Mixing work and travelling
I went to Asia for 5 months with the aim of combining work and travel. All in all, I made good progress with work whilst still feeling that I made the most of my time away.
A trip like this is very dependent on what you are working on. In short, I recommend working on your own projects.
One of the things that first drew me into the world of web development was the idea that the work could be done from anywhere. I liked the idea of being able to take extended trips away whilst not needing to sacrifice work.
Over the past couple of years I started to achieve this location independence. The revenue streams from my own products are now enough to live on and I’ve only been taking client work that I can do remotely. As a result, I’ve been able to split my time between London and New York (where my girlfriend was based) and have continued working along the way.
Five months ago, my girlfriend (now fiance) finished work in the States and we decided to go travelling for a few months. As we’re now nearing the end of our trip I thought I’d make some notes on how I found mixing work and travel.
We had five months before we needed to be back in the UK. I couldn’t give up work completely for five months so we needed to go somewhere where I could continue to work.
I was aiming to work an average of 4 days per week. I planned to do the work in batches so that we could treat some periods as pure holiday time. I wanted weeks in which I could relax and not have to go near the laptop.
The initial plan was to spend the majority of the time in South East Asia. We have both done a lot of travelling in the region before and we knew it had the mix of what we were looking for: laid back lifestyle, great surroundings, tasty food and minimal hassle.
The plan wasn’t really to go anywhere new. We didn’t necessarily want to do the whole backpacker thing again, just revisit some of our favourite places and spend more time there. We were thinking of renting a place for a month at time before moving onto the next.
What actually happened?
We ended up moving round more than we initially planned. Once we were away the desire to see new places and revisit more of the old favourites took over.
Overall there was roughly a 50/50 split between the times when I was ‘on holiday’ and times when I was ‘working’.
For about half of the time we had a base, either a short-term rental or Fran’s family home in Hong Kong. The other half was spent with more of a traveler’s mindset, staying in guesthouses for a few days at a time before packing our bags and moving on.
The countries we visited were: Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Hong Kong and China.
Was it a success?
We both had a fantastic time and we’d be staying away longer if we could. Unfortunately, various commitments mean that we need to be back in the UK by March.
I’m glad that we managed to visit more places than we originally planned. This was mainly due to the ease with which I could get set up with a decent work environment. South East Asia has changed a lot in the 6 years since I was last here. For remote workers, it is now perfectly feasible to take your laptop and continue working whilst travelling.
Having the freedom to choose when and where you work is great. I’d regularly take a break from work and go for a swim in the sea or pool, go for a walk along the beach, have a massage… Luxuries that I can’t get at home.
I’ve never been particularly drawn to becoming an expat, too many family and friends back home. I can certainly see myself doing some more of these trips though; a few months here, a few months there.
I really don’t think it will be long before dedicated co-working spaces start cropping up in South East Asia. I recently heard of a (pretty basic) topical island co-working space that opened in Panama. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an explosion of similar ventures over the coming years.
I didn’t actually meet any other people working whilst on their travels but I’m sure there is no shortage of them; TravelFish has plenty of posts about it. The ‘flashpackers’ are everywhere; laptops, iPads, Kindles a plenty.
Regarding work, I managed to get a decent amount done and feel I maintained a happy mix of travelling and working. However, the laid back lifestyle of South East Asia did draw me in and along the way I made a conscious decision to work less than I originally planned. Over the course of my trip I averaged about 3 days per week of work. Alongside that, I did a lot more reading than I do at home. I cleared a large backlog of technical books and papers that I’d never found the time to read.
Overall, the trip was a great success. Whilst our commitments are taking us back to the UK, we’re already thinking about where to escape to next winter.
Things to consider
If you are thinking of doing a similar trip then here are some things to bear in mind:
Striking a balance between work and holiday
Working for yourself whilst at home requires a certain level of discipline, doing it whilst travelling demands a lot more. There’s certainly no shortage of potential distractions.
I tried to keep a clear separation between periods that I treated as holiday and periods where I had to get work done. However, the line between work and holiday can become blurred. When you are sitting in a beautiful location, a long way from home, doing something you enjoy, it seems almost wrong to call it ‘work’.
No surprise that I got the most work done whenever we stayed in one place for a sizeable amount of time. Chiang Mai and Hong Kong were the places where I was most productive and also where we spent the most time (6 weeks and 5 weeks respectively). In both of these places I had a really good working environment and I could settle into a daily routine. Too much moving round wasn’t good for productivity.
On the whole, getting access to the Internet was not a problem. Wi-Fi access is abundant with almost every cafe, guesthouse and hotel offering free access. Even the $4 a night guesthouses advertise free Wi-Fi access; whether they actually have it or not is a different matter.
Before the trip I bought and unlocked a MiFi. I was planning on buying a 3G SIM card in each of the countries so that I could always get online if need be. As it turns out, I never got round to buying any SIM cards, I kept forgetting about it, there never seemed to be enough of a need.
There was even Wi-Fi access on the Similan Islands, a totally pristine archipelago forming a National Park off the coast of Thailand. We stayed a few nights in a basic beach hut on the Similans and, even there, there was Wi-Fi courtesy of the Park Rangers hut.
Similan Islands, now with Wi-Fi
Whilst there was no shortage of places offering access, getting online was still problematic at times. Power cuts and network failures are not uncommon outside of the big cities. Hotels mislead about access and the neighbours they are stealing it from change their passwords.
I had to fix a few ‘broken’ networks, it’s worth carrying a list of default router passwords.
As I was only working on solo projects, the time difference wasn’t a problem for me. If you are working in a team then the time difference is likely to be a big consideration.
The time zone, GMT+7 (or 8) actually ended up working in my favour. My main project is a real-time vehicle tracking application. Most of the customers use the system during normal UK business hours but the vehicles that are being tracked usually start moving well before this (4am GMT).
Working in an Asian time zone gave me a window to deploy new features and check that everything was working correctly (with the live data from the vehicles streaming in) before the customers started using the system. It felt like I had been given a head start every day.
The thought of going on this trip prompted me to spend a lot of time considering the stability of the vehicle tracking architecture. I like the idea of the Netflix Chaos Monkey and the confidence that it must bring to a system.
I spent time improving the stability of the system and implementing contingencies for each of the servers. I needed to know that if something went down then the necessary fail-safes were in place so that the system could recover without my intervention.
Going away knowing that the system would be a lot more stable and that issues would get escalated correctly was a great reassurance. I felt much more at ease taking breaks where I’d be unable to get online for a week at a time.
The Great Firewall of China blocks access to Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook and some other services. These restrictions are easily sidestepped by using a proxy (
ssh -D is your friend) but it’s worth bearing in mind if you rely on these services heavily. It was also in the news recently that Skype and other non-state owned VoIP services are soon going to be blocked in China.
We also found that some sites were blocked in Vietnam, Facebook being the most high profile.
It’s a shame to be leaving but I’m excited about starting some new projects when I get back to London.
I’m sure I’ll be taking more trips of this nature, combining work and travelling. If you need a push to consider doing something similar, here’s a pic of where I’m sat writing this post: