For the best part of three years now I’ve been living as a “digital nomad”. Nobody I know, including hundreds of digital nomad friends I’ve made along the way, really likes the term, but it’s less clunky than “location independent entrepreneur” and generally conveys the idea of working whilst travelling. Or as one of my nomad friends says, “owning a laptop and a backpack”. And it’s backpacks I want to talk about today. Or to be specific, shoulder bags.
If you move frequently, bags take on a greatly increased significance in your life. Traditional backpackers of the kind who have been trawling up and down the hippy trail since the 70s and 80s, carry all kinds of things like sleeping bags, cooking gear and emergency medical supplies. And good for them, I appreciate their survivalist ethic, I simply don’t share it. The “digital nomad” ethic is more…minimalist.
I can pack everything I own into two bags in under an hour, walk or ride on a scooter with those bags to an airport, get on an airplane without paying additional luggage fees, and then drop my bags at a new apartment in a new city on the same day. I do this roughly every few months. While it wouldn’t suit everyone, I love the nomadic freedom my minimalist luggage allows me.
Key to my lightweight travel rig is a Lowe Alpine TT Carry On 40. They don’t make these anymore, but the most important thing is that a 40 litre bag is about the limit that you can carry on to most budget airlines. If you can fit the bulk of your possessions into 40 litres of luggage space you can travel almost for nothing, as most budget airlines offer super cheap seats in the expectation they will make money from your luggage.
Most travellers and nomads combine a backpack with a small bag that they carry day to day. Something like the Osprey Daylite Backpack is not uncommon. The clear problem with this is that you’re travelling with two backpacks but you only have one back. Which is why you see travellers with their smaller pack slung across their chest, like some giant needy baby.
Look. If you’re walking through New Delhi in 48C temperatures, you’re going to be a sweaty mess. But at least my torso and essential organs aren’t swaddled on both sides by two huge bundles of heat retaining fabric. This is because I carry a shoulder bag, which I can more easily combine with my main backpack.
A shoulder bag is also, in 98% of situations, both more convenient and more secure than a small backpack. Walking through a Bangkok street market? You can shift a shoulder bag to your front for security. Need to get your wallet in a hurry? You don’t have to twist your shoulders every five minutes to access your bag. Shoulder bags for the win!
I’ve been travelling for over two years with a shoulder bag purchased from a camping shop in the UK for the princely sum of £10. I love that bag. It’s been to Thailand, Malaysia, Laos and across India with me, on planes, bikes, scooters and trains, and for a budget shoulder bag it’s done a great job, but it’s never been ideal. So for the whole of that two years I have been looking for a replacement. SPOILER ALERT : it took me until this week to find one.
Why? Well, other than being the world’s most demanding shoulder bag shopper, companies that make bags do not take the shoulder bag seriously. That is my conclusion after 24 solid months of bag hunting. Shops that are packed full of backpacks will have maybe one or two derisory shoulder bag offerings. And they are ALL WRONG.
Of course, there are no end of impractical, fashion oriented handbags. There also lots of poor quality “manbags” made from canvas and leather, a heavy material that no traveller wants to lug around. Then there messenger bags, with their stupid huge fold over top flaps. Or specialist laptop bags, with ridiculous amounts of padding. Low end bags usually have cheap plastic strap attachments that tangle or break easily. The few high end bags I found that came close to my needs were always either way to big or way to small. Seriously, I looked at hundreds of bags in the last two years, and none of them were better than my £10 camping bag.
(I actually came very close to setting up a Kickstarter for the ultimate digital nomad shoulder bag, but I’m a writer not a luggage magnate. However, if you’re one of the legions of bag companies failing miserably to make a decent shoulder bag, I can tell you exactly where you are going wrong.)
The right bag, when I found it, really surprised me. The Targus Revolution 13 took a little while to win me over when I found it on sale at one of Chiang Mai’s huge electronics stores. Targus is a brand I associate with laptop cases made in the era of 17″ laptops that weighed 6kg and needed industrial grade padding just for a walk down the street. My laptop is a shard of aluminium I could beat a mugger to death with without damaging, it doesn’t need that much padding! But after some rigorous testing, the Targus won me over.
(Yes, I am the guy who stands in the electronics store for an hour testing a bag before buying it. With a growing audience of the stores employees watching me.)
The Targus is similar to the Thule Subterra that was another close contender in my bag hunt. The Subterra is just too small however, and has a weedy strap. The Targus seems small at first, but has a deceptive Tardis like like quality that means it can hold a lot more stuff than seems possible. It has a great strap, with strong metal clips placed a little away from the bags outer edges, which makes the bag much less liable to spin around in annoying ways.
It’s fair to say I am a super-fussy shoulder bag buyer, so I do have criticisms of the Targus. It’s black, when I’d really prefer a slate grey colour for daily use. Some of the internal pockets are of questionable value – a tiny pocket for SD cards? Really Targus? Most of all, it looks like the kind of bag that is likely to have a lot of valuable electronic kit in, which is a security problem in itself, but one that’s unavoidably true anyway as a traveller in very poor places.
All in all, the Targus is a great bag that has really surprised me. The more general point of this post though is 1) a good shoulder bag is a great travel companion and 2) bag makers…do better on the shoulder bags!
Follow me on Twitter, I’ll tell you more about being a nomad. And…er…scifi! @damiengwalter
Digital nomads are a 21st century counterculture. The choices they make today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.
Words and pictures by Damien Walter
The global network enables us to react to the world as a whole. – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
The center was not holding. But that was a good thing.
It was a world caught in the fallout from credit bubbles, financial collapse and bank bailouts. Of Occupy protests on the streets of our cities and illegitimate wars that disappeared from the news cycle as fast as they had been invented to fill it. It was a world waiting for a recovery that would never arrive. Most of us were trying to pick up the pieces and put them back together as we remembered them being. But others were asking if the way things had been, had ever really been that great.
