Have you ever wondered what it would be like to quit the 9-5, move somewhere exotic and chase your dreams? So have I and went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand to find out. I first came across this lifestyle concept in a book called The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss which I read in 2008, and it changed my life. In it, Tim overturns our conventional approach to work and life, and suggests a better way. Most of us spend all of our lives working, doing a job we probably don’t like very much for 45 years or so, in the hope of a few good years at the end (retirement), by which time we are too old to enjoy it. And we may not even get there. In which case, what was it all for? It’s a high-risk strategy, leaving all the reward to the end. Which may never come…
The Four Hour Work Week
Instead, Tim suggests simplifying your life, paring your needs down to the essentials and finding a way to finance doing the things you want to do — the things that make you happy. He introduces the concept of ‘mini retirements’ taken throughout your life, rather than relying one big one at the end.
It is very easy to cling to the familiar, and to stay in the safe world you are accustomed to. Indeed there may be good reasons to do so — family, friends, relationships and other attachments. Staying where you are, and just enjoying the freedom without radically uprooting your life might be the right thing for you. But some people are different.
They have the courage to leave everything they know and are comfortable with, travel halfway around the world, immerse themselves in an alien culture and pursue their dreams. These are the people I’m going to Chiang Mai to meet and talk to. I want to find out what drove them to take that bold step, how it has been for them, and how they feel about it now.
They call themselves Digital Nomads. People who wander where they choose, free from the constraints of a conventional job. Free spirits. And there are a lot of them in Chiang Mai. It’s a relatively new phenomenon, this ability to work online so that it really doesn’t matter where you are. The holy grail is to achieve a passive income which is an income that continues all on it’s own, so that you may eventually not have to do any work at all — other than a bit of maintenance to keep things running.
My quest is to find out the reality of living the dream in this way. Working online and achieving a passive income is one thing, but to abandon everything that is safe, familiar, and comfortable, to uproot yourself and live somewhere on the other side of the world takes a certain sort of person. I want to find out what drives these people, and most importantly, how it has worked out for them. Is it a dream? Or is it a nightmare… what’s it really like?
Why Chiang Mai?
Sometime last year I came across a book by a fellow 4HWW fan, Johnny FD. In his book 12 Weeks in Thailand — The Good Life on the Cheap he tells the story of how he gave up his job in LA and came to Thailand to follow his dreams of living in a tropical paradise, training as a Muay Thai fighter and becoming a Divemaster and SCUBA instructor. Johnny had a pretty wild time, as you can read in his book. I don’t know if it’s possible to have TOO much fun, but I think Johnny came close. He certainly gave it a good go.
After a few years of living the good life on the cheap in Thailand, Johnny had a change of heart and moved to Chiang Mai and focused on building his business (and falling in love). It was through Johnny that I discovered the huge community of Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai and that’s what led me here.
What is Chiang Mai like?
It’s a very old city with a very colourful history and some amazing and important temples. It’s surrounded by jungle and mountains, and being in Northern Thailand, and about 1,000 feet higher than Bangkok it has a slightly cooler climate.
Slightly! The old city is enclosed by a moat, about a mile across. Inside the old city it’s noisy, bustling, quite dirty and polluted, with the smells of barbecues and street food everywhere. Traffic is chaotic with scooters, bikes, cars, tuk-tuks and songthaews converging from all angles, missing each other not by inches but by millimeters. Luckily it moves at a snail’s pace, otherwise everybody would surely be dead. In other words, it’s typical Thailand.
The sordid aspect of the Lady Boys and the sex trade is much less prevalent here than Bangkok or Pattaya, but it is still present to an extent, although mostly confined to one street, Loi Kroh Road.
Nimman — so cool it hurts
Just outside the old city is the newly-gentrified area of Nimman, up by the University. This is an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s achingly cool and hip, full of chic bars and restaurants, and mostly… coffee shops.
