The end of overseas shopping trips

There used to be a guy my brother knew about in Bangkok. This was back when said sibling was a travel agent, when he'd be making regular trips to the South-East Asian hub of all things dodgy.

This "guy" was based on a little street down near Khao San Road – an obvious place for a pedeller of cheap knock-off products aimed at the not-so-discerning backpacker market. He relied on word-of-mouth for his business. Travellers would turn up in hostel dorms with armfuls of DVDs and everyone would want to know where they came from. Answer: this guy.

A few weeks before my brother headed to Bangers he'd always put the word out, that he was going over there and orders could be taken. So you'd sit down and think about all the movies and TV shows that you really wanted to see on DVD but couldn't afford to buy because you were a destitute student, then transfer a couple of bucks to my brother's account, and the deed was done.

He'd come back to Australia clutching a huge album full of dodgy knock-off discs, about 90 per cent of which would actually work. His "guy" would sort out a good deal for him, get all the titles he asked for burned and bundled up and ready for collection upon his arrival on Khao San Road.

Then we at home could all share in the glorious Asian tradition of pirated DVDs.

I sometimes wonder what's happened to my brother's "guy". We certainly don't patronise him anymore, and you have to think that few other backpackers would either. Because if you're really set on being dodgy with your discs these days, there are far easier ways of doing it than sending your travel agent brother to Bangkok.

(They're still there though, these guys. Anywhere you go in the tourist traps of Thailand or Malaysia or Indonesia you'll see them on the side of the road with their little plastic sleeves filled with pirated goods. Someone still buys them. I'm just not sure who.)

The internet, obviously, has changed the shopping habits of travellers the world over. There's not much point in taking a chance on a cheap pirated DVD when you can source the same thing (just as illegally!) for free on your computer at home. So that market must surely have dried up.

But there are other things that have changed as well, things that almost negate the need to go shopping when you travel at all.

Used to be that people would go to places like the US armed with nothing but an empty suitcase, intent on filling it full of the sort of bargains that can only be found in the Land of the Free. Except, that's not true anymore.

The Land of the Free is now the internet, where you can select all the US-based, China-produced bargains you want with a few clicks of a mouse, and wait for it to be delivered to your very non-US-based door. You don't need to worry about lugging back electrical items or designer trainers – you can just have them posted out to you.

Not into trainers and electrical items? Fine. Order sari silks from India. Buy carpets from Morocco. Source antiques from Buenos Aires. And do it all in your PJs.

Remember the excitement of finding a Zara store overseas, or Top Shop? It's not quite so exciting now, is it, because we have them in Australia. And they're online. It's boring and a bit sad that everyone in the Western world is wearing the same clothes, but at least you don't have to go far to get them.

You can even get your tacky souvenirs online! No need to spend 30 hours on a plane to acquire that "I heart NY" T-shirt – you can heart NY in between tweeting from the toilet.

Of course, there's an element of facetiousness to this. While all of the above is absolutely true, for some people you still can't beat the joy of physically trawling from shop to shop, boutique to boutique, looking for those little one-off items you'd never find on the internet. It's a way of exploring a city as well as being a productive suitcase-filler. (And you can't beat being able to say to friends, "Oh, this? Yeah I found it at this second-hand store in Istanbul...")

But shopping overseas has definitely changed. It's changed for the bargain hunters, and it's changed for the pirated DVD shoppers. It's also changed, no doubt, for some guy in a small street behind Khao San Road.

Have your shopping habits changed overseas? Would you still buy knock-off DVDs in South-East Asia? Would you travel to a country just to shop? Do you do a lot of your shopping online?


This story The end of overseas shopping trips first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.