I decided to become a digital nomad in February this year. Looking back, the decision was made rather quickly. I met a friend of a friend who was a digital nomad at a party in January. I then did some research on how it all actually works, and a month later I told my boss that I was going to leave to become a nomad. After two more months of research on where to go, wrapping up my work, and other preparations, I flew to Chiang Mai in May with all my belongings.
Having been a nomad for the past six months, I’m starting to get the hang of it all. I can’t say I figured everything out, but here are my tips on how you can be a successful digital nomad.
Figuring out the “why”
Recognizing why you want to be a digital nomad is, in my opinion, the single most important step to be a successful nomad. In Chiang Mai, I’ve met a vast range of people with different motivations: some wanted to immerse in the local culture, some wanted to escape from their lives, some wanted to live like a king in a cheap locale, and some wanted to travel every week. There’s no “right” reason to be a nomad.
So why is it important to know the “why”?
It will help you optimize your nomadic life to accomplish your goal. For me, the single most important reason was to work on the two startup projects I’m involved in: Huddle, a social gaming app, and The Travel Brief, a crowdsourced travel guide.
Because I quit my job, I needed to cut down on my expenses while I worked on these projects. There’s nothing preventing me from working on them while in Toronto, but Toronto has seen a massive hike in the cost of living in recent years. By comparison, Chiang Mai is very cheap. My city centre one-bedroom apartment in the Nimmanhaemin area cost the equivalent of CAD$600 a month, about 25% of what something similar would’ve cost me in Toronto. In addition, because my projects are both still in their early stages, the work required was more about product development and initial market testing rather than fundraising, meaning I didn’t need the networking opportunities in Toronto.
If you’re looking more for cultural immersion rather than productivity, you probably would set up your life different than I did. Instead of living in the Nimmanhaemin area, you might choose to live in a more local neighbourhood like Suthep, Santhitham, Jed Yod or southeast of the Old City. Rather than going to cafes to work every day, you might choose to take Thai lessons, cooking classes, or volunteer opportunities abound all over the city and surrounding areas. Instead of setting milestones in terms of how many features shipped or how much website traffic generated, you might set them in terms of how fluent you are in Thai and how many local friends you’ve made.
In addition to what you choose to do, your nomadic life is also defined by what you choose to not do. For example, I chose to not learn Thai and not travel every weekend, because I needed to concentrate my time and energy in building up my startups.
The point is, having a crystal clear idea of why you want to be a digital nomad is critical to set yourself up for success and not get distracted along the way.
Budgeting for your nomadic life
All digital nomads need a source of funding to make it happen. Generally speaking, working in a local job in your host country is not possible due to legal, cultural, and economic reasons. The vast majority of digital nomads I’ve met in Chiang Mai are there visa-free or on tourist visas, meaning they are not allowed to engage in any form of employment. There – and I suspect in most other places – the two most common source of funding for digital nomads are freelance projects and personal savings.
Upwork is by far the most popular platform for new nomads to discover remote work opportunities. Other popular freelance platforms include Fiverr, Freelancer.com, 99Designs, and Dribbble. Seasoned nomads typically have their own network that they tap into for repeat work and for word of mouth referrals. Specific industries may also have their own network, like Travel Massive for finding remote projects in the tourism industry.
If you don’t have an existing network of clients, it will take a while before you can make significant income. In the meantime, your main source of funding will likely be your savings. This was my situation. I went into the digital nomad life not planning to do any freelance work as I needed to concentrate on my startups; and as such, my savings were my only source of funding. I personally recommend having enough savings for at least one year of a nomadic lifestyle. This way you can take your time to build up all the necessary foundations.
How long your savings can last you will vary a lot by where you go. In Chiang Mai, for example, I would estimate that you need to budget $500-$800 USD per month minimum, and this is for living in a studio apartment and being tight with what you spend your money on. You need to budget $800-$1000 USD per month to live a relatively comfortable and stress-free life, and $1500-$2500 USD a month if you plan to travel a lot in Southeast Asia.
Your biggest monthly expense will be your apartment, which in Chiang Mai can range from $180 USD per month for a studio apartment, to $1200 USD per month for a 2-bedroom luxury condo. The Internet is typically included in the rent, and water is extremely cheap (less than $10 per month). Electricity, however, can be expensive, especially since the climate is hot and humid, requiring almost constant air conditioning. My electricity bills typically come out to $100-$200 per month.
