Sep 8 2015

Digital Nomadism - My plans for Fall 2015

TL;DR: I am taking a term off to work on my personal projects while travelling in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam

Have you ever heard of the term “digital nomad”?

This is becoming an increasingly common lifestyle 1. There are many professionals who work from home or remotely as their jobs do not fundamentally require them to be physically present in an office. They may have occupations such as freelance artist, web developer, consultant, or writer. At some point in the last few years, some of these people started realizing that if they don’t need to be in a particular physical location to work, why not just work from anywhere? Work while traveling in a multitude of countries – most commonly, the Eastern European or Asian countries with low costs of living and fast internet.

This is what I will do for the next 3-4 months. I’ll be skipping a study semester, and live in 4 different cities in Asia for 3 weeks at a time while working on some coding projects.

Whyyy are you doing this? — motivation

It started off with wondering about what to do with my time. I’m under somewhat special circumstances where I have enough courses to graduate in 7 study terms, rather than the typical 8 2. I could graduate 4 months early. That didn’t seem to be worth it. It makes no difference for my career. I’m not in a hurry to graduate and if I want to go on a graduation trip or start a startup with my friends, I would still need to wait for them.

Instead, I decided to take a term off now as a break from both school and internships, which I have been alternating for the last 3 years.

Initially, I wanted to take a term off to work on personal projects, or even just do some self-learning without being constrained by obligations, deadlines, etc. I could just take more classes, but I miss having long stretches of uninterrupted time to work on whatever I want, which is where I learned a lot of the skills that gave me a considerable advantage and lead me to where I am now. In my head, there’s no question that I can learn as much on my own as during school 3.

Having decided that, the next question would be where I would stay. I could live with my parents (saves a lot of time with respect to food). I could live with my sister (Toronto is a convenient location). I could live in Waterloo as if I was studying (good for hanging out with friends).

Or I could do my term off from a randomly chosen country.

Initially, I was resistant to this idea. Living in another country felt like going on a 4-month long vacation, which seemed at odds with my drive to be productive. I’m taking a break to have some freedom, not because I’m burned out.

Then I found an article on Entrepreneur titled How I Built a Startup While Traveling to 20 Countries where, for one particular guy, travelling allowed him to be much more productive with his time. That was the start to realizing that travelling might not necessarily be at odds with working. It is the case that there are a lot of inefficiencies in my life, many of which are introduced by complacency which routine certainly does nothing to alleviate 4. That article also introduced me to the term “digital nomad”.

As I did more research, I stumbled across articles and blogs written by these so-called nomads. The more I read, the more viable of an option it started to sound. This is often how ideas and lifestyles spread. First, you hear about something new, and you raise concerns. In this case, is there good internet? Can I survive without knowing the language? Where will I work? Is there good infrastructure in those countries? Then you see an otherwise average person doing it successfully. The internet is definitely good enough for them to work. There’s a coffee shop culture in those countries just like at home – in fact, for many cities, nomads have already documented good ones to work in!

So I decided I might as well try it out.

Survival 101 — general logistics

My general plan is to leave from Toronto to Seoul on September 15 and go south, going to Taipei, then Chiang Mai and finishing in Ho Chi Minh, stopping for about 3 weeks in each of those cities.

I am going to South Korea because one article on the New York Times talked about how their internet infrastructure is way more advanced than anything in North America and I am curious to check it out. For the other 3 cities, I aimed for a cheap cost of living. This isn’t strictly necessary, but I will be proud of myself if my total living expenses end up lower than the cost of a semester of tuition.

I could discuss what’s nice about Taipei, Chiang Mai and Ho Chi Minh. But honestly, I picked them because they showed up often on /r/digitalnomad and they are “tried and true”. Since my term off is already very unconventional, I don’t feel bad about being a sheep here. Furthermore, choosing is hard. I also considered going to Eastern European countries 5 like Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic and Estonia which also have low costs of living. There are interns at Dropbox from those countries and they tell me the internet there is amazing. I also considered places like the Philippines and Indonesia. However, at some point, it’s necessary to realize that you just don’t have enough information to know what’s “best” for you and any choice is as good as any other.

I did think more carefully about the order of those 4 cities, which is based mainly on weather 6.

