I don’t know if it’s that I caught the travel bug at a young age, having had the opportunity to visit many places growing up, or it’s typical of my generation – restlessness, the itch. Either way, whether I fully formed it in my head or not, I think it’s always been the dream: location independence.
It was 2014/2015 that I started saying to friends that it’s time to move on. I had been in Montreal for 4-5 years then, and escaping every opportunity I could. Before that I was in Tokyo for a year, and before that Halifax for a year.
I had the itch.
Then it happened. The startup I was working for faced a cash crunch, and had to immediately let a few people go. Myself included. “We can hire you back in 2-3 months”, they said. That was my cue. I already had a one-way ticket to Singapore for my annual trip there; I only had enough miles to claim a one-way and hadn’t bought the return. Within a month, I sold everything I owned, wrapped up my life in Montreal, said my goodbyes, and left.
I had a rough plan. I’d join a company remotely. One that I love. Whose (SaaS) product I loved. Who’s in “growth mode”/just raised a Series A. (I’ve seen too many seed startups run out of money) Can’t be that difficult, right?
As it turns out, finding a company with all 3 ticks was quite the unicorn hunt. In the interim, I hung out in Singapore, rent-free at my Grandma’s, and did trips from there: Malaysia, Philippines, Korea, Japan. Then the futile job search + living with my Grandma (after having been on my own since I was 18) started getting to me. That and being in a city I disliked, one that stresses me out… So fuck it: I left for Chiang Mai.
It was somewhere I had never been before, somewhere I knew to be cheap, and somewhere which had a digital nomad community. I only found out later that it’s the digital nomad hub of the world.
I rented a place for a month, and quickly settled in. Everyday, I would pick a place from the Google Map I curated of places to work from Chiang Mai, work pretty much 9-5, go for yoga or Muay Thai, then maybe dinner/drinks. I’d go learn and network at the Nomad Coffee Club meetup on Fridays. Attend mass* and go exploring over the weekend.
(Or sometimes on a Tuesday)
Chiang Mai was the perfect place to start my digital nomad adventure. I met all these like-minded people, all hustlin’ to live this dream. It made me feel less crazy to have taken this leap, and more motivated to make it work.
I entered Chiang Mai on a 30-day visa. I had two options: to extend it for another 30 days for 1,500 baht, or to exit then re-enter with a new 30-day visa. I thought hey, why stay put when there’s so much more to see. The plan was to start from the north of Laos, head south to Cambodia, keep going south, cross East to Vietnam, head back north, then go back to Chiang Mai (but first Pai and Chiang Rai!).
I first headed to Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, and was quickly homesick for Chiang Mai. I switched 3 hotels in 3 days, and struggled to find good wifi. The first “hotel” I stayed at was a bunk bed in a room shared with 3 others. The last time I stayed in a hostel must have been when I was ~20. The second “hotel” I stayed at was advertised as “private room with private bath”. Not only was there no bathroom attached, this “room” was right smack in the middle of a dormitory – I had to walk by several futons laid side by side to get to my “room”. The shared bathroom was so disgusting that I did not brush my teeth or shower for 24 hours, until I found my 3rd hotel. This brings me to learning #1: I’m a digital nomad, not a backpacker. I need good wifi, and a comfortable place. It’s my home, however temporary.
I stayed in Luang Prabang for a week, Vang Vieng for a week, and Vientiane for a week before aborting my plans and deciding to head to Da Nang, Vietnam for a month.
Learning #2: There is a lot of overhead in bouncing too quickly. Travel time, time spent researching accommodation… (And if you cut corners on this, you end up with disasters as per above)
Time spent finding good wifi (that honestly doesn’t exist in Laos), and coffices to work from…
Case in point: My minivan departed Luang Prabang at 3pm and was supposed to arrive Vang Vieng at 7pm. It arrived at 8.30pm, and I had a call with a prospective client at 9pm (9am CDT). There was no wifi in the “hotel” though it was advertised as such, but only in the adjacent restaurant by the same owners. The wifi was so bad I could not connect to Skype, Google Voice, etc, and have not heard from said prospect since. Sucks even more because this was really a formality call to close the client.