There was a revolution in the air. We’d packed the world full of laptops, smartphones and iPads and stitched them all together with the Internet. The year was 2013, and our world was bristling with new technologies that were only beginning to fulfill their endless potential. There were seven billion people on the planet and for the first time we could all talk to each other as one global network. There was no rule book, and we were starting to realize that there never had been.
Many smart, creative people were looking at the deal being offered and wondering what fool negotiated their side of the bargain. Students were quitting schools that wanted them to take on crippling lifelong debt. Graduates were saying no to unpaid internships that offered no promise of work. Skilled professionals were quitting jobs that wasted their creative potential. People were selling up, moving out and hitting the road, with only a backpack, a laptop, and a few creative ideas about how they were going to pay the bills. In the 30s they would have been called Bohemians. In the 50s Beats. In the 70s Hippies. Now it was 2013, and people were starting to call them ‘digital nomads’.
At some point in mid-2013, I realised I was one of them. More and more of my working life fitted into my laptop. One day, I realized I could pack up the laptop, go anywhere in the world I wanted and take my work with me. I spent the summer in France and then decided I wanted to go further. The nomad network was buzzing about Chiang Mai, a small city in the northern highlands of Thailand, and the district of Nimmanhaemin, that had somehow become a mecca for digital nomads. I was writing a book, and because I could do it anywhere, I decided to do it there. I didn’t even know what I wanted to find, so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.
Perched at the Birds Nest
The Bird’s Nest cafe occupies a teak frame house on the edge of Chiang Mai’s old town. A hammock swings between two wooden uprights, bright sunshine filters through the Lanna style carved fretwork and fearless street cats weave among table legs, chasing speedy brown mice and yellow lizards. If you’ve ever daydreamed of freedom from your swivel chair in the cubicle farm, the Bird’s Nest is the place.
I was on a tight deadline of my own making. It’s easy to confuse the life of a digital nomad with a never ending vacation but in reality combining travel and work means taking on all the stress and insecurity of freelance self-employment, while navigating a complex territory of time zone clashes, wifi failure, visa negotiations, and jet lag. I was drinking the strongest coffee I could find in bulk, anything to stay awake until I hit my word count, when Peter asked what I was writing.
Explaining you’re writing about digital nomads when you are a digital nomad raises confusion. Was I writing about myself? Was I writing about myself, writing about myself? It turned out, I was writing about Peter.
The Bird’s Nest is a haven for digital nomads, with a few dozen travellers passing through on most days, though the faces are never quite the same. They come looking for good internet, strong coffee and carrying Macbooks and iPads. Many are designers – of user interfaces, websites, graphics. There are photographers, video makers, and content creators. People who’ve realized they can take their work anywhere with an internet connection and that the unstable income of a creative freelancer stretches a lot further in Chiang Mai than New York. In the old city $1 will buy you dinner, $2 a large Chang beer, and for a $150 a month you can rent an apartment with a balcony, internet and laundry service.
Peter is one such digital nomad. He works for an executive coaching company in Hong Kong helping market and sell their courses online. He’s training to deliver coaching himself, most of which is done over the internet. Top employees and executives are a valuable business asset, and the market to help them improve their strategic and leadership skills is booming. The work demands complex and subtle kinds of communication that once had to be delivered face-to-face. Now, it can be done over Skype allowing the best coaches to connect with the right clients anywhere in the world. It’s just one example of the unexpected kinds of work migrating from the physical world to online.
But it wasn’t coaching that first brought Peter to Chiang Mai. At age 32, Peter, who is Anglo-French and switches fluently between English and French, had already travelled much of the world. The Thai’s call Westerner’s “Farrang”, a term leftover from the Frankish empire which had dominated Western Europe for much of the middle ages. For all that time, Westerners have been traveling to Thailand to learn about Buddhism. Peter arrived at a one of Chiang Mai’s numerous Buddhist monasteries simply looking for shelter, with no money and no home after years spend living in India. Arriving without any notice, or the traditional donation made by most visitors, Peter was fortunate the monks were merciful and allowed him a place on a month-long retreat. Twenty-eight days and nights of silent meditation opened his mind in ways he had never imagined.
Meditation and yoga are remarkably common activities among the digital nomads of Chiang Mai and such pursuits are a part of Chiang Mai’s unique appeal to tourists and backpackers. But nomads aren’t on holiday or looking to discover themselves. They are working and this often includes long hours on creative but high risk projects. Making the leap to a nomadic lifestyle comes with unexpected stresses, the kind that arise from leaving behind friends and family to immerse in a foreign culture. For many nomads, meditation is just as an essential tool for accomplishing their work as a laptop. The most common reason people give up on nomadism, especially younger men away from home for the first time, is simple loneliness. Perhaps one reason why digital nomads often travel as couples.
In March 2010, Simon and Erin sold their belongings and left the UK to travel the world. Like many successful nomads, they are slow travellers, staying in a location for weeks or months, enough time to allow them to focus on their work. Nonetheless, they have still managed to visit 30 countries in Asia, Central America, Oceania and other parts of the world. They tell the world about their journeys through the Neverending Voyage website, a popular digital nomad blog and the place I first read about Chiang Mai.
I chat with Simon over fruit shakes. Average daytime temperatures in Chiang Mai push 30 degrees celsius even in winter, and there isn’t a street corner that doesn’t have a stand selling big cups of fresh fruit and crushed ice. It’s a far cry from the cold, grey Novembers of Britain that Simon and Erin escaped three years prior. The couple had an joint epiphany after returning to their jobs and home after a more traditional vacation. The trip made them realize that many of the things they had – a house and mortgage and traditional careers – simply weren’t making them happy. Simon was already working in web design, and so the pair took the leap to digital nomadism.
