2016 was pretty shit for the world. For me, it’s been stressful, unpredictable, exhilarating, scary, and amazing. I visited and lived in 11 countries: Singapore, Malaysia, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, and the US. Most of which I worked from, too.
January: Singapore & Mumbai, India
I started my digital nomad adventure at the end of 2015. I left on a one-way ticket to Singapore, and spent the first few months there figuring things out. I detailed this in The Digital Nomad Leap.
Lesson #1: Push yourself out of your comfort zone and try new things.
Then a family member had a work trip to Mumbai, so I followed suit. (Travel hack!) It was my first time in India, too! #bucketlist
5 days was a lot for Mumbai though. I had so much extra time that I went to a Bollywood tour where I caught the filming of “Girls on Top”, an unremarkable Catholic church, a Hare Krishna Temple… all of which were worth skipping.
I did take 2 yoga lessons and it was interesting to see how it differed from the West. I’m used to teachers saying “go where your body tells you to go today”, but my Indian teacher repeatedly said “go, go, go!” and “come on!”. Not very relaxing or meditative, but I’d still be keen on an extended yoga training/retreat in India.
The highlight was by far a Dhavari slum tour. I saw the plastic, aluminum, textile, leather etc industries within the slum, and witnessed the horrible working conditions (where they live as well!). They don’t have any safety equipment (goggles, gloves, mask), or much manufacturing equipment, and make 7,000-8,000 rupees ($100ish USD) monthly. Which often went towards supporting their wife and kids as well. And because of the terrible conditions that they live and work in, their life expectancy is 55 years.
Lesson #2: We are so, so fortunate. We should help. I have an idea for a “Silicon Balley”, which incorporates the concept of dev bootcamps. I have an Indian friend in Silicon Valley who’s had a similar idea, and who has friends already teaching in these slums in India. But we’d need an army. Please get in touch if you’re interested.
March: Japan & Korea
I met up with family for a jam-packed vacation. We were greedy and wanted to catch the snow as well as cherry blossom season. We started in Hokkaido, where we caught the tail end of the season and unfortunately didn’t get a taste of Japan’s famous powder. In fact, it officially became Spring the week we were there, and the snow was mostly slush. From there, we went to Seoul to while away Winter and wait for cherry blossom season in Kansai.
Lesson #3: Slow travel is the best. We were so exhausted after this trip; I much rather visit less places, but visit them well. Quality > quantity.
April: Chiang Mai, Thailand
I consider this the true start of my nomading as I didn’t know anyone in Chiang Mai, I had never been, and I didn’t speak the language. I met new friends, acquaintances, and nomads through:
- Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook group
- Friday Nomad Coffee Club
- Entrepreneur & Beer Meetup
- A hiking group (look for a group that suits your interests)
Through the Facebook group, I celebrated Songkran, Thai new year aka world’s largest water fight with fellow digital nomads, and got to meet my first friends in Chiang Mai. Other firsts this month include trying Muay Thai for the first time and learning to drive a scooter.
It was serendipitous that I chose a city with such a vibrant nomad and expat community, and a month here gave me the confidence to trek forth on my own. Not to mention it’s hella cheap and great for getting started.
I often had to will myself out of bed/home to go out and be social. Lesson #4: Alone time is great, but a new city has so much to offer, new sights to see, sounds to hear, food to try, and friends to make. Take advantage of it.
As great as Chiang Mai is, there are many pseudo Digital Nomads who move there from their more expensive home country and live a great life since it’s so cheap. Most are on 1 month or multiple re-entry tourist visas, and have to leave every so often to “renew” it. Laos is a common place to do a visa run since it’s so near, but to me going in and out of somewhere without seeing any of it doesn’t make sense.
I overstayed my 30 day visa by a day on purpose. I didn’t want to take a 3D2N slow boat as I couldn’t be disconnected for so long because of work, and the only available, slightly pricey flight was the day after my visa expired. I did my research though and authorities typically let overstaying by 1 day slide. Otherwise it’s a fine of 500 baht per day, up to a maximum of 20,000 baht ($560 USD).
