If we’ve done an article on the best things about being a digital nomad (read that first or you may think this is nothing but a torrent of negativity) then for balance, we need to do something about the worst things too, don’t we? It’s odd but we looked and nobody else is even talking about this.
It’s almost like they’re so busy selling a “lifestyle” that they don’t want to be honest about it. Which brings us to the first thing on our list…
The Digital Nomad “Gurus”
The digital nomad “guru” sells a lifestyle they don’t have, success they haven’t achieved and working from a beach. In reality, they live in tiny cramped apartments, churning out YouTube videos with their backs to the door and promoting business models that simply don’t work.
Many of them are running away from their last failure.
The digital nomad “guru” is easy to spot. They’re always in nomad hotspots because that’s where their prey lives. You can’t sell a $1,000 course on dropshipping without a regular supply of victims to buy them, right?
They give “free talks” on subjects that are designed to lead you to buy their courses.
They would have no credibility back in the “real world” in a business situation but something about their oily grins persuades people to part with their cash overseas anyway.
Pro tip: Choose your own lifestyle, don’t spend $1,000+ on an online course that teaches you how to be a “Nomad” or promises to help you learn to fund your nomad lifestyle, there are better ways to go. Deal with “gurus” by ignoring them.
Finally, be wary because many of these “gurus” are enabled by the next group on our list:
The “Digital Nomad Community”
We can’t think of anything more depressing than the “digital nomad community”. This is the group of people who are most vocal about the “digital nomad lifestyleTM”. The majority of these people have never, ever been digital nomads. They never will be either.
They’re in their 20s and fantasizing about something they’ll never dare to do. They’ve never run a business, but you’d never believe it given how many of them have blogs which sell their business expertise.
Yes, you’re 22 and people are paying you a million a year for business coaching? And I’m Peter Pan. Nice to meet you.
Between them, they are dedicated to ensuring that the second-hand car salesman “gurus” are always protected as they fleece their victims. Testaments to the capability of these 21st-century fraudsters are in plentiful supply.
Chiang Mai is particularly prone to both a lousy group of “gurus” and a dreadful “digital nomad community”. We love the city, but we suggest that you give the “Nimman crowd” a wide-berth until you’ve developed some expertise as a professional. Then you can see them for what they really are.
These are the people that lead many digital nomads to deny their status as nomads and insist on “location independent professional”, instead.
You can always do better than the “digital nomad community” when it comes to business advice, travel advice, and companionship. Try the expat community, instead.
Digital Nomads Online
If there’s anything worse than the “digital nomad community” in real life; it’s the one you find online. Reddit, Facebook, etc. are full of groups that have little to no insight into how to live a long-term life on the road.
The Reddit nomad group is run by a self-confessed hobo who thinks it’s “nomadic” to live in your car while driving around a city praying for work.
Well, technically, that’s true but who would recommend living like this to someone else? It’s absolutely frightening how much the online community wants you to live in penury and misery whilst pretending it’s awesome.
We don’t think you need to be rich to enjoy the world, but we do think you’ll enjoy it much more with some basic creature comforts and enough financial freedom to choose something to eat other than Cup Noodles made with an attachment that plugs into the lighter socket on your car/bedroom.
The ridiculous part of it is that following their advice is hard work.
The 20 hours a week you put into find houses to sit, for example, could be spent building up a client base. There’s no need for anyone, who is literate and fluent in English, to live on tiny sums of money.
Anyone and I do mean anyone, who put in some effort could be earning $2,000/month after a year on the road and could easily be making $5,000/month after 2 years.
Not only is poverty no fun but in the long-term, it is much harder work than building a business.
However, we’d like to point out that with the exception of Chiang Mai’s Digital Nomad Facebook group, which is pretty terrible, many of the smaller location-based nomad groups are pretty good. Though some of them are near inactive (Cebu – we’re looking at you), sadly.
Which bring us to…
You Can Live Like A King On $X A Month
Bluntly, no you can’t.
The phrase “live like a king” refers to living in opulence and splendor. It is not a metaphor for living in a 20 square meter prison cell in 40-degree heat without air-conditioning whilst surviving on white rice and water.