Like many who succeed in going nomad, Simon and Erin took to the road with both a healthy buffer of savings and a residual income from renting out their house in the UK. But they’ve worked hard to develop sources of income that can make their nomadic lifestyle sustainable for the longterm. Last year they released the Trail Wallet app for iPhone, to help travellers and nomads keep track of their essential expenses, and have continued with web design work. In their third year as nomads, they succeeded in breaking even for the first time.
Simon, like all the nomads I’ve met in Chiang Mai, is a creator. He began as a musician, a drummer in rock bands and then channelled his creativity into digital design and coding. But he found creative fulfillment hard to come by in the corporate dominated, technocratic world where the work is often done for the profit of others. Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace. They are artists and entrepreneurs, people who thrive on freedom and creativity. They are people seeking places where they can have both, and today they are finding it in Chiang Mai.
It’s that search for the sustainable creative life that has sent generations of creatives travelling to parts of the world where they can live cheaply and find fullfilment of their passions. In the 20s, it was the Montmartre slum district of Paris documented by Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. In the 40s, Jack Kerouac captured the Beat generation’s nomadic soul and the heart of the United States in his epic novel On The Road. In the late 60s, Joan Didion painted a vivid portrait of San Francisco’s hippie counter culture in her essay Slouching Toward Bethlehem. It is the same creative spirit that is now departing Europe and America as young creatives are displaced by gentrification and high costs of living. Now they come to Asia and the city of Chiang Mai, carrying laptops and smartphones, slouching towards the streets of Nimmanhaemin.
Go East, Young Man
In 2010, political unrest in Bangkok persuaded many digital nomads based in Thailand’s capital to look for a new home. Chiang Mai was a long an established stop on the backpacker trail, and had a small expat community of retired Westerners. The city’s remote location in the depths of Thailand’s populous but poor northlands gave little reason to think it would suit the needs of digital nomads. But Chang Mai was changing quickly, and no part of it more so than the Nimmanhaemin district, where the city’s prosperous middle class and young creatives were making their home.
Those who arrived in Chiang Mai found a city in the first stages of an economic boom. Thailand’s left leaning Pheu Thai Party government had invested heavily in the infrastructure of the city between 2001-2006, which in turn attracted major investment from nearby China. By 2010, the city was positioning itself for status as a UNESCO creative city as part of its strategy for economic growth. Alongside the traditional wood-frame houses and tin roofed noodle bars of the city’s old town, a new wave of high end restaurants and luxury condo towers proliferated. The Nimmanhaemin district to the west of Chiang Mai was filling up with kooky coffee bars, art galleries, craft stores and fashion boutiques. The first nomads to arrive found a perfect location for slow travel, a city with an ultra low cost of living but an amazing culture of creativity. Word quickly spread through nomad blogs and forums and in the last three years increasing numbers of ambitious creatives have arrived in the city. Word-of-mouth is that there are 30,000 in Chiang Mai by late 2013, spread across the city among residences, guest houses, coffee shops, and a hand full of co-working spaces.
Successful digital nomads are people with the passion, skill, and creativity to achieve goals outside the prescribed structures and rules of a workplace.
Punspace opened in early 2013 to accommodate the burgeoning population of digital nomads in Chiang Mai. It sits in a quadrangle of hip glass fronted boutiques and tea shops in a quiet corner of Nimmanhaemin. In the lingering heat of late November, a Punspacer stands stripped to the waist, balanced on a tree stump, sculpted abdominals rippling as he goes through a Ta’i Chi routine with martial discipline. His practice is exemplary of the digital nomad lifestyle of working hard and relaxing harder. Yoga, Thai massage, meditation, and athletic exercise as opposition to the tradtional backpacker activities of drink and drugs. Inside, the brightly lit shared space is solid with young professionals, predominantly male, focusing on their work in the oasis of air conditioning and high speed internet Punspace provides its members.
“I’m out man,” says Adrian, a slighty-built, young American who, for the past two weeks, has been doing solid 12 hour days of coding at Punspace. He works with big noise cancelling headphones and sitting next to him, you can hear the tinny clash of techno music powering his fingers through line after line of computer code. His contract for a European tech start-up is up and he’s moving on from Thailand to Vietnam, an upcoming hotspot for digital nomads.
Voices say their goodbyes and a forest of hands go up for fist bumps: “A thousand blessings upon you.” “Chiang Mai’s gonna miss you.”
There’s a jockish camaraderie among the Punspacers. But it disguises the basic transience of the digital nomad life. No one knows Adrian beyond small talk over lunch. Three minutes after he leaves, the space is silent again, excepting the bur of laptop fans and Adrian remains nothing more than a membership entry on the Punspace database.
Coders are the bulk of the Punspace membership and some are contracted to major development houses who don’t care how or more importantly, where the work gets done. Others are navigating a richly rewarded freelance field so hungry for engineers that they can negotiate their own terms, including location independence. But also drifting through Punspace during my month long membership were film-makers, podcasters, web-designers and even a writer: Me. Among the punspacers there are many bloggers, content creators and SEO consultants whose main activity s writing. When I ask why they don’t call themselves writers I’m surprised by the answer – they don’t think they’re good enough and they fear being called out for not being “real” writers.
The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs.
Also gravitating to Punspace are an assortment of “internet marketers”, the broad catchall term for anyone with some web skills and something to sell. In many cases, the thing they are selling is advice on how to sell things. The bible of internet marketers is The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris. This handbook of “lifestyle design” advocates a system of digital outsourcing and automated business models to escape the “deferred life plan” of traditional 9-5 work. Like all persuasive sales pitches, there are nuggets of insight in the Ferris lifestyle manual. But there’s widespread skepticism amongst other digital nomads about Ferris’ ideas. The many internet marketers who have adopted Ferris as their gospel resemble nothing so much as a pyramid marketing scheme. The same same advice on how to make it as a digital nomad is repackaged and resold time and time again, for decreasingly small return, to those further down the pyramid.