To find a place to stay, AirBnB is the most convenient and safest option, at a reasonable price. By staying with a host, it’s easier to learn the local culture. I’ve booked a private room for 30$/night in Seoul and I expect to be able to get 20$/night in other places. I also heard that if I make an effort and look for “for rent” signs, I could get pretty good apartments for as low as 300$/month. My rent costs will definitely be under 2000$, possibly much lower.

I expect to write code a few hours at home and a few hours in coffee shops7. South Korea is safe enough that I could conceivably work in public places like parks. In SE Asia, having a 1000$ laptop out in the open might not be the best idea, but there are enough digital nomads that coworking spaces have been opening up here and there.

Regional flights are very cheap with AirAsia (as low as 50$), even 2–3 weeks in advance. I expect my total flight costs to be under 2000$.

Not a vacation — my mindset about this trip

I explained earlier that my goal of taking a term off is to code and self-learn. To achieve this goal, there is something I need to make clear, mostly to myself but also because this gets brought up a lot when I talk to people about my plans.

I am not taking a vacation.

I will go out and explore the country. I will spend time getting to know the local culture. I will meet new people. However, if I spend a beautiful day indoors hunting down a memory corruption, that’s perfectly fine. I will not be missing out on anything. If I go to a park and just read a book the whole time 8, I am also not missing out on anything. Because I will be a visitor, not a tourist. Because I will not be on vacation.

I’ve lost count of how many people I explained digital nomadism to, but only two people had heard of the term before. I think for most people, travelling outside of business means taking a vacation. Which is a fair association to make (it applies in 99% of cases), but there is no reason why it has to be the case. For example, nobody misses out on their undergraduate experience if they don’t try taking a graduate class. Taking a graduate class to see what it’s like can add value to the undergraduate experience, but there are other legitimate ways to invest time. If every undergraduate took a graduate class, it would feel a lot more like missing out. But it would still not mandate necessity.

While I picked my destinations relatively randomly, all the countries that were up to consideration were not places I had ever thought of visiting before. In particular, I am not going to any of the places I really want to see, namely UK, Germany (I was born there), France (I speak French), Japan (~~~). Those can wait after graduation. Besides having higher living costs, if I go to those countries, I will want to visit them properly.

That being said, while I am not on vacation, I am still travelling. I think the language barrier will also be good training for my communication skills. I have been surrounded by like-minded people lately which is great, but it does mean I have been getting away with poor communication too easily. If all goes well, I should still come out of this with a better understanding of different cultures, a broadened perspective about the world and interesting stories to share.


  2. I come from Quebec and the education system is different than the rest of Canada/USA. High school ends at Grade 11 and afterwards, we have CEGEP, a mandatory two-year pre-university program. This means I’ve done “Grade 13” and Waterloo gave me 6 courses worth of transfer credits. 

  3. That isn’t to say school is useless and that I should drop out. I generally believe that, baring exceptional circumstances like an unique opportunity to join a promising startup, it is possible in the vast majority of cases to make more out of the time invested in school when school feels useless. This can be done by taking more challenging classes, etc. It’s often a tradeoff between spending X effort to get Y reward and spending 2X effort to get 3Y reward. Anyway, I get exposed to different ideas during school. If all my time had to be spent in either in school or self-learning, my ideal ratio of to school to self-learning would still be somewhere in-between 1:1 and 2:1. Not counting time spent on self-learning (e.g. reading Hacker News) during school time, that tends to be smaller in scope. 

  4. As far as I’m concerned, there is a large difference between my average productivity and my peak productivity. I usually achieve the latter only when I am extremely motivated or, less consistently, when I have a deadline (sometimes that causes more procrastination). 

  5. It was either going to be Eastern Europe or Asia (with only 4 months, it’s not worth crossing multiple continents). South America is an option that I perceived to be less safe and worse in terms of internet. 

  6. South Korea is up north and starts to get cold past September. I don’t want to have to carry around a winter jacket. Around September and October, Southeast Asia is under rainy season so Vietnam and Thailand are best saved for last. Also, if I keep going from North to South, I travel fewer miles, which means I spend less on flight tickets. 

  7. Some digital nomad think of the coffee shop as “a place where you pay a few dollars per hour to rent a table to work and comes with a drink”. 

  8. I went to the Dominican Republic with my family last year. That was an actual vacation. We did fun activities like Snorkeling but we also just chilled at the beach and I did a lot of reading on my Kindle then, which was very productive.