The plan was to spend a week in Luang Prabang, a week in Vang Vieng, and a week in Vientiane. That turned out to be a big mistake as there was too much overhead in bouncing weekly, plus the wifi in Laos sucked.
Lesson #5: Do not go to places that are not on Nomad List.
In Luang Prabang, I changed 3 hotels in 3 days, and almost got raped.
Lesson #5.1: Don’t cheap out
To get to Vang Vieng, I took a mini-bus which had to maneuver steep turns non-stop the entire 4-hour drive. It was so bad a mother and her kid in the back had to ask the driver to stop to puke by the side of the road. The only saving grace was a Singaporean I met and hit it off with right away, and that the driver picked the most spectacular place for a pitstop.
Lesson #5.2: Sit towards the front to prevent car sickness!
Laos is so beautiful. But it’s been hit by a certain type of tourism. Everything is expensive and in USD, and people are always trying to hustle you. There are 4/11 Southeast Asian countries that I haven’t been to yet (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Myanmar), and I want to before their tourism industry gets more developed.
June: Da Nang, Vietnam
For some reason, I was drawn to Da Nang. Before 2016, or even before May I had never even heard of this place, but I knew I wanted to stay away from the big cities of Hanoi and Saigon. It turned out to be for good reason. Da Nang is my favourite of all the places I visited in 2016, or at least of all the ones I lived in/stayed for an extended period of time. It has my favourite sized population of 1 million, is easy to get around by bicycle, has mountains and beaches aplenty, kind and friendly people, and great food.
This is also where I tried WorkAway for the first time. I spent 2 weeks living with a family on the east side of the city, teaching English to their kids. The east side is more city-like with supermarkets, malls, and cinemas. Then I spent 2 weeks building a website for Da Nang’s first capsule hotel on the west side, where the beaches are. I became really close to the family; they brought me to Hoi An, I brought them for pizza. They introduced heaps of Vietnamese cuisine to me, I introduced them to ice skating. And at the capsule hotel, I got to witness the capsules being built from nothing to completion in my 2 weeks there, which was really cool.
July: Malaysia & Japan
Loneliness is often cited as one of the cons, if not the con of nomading. I don’t think I agree completely, since this lifestyle gives you the freedom to bounce around and visit friends and family all over the world. I went to Kuala Lumpur and Penang to visit family (also because I found a cheap flight via AirAsia).
Then 2 of my best friends were gonna be in Japan from Canada, so of course I had to meet them there. It was our first big trip together, and it was pretty amazing. ❤ I also got to see a good English friend from my time in Tokyo (2009-10), and a Japanese friend I met in Halifax in 2008.
August & September: Taiwan
I am pretty well travelled in Asia since I lived in Singapore for 13 years and it was easy to travel to other parts of Asia from there, but I had never been to Taiwan. Plus I thought this would be a great opportunity to practice my barely used and barely there second language.
I spent 2 weeks in Taipei, 2 weeks in Hualien, a couple of days in Dulan trying to surf, and 2 weeks in Kaohsiung. Man, Taiwan is pretty amazing. Each of these cities has their own character, local dishes despite not being that far from each other. Traveling between them is so easy too with the regular train on the east coast or the high-speed rail on the west. Or even hitchhiking 😉 Their high-speed rail looks (and performs) exactly like Japan’s bullet train, but at a fraction of the cost.
Though I typically don’t like big cities, I really liked Taipei. I loved cycling along its many rivers, and the availability of A+ hiking at nearby Yangmingshan. I also loved Taipei and Kaohsiung’s fine art museums.
I did a WorkAway at a cowork/colive space in Taipei, where I helped with their website and content marketing. There, I met some locals who invited me to a weekend trip to Sun Moon Lake, and a fellow nomad turned good friend. The Taiwanese are known to be friendly. They are also known for their food, but that I was not particularly fond of. I did try stinky tofu for the first time!
In Hualien I stayed at an Airbnb. I must have skimmed through the listing as I missed the memo that they have a cat (I’m allergic). That aside, since I was going to be staying longer than the typical guest, I asked in advance if they could do a discount, and got the price cut in half.