Food prices range from very low to very high, but they tend to be on the low side. An average meal at a local, non-touristy restaurant will cost less than $4. If you are ok with eating street food like I am, you can get a meal for $2. Other living expenses are also fairly low. To give you some examples: my gym membership costs $20 per month; 30GB cellphone data plan costs $13 per month; a regular movie ticket costs $6; a VIP movie ticket with reclining seats and food costs only $12; a taxi anywhere in the city costs less than $3; a standard 1-hour massage costs $8.
There are things that cost the same in Chiang Mai as they do elsewhere. For example, coffee costs the same as Toronto, with a standard latte costing $4-$6 per cup. Wine costs $20 and more per bottle from supermarkets. A meal from an Italian restaurant (like Why Not will cost $40 and more). Meats, organic produce, and imported foods at the Rimping supermarket will cost the same as any supermarkets in the developed countries.
Picking where to go
Picking a city to base in is both fun and daunting. In theory, it’s possible to live a nomadic life anywhere in the world. But practically, there are only a limited set of places that have the infrastructure to support a sustainable nomadic life.
When I was picking where to go, I was influenced by a number of factors. First and foremost, the cost of living needed to be much lower than in Toronto. This effectively limited my choices to developing countries as most developed countries have a similar cost of living. Second, the city needs to have fast and reliable internet, because close to 100% of my work requires online tools like DitigalOcean, AWS, and Github. In addition to basic productivity tools like Slack, Trello, and Google. Then, I needed the city to have decent workspace options, whether it’s cafes or co-working spaces. Lastly, the city needed to have basic amenities like gym, western-style supermarkets, and decent hospitals.
While I was researching my options. Nomadlist was a very big help. It’s a crowdsourced platform where digital nomads all over the world share basic information like internet speed, average monthly living expense, climate, and safety. You can sort their list by any of their metrics, or the overall “Nomad Score”. They also have a paid option where you can participate in their forums to ask specific questions to current nomads.
Even with the help of websites like Nomadlist, deciding on a city can be overwhelming. That’s where knowing the “why” can help you narrow down your choices quickly. For me, Chiang Mai checked off all the boxes because it was very conducive to work. If your “why” is to travel to as many different places as possible and always on the move, a better-connected city like Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur is more suitable as Chiang Mai is actually quite isolated. Or if you need to be by the ocean, Bali, Phuket, or Ko Samui will be the obvious choices. If you want the absolute lowest cost of living, Vietnam, India, and Africa will offer much cheaper options than even Chiang Mai.
Setting up your nomadic life
The first 2-3 weeks after landing in the host city is the most stressful time for digital nomads. There’s nothing waiting for you there, and you’ve got to set up your life from scratch.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai in May, I checked into a hostel for the first week. I was going to lease an apartment online, but various blogs have convinced me that it was much cheaper and better to just walk around the city to find apartments in person. So that’s what I did the first few days. Every morning I’d go around the city to its various neighborhoods, get a sense of which ones I liked and which ones I didn’t, in the process walking up to at least 30 different condo buildings to see if I liked the units. This wasn’t fun; Chiang Mai is hot and humid, and I’d be drenched after a just few hours in the sun. Luckily, I found my current apartment – P.T. Residences – on the 4th day. And because I went in the low season, I got a discount off the list price and there I was able to move in right away. Here’s a guide to finding apartments in Chiang Mai from my experience.
Once my apartment was up and running, I had to set up the rest of my life there. This is where the importance of a good apartment location became apparent. I found a gym just 7-minute walk from my apartment (Gold Hillside Gym) that had a very cheap $20-a-month membership and included all the weights and racks I needed for my workouts. Also in the Nimmanhaemin area where my apartment is, there are lots of cafes that I could work at. There are guides online – like this one I came across before – that have lists of best work cafes in Chiang Mai; you’ll notice that a lot of the recommended cafes are in Nimmanhaemin. In addition, there is a wide range of local and international food options around me, from Thai staples like Pad Thai and Khao Soy, to pretty authentic Japanese curry at Hachi, to a very good (but pricey) western brunch spot (Rustic and Blue).
The last thing I needed to set up before my nomadic life truly began was a cellphone plan. This I did at the Maya mall, which is a big mall that sits at the centre of life in the Nimmanhaemin area. It’s got pretty much everything you need in it – a supermarket, cheap food court, a free co-working space called C.A.M.P., a post office, banks, ATMs, telecom stores, bars on the rooftop patio, a gym, and even a movie theatre.
All the major telecom companies in Thailand – AIS, True, and DTAC – have a store on the second floor of Maya. After doing some comparisons, I went with DTAC, because they had the best option for longer-term nomads. While all of them offer the standard prepaid tourist SIM cards, DTAC offered me the option of getting a postpaid plan that was significantly cheaper than the alternatives. This was after I told them that I was planning to be here in Chiang Mai for at least 6 months. For 430 baht per month ($13), I get 30GB of 4G data, plus 100 minutes of calling (which I never use). Any unused data and minutes are carried over to the next month, so right now I have 60GB of mobile data I can use for December. In all the cafes I work at, I basically don’t connect to their wifi after I realized that tethering through my phone usually was a lot faster than the wifis. Grab app was also essential to set up on my phone. It’s basically the Uber of Southeast Asia, and it made getting around the city much easier.
Getting into a routine
Even nomads need routines. Having one is critical in helping you achieve whatever your goal is as a digital nomad, and it helps make your life more sustainable.
After a month in Chiang Mai, I pretty much found my rhythm. On weekdays, I’d wake up at 6:30 am to hit the gym between 7am-9am. For the rest of the morning, I’d work from my apartment. I like working from home in the morning because it lets me slowly ramp up to a productive pace.
Usually, I grab lunch from one of the dozens of Thai restaurants around me, switching between street foods and normal restaurants. I try to keep my lunch budget at 100 baht, or around $3. After lunch I’ll go to one of the cafes around me to work out of – my favorite two cafes for productivity are Tom n Tom’s and Fresh – where I stay until around 7-8pm before grabbing dinner at one of the non-Thai restaurants here.
Thursdays and Fridays I usually grab dinner from the night market in front of Kad Suan Kaew, another mall 15-minute walk from where I am. The market is relatively small by Chiang Mai standards. But, it’s got a decent selection of street food that adds some variety.
Weekends are less structured, I try to hang out with other nomads when there’s nothing too pressing I need to get done. We usually just hang out at a bar or restaurant, there’s always someone organizing a barbeque or meet up somewhere in the city. One of the advantages of Chiang Mai for digital nomads is that there are just so many of us here. Because of this, there’s no shortage of social activities. Aside from networking socials, I’ve been to various casual dinner get-togethers, house parties, and hiking up the Doi Suthep mountain.
The best way to initially plug into the nomadic network in Chiang Mai, and probably most other cities, is Facebook groups. I belong to a bunch of nomad-focused Facebook groups in Chiang Mai, but a quick search on Facebook will show you all the most popular ones, including this, this, this and this.
Traveling around is a big perk of being a digital nomad. If I was more focused on travelling, I probably would’ve picked to locate somewhere that’s better connected than Chiang Mai.
While I probably don’t travel nearly as often as other nomads – I know some nomads who literally go somewhere else every two weeks or so – I do try to get out of Chiang Mai from time to time.
Luckily for me, there’s no shortage of places to go to in Thailand and Southeast Asia. So far, I’ve visited Bangkok, Phuket, Ko Pha Ngan in Thailand. Phuket is very touristy and I am kind of disappointed with the place, especially since I’ve heard so much about it and had my expectations set up high. Ko Pha Ngan was the opposite. I found the island itself to be very laid back, relaxing, and not packed with tourists while I was there for the Full Moon Party. Bangkok is a completely different beast, and honestly so different from the rest of the country. It’s posh, loud, chaotic, and at times disorienting. I did mostly touristy things there, including eating a fried scorpion on Khao San Road. I don’t think I can live there (it’s not even that much cheaper than Toronto!) but it was certainly a nice getaway for a weekend.
Outside of Thailand, I visited Penang (Malaysia), Hanoi (Vietnam), and Singapore so far. Penang is a very interesting, under-the-radar place. It’s just off the coast of the Malaysian mainland and is a cultural melting pot. Similar to Singapore, Penang used to be a British colony that focused on trade, and as such, it became a magnet for workers near and far. This led to its unique local culture. Hanoi was another surprisingly good destination. While getting there wasn’t easy due to the visa requirements, it had a lot of amazing historical sights to take in as the capital of Vietnam. Additionally, I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Hanoi has some of the best food in Southeast Asia. This is due to its unique fusion of local Vietnamese and French colonial heritage.
Being a nomad is a fantastic lifestyle. I’m glad that I discovered it and happy that I pursued it. The most difficult part of it all is actually pulling the trigger and make the move. Once you do, you’ll find that it’s a fantastic opportunity that a generation ago wasn’t even an option for most.
That being said, I do believe that it’s very important to know why you want to do it. Then plan for it so that it doesn’t end up being an extended vacation. Have a goal of what you want to achieve while being a nomad. Then develop a routine to help you achieve that goal. If you want more tips about Chiang Mai in particular, you’re welcome to check out some useful tips we’ve accumulated for Chiang Mai on The Travel Brief. Good luck and enjoy!