Chiang Mai Mecca
Kasper has lived in Chiang Mai for over two years now. He sees hundreds of digital nomads coming through Chiang Mai, but many never succeed in their ambition of establishing a location independent business. It’s not an easy goal to achieve, and Ferris’ dream of a 4 hour work week is very far from the reality.
“A website with Google Ads or an ebook on the best coffee shops in Chiang Mai isn’t a business, “says Kasper. “It’s not sustainable. The blog or ebook might succeed for a little while, but sooner or later that bubble of success bursts and people run out of money. People come and stay for six months or a year, run out of funds and then go back home.”
Kasper left Europe because he simply couldn’t see opportunities there for young entrepreneurs like himself. With his partner in Sao Paolo, he owns a development company that specialises in online services, many of them tailored to the needs of digital nomads and mobile businesses operating internationally.
We’re talking in the Warm-Up Cafe, a buzzing nightspot in the heart of Nimmanhaemin. Nimman Road is a unique blend of traditional Thai style, European chic, and a retro 1950s Californian vibe. The college kids who party here are obsessed with motorbikes, 90s grunge music and hipster culture. In 2013, hipster students look the same the world over – skintight low-slung jeans, asymmetric haircuts, tattoos. Nimman at night could be London’s Soho, Saint-Germain in Paris or the Mission district in San Francisco. And in a decade it will likely be as exclusive as those neighbourhoods. An apartment in Nimmanhaemin today costs 30% more than it did just a year ago.
Kasper has agreed to introduce me to Edmund, an American entrepreneur who now makes his home in Chiang Mai. Edmund has taken advantage of the boom in Chaing Mai, helping businesses set up shop in Thailand, a process that can be bureaucratic and labyrinthine for new entrepreneurs in the country. He helps new businesses establish a legal structure, and can even manage ongoing work permits and permissions for employees.
“There’s like an escalating contest to attract entrepreneurs, attract direct investment, among emerging economies,” Edmund says. “If you have capital you can choose between places like Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong, offering years of tax free operation, free office space, even cash incentives.”
Chiang Mai is a potential mecca for tech start-ups and creative businesses. The next phase of digital nomadism will not be lone adventurers with only a backpack and a laptop, but small companies and potentially entire industries relocating to parts of the world best suited to their business needs. Skilled professionals can be tempted to work here for a third of the pay because they can achieve a much higher standard of living in Thailand’s northern capital. Cities like London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and other cities that have priced themselves out of the reach of most young people could see a shock exodus of the very creative professionals on which their fortunes are founded.
However, there are still a few barriers to Chiang Mai’s potential transition to a startup hub.
The lack of a physical base in traditional centres of capital like San Francisco, New York or London is still a deterrent to many investors. Such traditional perceptions take time to change, but changing they are, not least because a small start-up operating at half the cost of its competitors has a massive commercial advantage. The rise of platforms like Crowdfunder, an “equity crowdfunding” version of Kickstarter that allows backers to actually invest in and receive a return on projects, has the to potential to radically democratise where new business emerges.
The Answer Lies Within
The holy mountain of Doi Suthep imposes over the bustling streets of Nimmanhaemin, and the golden minarets of the Wat Phra That temple sparkle in the relentless Thai sun. Young monks in the traditional orange robes of the Thai buddhist tradition walk alongside young hipsters. Ancient temples stud the old town of Chiang Mai, rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of condo towers and shopping malls. But it’s not complete coincidence that brings a generation of digital nomads to an ancient capital of Buddhism.
For two and a half millennia, Buddhism has been challenging people to climb the holy mountain and take part in spiritual retreat. The thirty days and nights of silent meditation are a serious challenge. Few Westerners conditioned to our culture of constant activity and stimulation can deal with silence with only their thoughts for company. But it’s in the silence of meditation that life’s hard questions are answered. For today’s digital nomads, the question is whether their travels are only taking them back to the material culture of the West, or towards a different kind of life.
But digital nomadism is not a life for everyone. The freedom and creativity that make it exciting for artists and entrepreneurs also comes packaged with exactly the risk and and insecurity that most people seek to avoid. As humans we’re conditioned to seek security in our relationships and connections to each other, in friends, family, and tribe. As nomads, we give up that security in exchange for the freedom to find ourselves as individuals.
The counter culture of the 60s liberated a generation from the conservative social values of their day. Today’s counter culture is changing our relationship to where we live and how we work. We’re a generation freeing ourselves from the assumption that a 9-5 life and a crushing burden of debt are the only kind of life. Instead we’re seeking better, more creative ways to live. We’re finding ways to use technology instead of being used by it, ways to be liberated by our inventions, not trapped by them. In a decade, we will look back on digital nomads as pioneers of a lifestyle so widespread that it no longer requires a name.
Walking the streets of Nimmanhaemin I wonder why I came to Chiang Mai. Was it to write a book? Or was I seeking something else? Looking up at the holy mountain of Doi Suthep, I think I might climb it myself, and find my own answer.
Damien Walter is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction. His work has appeared in Wired UK, SFX, i09, Aeon, and Electric Velocipede. He teaches creative writing at University of Leicester and writing for digital media at University of Nottingham.
Over the last few months I’ve met with and spoken to dozens of digital nomads in Chiang Mai to research my feature article on the nomad lifestyle – Slouching Toward Nimmanhaemin. I’ve chatted with dozens more online and via email, and followed the progress of hundreds of nomads through their blogs and on social media. People interested in pursuing a digitally nomadic lifestyle can find great advice from successful nomads like Erin and Simon at Neverending Voyage, the Legal Nomad Jodi Ettenberg and Spartan Traveller Clayton Cornell. And I’ve captured some lessons from my own digital nomad experience – 4 steps to going nomad and the 3 core qualities of a digital nomad. But there is one truly essential resource that all digital nomads rely on, and every nomad I have spoken to has thought about it either directly or indirectly.