Lesson #6: Always bargain! You can’t get what you don’t ask for 😉
In Kaohsiung I did my fourth and final WorkAway for the year. I built a website for a hostel there. I’m not a big fan of hostels, but I think my impending return to North America was stressing me out so I was trying to save money. I was going to San Francisco first to boot, where the average monthly rent is ~$3K. This particular hostel wasn’t bad at all though. There was a bathroom in our all-girls room, the entire place was kept really clean, and there were always some empty rooms where I’d go meditate and do arms and abs exercises in the mornings. I met some great people here too. The always happy and smiling Taiwanese owner and his equally nice right-hand man, a travel-hacking American couple who were guests turned WorkAway-ers, a Mexican girl and a Spanish girl learning Chinese, and a pair of German brothers whom I quickly hit it off with (one’s a fellow Digital Nomad).
Another family member had a work trip to Sydney, so I followed suit. (Travel hack!)
While there, I caught up with a friend I met at Startup Weekend Silicon Valley at the Google HQ years ago. Turns out we’re both kind of doing the same thing now, and it was great exchanging tips and stories. I also caught up with a friend whom I met on our Europe Contiki trip in 2012 – it was both our first times in Europe then!
From Sydney, I had to go see my childhood best friend in Melbourne. The last time I was in Australia was when I was 17, when she first moved there. Travel hack: stay with friends to save on accommodation. She did have 2 dogs so I was coughing and wheezing and dying of allergies; this is why I haven’t tried housesitting. When you housesit there often is a pet you have to take care of in the owners’ absence. But it definitely is a great option for a healthier, less problematic Digital Nomad to look into!
Lesson #7: Make time for the people you love.
P.s. Australia is reaaally expensive. Like for shopping, their local brands like Sportsgirl etc are (sorry) super average and H&M, Forever 21-esque yet pretty expensive. Rent is really high, and cigarettes are around $30/pack. Also, though they’re known for their coffee, they don’t quite have a coffee shop culture i.e. it’s hard to find cafes with wifi. I did loove Australia and totally get why so many people move there, or go there on a 1 year working holiday visa.
Singapore was sort of my base in 2016. I bounced to and from there, and got to see my dad and grandma more in the past year than I have in the past decade. Leaving Montreal at the end of 2015 was hard, and now leaving Singapore was hard.
But I was going to San Francisco to see about a boy. We had met 3.5 years ago, and kept in touch. This past year in particular, we spoke so much that I felt like we were online dating, so I wanted to give it a shot in person. It wasn’t a huge deal since I was meeting up with my sister in Portland after for a 2 week California road trip. I knew that it would either go really well or horribly wrong, and let’s just say it was the latter. I spent a lot of November and December being sad, and I’m finding it hard to write this in January 2017, but:
Lesson #8: No regrets. You never know if you never try.
The road trip though was amazing. I got to reunite with my sister, and do this trip that’s always been on our bucket list. We tasted wine in Napa Valley, hiked in Yosemite, drove down the astonishingly beautiful Big Sur…
(Note to DNers: there’s absolutely no connection along Big Sur and in Yosemite)
I drove more than I ever have on this trip. The longest was 9 hours in 1 day, from Oregon to California, and the scariest was navigating the winding roads to Yosemite in complete darkness.
Lesson #9: Take risks and be adventurous but don’t be stupid. Thereafter I made sure to drive in daylight.
December: San Diego & Park City
We ended our trip in San Diego, and my sister flew back to NY. I stayed on for 3 more weeks. San Diego was a city I always thought I’d like, and one I wanted to check out. I spent 5 days in an Airbnb in the neighbourhood of Hillcrest, which turned out to be the gay district. There were tons of restaurants there, a Core Power Yoga (which is hot yoga + core stuff = intense), and one of the locations of the Coffee Shop Coworking meetup.
I spent the rest of the time in Ocean Beach, in an apartment with a Brazilian and a German flatmate. It’s nice mixing it up between living alone and with people. I got to know these 2 neighbourhoods well. One thing I love about San Diego is how each neighbourhood has their own farmer’s market on a different day. Mucho community.
I spent my last week in San Diego working from a coworking space in Little Italy, adjacent to downtown and the waterfront. This area I didn’t get to know well, and is likely where I’ll be when I return in February.
I still haven’t completely put a finger on San Diego. I love it – I love the beaches, I love La Jolla, but something feels missing or off… basically I haven’t decided if it’s somewhere I’d like to live yet.
P.p.s. I did the Santa Run for the first time (by myself), and it was a lot of fun!
Lesson #10: There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. Don’t be afraid of being alone, and don’t let it stand in the way of you doing something you want to do. The first significant time I did something alone, and was scared to do so, was attending a concert in Tokyo. One of my favourite bands, Copeland, was disbanding, and their second last concert ever was going to be in Tokyo. No one I knew wanted to go, or even knew of them. So, I went alone.
Lesson #11: This Digital Nomad lifestyle makes so much sense. On our road trip, my sister was paying double rent – she was paying for her apartment in NY and our daily hotels. Whereas the daily hotels was my rent. I think we spent ~$80/night via Hotwire. So my share, $40/night x 30 days = $1,200, which is not bad at all for monthly rent. Besides that, I think most people’s savings go toward vacations, which you typically only have 2-4 weeks of per year. So living on the road is win-win – you’re perpetually travelling, not constricted by the amount of leave you have, and not digging into your savings.
(Oh I spent Christmas snowboarding in Park City, Utah)
2016 in Review
I have 1 blank page left in my passport, and I’m looking forward to being stagnant for awhile.
The best habits I picked up are reflecting more, and meditating. I’ve sort of been journaling via Instagram in 2016, and may use Day One going forward.
The best investments I made:
- Audible, to be able to read more. In 2016 I started listening to audiobooks or podcasts on public transit, when walking from point A to B…
- Calm. I urge you to try meditating for 7 days in a row via their free trial
- A Roost laptop stand, to save me from RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury)
- Wealthsimple. I started investing this year via Wealthsimple, a “robot investing” app i.e. it does the work for you 😉 It’s for Canada, and the US equivalent is Betterment.
I’m thankful for all the old friends I got to see in 2016: Ayumi, Yuki, Heather, James, Maya, Mira, Wendy, Amber, Kenny, Zoe, Amanda, Matt, Steve, Ikumi, Sze Yan, Warren, and all the new ones I made, in particular: Eak, Steph, Thao & family, Kirill.
Goals for 2017
Continue to invest in myself, and in self-improvement. In 2016 I achieved freedom of location, now I want freedom of time. I want to build more passive (or semi-passive) streams of income, in order to earn time. More time to spend doing things I love. So, my first goal is to launch a niche website in January, and rinse and repeat for another niche. As well,
- Deepen my yoga and meditation practice
- Read 2 books and listen to 1 audiobook each month
- Learn more about art, coffee, and wine
- Get back into figure skating + take gymnastics classes
- Volunteer. A decade ago I loved volunteering with Art Outreach in Singapore, which combined 2 of my passions, art and children. I’ve found a similar organization in Vancouver (where I’m headed next) woohoo!
- Fight climate change. There are basic things we should be doing like turning down the thermostat, conserving water, and taking public transit. (Read more) However, via my friend Denis, “it’s important to note that these day to day actions will not be sufficient to offset climate change. Yes they are important, but more important is taking concrete actions towards the biggest contributors and that can only be achieved if we all take action towards applying pressure to government and not contradicting our actions by spending and putting more of our money in the wrong hands.” To take action:
- Write to parliament or local government
- Donate to non-profit organisation(s) whose responsibility is to help find climate change (Equiterre, Climate Reality Project, David Suzuki Foundation)
- Spread the word and inspire others by sharing your accomplishments (write an article or blogpost)
- Divest from dirty business and invest in progressive and sustainable ones
- Sign up to newsletters and events in your community
2016 thank you for the lessons, 2017 thank you in advance for the blessings I’m about to receive.
*My external hard drive with all my photos stopped working so all the pics are via Instagram for now!
**Shoutout to Johnny FD, whose structure of his 2016 review I followed