Not just ordinary coffee shops but designer coffee shops competing to serve the finest exotic brews — it’s coffee geek heaven. Inside you’ll find subdued lighting, air conditioning, chilled-out ambient tunes, and lots of very intent people hunched over their laptops running their online businesses.
You can sit there all day, using their free wi-fi and working away, surrounded by others doing the same. You are expected to buy the odd coffee now and again. One coffee shop I was in today had a sign that you could spend as long as you like there providing you spent at least 20 Baht (about 40p).
This is the home of the Digital Nomads. Most, but not all, of them live, work or hang out around here. There are lots of great places to eat, and you are surrounded by people doing the same sort of thing with consequent benefits in networking, collaboration and co-working.
You can work in a very nice environment all day for virtually no rent, and periodically people bring you coffee. What’s not to like…
My first Digital Nomad — Marion Bouquet
Marion Bouquet is a charming 27 year old French Voice-over Artist (www.voicethatfrenchie.com) who came to Chiang Mai in 2012 for a holiday after completing an internship in Koh Chang.
A lot of Nomads come to Chiang Mai because it is very cheap to live here but Marion came because she just loves the place.The fact that it is cheap to live here offers her the chance to do the things she wants to do, rather than having to work all the time just to exist.
While she was here she was introduced to the Digital Nomad lifestyle through people she met at the Couchsurfing Meetup. This marked a big change in her life. Until then she was just travelling, working out what she wanted to do with her professional life. Marion worked out what she needed per month to live in Chiang Mai, and then figured out how much work she needed to do in order for it to be viable.
It is VERY cheap to live here (Marion estimates her living costs — food, accommodation, entertainment, everything — to be around €600 per month). Although she has now gone on to better things, Marion started doing jobs on fiverr.com (a website where people advertise things they will do for $5. This could be designing a logo, writing a review, doing a voiceover, or wearing a tee shirt with your logo on it — all sorts of crazy stuff).
It’s hard to make money doing fiverr gigs because after all they only pay $5. But as she says, if you do ten fiverr gigs a day and your base costs are very low, it can work. $50 goes a long way in Chiang Mai when you can rent a studio apartment for $150 a month. Visas are a perpetual problem, with a normal visa being issued for 30 days, at the end of which you have to leave the country and go to somewhere like Laos, and then re-enter to hopefully get another 30 days — the dreaded ‘visa run’.
The problem with this, apart from the fact it’s a monumental pain, is that you may not get back in. It’s not an easy life. Marion’s formula is straightforward — do what you are passionate about,
figure out what you need to do, set goals, make a plan, and have the patience to see it through.
Dmitri is a cool 30 year old Russian-born Canadian from Toronto. He really didn’t enjoy the conventional life, working in an office. He gave it up, got the travel bug and travelled extensively throughout Asia — China, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, before ending up in Chiang Mai.
Why Chiang Mai? “Well it’s a pretty easy place to be, compared with some of the places I’ve been! The amenities are good, you can get everything you want, and prices are cheap”. Dmitri is currently working three jobs in Chiang Mai. He works for two startup businesses (www.artsocket.com) and he makes ends meet by working as an English teacher in a local school.
Being a teacher also has the benefit of reducing the visa problem significantly. He can now get a visa for a year instead of just 30 or 90 days at a time. Prior to becoming a teacher, Dmitri was having to do the dreaded border runs to renew his visa. When you do that, you never know for sure if you’re going to get back in the country.
You could easily be refused re-entry, and if that happens, that’s it. You can’t come back in. Your home and anything you’ve left behind are gone. What Dmitri and his Canadian girlfriend did was to go separately on different days. If one didn’t get back in, the other would pack up their stuff and leave, and they arranged they would meet up in Vietnam. That was their fallback plan but luckily it never came to that. As an English Teacher, Dmitri does pretty well. As a native English speaker, he gets paid roughly double what the locals get — around $1,000 per month.