Digital nomads are a 21st century counter culture. The choices they take today will shape how we live and work tomorrow.
On the level of technology this is obvious. The internet – the network of networks – is the foundational technology without which digital nomads could not work. Websites, blogs, social media, podcasts, even just simple email. Without the now ubiquitous frameworks of the internet the idea of running a global business from a remote corner of the world would simply be unthinkable.
But it’s the intangible networks of human relationships that are most valuable to successful digital nomads. And precisely because they are hard to see, they are too often neglected by people who set out on the nomad trail. They are as important in any traditional creative career path, but when you add the additional dynamics of travel and the digital nomad community itself, it’s hard to overstate how central the network is.
If a web designer in Chiang Mai is working regularly it’s because they’re connected to a widespread network of other designers, and have likely been cultivating a network of clients for some years. If a coder in Ho Chi Minh City is equaling the income they might have made in Europe of America, it’s because they know the network of the programming world that can bring that work to them. For an entrepreneur the equivalent networks include business advisors, venture capital funds and other investors and so on.
For creators of all kinds, artists and even jobbing writers like myself, those networks can be tremendously complex. The more creative the task, the less established and obvious its networks are. Earlier this week I spoke to a well established painter whose work sells across the United States and Europe and who spends nine months of the year in Chiang Mai. When he isn’t absorbed in the creation of his work – the main reason he chooses to live in Thailand – he is busy maintaining relationships with the few dozen collectors who admire his work, the galleries and agents who represent it, and the fellow artists whose work it is conceptual related to. It’s this network of less than a hundred people that allows him to practice as a professional artist.
Because the technology of modern networks is so shiny and impressive, it’s all to easy to waste a great deal of time and money on it. You can spend £$thousands on computers and equipment, invest weeks in developing a website, and hours of every day in generating content and placing Google and Facebook ads. And these can all be worthy investments. But only if there is a network there to engage with your product – be it high art, a business start-up or an online app. Beyond the quality of your project – which is always paramount – it is the health of the network supporting and engaging with it that will determine its success.
(As an aside, it’s worth noting that the primary reason many digital nomad projects are directed at digital nomads is because this is the first and most obvious network many have to work with. And it’s not a terrible starting point. But, it is a limited network unless you can quickly reach beyond it.)
The most valuable question you can ask of any new idea, project or business is, what network does it engage with? What is your existing network? How can you grow your network? Who are the other people and businesses that you will naturally connect with if you execute your idea? Building a network is a whole skillset in and of itself, but it is not one any digital nomad can afford to ignore. And being aware of its importance is the first step to engaging with it.
Yesterday I spent the evening with the Green Papaya sangha at the Yoga Tree in Chiang Mai. Around forty people where there, many regulars, some visitors like me. The sangha – a Buddhist term for a spiritual practice group – are in the Plum Village meditation tradition. A little different from vipassana meditation, which trains students to analyse their thoughts, Plum Village is more slanted towards engagement with the present moment.
We did three sessions of meditation – one guided, one walking, and one silent sitting. For the walking meditation the meditation leader recited a chant to help pace our footsteps.
I have arrived.
I am home.
In the here.
In the now.
Being in the here, in the now, is at the heart of – not just meditation – but all spiritual practice. But it is soooooooooooo hard! And another load of oooooo’s and it’s sill harder than that. The mind – my mind, your mind, our mind – isn’t very good at being where it is. It likes to be in either the past – remembering what has already happened – or in the future – imagining what is to come.
If you have some spare minutes, sit quietly for a while and watch what your mind dos. Label the thoughts that arise. Are they of of the past? Of the future? Are you perceiving the present moment? You’ll find that very little of your time is spent in the here and now.
What you remember of the past is not real, just a memory. What you imagine of the future is not real, just a projection of your hopes or fears. The only thing that is real is where you are, in the here, in the now. There is no past or future, just the ever changing now.
The first time I encountered this idea was through the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. It’s the pivotal idea in his now world famous book The Power of Now. But I heard it in a recording of a four day retreat conducted by Tolle, published as the Journey In To Yourself. I was 30 and, by any measure, deeply unhappy. I’d been pushing down a lot of horrible emotions from a damaging childhood, grief from many losses, and had trapped myself in a life I didn’t fit in to from a desperate need to fit somewhere, anywhere. I had no kind of spiritual practice at all. I was a standard issue atheist, and any encounter I had with religion was edged with inherited and unexamined scorn. Consequentially, I really had no tools to process the pain I was feeling. Today, my argument with the radical atheist rhetoric of people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett – both of whom I had read heavily at university – is that it leaves the bulk of its believers utterly amputated from their own emotional reality. It certainly had me. I was miserable, and in trying to escape from the causes of the misery I’d driven myself, repeatedly, to the borders of emotional collapse where I had, at long last, collapsed.
So downloading a talk by an odd sounding German guy from Audible was probably, on the level of latent spiritual instinct, a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of a very dark place. For some reason I lay down on the floor of my apartment to listen to Eckahart Tolle’s characteristically odd voice as it pipped out of my laptop. And the next thing I knew, I was caught up in uncontrollable laughter…not that I was making any effort to control it. Not the laughter of scorn and anger that so much modern humour is rooted in. Not truly the laughter of humour at all. But the laughter of release. Massive, explosive, unexpected release, like a lock had been unpicked to the chain holding my emotions in place. And the key was Eckhart Tolle’s words about past and future, and our mind’s obessive need to escape to one or another, away from the present.
Walking in meditation with the Green Papaya sangha I remembered that first moment of radical contact with the present. The first time I had arrived, home, in the here and the now. And in the studio of the Yoga Tree, I found myself there again. “Home” is a very good word for the here and now of the present moment. When you come back to the present, even for a second, and regardless of where you are, however foreign it may be, it feels like arriving back at home. It’s why I think meditation, yoga and other spiritual practices are so common among travellers. Once you have found the present moment, you carry your home with you wherever you choose to travel.
