It seems like its more popular than ever to be an expat in Southeast Asia. Maybe I just think that because I spend so much time in this part of the world. So my bias might lead me to see more on the subject. But one thing I don’t see much is any truthful reporting on all the negatives involved.
And I’m not talking about being an expat on the company dime either. So this isn’t about the handful of bankers who get extra pay for the hazards of living on Embassy Row or anything like that. I am sure that has its cons too. Including some of what I am going to write below. But I am mainly talking about the so-called digital nomad lifestyle.
I’ve been living well from online income for years. And I spend a lot of time in Southeast Asia. So I speak from experience. You don’t have to pay attention to my words. But before you sell everything and move to Pai to start your million dollar travel blog idea, you might want to at least read this.
Is being a digital nomad legal?
Lots of people and websites will tell you how great the digital nomad lifestyle is. And while it has its perks, it’s not all sweetness and light. Especially in Southeast Asia. Yet there’s no shortage of people telling you to move to Chiang Mai and make money from your computer.
Simply put, there is no visa for digital nomads in Thailand. As a foreigner, you aren’t technically allowed to work on a tourist visa or a visa waiver in Thailand. And they don’t give work permits to digital nomads even if they’re on another kind of visa. You need a Thai company to put on the application. And you don’t have one.
Back in 2014, the immigration police raided a coworking space in Chiang Mai. I bet a lot of the foreigners there were caught by surprise. I wasn’t. Because I don’t go to those kind of places. And also because I know there’s no visa for digital nomads in Thailand. Or most other countries in Southeast Asia.
There are no visas for digital nomads in any country really. At most you can slide through a gray area. At worst, you get caught up in a raid. And forget about settling down too. Because as a foreigner, you can’t own land in most Southeast Asian countries.
The weather sucks and it stinks
A lot of people will talk about how great the weather is in Southeast Asia. They won’t tell you that it’s outrageously hot and humid for a lot of the year. And outrageously wet most of the other times. The weather is only really comfortable for a couple of weeks. So it’s like anywhere else.
You won’t see any pictures of people wading through waist-high sewage or choking on exhaust fumes on Digital Nomad blogs. But you will experience that if you spend enough time here. Bangkok just spent months under alert for highly toxic air. Now Chiang Mai is having its annual battle with haze, and its reportedly one of the worst ever. This goes on every year. But don’t worry. In a couple more months there will be daily downpours that flood the streets and make it tough to get around.
In Ho Chi Minh City it’s nothing to get stuck somewhere for hours while a monsoon rain blows through and fills the streets with water. Angeles City gets it too. And the same goes for Phnom Penh, where expats have actually crowd sourced maps to show which streets are impassable during the daily downpours.
And how about the smell? In Phnom Penh they pile the garbage up in the streets every day. It reeks, and the garbage workers don’t always pick it up. Sometimes they let it fester for days on end. But even that smells good compared to the open river of shit that flows through the middle of town.
Think that’s unique to Phnom Penh? Think again. There’s plenty of gray water in Saigon’s highly polluted rivers. And there’s a smaller stinky canal flowing through one of the most highly esteemed sections of Bangkok. And they all smell like shit.
You’ll lose internet, power, and maybe water too
Even if you can deal with the weather, the visa requirements, and the never ending deadly traffic, you will face a lot of other obstacles. Especially as a person who relies on their computer and the internet to make a living.
Internet speeds are still very low in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and the Philippines. They really aren’t all that hot in Thailand either. Sure you can get good speeds in Hong Kong and Singapore. But at those costs, you probably would better off staying home.
And what about when the internet cuts out? Because that happens. In some places it happens a lot. One apartment I stayed in for several months had at least three to four outages a week. And most of them required me to call the service provider to get things going again. So much for the four hour work week!
I’ve been in plenty of Manila and Angeles City hotels with such weak internet that I couldn’t even connect. And I am talking about four and five star hotels here. Not cheap hostels for backpackers. Those must be even worse!
Don’t forget about electricity either. In the third world, power outages are just a regular part of life. I recently ended an extended stay in Cambodia because of this. A month of daily 6 to 8 hour power loss was the last straw for me. I was staying in a relatively expensive Phnom Penh condo with a generator. But the power was out so often that even that beastly machine broke down. Sitting in a 98 degree room with no air conditioner or fan is not my idea of a good time.
At least I wasn’t down in Sihanoukville. Because they had water outages along with the power loss. That’s right, no water in the pipes. Now there’s something you won’t see mentioned on many digital nomad blogs!
I work online so you don’t have to
As I said, I make a living through the internet. I’ve been doing it for years. And I earn more than an average income. But this website is only a very small part of what I do. I work just a few hours a week in general. But I also have to put up with all the stuff stated above.
Well, I don’t have to. I could leave here. And in fact I do just that several times every year. But something keeps pulling me back. Mostly it’s the women, to be honest. Then there are those other things that are hard to put a finger on. Like the fact that people don’t walk around with a chip on their shoulders here, which means I can relax more too. At least when the air conditioner works.
The truth is that I earn more than enough to live in America full time without taking on a full time job. So I spend time in Southeast Asia because I want to. In fact I started working online precisely because I wanted to escape the rat race back home and travel. It worked out for me, at least to some degree. But I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to follow my footsteps.
Sure you can try to do what I have done. I tend to think it’s a little late. Especially if you want to go the same route I did. But I don’t control you or anyone else. I am just trying to shed some light on little known aspects of being an expat in Asia. Take it into consideration if you want.