Few months ago I started my digital nomad life, working while travelling. I would like to share my experience and thoughts.
Every place has its own culture, living style and working experience can vary a lot between places, I learnt this after working for companies at Hong Kong, San Francisco and Tokyo. I wrote a blog post (Chinese, Japanese, I am too lazy to translate it to English) about my thoughts on these places, but that does not seems to answer my own question: Where do I want to be? When I was graduating, I got offers from companies in different countries, I am very lucky to be a programmer in this startup trend, things would be totally different if I graduated right after the dot-com bubble. Anyway, choosing offers does not only involve comparing packages, but also the culture of cities, countries, and their potential. While I am spending so much time hesitating between choices, I raised an idea.
If places I know are already that different, places I don’t know may be more different, eventually there might be a place that fit me perfectly!
I have been following Pieter’s blog for some time, I find his life style of working while travelling very cool. So I decided, I have to see more, know more about the world before I can make up my mind. I chose the offer with least salary, but maximum freedom.
Travelling itself is enjoyable, whether it is developed cities like Singapore or rather interesting places such as Pyongyang. I think that happiness comes from knowing the unknown. There are lots of little facts that I was not aware until I am there, it might be really trivial and subtle, and that always makes me wonder why wasn’t I noticing it before. For example, I wasn’t aware there are quite a lot of places with non-integer timezones, I was aware of their existence, I just didn’t know Australia has 2, and the entire India is UTC+5:30. Few years ago when Japan created the blue curry, I thought it is something very new, it turns out Malaysia already has Nasi Kerabu. This kind of little facts might not be very important, but they make me realise how ignorant I have been, I didn’t even know I didn’t know about them.
Speaking of food, I usually prefer local foods over famous restaurants, after all they are what locals eat. Indian curry in Malaysia is crazily good, I was literally addicted and was eating curry for every meal. While milk tea from Hong Kong is nice, milk tea in Taiwan, Vietnam, Thai, Malaysia all has their own characteristic, they are not bad at all!
It is also fun to meet some really cool people, going to local tech meet up in Ho Chi Minh City taught me how (surprisingly) important Japanese is in their tech market, I wasn’t expected to meet some amazing NixOS friends in Bangkok, drinking with friend from App.net in Australia was delightful. In this connected era, chatting with overseas friends over internet is super easy, but still, meeting them face-to-face is a happy experience.
Culture is an interesting thing, sometimes I know about it, I just don’t experience it. There are lots of Filipinos, Indonesian domestic helpers in Hong Kong, every weekend you can find them sitting on roads, having meals on footbridges, occupying parks, chatting loudly. I never wanted to know more about them, I just hoped they don’t block the road, I never understand what are they talking about, and I wasn’t interested as well. However I couldn’t ignore them when I was in Jakarta, they are the locals, I am a foreigner, I need to respect them. After following their way of eating meals with hands by roadsides, chatting with strangers in swimming pools (For whatever reason, it is super easy to start a conversation with strangers in swimming pools), I realise they are actually pretty friendly. I even managed to order myself a meal in Indonesian, learning language is all about reward, that meal was brilliant enough to be the reward.
This is the most frequent question I get. The cost highly depends on the destination and accommodation quality, as for me, it is not expensive. I usually choose cheap flights, hotels or hostels, value wifi quality and location over other aspects, so the quality is usually not very good. I have been staying at places with cockroaches, mosquitos, bedbugs, frog (!) in room, water dropping from ceiling, a broken lock that keeps me out of the room for a night, etc…
When local foods and walking around are already great entertainments, I don’t need to spend money on going to amusement parks or high class restaurants. I prefer walking / taking public transit over taxi, because I can look around the cities better, I just had a 5km walk along the beautiful Colombo seashore, the view was fabulous and saved me some money. The only concern I have is scam, it is especially easy to fall into trap when I am not familiar with the place and currency, I paid quite a lot more then I should in a taxi trip in Ho Chi Minh city… I also have to be more careful when the number is so large, e.g. taking a 5000000 VND note for a 500000 VND meal.
It’s cool to have a company allowing me to travel, but I also have the responsibility to make sure I can keep my work done. To make sure things go smoothly, I started from Taipei, where the company has an overseas office. There is no timezone difference, I am familiar with the language, I have friends around, nothing could go wrong. I travelled between cities, it went well, then I continued to Vietnam.
Working is of course not as smooth as usual. The company has 40-ish employees, only 2 of us are remote, most of the communications are synchronous. I always schedule my day according to the day’s meetings, though the timing can be pretty tricky and I would need to delay lunch / dinner, or not be able to walk around the places. It is also difficult when someone expects instant reply, because I may eating Nasi Ayam with hands or sleeping due to timezones difference. This is something I have to figure out before heading further west, but it is just difficult to ask everyone to compromise just to make my life better. I am pretty sure communication issues are less when working as a freelancer… I also wonder what is it like to be in a highly remote company, such as Digital Ocean or Buffer.
While it is free to move around, there are some strict limitations, for example I cannot go to somewhere without internet connection, because my work heavily depends on it (Especially nowadays dockerize things, downloading a package become downloading a Linux distro), I am also not confident enough to go to some dangerous places carrying an expensive Macbook Pro. This means I cannot go to remote places, and I have to plan things ahead to make sure I can start working on time, this definitely reduces excitement.
There are quite a lot suggestions on my trips from friends, why don’t you stay longer? Did you go to that famous temple? Did you go to see kangaroos? I used to be easily affected by their opinions, but shortly after I started travelling, I start to go my own way, after all I am travelling alone. I can take rest whenever I like, spend hours reading book at cafe, spend the noon swimming at a nice pool, wander around to search for local dinner. It might not be very tourist, but I am just happier that way, and I am just not looking for checking in attractions.
In case if you wonder, here is a page of my plans.