That’s pretty good in Chiang Mai, where he reckons it puts him in the upper middle-class in terms of income. The worst things as far as he is concerned are hygiene & health issues, bugs and pollution. Chiang Mai is pretty polluted by traffic fumes at the best of times, but in February the burning season starts. This is when the farmers burn their rice fields and a heavy pall of smoke descends on Chiang Mai until mid-April. Many Nomads leave at this point and come back a couple of months later when it’s over. He doesn’t miss anything from his former life.
He sold everything he owned before he came here, and he realises now he didn’t need any of it in the first place. Possessions are not important, they just tie you down. He’s not exactly sure what his future plans are, it depends on what happens with his startups, but he expects to be here another year at least.
In his first book ’12 Weeks in Thailand — The Good Life on the Cheap’ Johnny tells the story of how he gave up his job in LA and moved to Thailand to follow his dreams of living in a tropical paradise, training as a Muay Thai fighter, and becoming a Divemaster and instructor. It’s quite a story and he tells it very frankly (JohnnyFD.com).
Recently Johnny brought out a second book — ‘Life Changes Quick‘. This tells the story of how he changed his goals from partying in paradise, to starting and building an online business. This book is what first made me aware of the Chiang Mai Digital Nomad culture, and what made me come here to check it out. What is interesting about Johnny’s tale is how living the dream, at least as he first saw it, eventually lost it’s lustre. In his words: “Then it all hit me.
After four years of doing whatever I wanted and living a great life in Thailand, drinking beers on the beach, waking up steps from the sea, I suddenly realized that I had been lying to myself, living another facade and building another prison around my new seemingly carefree life”. Although the low cost of living in Thailand had given Johnny freedom from being a wage slave, it had also made him a prisoner in that he didn’t have enough money to do anything else — he was trapped into living a low cost life forever.
Johnny wasn’t happy with that so he set himself a goal to build a business that earned a substantial income. Through a friend he met online (another 4HWW fan) he found a business model that would enable him to achieve that, and more. He is no longer forced to live in a low-cost economy. With his level of earnings now he could return to LA or wherever he likes, but as he puts it “if you earn $5k a month in Chiang Mai you can save $4k a month, which gives you money to invest in other things rather than just spending it on living”.
All the Digital Nomads I’ve met have been very different people, but they do have a few things in common. The single biggest one is their passion for travel. They all have this, it’s probably their biggest motivation for living this lifestyle.
Although they are all entrepreneurs, they are probably travellers first and entrepreneurs second, rather than the other way around. They all love Chiang Mai. They love the food, the weather, the people, the general ease of life here, and the Digital Nomad community. There are other hubs for Digital Nomads, such as Saigon, Bali and the Philippines, but none seems to tick quite so many boxes as Chiang Mai. They all value being part of a community of like-minded people.
People with shared interests, who are working towards the same sort of things that they are. People who ‘get’ them, in the way that many of their other friends and family may not. They all work hard. If your picture of somebody living the dream is them lying on a beach all day sipping cocktails, then you’ve got it wrong here.
These guys are driven, motivated, and they work hard. Sure, they all like to lie on the beach, or swim, or have barbecues, but they don’t do it all the time. For most of them work comes first. But they also manage to integrate work into their lives. It’s all one, as opposed to the strict separation between work, and the rest of your life that is common in most conventional 9-5 lives. Most people go to work all day, doing a job they hate, in order that they can afford to keep on doing the job they hate. Just living for the weekends and 4 weeks holiday per year.
The Nomads don’t really have a distinction between work and life — it’s all one. They don’t hate their work, and seek to escape it. It’s like the concept of ‘sanuk’ — finding pleasure in all daily activities, work and play. The Nomads may not all be aware of this Thai concept, but consciously or not they all seem to have assimilated it into their lives very successfully. I think that is living the dream. Having a unified life where you enjoy what you’re doing, and are not constantly doing what you don’t want to do just to survive.