Other frivolous “woes”:
Learning #2.1: Some stability is nice. For me, that is yoga and Sunday mass, wherever I am. (Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng did not have a Catholic church, much less one with an English mass.)
Learning #3: I’ve come to realize how meaningless possessions are. Material or sentimental things that I thought I’d miss, but haven’t. My rings, including those of late grandma, my polar bear that I sleep with every night… (I do miss wine!!) Funny how the only function shopping malls now have is for AC since I can’t shop because I’m living out of a suitcase.
I mentioned selling and giving away everything I owned. I went from ~500 pieces of clothing to 50. 50 pairs of shoes to 5. 100 accessories to 10. The items I kept are those I wear frequently, and that don’t need ironing or bra-wearing. (Plus I was quite the fashionista – I could have gone ~a year without having to do laundry.) All’s that’s left to my name is:
- 1 box of souvenirs at my Grandma’s in Singapore
- 2 boxes of souvenirs and winter gear with friends in Montreal
If you have 8 minutes, I urge you to read this. It’s an article about “minimalism”, and I think it perfectly encompasses the essence of the digital nomad movement.
Learning #3.1: I should have packed less. I don’t need so much crap. I’ve worn makeup all but once, on my last night in Chiang Mai when I had a goodbye thing. So my makeup bag = unnecessary. I also don’t need a bunch of options for workout clothes.
Learning #4: Self-discovery. I did not set out to find myself, find happiness, or anything like that. But nomading has helped me confirm a few things that I already knew:
- I love the 4 seasons, and nature. So I want/need to live in such a place.
- I hate big cities, and love smaller ones like Montreal, Chiang Mai, Da Nang. Helps that these are surrounded by nature too!
- I love children.
- I don’t like the limelight, and don’t care to be in it. And that’s ok, that’s not the only way. Though it may seem like it in this age of social media and selfies. Matt’s convocation speech in a recent episode of Madam Secretary puts it best:
I mean, honestly, uh, this is probably the first moment in my adult life that I’ve stood in the spotlight. Truth be told, it’s probably gonna be the last. Why? Because I’m one of those people who works in the dark. I know what you’re thinking. As soon as my Etsy page is discovered, uh, I’ll invent my own job title on Buzzfeed and livestream my Christopher Walken impression as I hoverboard to the Soylent dispenser in the playroom… and I don’t blame you. In this world of relentless self-promotion, we’ve all been raised to think that the limelight is the only light worth seeking. But that isn’t the case. And if I can impart one thing today, a small, simple truth to carry with you as you walk through those gates, it’s this: Achievement is often anonymous. Some of the greatest things have been done by people you have never heard of… quietly dedicating their lives to improving your own.
Learning #5: You make your own reality. I, as they say, jumped off a cliff and built my wings on the way down. I never thought I’d be a freelancer, but that’s essentially what I am now. After tapping into my savings for awhile, I now work ~20 billable hours/week, and work on my own projects the rest of the time. The latter hasn’t generated me $ yet, but I’m launching a dropshipping store on June 20th and I hope to make it’s first sale within a month. The former is actually close to what I used to make (post-tax), and out here I’m spending less than half of what I did in Montreal per month (it could easily be a third, but I haven’t been trying to live cheaply). I’m a freelancer, trying to become a “location independent entrepreneur”, trying to set up multiple streams of passive income.
This is my journey so far, and I’m figuring it out as I go. Come along for the ride:
- Day to day: Snapchat, Swarm
- Highlights: Instagram
- Day to day, highlights and lowlights: YouTube
- Overview + learnings: this blog
Thanks for reading! Feel free to tweet me if you have any questions, or leave a comment below.
*There are two Catholic churches with English masses on Sunday in Chiang Mai: Seven Fountains @ 9.30am and Sacred Heart of Jesus @ 11am