Getting Online in SE Asia
Connecting to the internet while traveling can be a chore. Without your own computer several hours can disappear at an internet café while just checking and responding to a few emails. Depending on your need to connect there are many options in Southeast Asia. Given our need to constantly use the internet we have examined many options and found some good solutions for the countries we’ve visited.
One of the best things we’ve discovered is the USB sim card modem. It uses 2G or 3G cell phone service to connect your computer to the internet wherever there is a signal. Purchasing the hardware and service in Thailand proved to be less expensive than actually going to an internet café on Ton Sai. Expect to pay 3 baht per minute ($5.75/hr) at internet cafés on Ton Sai, 2 baht per minute ($3.83/hr) if you have a laptop. Depending on what plan you get for the internet sim, you can expect to pay as little as 10 baht an hour ($0.32) with unlimited data transfer. If you want unlimited time it will run you $30 per month. The speed you get varies on your wireless signal but usually it’s around 460 kb/s. We had no problem updating the blog using this plan.
In Bangkok we had regular internet while couchsurfing and most guesthouses include wifi. If your guesthouse doesn’t include wifi you can always duck into a Duncan Donuts and use their free wifi. The Bangkok airport also has computer kiosks at the departure gates with free internet access. If you go to the information desk they will give you a voucher for 15 minutes of free wifi, but after that they charge you a fee.
Traveling through Cambodia we never had to pay for internet. Usually we would go to a restaurant with free wifi and a just get a happy hour beer for 50 cents and hang out for hours. The Phnom Penh airport had wifi but again you had to pay for it. We did investigate getting an internet sim card like we had in Thailand but since we were there for 2 weeks the cost didn’t justify the convenience. The sim card itself was around $10 and you had to pay based on data transferred rather than time. It’s difficult to gauge how much data you transfer browsing the web. One thing to be sure of is having an ad blocking program in your browser. Ads hog a surprisingly large amount of bandwidth and there is nothing worse than being charged for something you don’t want to see to begin with. Using the internet sim in Thailand we averaged 708kb/min. You can scale that accordingly to determine an average usage per hour and weigh the costs of data versus hourly plans.
Internet access is regularly available at restaurants in Bali. Most restaurants that have it cater to the tourist crowd and thus are a bit more expensive. There are a few places where you can gorge yourself for $3 and use the internet for free. You otherwise should expect to pay at least $5 for a meal at a place with free wifi. Most places have a minimum purchase amount and will charge you a tax on your purchase if you use the internet. In the grand scheme of things it’s only about $0.60 /hour to use the internet at an internet café. In many restaurants you have to compete for bandwidth with other patrons and signals are notoriously slow. Not to mention sometimes the internet just stops working and the staff has no idea how to fix it.
The internet sim card on Bali is somewhat complex. You can get what they call unlimited internet for about $30 per month. We actually had to call them to get the full details of the plans because no one seemed to understand our questions at the cell phone stores. If you were to sign up for an unlimited plan what they actually give you is 2 GB of data transfer at 1MB/s. Then when you use your 2GB you are downgraded to 56kb/s. You go from broadband speed to dialup. Some of our friends went this route when they got here and said that even at the dialup speed, pages wouldn’t load. They basically cut you off after you’ve exceeded your data allocation. In the end the price and bandwidth cap makes this a terrible option.
The Denpasar airport has wifi available for a fee and several free internet terminals if you need to send a quick email before departure.
Hotels with free wifi were out of our budget in Yogyakarta and Jakarta (our two stops on Java). When we needed to connect we paid the 60 cents an hour at the internet cafe and the speed wasn’t half bad. The Jakarta airport has free wifi at the Plaza Bali food court. You need to purchase something and they will give you the password.
We had a few layovers in Singapore’s Changi Airport and they could not have been better. You can get free wifi if you go to an information booth. They ask to see your passport before they will give you a login so if this bothers you you may want to skip it. They also have loads of free internet terminals. What really makes Changi awesome, however, is all the other stuff. They have free foot massage chairs scattered around the departure gates. They even have an outdoor swimming pool, a butterfly garden, movie theater, gym, showers and bus tours of the city. On our second layover there we easily spent 5 hours just exploring the airport and hardly had time to use the free wifi.
The Taiwan airport definitely wasn’t as nice as the Singapore airport but it had free wifi at all the gates. This was our first stop coming from California and it was great to have a chance to connect.
Southeast Asia is surprisingly well connected even though the quality is inconsistent. Bringing a laptop can save you a couple bucks but if you don’t need it don’t bring it.