Unless your king lives in a trash can; you won’t live like them on $500 a month in Vietnam.
This isn’t to say you can’t survive on $500 a month in Vietnam, of course, you can, the locals do it on less. But it’s not a nice life. Unless you are desperate to eat poorly, sleep in an uncomfortable place and have an extremely limited social life – you can do better.
These claims constantly abound in South East Asia. “Live like a king in Chiang Mai or Danang or Bali for $300 a month.” Each time, they go a few bucks lower than before. Each time, they lie.
I was broke after my business in China collapsed. It’s no fun at all. It took me 2 months of ridiculously hard work to stop being broke. That’s all. 2 months.
By which time I was making that $2,000 a month that I said you could make after 12 months. You can do OK on $2,000 a month in Asia but $500? No.
And for the record, you can’t live like a king on $2,000 a month, but by the time you reach $5,000 a month – you’re heading in the right direction.
You could certainly move to a smaller town anywhere in South East Asia and live in a 5-star hotel (including breakfasts), eat out every night, buy most of the thing you want and still save for retirement. It’s not “kingly” but it is reasonably opulent.
The Lack Of Mental Health Care
One of the things you notice about long-term nomads is how many of us are carrying drink, drug (including prescription drug), gambling, etc. habits.
Taking care of your own mental health is a serious challenge. It’s a bigger challenge when you live in a part of the world where most healthcare wasn’t designed for you and may not even be in your language.
We’d strongly advise that if you have mental health problems that you seek treatment before you travel and that you ensure you have an avenue back to that treatment – no matter where you end up in the world.
The first four things on this list are annoyances – this one is deadly serious. People die young in South East Asia and in nomadic life, in general, and addiction-related behaviors and suicide account for a lot of that.
Let us assure you. You matter. The world would be poorer without you. If you feel suicidal – contact The Samaritans immediately (yes, they have an international service) and seek help.
Or if you are feeling like you’re going crazy and you’re near where we are – feel free to drop us a line, we’ll come and meet you for coffee and help you work through your options.
The Lack Of Financial Planning
If you had a job in England – you’d be expected to have a retirement fund and be paying into it. Your employer would be incentivized to put some more in too. It’s a great investment vehicle because of the free money from employers.
Sadly, once you strike out on your own – if you don’t have a pension scheme, then you don’t have one. And if you don’t start saving, the ugly truth is that you’ll never be able to retire.
20-year-olds will laugh this off with the “I might not live to retirement” line but, in truth, they almost certainly will.
When you hit your 40s, you start to realize that you’re going to need to retire someday. Your body is no longer a perfectly oiled machine and the gears start clunking.
Horrifically there are predictions that we might live to 150 within a generation. That means without retirement you may need to work long after your body is completely dysfunctional.
The early you start retirement planning – the better. The longer your money works for you, the less money you need to invest to quit work.
We don’t give financial advice because we’re not qualified financial advisors, but we strongly recommend that you talk to a couple of financial advisors and sort out your pension options as early as possible.
Social Media In General
Yes, we’re digital nomads. No, we don’t like digital very much.
Social media was designed to be addictive and it has succeeded beyond everyone’s wildest dreams.
Yet, in the 30 years since it arrived. People have become less social – many Millennials lack any kind of social skills, whatsoever. They have mistaken upvotes and likes for metrics of value. They are the sad souls sat in pubs and restaurants on a date – with their smartphones in front of their faces.
This isn’t a generational gap in communication. This is a lack of ability to hold a conversation. Conversation is the glue that binds our societies and our species.
I have managed without a smartphone for several years. I only have one social media account now – excluding the two we use exclusively for promoting this blog (and we do not engage in conversation on either of those platforms). When we go out, we go out.
(Note: Full confession, I do own a smartphone, it has no SIM in it, and is used as an MP3 player because Apple stopped making iPods. I occasionally use the camera too when I forget my DSLR.)
Megan has a smartphone because she likes to watch TV in bed. She has no phone number though. She also has one social media account and oddly, she has even fewer “friends” on hers than I do on mine.
