As I said in part one of this article, I’ve come to Chiang Mai to meet some people who have rejected a conventional work-orientated lifestyle in favour of a more free and flexible life, using their ability to work online as a way of following their dreams and living somewhere exotic.
These people are often referred to as ‘Digital Nomads’, which reflects the fact that because they do their work online, they are free to work from anywhere. Or at least anywhere they can get an internet connection, which these days IS pretty much anywhere. Another term for them is ‘Location-independent Entrepreneurs’, which is rather a mouthful and lacks the romance of Digital Nomad, so I’ll stick with the latter.
It’s a relatively new phenomenon, this ability to work online so it really doesn’t matter where you are. Often, it doesn’t really matter when you do your work either, so you can do it both where and when it suits you. 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.
The Four Hour Work Week
I first came across this lifestyle concept in a book called The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss which I read in about 2008, and it changed my life. I’ve lost count how many copies of this book I’ve given or loaned to people, it’s probably over 20 — that’s how important I think the message of this book is.
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 bloody old and knackered to enjoy it. And we may not even get there if we die prematurely, or are overtaken by illness or other events. 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…
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. I’m not going to attempt to cover the whole contents of the book here as it’s over 400 pages, but if you’re interested enough to be reading this and you haven’t read it yet, I recommend you buy a copy. It could change your life.
Putting the Four Hour Work Week into practice
So the Digital Nomads may not have read it (although most of them have), but they are all following at least some of the principles in it. To quote the strapline of the book, they have escaped the 9-5 and they live anywhere they choose. They are living the dream.
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?
It’s a little premature for me to answer this yet because so far I’ve only spoken to a couple of the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads, and the others may have a different perspective which I have yet to learn.
What I can tell you is what led me to 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. I’m not going to talk any more about Johnny here as I’m meeting him tomorrow and will cover his story in more detail in a subsequent post. Suffice to say, it was through Johnny that I discovered the huge community of Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai and that’s what led me here.
To give you an idea of the size of this community, the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Group on Facebook has 2,846 members. That’s huge for a relatively small city. So that’s why I’m here. Plus I love Thai food, which helps. And it’s awfully grey and cold in England at the moment.
What is Chiang Mai like?
Chiang Mai is often called the second biggest city in Thailand. It’s not at all. Depending upon which figures you believe (because Thai stats are notoriously unreliable), it is somewhere between 4th and 8th, with 7th being a fair guess. 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.
I spent a couple of nights in the old city, and despite some amazing food, which is incredibly cheap (you can eat really well for about £4), so far I’m not in love with Chiang Mai. But that’s just me.
Nimman — so cool it hurts
Just outside the old city is the newly-gentrified area of Nimman, around the Nimmanhaemin Road up by the University. This is an entirely different kettle of fish. It’s achingly cool and hip, a bit like Fulham was a few years ago and like Shoreditch and Hoxton are now. In fact it’s so cool and hip, it’s probably going to irritate me soon, but right now it seems like an oasis. It is absolutely 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). That’s as long as you are running your laptop off it’s own battery — if you plug into their power sockets then you are expected to spent another 20 Baht per hour.
This (Nimman) is the home of the Digital Nomads. Most, but not all, of them live, work or hang out here. You can see why — it’s a very nice place to be, there are lots of great places to eat and go out, 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 Nomad — Marion Bouquet
Last night I met my first Chiang Mai Digital Nomad. Marion Bouquet is a charming 27 year old French Voice-over Artist (www.voicethatfrenchie.com) who kindly agreed to meet me and share her story.
We had arranged to meet in a vegetarian cafe in the Santitham Road, which neither I, nor the songthaew driver could find. Knowing my spoken Thai lacked a certain amount of finesse, and indeed any vocabulary or pronunciation, I’d carefully written the address down for him so it didn’t get lost in translation.
Unfortunately, I’d written it in western script not Thai script and it was as unintelligible to him as Thai script is to me. Nevertheless, he clutched my piece of paper and stopped every few minutes to look at it again, even though it clearly meant nothing to him. He spoke no English at all, and the only Thai I speak is ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, and a few food-related things. Not much use really.
So we are lurching along the Santitham Road, lost, in the dark and stopping every few yards for my driver to mutter darkly. All of a sudden, through the open window I hear ‘Hello, is that Tim?’. Pedalling along beside us, having deduced from our erratic progress that this must be me en-route to our meeting, is Marion!
Marion came to Chiang Mai in 2012 for a holiday after completing an internship in Koh Chang. She fell in love with Chiang Mai right from the start. She had to return to France to graduate, but came back to Chiang Mai 3 months later for the summer. 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.
Certainly it helps that it’s cheap, but that’s not her reason for being here. She loves the place, the people, and the mountains. 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, then she hit on the idea of working as a French translator, getting work online through freelance sites such as oDesk, eLance and Fiverr.
She very quickly got into voice-over work, almost by accident. One client asked her to record a spoken version of what she had translated and suddenly everybody realised she was a natural at this. She invested in some professional voice-over training, bought some specialist equipment, and voilà a star was born!
It wasn’t quite as easy as that though. The equipment cost money she didn’t have, so Marion worked in a ski resort in France for a few months to earn enough money to buy the gear she needed. She then came back to Chiang Mai.
In the same way that Marion worked out what she needed, and then found a way to get it, she also worked out what she needed to earn each month to live in Chiang Mai, and then figured out how much work she needed to do in order for it to be viable. She was undoubtedly helped by the fact that it is so cheap to live here (Marion estimates her living costs — food, accommodation, entertainment, everything — to be around €600 per month), but I have a feeling that even if it cost five times as much, Marion would still have worked out a way to make it work.
Although you can earn good money doing freelance work from oDesk and eLance, because you set your own rate, it’s hard to make money doing fiverr gigs because after all they only pay $5 (fiverr.com is 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). But as she says, if you do ten fiverr gigs a day and your base costs are very low, it can still work. $50 goes a long way in Chiang Mai when you can rent a studio apartment for $150 a month.
What actually happened was she used fiverr to get lots of customers, who having used her, are now happy to pay her normal rate. In fact Marion is now very successful and able to earn much more than her monthly income requirement. Her customers are all over the world, she does all of her work remotely, and it doesn’t matter where she is.
I asked about the practicalities of living in Chiang Mai. 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 says the worst thing about her life in Chiang Mai is the fact that her friends are always leaving. She has met many wonderful people, and formed enduring friendships, but eventually they all move on somewhere else. As she will too one day. That’s the nature of nomads, but it makes her sad. In her words, “I’m not crying or suffering really, it’s just a bit hard to keep saying goodbye constantly. It’s a great teacher though for accepting impermanence as part of life”.
I asked what advice she would give to somebody considering the DN lifestyle and she said the most important thing is to be passionate about what you are doing. After all, that’s the point — to do what you are passionate about, what you want to do, what makes you happy — but you also need to be patient. It will take time. Hopefully your passion will carry you through the difficult times whilst you are trying to make it work, but you do need the tenacity to stick at it and make it work.
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.
It’s a simple formula, but it’s not easy to apply. If you can do it though, it works. Marion is living proof of that.
Check out her website voicethatfrenchie.com. And if you need a voice-over for a marketing video, or a podcast intro, or even for voicemail greetings, please call Marion — she really is extremely good at it.
More Digital Nomads to come
See the next article in this series: Part 3 — What’s it like to be a Chiang Mai Digital Nomad?
As always, please post any comments or questions below.