7 Lessons Learnt in My First Year of Being a Vegan Digital Nomad

13 min read

This is my personal notes after travelling, working online and living in Thailand and Eastern Europe for the last 1.5 years.

We only stayed in the same town, city or country for somewhere between 3 days and 3 months depending on how cool the place was and how expensive it was to stay there. (see more info on these places on the travel log)

Having never done anything like this before in my life, I understandably learnt a few things along the way.

What you will learn in this article:

  1. What is probably the best place in the world right now for working and living remotely, judged by how many people are doing it and why.
  2. Why in 2018 it is not any harder to be vegan while travelling than while at home.
  3. The benefits and the downsides of a location independent, travel-based lifestyle and how I deal with them.
  4. How the things I have learnt over the last 18 months will shape the next 18 months of my life.

1. I See Why Everyone Goes to Chiang Mai

Before leaving Australia I thought it was a little weird that so many digital nomads seemed to be so focused on a northern Thai city when there are equally as inexpensive places on most continents.

But now, I get it.

Hassle-free visas. The whole visa process for Thailand is made pretty simple. Their country thrives off tourism so they have no interest in making it difficult for "rich westerners" to go there.

For Australians you just need to turn up with your passport and you get a free 30 days Visa on Arrival. What we did though was paid 55 AUD in Australia before leaving for a 60 Day Visa then got it extended another 30 days once we were in Thailand for 1900 TBH (80 AUD). If you want more time there are longer options, or you can very safely do a "visa-run".

Easy visa-runs. These are as good as a legal. There are companies that openly advertise their visa-run services. You basically just leave to a neighbouring country for a day or two then when you renter you can get what ever visa it is you want.

It's incredibly easy to get apartments. We literally just walked around the area we wanted to stay in for one day and found something much better than we were expecting to from seeing all the YouTube videos.

In true Thai style they were super relaxed about everything from the duration of our stay to payments (sometimes we were late but they weren't phased) and didn't even require us to clean it before leaving - but they did clean it before we moved in.

Best weather. The tropics provide the best weather to live in I think and Thailand is no exception. There is a reason why when most people go on holiday, they go to the tropics.

Best food. With good tropical weather comes amazing tropical fruit that is on another level. Fruit in Australia and Europe is mostly very edible, but if you've never experienced fresh tropical fruit you have no idea what you're missing out on.

It's rare for foreigners to cook at home in Thailand because cooking at home is basically the same price as eating out - good restaurants are dirt cheap. Plus there are so many good restaurants all over the place that it's much more convenient to eat out. For vegans, the options here are heavenly.

Good sized city. This is subjective of course but the city is big enough to have everything you need to live in and small enough to walk around if you want. Taxi's are pretty cheap but Uber (and Grab, a local SEA version) is even cheaper.

There is also a growing community of bicyclists in Chiang Mai setting a great example for healthy, environmentally-friendly transport. Aside from the burning season (mostly in and around March I believe) there is not much pollution around either, and a great amount of nature to explore close by.

Large expat community. This is obvious when you get there by all the foreigners you see, and from the size of the Facebook groups compared to the other cities we've been to. This makes it very easy to meet likeminded people either at bars, restaurants or at specific meet ups, which happen quite regularly for a range of things from online business to yoga to crypto-currencies.

Very affordable. Of course, all of the above is for a very good price. Which makes all these points even better.

Friendly locals. Locals almost everywhere are usually nice to travellers and the Thai's are some of the best examples of this. This is due to a combination of their Buddhist culture and the fact that their country has benefited so much from the tourism industry.

To me at least, these are all very admirable qualities, and Chiang Mai has them all in one convenient location. Of course these can all be found in other cities, but it's rare to have them all in one place. It's this combination that makes Chiang Mai so popular with both digital nomads and vegan travellers.

Thailand is a pretty comfortable place to be a digital nomad. Comfort is nice, but a huge part of why I wanted this lifestyle so much is because I understand being outside of your comfort-zone forces you to grow as a person much quicker, and travelling is a great way to get these benefits and so much more.

2. It's not harder to be vegan while travelling

Yes, okay, in the same sense that it's harder to find accomodation, a good cafe, a fun bar or a nice cinema while travelling compared to at home, it is also harder to find good vegan restaurants. But if finding a place to sleep each night doesn't stop you from seeing the world, neither should finding a place to eat. Not in today's world.

Fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. If you're shopping at supermarkets, basically these same whole foods are available everywhere. Thailand might have more watermelons and Serbia might have the more dates, but there is always something delicious found in all these categories everywhere. And more than everything you need to thrive is found in these food groups.

If you don't speak the local language, use the Google Translation app (or any competitors that do the same thing) to scan the back of the packeted goods from your phone camera to see the language change to English without even having to take a photo. It's ridiculously easy and popular languages are even available offline.

For eating at restaurants The Happy Cow app and website is the only thing you need. Since 1999 it is the worlds largest collection of vegan, vegetarian, veg-friendly restaurants worldwide. It also includes stores and markets with vegan goods. No other apps compare in terms of the size of the database, including reviews. Download the app for maximum efficiency (its about $5 I think and well worth it) or use the website for free.

Use Trip Advisor as a back up. You can search "restaurants with vegan options" in any city or search the reviews for any restaurant with the word "vegan" in it. Again, their free app is preferable to their website for on-the-go use.

