Travelling while working is terrible; travelling while working is awesome

March 20, 2014

For the last couple of months I’ve been living as a digital nomad. I’ve been to 5 cities so far, and I’m currently in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia. It’s 32c and sunny outside, yet I’m sitting in Starbucks (more on that later). When I meet people and tell them what I do, they say they would love be able to do that, yet my usual response is a bit of a negative “it’s not too bad”. I haven’t really seen any posts discussing the issues of being a digital nomad, so I wanted to cover that a bit.

Unlike a lot of digital nomads I work pretty much 40 hours a week. I don’t have a blog or a product I sell online, I work as a freelance software engineer. I could work less if I wanted to (I’m planning to reduce my hours over the next few months), but I still have deadlines I need to meet. I still have to be available for meetings, which often happen at 10pm at night due to time zone differences. I don’t have set hours, so if I just don’t feel like working I can go and sit on a beach for a couple of days, but I try to keep at least some sort of routing. If I don’t, I just end up doing whatever I feel like and then realise I haven’t done any work for the last 5 days. Even before I started travelling, I tried to keep a schedule when working otherwise the same would happen. Keeping a schedule ensures that doesn’t happen and also helps with motivation. Here where it’s warm and sunny, and the cool people you meet tell you about all the awesome things they are going to do, it’s a lot harder to motivate yourself to work.

Another issue is where to work, as I said before I’m sitting in Starbucks. An Aussie just asked me “Why are you getting the most expensive coffee in Asia?”*, I replied explaining what I did and that I need wifi. Unfortunately Starbucks is one of the most reliable places. Here in Georgetown there are actually quite a few decent coffee shops, however for some reason they are closed on Monday (today). In SE Asia, in general there aren’t really many coffee shops, at least what I would consider a coffee shop and wouldn’t mind spending a few hours in. Rather confusingly what is called a kopi tiam (coffee shop) here is more reminiscent of a restaurant or food court. Wifi in accommodation is a bit hit and miss as well, guest houses usually just have a residential broadband connection which falls apart under the load of 5 backpackers trying to use Skype. For backup I have a prepay SIM in my phone and tether 3G, I’ve currently got 4.5GB for £13, however that will probably only last a few weeks – mainly because the hotel I stayed at in KL had even worse wifi. One thing I’ve learned is to only book accommodation in advance for at most a couple of nights, if you like it you can extend it, usually paying a lot less than you would through an online booking site. As well as avoiding terrible wifi situations, it also means you can be a bit flexible on what you do. Don’t like the place? Go somewhere else! It’s coming to the end of the season here now, so you don’t really even need to book in advance.

As a solo traveller it is very easy to meet new people, backpackers are very open, so it’s really no more than just saying “hi”. A lot of people who make friends while travelling do this, then just tag along with them to wherever they go next. Some people I met are going to Thailand tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind tagging along except I’ve got work to do over the next couple of days. So while they are off on boat trips and exploring the place, I’ll be sitting in Koh Lipe’s equivalent of Starbucks (probably a bar on the beach – ok that doesn’t sound too bad). Being a digital nomad, especially working in the way I do, you still have some responsibility and can’t just change everything at the drop of a hat. This means although it’s easy to meet new people, it’s pretty hard to make long term friendships. Fortunately I have a SO as developing relationships would be even harder.

A lot of the questions from would be travellers, are how long they can travel for based upon how much they have saved up. Probably the best thing about being a digital nomad is that your budget is pretty much unlimited. I don’t need to worry about choosing between a 15 ringgit (£3) and 20 ringgit (£4) dorm, I can drop 60 ringgit (£12) on a private room without a blink of the eye. One of the interesting things about travelling here in SE Asia is actually how cheap it is. I’m eating out for every meal, going to a bar a few nights a week, going to tourist attractions and buying a plane/train/bus ticket every few weeks, yet I’m still spending less than I would on renting a flat back home. I’ve been told that Thailand is even cheaper than Malaysia, so I can’t wait to go there. Living as a digital nomad in SE Asia means that you will save a hell of a lot of money, alternatively (as I plan to do) it means you can just work a lot less.

Although I’ve been quite negative about this, I don’t really think I need to discuss why being a digital nomad is awesome. There are a lot of posts about that, but I wanted to go through some of the downsides. To recap rather than being stuck at home, where it’s 6c and raining, instead of doing the same boring thing everyday, I get to travel and explore the world. Oh, and what makes travelling while working really awesome? It’s 32c and sunny outside. I’m off to the beach.

(*A place here sells Kopi Luwak for £9/cup which is more expensive than Starbucks)

This was also posted on Reddit. You can find further insightful discussion there.