Some people told me that it was courageous to ditch my comfortable home life to go to Southeast Asia with zero plan. Although, to be honest, when you’ve been working non-stop for too long and are facing a cold and dreary winter in your home country, buying a one-way ticket to Thailand seems like a no-brainer! Boarding a plane with my boyfriend and a seven-kilo backpack to follow a travel dream seemed much less daunting than not doing it and regretting it later.
The only two certainties we had were the desires to travel and work on-the-go. We’d read a lot about these mysterious digital nomads living the dream in places such as Chiang Mai and Bali, and figured that our jobs as writer and programmer could tie in nicely with the lifestyle. Over the next few months, we wanted to test the waters to see if we could actually pull it off.
We settled on Koh Tao island off Thailand as our first destination. Who doesn’t want to work by the beach while sipping on an icy smoothie? As it turns out, the digital nomad photos I’d trawled through didn’t depict the reality of our situation. Yes, the island was incredibly beautiful. But when it came to work, forget it! There were more minutes spent hunting for decent Wi-Fi than there were articles written, and the fact that most people on the island are there to, A: party B: dive or C: party and dive, meant that we weren’t exactly inspired to be productive.
In hindsight though, easing into our new life wasn’t a bad idea and I’d advise anyone else to do the same. It had been approximately 143 days since I’d last felt the heat on my skin so I felt I deserved to soak it in as much as possible.
After our stint in Koh Tao and a few weeks of travel around Thailand, we decided to make our way to Vietnam. We settled on Da Nang – a coastal city surrounded by scenic peaks and a place which holds serenity and chaos in equal measure. Going to Da Nang was like embarking on an exciting teenage relationship; I fell for the place hard and fast. The fragrant food, the sparkling blue ocean, the enthralling scenery and the warm, welcoming people meant that it ticked all of our boxes. Plus, it ticked the most important one of all: it had decent Wi-Fi!
Work got done here, in between all-important sea swims and adventures on the nearby mountain. You know that seemingly mythical ‘work-life balance’ that’s often spoken about but rarely witnessed? It exists! I found it as a remote worker in Da Nang and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
We spent six months in Da Nang, using it as a base to work from in between short trips around Vietnam and further afield. Even after such a long stay, it was really difficult to leave our friends and life there behind. Closing the door on our tiny apartment for the last time and hopping on a train was more difficult than I’d expected when we first landed in the hectic city months before.
In truth, everything about being a digital nomad – or more accurately in my case, remote worker – is unexpected. Surprises arise daily and manifest in every way imaginable. Good surprises include forming close-knit friendships, stumbling across rare monkeys and progressing your career in ways you never thought possible with only your laptop and some strong coffee. Bad experiences include debilitating food poisoning, getting lost on a daily basis (perhaps that’s just me!) and the occasional pang for your home soil.
Yet, I think the unpredictability of this lifestyle is what makes it so appealing. Every day is unique. It becomes hard to imagine going back to a regular nine-to-five, even if you wanted to.
Over the following months, we continued the pattern of having no pattern by travelling and occasionally working our way around Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia. I soon grew attached to Penang and its people, and though I wish I’d spent more time there, I know I’ll return soon.
All in all, there are several things I could tell my early 2017 self, as well as anyone else trying to become a nomadic remote worker. Go without any expectations because the reality of it is, nothing can really be planned except maybe – and only maybe, expect delays – your next flight. Living out of a backpack for a year sounds impossible, but it’s surprisingly liberating and you’ll soon learn that you’re happier with less. Finally, once you make the switch to this new way of living, it’ll be virtually impossible to revert to your old life. The next move is always on the horizon. I know mine is!
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