Also great is joining local Facebook groups for vegans in that area to ask people things you can't find elsewhere and get other inside info.

Exceptions to the rule. It's true, there are some cities that are not that good, meaning you have to eat at the same three or four restaurants all week, but in my experience these are not admirable cities to be in for very long for other reasons. Belgrade is a weird deviation to this, but there's still good options at vegetarian places.

I have experienced only a few other exceptions to this, such as a small Thai island Koh Samet, that you can walk all the way up and back in one day, and places like Ohrid, the beautiful 42,000 person town on a lake in southern Macedonia, which only has one vegan place: Dr. Falafel. And it sells only one meal: falafels and vegetables. It's a very good meal, but still.

Really though, if you choose to live somewhere for any real length of time, you're going to have an apartment or AirBnB and that's going to come with a kitchen, and as I've covered in another post, there is no where on earth you'll want to live that wont have access to vegan groceries: fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes (beans and lentils).

3. It can be challenging maintaining routines

In terms of working, staying in one location can improve productivity because you get into the flow of a set daily routine. This gets disturbed when changing location every week, or even every three months.

Pro: You get to experiment and try new things, which I like.

Con: It's easy to get into routines that are not as beneficial as others.

What I have noticed is that I'm getting into the routine of changing routines... which over time is setting up a new routine of being routine-less but still productive. I think.

This point is continued with the next lesson.

4. Being your own boss requires constant work

No surprises here. But this is amplified due to the change in location all the time. I imagine if we were freelancers this would not be as big a deal as compared to being the business owners/runners we are.

It's very exciting regularly being in new cities and countries and wanting to get the most out of our time there - but still wanting to sit down in a cafe for a decent amount of time each day and do some work.

It's like walking a tightrope between being a tourist and effectively working on getting more income. I know which one I like doing more, but which one will I wish I did more of ten years from now? I honestly don't know, so I'm not tripping over this.

Though I think I'm starting to see why a lot of nomads seem to stay in one city for about half the year, then go proper nomading around for the other six months. I imagine this will allow for greater productivity, and hopefully a bigger savings account for when you do go travelling again. This is something for me to think about.

5. Freedom is priceless

(turns out I already wrote about this so this point is copy+pasted from another post)

Most people structure their lives in a way that makes them bound to one location, or at least feel that they are bound to one location.

Whether its choosing to start a family, choosing to get an outrageous mortgage or choosing a job that requires you to be in the same place every day, this is just the way most peoples lives are structured.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with doing those things, if one of your dreams is to see the world before you die, wouldn't you agree that it makes more sense to do it while you are young and able to enjoy it more? By putting it off indefinitely until you reach a retirement age that isn't promised to you, aren't you essentially telling yourself that your dreams are less important than surviving to an age that someone else tells you is more appropriate to fulfil them?

The value of memories and experiences can not be quantified, yet most people would agree they are infinitely more valuable than owning a large house in an expensive neighbourhood filled with expensive but meaningless material possessions, and waiting there doing something wholly unfulfilling until you are old enough to be allowed to do what your heart desires - the apparent situation of the more traditional, location dependent lifestyle.

(read the rest of this post here: Proof You Currently Have Enough Money to Travel the World)

6. The loneliness is real - but it's not a big deal

If you think uprooting your life at-most every 90 days doesn't get a little lonely every now and then, you're kidding yourself. This is true even when you're travelling with your best mate.

How do I deal with this?

  1. Meditate on it. Notice the feelings as they come and go then remember what I'm doing and why and continue to make decisions based on my values.
  2. Of course we live in the information age with amazing technology so video-calling friends and family back home is easy and free.
  3. Make new friends.

There is something cool about having friends all over the world, I think, and knowing that if I ever do come back to this place there will be some good company here waiting for me.

I think you make different, maybe even "better" friends when you both know that your time together has a specific end date. It makes me appreciate the friendship and the time we have together a lot more, and also makes me not waste my time with people who I would regret spending it with later. This sounds obvious writing it down, but it's apparently less obvious in practice.

I guess I just use it as another way to be continually reminded of one of the eternal truths of existence: that all things must pass. What the Buddhists call impermanence.

This, when reminded enough, almost forces you to trade all your expectation for appreciation - which has profound implications on your day to day state of mind.

Constantly being reminded of the impermanence of everything also inspires you get the most out of the time you have by living meaningfully and focusing most on what is most important to you - which is hopefully something bigger than yourself.

“In the face of such hopelessness as our eventual, unavoidable death, there is little sense in not at least trying to accomplish all of your wildest dreams in life.”

― Kevin Smith (writer, director, author)

7. Your dreams come true... then what?

I fantasised for a few years about living location independently, and now it's happening. This is a very easy time to get lazy and complacent - two things that did not help me get here, and will not help me stay here.

The next step is to work smarter and build more legit passive income streams by providing the most value to the world that we can. Doing this continuously will carry this lifestyle on indefinitely into the future and allow us to travel to more expensive places if we want.

I believe this all starts with setting bigger goals. Wild, outrageous goals. Then keep working towards them with passion, calculated step by calculated step.

We currently have these, we just need to work more. Which might mean travelling less.

2016 - 2023