I’ve met all kinds of people in all kinds of places. One of my favourite places in the world is Chiang Mai. My favourite because I don’t need a point of reference to know that I love it. I’m just free to love it. It doesn’t inspire me to travel to yet unexplored parts, it inspires me to stay. For its spirit but also for solid practical reasons. It’s a busy Asian city that feels like a community. A darling, culture-rich dot on the world map. And by culture, I’m not referring to just Thai culture. Culture takes so many forms in that city and intermixes so naturally to create a sweet urban pocket of sunshine and mountains in northern Thailand. One such recently established culture is the community of remote workers.
A place like Chiang Mai will naturally draw people from all over the world who want to stay. Come for a week and stay five years happens to many people because they fall in love with the city’s charm, and those people form a little community of ex-pats. In recent years though, this community has grown with the boom of the Digital Nomad (DN). This funky name describes the tech savvy, computer-geek, business dudes who can live wherever they want in the world because they can work remotely. The only things necessary to work are a laptop and an Internet connection, which completely wipes out the idea that constructing and contributing to the virtual, digital world, building businesses or software should mean sitting in a swivel chair beneath artificial light, waiting for that 5 pm bell to signal the top of happy hour. These guys–or gals–can sit on a shady beach working away. They can nap in the afternoon and work in the evening. They can pick it up and put it down. They can work yesterday, today, and tomorrow and then not for a few days. They’re free to manage their time.
It also covers the freelance, artsy people (yours truly) who make next to nothing but want to live a quasi-alternative lifestyle abroad. I’m trying to enter this world, albeit with much less tech knowledge than most. But, when there’s a will to reinvent oneself and earn an independent creative living there is most certainly a way down any number of unnamed, rocky roads riddled with aggressive dogs, tossing nothing but nickels your way… but there’s still a way!
In any case, the overriding theme of the Digital Nomad / Freelancer life is not money or travel or adventure. Well maybe it is for some but only because such things represent a less tangible reason for living the way they do. The number one value in life for most is, as my good DN veteran friend Rob describes:
“FREEEEEEDOM!!!” With accompanying Braveheart GIF to pictorially represent said number one value.
So I asked Rob a couple of questions about his DN start-up and existence in Chiang Mai and I share his answers here for anyone who is curious about how these guys do it:
Q: What kind of work do you do?
A: 90% of my income is from sales of my own privately labelled products on amazon.com (FBA). I also do a bit of affiliate marketing and video production for clients.
Q: Why did you decide to stay in Chiang Mai?
A: I was getting a bit tired of China and an online business partner, a Chiang Mai vet, convinced me to check it out. The weather, people, affordability, access to nature, access to western comforts, like-minded entrepreneurs, and solid night life, sealed the deal.
Q: Legally, how do you stay in Thailand?
A: Tourist visas. So far, so good.
Q: What’s the hardest part about being a DN?
A: Living off the grid means no access to credit cards, business loans, etc. With that said, I have no debts, my business was 100% started with money I earned, but access to easy cash can really help a new business grow faster.
Q: What advice do you offer people who want the DN lifestyle?
A: There are a lot of ways to make money online. Figure out what suits you, teach yourself the basics, and set up a solid foundation. Everything can be self taught, with the likes of Udemy, but finding a good, trustworthy mentor can accelerate the process. These can be for a set fee or I’ve also seen apprenticeship programs. If you decide to go it alone, don’t get sucked into the trap of buying rubbish MMO (make money online) training–most of these guys are sharks. I recommend Udemy for training.
Q: What’s the best part about being a DN?
A: (again) “FREEEEEEDOM!!!”
Naturally, when I hear someone proclaim freedom I get all gusty and tingly and antsy and jealous. And then I think–wait a minute–how can I feel jealous when I’ve made freedom my daytime playmate and bedside companion? When I have no physical, material, or social restraints right now, other than the 20kg backpack I slog around with? I certainly don’t feel free some days but perhaps that is because my idea of freedom is less tangible than that. So, I asked Rob for his definition of freedom. “I like that I’m my own boss and I’m not tied to one location.” Hmph. Location? A word so interchangeable with woman for some men (author’s humble cynicism–only some men). Guys are so simple, well some are.
So that’s freedom for one DN. What about another, aspiring one? I’ve recently started scraping together $5 here, $20 there, writing little ditties for random people on a platform called fiverr. This is towards a goal to make what I love to do a bit lucrative so I can continue exploring some different lifestyles whilst I move around the world–so I can sustain my material freedom whilst I pursue the other kind. So, I’ve been writing descriptions of things like eyeglass chains–eyeglass retention systems, if you will–and latex Donald Trump masks, for the purposes of marketing them on Amazon. And I’m loving it actually. It’s diversifying my craft. I’m practicing different writing styles, playing with words like I’m choosing bubblegum flavours. And I’m learning lots of interesting things, some useful, some not, but usually entertaining. And really, it’s incredible the things we buy.
This is a kind of freedom: The time and opportunity I have to take something I love and develop it, play with it, smack it around, pound it down, roll it around in my hands, sculpt it into something beautiful and if all I have is a heap of useless words in the end, I’ve enjoyed the process. But I do love when all the play ends in something juicy that I can savour for a long time to come. That is my freedom to be creative, freedom to anticipate, freedom to love without restriction. The freedom to feed myself what I love, to make that a responsibility to myself, one that I am strong enough to manage.
I used to have this conception of freedom as a tangible thing, a reward for a lot of hard work, sort of how to-be retirees envision life after career, or prisoners imagine life outside bars, or pet-store goldfish dream of the deep blue sea. Like freedom is a place or a stage or way of life or a stack of cash. There are a myriad of ways to conceptualize freedom, duly noted by many a great philosopher, priest, poet, an artist through his scrawls, a dancer through her body, an ex-boyfriend through excuses. Whether we’re travelling, living in Chiang Mai, or wasting days away on cigarettes and booze and darkness, everyone thinks about freedom, has a definition for it–external for some, internal for others. Connected to jobs or people, age or lifestyle, thought, will, or action. And the freedoms we subscribe to most strongly are the ones we’re trying so hard to achieve but that we can’t seem to attain, quite simply because they change form, they evolve as we do. Relative freedom is this hazy shape off in the distance that, should we manage to one day reach, will be quickly replaced by a desire for a different kind of freedom. We keep on striving for some sense of freedom or another because we’re always noticing new chains, because we have an innate will to be free. That is what makes freedom sustainable–the ability to recognize what chains us, whether it be external or self-created, and rise up anyways, to persevere in our pursuit of freedom.
So the DN life is an interesting, alternative lifestyle that is slowly becoming a little more mainstream–in Chiang Mai anyways–because of the relative freedom it appears to offer. And it’s because of the Internet, originally a tool towards freedom to send and receive information, to disseminate knowledge, but is now somewhat of a requirement for maintaining a place in the social world. Today, those notification pings and little blue checks and apps for every single thing the imagination can muster make me want to duck out, build a blanket fort and plant trees in it, and scribble juicy words on it’s walls. It makes me want a different kind of chain. I’m grateful for the Internet, because it is helping me create a new kind of freedom for myself, like those DN guys have. But sometimes I wonder about the real tangible world out there. This freedom, to be in your shower and still fight a war, end a relationship, start a business, write, publish, and sell a book, buy a whole bunch of useless crap–without actually being there is almost like breaching the Cosmos. And that freedom has some heavy, consequential chains. Because wherever the freedom to exists, the freedom from something else waits in the shadows. For this aspiring freelance / digital nomad / freedom seeker that is.
“Freedom stretches only as far as the limits of our consciousness” – Carl Jung