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Backpackers in Nepal stay wired on the trail

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 8:48 a.m. EDT (1248 GMT)

by Terho Uimonen and James Niccolai


KATMANDU, NEPAL (IDG) -- From Thailand's sun-soaked beaches to the trekking routes of the high Himalaya, the Internet is cropping up throughout Asia's backpacker trail and keeping a new, wired generation of travelers connected.

"Since I discovered e-mail, I haven't put pen to paper," said Trevor Barnard, a 25-year-old Englishman enrolled in a diving course on Koh Samui, an island in the Gulf of Siam that for the past two decades has been a popular destination for backpackers in need of rest and recreation on its sandy beaches.
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Having spent four years on the road, with lengthy stops waiting tables in Hong Kong and Australia, Barnard was introduced to e-mail in late 1998. The low cost and convenience soon won him over.

"My mom finds it even more beneficial than I do -- now at least she knows where I am," said Barnard, adding that Asia's often slow and sometimes unreliable postal services meant he often disappeared off the map for weeks, even months, on end.

Increasingly, budget travelers like Barnard say the Internet has become an essential tool for keeping up to date with news at home and for calming anxious relatives and friends.

"It keeps me from getting homesick and lets my poor mother know I'm still alive," said Michelle Cox, 24, who has tapped into her e-mail account from towns in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka since she set off traveling in March from her home in Berkeley, California.

In step with the growing demand, a small army of local entrepreneurs have bought PCs and set up e-mail and Internet services aimed at foreign travelers. In established traveler centers throughout Asia, such as the Khao San Road in Bangkok, the beaches of Goa in India, and Thamel in Kathmandu, the streets teem with handpainted signs hawking "Cheap Internet Service" and "E-mail Here."

"If you're in a big city or anywhere that travelers congregate, they're going to have e-mail for sure," said Cox.

Like most of their peers, both Barnard and Cox are avid users of Hotmail, Microsoft Corp.'s free Web-based e-mail service.

"About 90 percent of our customers use Hotmail," said Mahendra Poudyal, proprietor of Easylink Cyber Café in Kathmandu, which in 1995 became one of the first Internet access points catering to foreign travelers in the Nepali capital.

Four years later, during the height of the Himalayan trekking season, as many as 200 people a day access the Internet from one of Easylink's 18 terminals. Virtually all of the customers are foreign travelers, although a few local Nepalese also use the service, Mahendra said.

While Easylink offers its service in an air-conditioned, carpeted room, less established facilities elsewhere in Asia offer more basic surroundings.

In Goa on India's West Coast, where a string of palm-fringed beaches has drawn a steady stream of backpackers since the 1960s, Internet services are offered in a handful of jerry-built shacks not far from the sands, often from a single computer. Eager travelers often line up patiently to use the terminals, perspiring in the sticky air.

Wherever demand arises, it seems, the Internet will follow.

Namche Bazaar is a tiny market town tucked into a mountainside in the Nepali Himalaya, where the only traffic jams are caused by lumbering yaks that carry supplies up and down the trail to Everest Base Camp. Even here, 3,440 meters above sea level, trekkers can send and receive e-mail from a tiny room in the Panorama Lodge hotel.

Sherap Jangbu, the proprietor of the Panorama Lodge, bought the PC to keep in touch with his son, who is studying computer science in Denver, Colorado. Like other goods not made locally, the Pentium II system was purchased in Kathmandu and carried up the mountain on a porter's back. When foreign trekkers heard there was a networked PC in town they soon asked to use it for e-mail, and Sherap became Namche Bazaar's first Internet entrepreneur.

Connected to Kathmandu only via a satellite-based link, the Namche Bazaar e-mail service is relatively costly at 100 Nepali rupees per email, compared to the four rupees per minute Easylink in Kathmandu charges for full Internet access. In Thailand, Internet-access costs range from as low as one or two baht per minute in Bangkok, to five baht per minute on more out-of-the-way islands.

For the new, wired generation of backpackers, however, getting online is a must, and cost is not always the highest priority, noted several travelers.

"The Internet has become so important for backpackers that they don't even look for the cheapest price, they just see a PC and go for it," said Tina Bratschi, a 25-year-old teacher from Switzerland, who after traveling for three and a half months in Asia and Australia was headed for Oman in the Middle East.

Not everyone on the backpacker circuit is smitten by the e-mail bug, however. One German archaeologist hiking in Nepal asked why anyone who has traveled thousands of miles to escape the modern world would want to go anywhere near a computer. Others have yet to be introduced to the wired world.

"Even my mother has got an e-mail address, but I just fax her," said Josip Jaksie, a 25-year-old Australian who confessed that he has yet to use a computer. But Jaksie already is resigned to the fact when he gets back home to Hobarth in Tasmania, he'd better get wired -- or lose touch with many of the people he has met on his travels.

"I've got all these e-mail addresses in my diary from people I've met," said Jaksie. "And I'm thinking, 'I'm never going to hear from these people again unless I get on the Internet.'"

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