We both have a rule about adding people – you have to be our actual friend to be on our account. That means we must regularly converse with and actually care about you before we add you. I have 36 friends on this basis (and possibly a dozen more who don’t use social media at all).
Research shows that for every friend you have above 50… you’re fooling yourself. Nobody can have more than 50 meaningful relationships in their lives. So, when you’re boasting about your 5,000 Facebook friends, we’re not as impressed as you’d like us to be.
If you want to enjoy life, you need to spend time in it. We’re not Luddites. We work online. We use the tools of modern life. We just switch them off and allow time every single day to enjoy each other’s company and the company of our friends, families, etc.
Our top recommendation for your personal happiness, even if you have no intention of becoming a digital nomad ever, is to get rid of or minimize the social media you use in your life. In 20 years’ time, it will come with a health warning.
Social media is this generation’s cigarettes and it rots your brain rather than your lungs. And recent research agrees with us, it found clearly that nobody benefits from the use of social media in terms of their happiness and mental health – not even the huge users that Facebook insisted would benefit from their service.
Seriously, switch it off.
This is, sort of, a continuation of the last point but broader. Being “always-on” is not healthy and nor is it desirable.
I come from a generation where nobody had cellphones as a kid. In fact, I didn’t get my first cellphone until I was 26.
Megan, on the other hand, comes from a place where she couldn’t afford a smartphone until she was in her late teens.
So, you can trust us when we say – you do not need a smartphone. While we both own a smartphone (for non-communication related services) neither of us uses one to stay in contact with people.
Neither of us takes a smartphone with us when we got out for dinner or coffee either.
A smartphone is a tool. Rather like a TV. Used well, it can enhance your life. Let it spin out of control, however, and it can ruin it.
If you travel and spend your whole time looking through the viewfinder trying to get the next Instagram pic, or yakking on Facebook to people who don’t really care about you, etc. you’re not traveling. You’re living a lie online.
To experience another place, you have to put down the device and experience it. You won’t believe how much better this is after you’ve gotten used to not having your devices on you all the time.
I even had an angry 50-year-old telling me that it’s impossible to travel without such a device. This is such utter rubbish that he ought to be ashamed. I’ve been traveling the world since 1976 (2 years after I was born with my parents, of course) and I have survived unscathed to tell the tale and have rarely, if ever, had a smartphone on me.
You do not need Google Maps or indeed any other app – as long as you have your wits and some communication skills. Life is more fun and more interesting when you interact with it rather than your phone.
Internet And Power Problems
The one thing we’ve learned as we move around South East Asia is this: you cannot rely on decent Internet and an uninterrupted power supply, ever.
This is a big deal if you’re one of those people who needs to be online at a specific time (such as those teaching English online) because it means you’re going to need to prepare a fallback plan. This means, at a bare minimum, finding somewhere that has a generator and an internet connection that you can use.
Ideally, it means knowing more than one of these places.
When I was in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the whole city lost power for 5 days! This is unusual and was down to some very specific circumstances but as you’d expect I lost everything in my fridge and in my freezer and had to move into a hotel with generator power for the duration of things.
Everyone tells me that this doesn’t happen in Thailand but it’s 2019, I am in Chiang Mai while I write this, and we’ve had one very small power cut and another that lasted 2 hours. The latter ended the internet connection after 2 minutes too.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve found myself scurrying around trying to grab an internet connection to get client work uploaded on time. Don’t be me, be prepared.
One of the things we touch on in our city and country guides is the overall quality of internet in places, but we offer no guarantees that this will be true in your hotel or apartment – so try and check what is available and where before you travel.
Even developed countries like Malaysia have their problems (most of the country has internet that is incredibly slow – fine for a writer like me but if I was having to upload rendered video, I’d have been fired while staying in Penang) so make sure that you know what to expect before you pack.
Whether they realize it or not, the long-term nomad is setting themselves up to fall foul of immigration at some point in the future. Sadly, the longer you stay in a country, the more like an illegal immigrant you begin to appear, and the job of immigration is to deny folks like you entry to their countries.
This can happen quickly – you won’t be doing 3 back-to-back visa runs in Malaysia because you’ll be stopped and told to sling your hook, for example.
