electronic Devices: As I mentioned earlier, the modern smartphone is so versatile, you can leave all your other electronic toys at home. You can use it as for music, GPS/mapping, a travel guide, a translator, an audio recorder, a fitness tracker, a first aid guide, video player, alarm clock, and even a surprisingly powerful flashlight. I strongly recommend that you streamline your electronics and bring as little as possible, especially when you’re traveling like we’re going to. Ask yourself, and be honest, how often you are going to use this device. If you’re not using it every day, or doesn’t have multiple uses, keep it at home.
One item that I do sometimes like to bring along is an ebook such as a Kindle. At one point, I used to bring along 10 lbs. of books on my trips abroad. Now, I can have an extensive collection on books in a package that is about as big and heavy as a very thin paperback book. Yes, I can read on the Kindle app on my iPhone, but I prefer reading on the e-ink display on a Kindle. Plus, the Kindle battery life is measured in weeks rather than hours.
Charging Everything: Make sure you bring cords and chargers for all your devices. Try to consolidate your chargers as much as possible. Sometimes, the charging bricks for all your devices end up taking more space than the actual devices. Nowadays, most devices can be charged with a USB charger, which means you only need to bring one charging brick and whatever cords you need. If you want to charge multiple devices at the same time, something like this is really handy. The Apple Lightning, USB-mini, and USB-B and C usually cover 95% of modern electronic devices. I plan on bringing one charger brick with USB-C outlets, a couple of USB-C cables, and adapters that turn the USB-C to whatever I need (Apple Lightning, USB-B, and USB-mini). Consolidate as much as possible!
Internet Access: Internet access will be spotty at best. Your phones will not have data plans, so you won’t have 24/7 access like you’re used to. You will be accessing the internet through WiFi, most likely. WiFi is available at the hotels we stay at, and at select other locations. However, if you’re used to fast internet, you may be sorely disappointed with the internet speed that you will be getting, particularly outside of the major cities. You won’t be streaming HD movies while you’re there! Furthermore, while we are at the more remote villages, we may not get any internet access at all. And of course, you won’t have internet access on the flight (although you will have access to a very extensive entertainment system on board). So, if you’re used to streaming music services or streaming video, you’ll most likely be out of luck. Try to download any music or video that you want access to while you are off the internet.
If you really want constant internet access, check with your cellular provider to see how much an international plan is. I use T-Mobile, mainly for the generous international plans. The other option is to get a Thai SIM card with a data plan, which tend to be pretty cheap. Just make sure that your phone is unlocked, meaning it will accept SIM cards from other cellular providers. I have a more detailed post on this here.