It is easy to wander off the path and loose your home though. For some months after getting there, with the help of Eckhart Tolle, I felt elated, ecstatic, barely part of the world any more. Liberated, in a very real sense, from the sadness I had been carrying around. As I later discovered from the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield, this is a common period in a meditation practice. Inevitably, it is followed by a return to normality. I spent the next four years trying to understand that experience, reading widely about Buddhism and other spiritual paths, and learning to meditate. That period culminated on a trip to California in late 2011, where I spent most of three weeks meditating and running on the beach in San Diego. In the two years since then that spiritual practice and meditation have settled in to the background of my life. I’ve returned to more worldly pursuits, spending more time on my writing career again.
Padding in circles at the Yoga Tree, I realised I had lost the moment for a long time. In day to day life it’s so easy to stay wrapped up in your memories and imaginings of past and future. It’s easy to sit down and meditate and spend an hour thinking through your hopes,fears and ambitions and never hit the here and now once. This is both natural and sad. It’s like being right outside the front door of your home, but never going in, staying on the cold steps outside instead. Last night, for a while at least, I came home again.
I have arrived. I am home. In the here. In the now.
Before I made the jump to living and working as a digital nomad, I had been thinking about the idea for 18 months. As is so often the case in my life, I didn’t realise I was actually planning and preparing to go nomad, but on an unconscious level that’s exactly what I was doing. In retrospect I can see the steps I was taking that meant, when in early 2013 I made the decision to hit the road, I was ready to go just a few months later. I think these four basic steps are likely common among most digital nomads, in varying amounts.
Save Money – Even if everything works as planned in your transition to digital nomadism, getting to that point will mean front loading many of life’s expenses in to the period before you set off. Flights, insurance, immunisation, equipment and numerous other expenses will mount up before you start travelling. And almost certainly, your plans won’t work out. New ones will appear, and better ones. But you’ll always be glad of a financial buffer. Most nomads have at least 3 months living expenses saved, many a year or more.
Location Location Location – The most common early failure for many digital nomads is travelling to too many locations in too short a time. Travel is both exciting and time consuming. These are not good qualities for productivity. Slow travel is the key to combining work and interesting locations. Three months is a good period of time to stay in one location, enough time to complete some solid work and replenish your finances before heading off again. But which location? Low cost combined with high standard of living are the key metrics for digital nomad locations. Chiang Mai scores very highly in both, and now has the bonus of a bustling nomad community. But there are many other options.
Have A Business Plan – What are you travelling to these locations to do? As a writer I can take my work anywhere. My primary project is to finish work on my novel. Secondarily I’m continuing a range of freelance writing and journalism that in the short term is covering my living and travel expenses. I also have two other non-writing projects I want to complete in the next year. Many nomads are bootstrapping apps or business ideas which a year or two of living in a much cheaper location is facilitating. Whether your ambitions are business centred or more creative, a clear plan can help to keep you focussed while many things are changing around you.
Build Your Networks – You’re leaving behind many things to go nomad, not least friends and family. But the age of social media means you can stay in contact. My Facebook account is dedicated to close friends and family, and Twitter is also becoming very useful for close relationships. But these are also great tools for building new networks. For two months before heading to Chiang Mai I had open searches in Twitter for the city and related terms. By the time I got here I already knew dozens of people on the ground and have had fun getting to meet them in person. And of course, whatever business you’re building while travelling, set aside time and effort to get to know the network of people already involved in that area.
There’s a lot more to say about the different kinds of digital nomads, and the different kinds of businesses they are building, but I’ll keep those for future posts.
Nearly half a year ago I stuffed my life in to a backpack and my work in to a laptop and set out on the road as a digital nomad. It’s been a wonderful and intense five months, and time enough to learn a little about how working and travelling combine, and why so many people today are choosing this lifestyle.
At the moment I’m in Chiang Mai, Thailand which has become the unofficial capital of digital nomadism. It is an amazing city and one I’ve already written about and will no doubt write about more. In just a week here I’ve already met dozens of other digital workers based in the city. They’re a diverse group from all corners of the world, most in their 20s or 30s, many running successful online business, others building their’s from scratch as they travel. But all of them seem to share three core qualities that are the foundation of this lifetsyle.
Creative – It might go without saying that people who choose to travel and work around the world are creative. But it’s creativity in the broadest sense. At the co-working space in Chiang Mai where I turn up daily, the membership board lists coders, entrepreneurs, bloggers, podcasters, marketers, writers, and an array of other roles that can follow their owner wherever they travel, with the right technology and a good internet connection. All of the digital nomads I’ve met are building, making and creating, be it a new book or a new business. Having a clear creative focus for your travels is an essential part of digital nomadism.
Interdependent – Going nomad requires a high level of independence. Getting on the road means leaving behind family, friends and all things familiar. But being on the road needs more than independence, it demands interdependence. Co-working spaces are at the heart of digital traveller communities because they put you in instant contact with an extended group of your peers. These are people you can talk to, learn from, and share your experiences with. Choosing a city like Chiang Mai, with a high concentration of expats, digital workers and creatives is an extended version of the same thing. It’s essential to think through how you connect with other people as you travel, and not allow travelling to become long term isolation.
Minimalist – Living out of one backpack enforces minimalism. But there’s also a common pragmatic minimalism among the other digital nomads I meet. People have the items and technology they absolutely need or want, because part of the appeal of nomadism is not being weighed down by possessions. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk, “The things we own end up owning us.” Some digital travellers are making small or even large fortunes from their businesses, but still have the same laptop they did when starting-up. Travelling and finding new experiences aren’t helped by having a lot of stuff. Buying and owning as much as you can is still hardwired in to most of our culture, but it might be one of the things you go travelling to unwire yourself from.