It can happen slowly, someone we know in Vietnam just got told to go away after 9 straight years of back-to-back 90-day visa runs, an incredible feat, to be fair.
This isn’t to criticize immigration, they’re just doing their job when they say “No, thank you” and ask you to go away. But it won’t feel like that when it happens, it will feel personal.
If you want to avoid this – be a tourist. It’s fine to extend a tourist visa or even do one back-to-back stint in a country but in the long run, once a visa runs out – it’s best to move on and come back to a place another day.
I’d also point out that in a lifetime of international travel – I’ve only had two immigration officers act like total gits. One in Manchester in England and one in Perth in Australia.
So, you’re unlikely to encounter an immigration officer in South East Asia who is hellbent on giving you a hard time, unless, of course, you encourage them to do so.
If you are refused entry to somewhere – don’t panic. You will, almost certainly, just be sent back in the direction you came, sometimes at your expense and sometimes at the airline’s expense (if they didn’t check your return flight, etc.).
It also remains a rare occurrence except, currently, in Thailand where they seem to be having a major crackdown on long-term tourist visa use.
The first time you get on a plane is an amazing and awesomely exciting experience. This lasts for approximately 20 minutes until the plane has taken off, you’re bored with staring out the window and you now realize that you’re in a giant stinky bus in the sky.
I think it’s fair to say that the best thing about this nomad life is being in new places, the worst thing of all about being a digital nomad is getting to new places.
Airports are dehumanizing. Forcing you to remove your possessions and sometimes clothing to pass through ineffective security screening. Planes are hot and miserable and while business class does provide a little comfort, it’s still not enough to make flying fun again.
Bus journeys are boring. When you take them on you think, “looking out the window will be fun!” but it’s not because you have to tilt your head at an awkward angle to see anything because the person in front has closed their little window curtain to avoid the light.
The people on buses are often tedious and terrible company too. I once had to listen to a 4-hour monologue from a dullard sat 2 rows behind me as we wended our way through Thailand. To combat the boredom, I fantasized about all the tropical diseases that he might catch.
Ferries are terrifyingly unsafe, particularly in the developing world. Trains are great but in South East Asia they’re designed for people much, much smaller than me and if you get a top bunk, it’s terrifying.
Taxis are OK and my preferred means of travel except for all but the longest journeys but nobody waxes lyrical about their favorite cab journeys and for good reason.
Yup, travel sucks and yet, we’re still just about to book our tickets for our next destination. It sucks, but not enough to stop you from doing it. You can’t avoid travel. All you can do is make it as comfortable as possible and then suck it up.
Being Told You’re Doomed To Fail
There seems to be a movement within the “digital nomad community” to declare that traveling and working is somehow “doomed to fail.” That nobody can sustain this life for more than a year or two.
It’s total nonsense. There are plenty of people out there doing this year-in, year-out and have been doing so for incredibly long periods of time. I’ve been on the road for nearly 20 years and am still there.
It is absolutely true that to be a nomad for the long-term, you will need to make tradeoffs in your life, there are things that other people do that you won’t. But, unsurprisingly, there are things that you will do that those people never will.
It’s a tradeoff and a tradeoff is only a sacrifice if you don’t want to make it.
We’re very clear about this. If you don’t want to nomad, don’t do it. If you want to stop being a nomad, stop. This doesn’t mean you “failed”. It means you worked out what you want and decided to pursue it. That’s the very essence of freedom in our book. It’s success.
But if you do want to nomad and you want to do it for the whole of your life; you absolutely can. You may need to reinvent yourself a few times as you go – but this is true for almost everyone who has a desk job and a career too. It’s not some sort of “huge ask”, it may need a little more self-discipline than someone with managerial guidance but it’s completely doable.
Of course, there are bad things about nomadic life. Many of the “bad things” also appear on our “good things” list because there are often two sides to the same coin.
What’s important to know is that if you love traveling and working – none of these things are deal-breakers.
You can have a great time on the road and its minor inconveniences are no worse than the minor inconveniences back home.
Digital nomad life’s worst enemies are mainly, digital nomads.