I’ve been asked a number of times now how I went about preparing to work and travel together. I think these three core qualities suggest three kinds of questions as a first step. Do you have a creative ambition that you want to fulfil? Are you happy saying goodbye (temporarily!) to old friends and open to making new ones? Can you let go of things and replace them with experiences? If you’re saying ‘yes’ to these questions, you might even be on your way already.
Exercise in Chiang Mai means waking with the sun. By 7am it’s still just cool enough to run outdoors. By 8 the full heat of day is already building. I tie on the Merrell barefoot running shoes that are the best footwear I’ve found for travel in hot climates. Super-light, flexible enough to cram in to my single backpack, and as well suited to strolling the walking market and many temples of the city as to running on its highways.
The light is still hazing through moist morning air as I cross the marble foyer of the apartment block. Chiang Mai, like Bangkok, lacks the psychic membranes that demarcate purpose and wealth in Western cities. The broad steps and bubbling fountain of a boutique hotel terminate abruptly in a cracked concrete alleyway walled with rusting corrugated steel. The glistening glass of a shopping mall is skirted by the dirt smeared plastic awnings of street vendors. Lethal black Mercedes with mirror shade windows stop dead in the road for a pack of emaciated wild dogs crossing the six lanes of the Huay Kaew road at their own stubborn trot.
I have doubts about the health benefits of running the stretch of road that connects Chiang Mai’s chic Nimman district with the historic Old Town. It’s the perfect location for a pedestrian writer to explore the city, but there isn’t an alternative exercise option that doesn’t involve the deep inhalation of traffic pollution. I head towards Doi Suthep, the mystic mountain to the west that is Chiang Mai’s best navigation aid. Near the peak of the mountain, where it meets the misted cloud line, are the ever glittering golden towers of a buddhist temple that calls to me every time I glance up from this city.
Huay Kaew is anchored at the city end by the Kad San Kuaew shopping centre, an epic fortress of brickwork some dozen stories high that almost, but not quite, challenges the mystic mountain for dominance of the surrounding skyline. Highrise residences proliferate up the length of Huaeykaw, evidence of the cities fast growing and ever more affluent population. At the intersection of Huaeykaw and Nimmanhaemin a new challenger for king of the shopping malls is clawing its way out of the dirt. A behemoth of white steel and diamond sapphire glass that will, when complete, house the western brands still to infiltrate far in to Chiang Mai. High end car dealerships sell the 4×4 trucks that most Thai’s favour, a reasonable choice given that beyond Chiang Mai’s pocket of metropolitan living the northern highlands are thousands of miles of hardcore jungle.
I am setting a good pace on the first kilometre and heading in to the second. But the street is like running an obstacle course. The basic problem is the pavement, which when it exists at all is a crazy paving of shattered stones, random slopes and steep drops in to the gutter. Then the next problem is the lack of respect for the pavement, which is from the perspective of the SUV driver just a place to park, or an additional lane for the 82 trillion scooters that are the main local transportation. When the pavement runs out it is often at an intersection. Crossing the intersection of two six lane arterial roads is like being a character in an early video game, where poorly timing your move from one platform to another results in death. Lights and road markings, on the rare occasions they exist, are a cause of amusement to Thai drivers. Why would I stop for you? Make me stop! There isn’t a point where the traffic stops. You step in to it and hope it stops. After half a dozen times, you realise you may as well just run across. It’s no more or less insanely dangerous. The run continues.
It’s possible the tuk-tuk drivers like the absent pavements and insane traffic, but they hardly seem a powerful enough lobby to enforce bad pavements as official government policy. Which points the truer cause. Thailand is growing at the full speed of hyper-capitalism. Where that capital pools it forms chic boutique hotels and glittering cathedrals of commerce. But there are no pavements connecting them. Like a body in the early stages of formation, the emerging economy of Thailand is all internal organs, no muscle or bone.
Britain, my home state, is a nation of pavements. The idea of a road without a pavement, indeed, a road without two full pavements, one on either side, stretching its entire length, would be quite likely to spark a national debate and outraged opinion pieces in the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Guardian. It is, quite literally, a more pedestrian country. The pockets of capital are, for now at least, better interconnected by the pavements of society. But of course, the greater freedom of the pedestrian comes at the great frustration of the drivers who want to power their vehicles along roads between shopping malls.
I have no more patience for the pavement. I step in to the road and push a few feet out from the gutter. There’s nothing for upping the pace of a run like an impatient tuk-tuk dogging your heals. In fact, the Thai traffic is rather gracious to runners. They slow and give you space as they pass with a smile and a wave. It’s hard to imagine British drivers happily ceding their road to runners. Thailand won’t give you pavements. But its people will will try hard not to run you down when you step in to their path. I think in the crowded, high speed future where we’re all in the road together, the Thai approach might be the winner.
Wow. So it has been a week since I left the UK for Thailand I can barely describe everything that has happened. Long haul flights, airport layovers, jet lag sleep deprivation and constant change have given the last seven days a hallucinatory quality. Arriving in Bangkok after dark felt like stepping in to Bladerunner. Every single second of my three days in that city was saturated with intense sights and sounds. Bangkok looks more like the future than any city I’ve journeyed to. A monstrous entity bristling with glass and steel towers. And down at their roots on the blistering hot streets is an indescribable density of human life. Every inch of space is crushed with street hawkers, food stalls, tuk tuks, mopeds like flocking birds, cripples and filthy children preying over begging bowls, trendy hipster kids, immaculate office workers, McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC and the other brands of hyper-capitalism, christian missionaries, orange robbed monks meditating on smartphones. And traffic. Traffic like you can not believe. Like the city sounded an evacuation alarm and never switched it off. All broiling under the stark sun. Anything that isn’t a condo tower, skyscraper or shopping mall is crumbling in architectural decay. Gaping cavities reveal gangs of grease covered men smashing together engines, ranks of women going blind over sewing machines. Stuttering towers of reclaimed circuit boards and computer monitors. The gaunt murderous eyes of two hundred feral cats. And then another Starbucks. As the sun sets the side alleys of Sala Daeng are populated with squads of costumed bar girls and their pimps, touting laser printed catalogues of possible sexual services, and affluent college students in pristine uniforms navigating from one high end coffee bar to another. Hippie back packers and tattooed ex-pats all standing out in the crowd. And me, the flaneur pedestrian writer in a hat, soaking every sight in.
Three days and I escaped to Chiang Mai, my destination for this journey.
North, and high in the mountains, Chiang Mai is a few degrees less overheated than Bangkok. It was the capital of its own kingdom as late as 1774, and nominally independent until 1939. It’s famed for its unique character, great culture, and increasingly world famous as a traveller destination. The old town sits within a wide square moat, and its Eastern quarter is dedicated to western backpackers and a growing cohort of Chinese tourists. Kikie’s guest house furnished me with a private room for two nights while I hunted an apartment for my stay in the city. When I imagined Chiang Mai, the old town was what I imagined. Narrow winding lanes, local street cafes and a bunch of backpacker friendly nightspots. Chang beer is famous among travellers who come to the city, as is a local brew whisky which can be bought by the flask almost anywhere.
But my expectations of Chiang Mai were defeated on my second day when I ventured in to Nimmanhaemin, or Nimman. The western distract of Chiang Mai outside the old walls and along the Nimmanhaemin road has become home in the last five years to what can best be described as a community of globetrotting yuppies, reinforced by Thailands own ever more prosperous creative class. Nimman is a mecca of coffee bars, international cuisine, boutique residences, galleries, craft shops and more. I’m typing this in Punspace, a co-working space where twenty other western and thai young professionals are writing, coding, designing and the other kinds of work a Macbook and internet connection allows you to do anywhere. My thumbprint has just been taken so I can access the space, its good seating and free coffee, 24/7.
I’m partly here to think and write about the phenomena of the “digital nomad”, professionals who can work from anywhere, so choose locations that, like Nimman, offer a high standard of living at a very low cost. But for the moment I’m just enjoying the experience of the place. I’m full of ice tea because the restaurant I had lunch in kept giving free refills and it was the best ice tea I have ever tasted. But I realised something today, as I walked Nimman after settling in to my new apartment. I don’t know quite what I expected of Chiang Mai. But I didn’t expect to be living within two minutes walk of – not just one – but two Apple computer stores. And on that thought I’m going to track down the Mexican restaurant I passed earlier.
Since going nomad back in July I’ve been living out of a backpack and my trusty Macbook Air laptop. My first destination was France visiting my extended family. Now, after a month or so back in the UK sorting various work tasks, I am back on the road. But where am I?
At this exact moment, the Too Fast To Sleep cafe in Bangkok. Which is full of funky Thai kids studying. In less than 24 hours Bangkok has already proved to be an amazing city. But it is really only a pit-stop as I recover from my 22 hour flight from the UK and conquer the inevitable jet-lag.
My ultimate destination in Thailand is the northern city of Chiang Mai. Why Chiang Mai? When I began thinking about travelling almost two years ago I found lots of travellers raving about this small city. In recent years it has become a hub for digital nomads, people like me who can fit their work in a laptop and pack their bag for any destination in the world. I decided then that if I ever wanted to dig in and work on a long piece of writing, Chiang Mai might make a great base.
Which is exactly what I am doing. I have a work-in-progress that needs some concerted attention, and a variety of freelance work as well. I’m also curious about the community of digital nomads gathered in Chiang Mai and I want to learn more about other people living this lifestyle. And as an accidental buddhist I am also going to use my time in Chiang Mai to learn more about meditation. There are monks in orange robes everywhere here, which I’m guessing means I am in the right place?
Oh. And I’m going to eat my weight in Asian street food. So. Good.
Sometime in the last year or so I realised that my entire professional life fitted inside my laptop.
I am a writer. The only tools I really need for my trade are a laptop and my big brain. (Arguably fingers etc as well but let’s not go there) In the digital age, that means I can take my career with me wherever I go. And I can go anywhere in the world.
So today I sent what remains of my worldly possessions to a good home in my brother’s loft. I’ve been reducing what I own for the last few months. And now I’m down to just a shoulder bag and…an adventure bag.
That is a TT Carry-On 40 by Lowe Alpine, the biggest bag you can carry on to most airlines. Intense research revealed that this is the bag to end all bags for people travelling light. And almost my entire life now fits inside it. I’ll write about what exactly goes in my bag in a future post.
As I’ve talked to people about my plans to combine travel and writing, I’ve realised this is something lots of people would like to do. So I’m going to blog about the experience – both the ups and the downs – and share what I learn with you. A few of the themes I think this might touch on:
Digital Nomad – there’s a growing cadre of people – like the lovely folks at Never Ending Voyage – who have realised that they can take their working life with them as they travel. So how can writers go about taking up the digital nomad lifestyle? What are the best destinations for writers living on a shoestring? How do you balance creativity with travelling? I’m going to be learning some answers the hard way!
Mindfulness & Creativity – I wouldn’t have been able to de-clutter and minimise my physical possessions without learning some useful meditation skills in recent years. Going travelling, like any kind of major change in life, can be quite scary! I’m going to be trying to think about ways to overcome the fear that comes when we do new and creative things, and ways to live a more creative life.
Writing – I’m lucky to have made a living from many different kinds of writing over the years, and I want to try and share some of my experience with anyone else who wants to write and travel. Digital technology is having a big impact on both the craft and business of the working writer; blogging has transformed journalism, ebooks are transforming publishing. And it’s all opening up lots of opportunities for the nomad writer ;)
And where am I travelling to? That will be the focus of my next update!
Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.