Sitting in a cafe in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I’m looking back on what’s become our first complete year of full-time travel. It’s hard to believe it was just over one year ago that Ryan and I were in our hometown of Great Falls, Montana. We’d already quit our office jobs, gotten rid of most of our stuff, given up the lease on our apartment, and said good-bye to our adopted home of Boston.
After talking, dreaming, and planning for months (years, really), we were finally ready to take the plunge into self-employment, remote work, and long-term travel. While it’s undeniably had its ups and downs, we’ve been doing this for a whole year now, and that seems like reason enough to pause and look back on everything that’s happened so far.
There’s nothing like reflecting on a full year of adventure to make you realize that those experiences that were so frustrating at the time – getting caught in the rain walking to our hotel at midnight, being forced to pay bribes to unscrupulous officers, having our motorbike break down in the middle of nowhere – weren’t that important in the long run.
So, where has this past year taken us?
4 states: Montana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama
5 countries: U.S., Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos
This adventure began late last January, when we took off on a road trip through the Deep South. We then spent a few final weeks in Montana, before finally hopping on a one-way flight to Bangkok.
Since then, we’ve found ourselves crisscrossing Southeast Asia, returning to places we loved, and chasing opportunities that came up. We didn’t plan it this way, but we’ve now spent about five months (!) in Thailand, spread out over three different visits, as well as three months in Laos and nearly as long in Cambodia, which we’re currently visiting for the third time (also, a grand total of one week in Malaysia).
Instead of recapping every single place we’ve been, I thought I’d use the rest of this post to share some of our biggest highs and lows from the year.
We’ve been so fortunate to experience some amazing things this past year, and believe me, it was hard to choose just a few highlights to share in this post. But, here are the ones that made the cut.
Exploring the Louisiana Bayou
It’s hard to pick a favorite part of our two-week road trip through the South, but exploring Louisiana’s bayou is definitely a top contender. In a state where the vast majority of people visit the one city that in no way represents it (although we did love New Orleans), we really wanted to see more.
Curious about the culture of the bayou, we stayed two nights in the town of Houma at one of the best Airbnbs ever. Our hosts (a lifelong Houma resident and his California-transplant wife) were incredibly welcoming and even made us delicious homemade biscuits for breakfast.
We spent our time there driving all over the bayou, where we got to take in the sight of stilted houses, explore the towns on the other side of the levees, and stop at some stores and restaurants that don’t get a lot of outsiders, to say the least.
Attending Two Yoga Retreats
I had long fantasized about attending a yoga retreat, which always sounded to me like the ultimate combination of stress relief, personal development, and community. A lot of retreats in the U.S. are crazy expensive, but fortunately, that’s not the case in this part of the world, and I’m so lucky to have gotten to attend one in Thailand and one in Cambodia.
Both weeks were transformative experiences, full of interesting people, new ideas, and the chance to fully unwind, not to mention plenty of time to reflect on the things that really matter in life (hint: it’s not what you look like or how much money you make, but it might be how you feel and how you relate to the people around you).
Scuba Diving Again (Finally!)
We completed our PADI Open Water Certification when we visited Thailand for the first time back in 2012 – and hadn’t been diving since. While I was at my retreat in Thailand last March, Ryan went on a scuba diving trip on the island of Koh Chang, which turned out to be one of his own highlights.
“Even if I was only able to see some colorful fish and eels popping out of the corral for a few minutes on each dive, it’s still amazing to see and I’m still underwater for an hour. How cool is that? I hope that I never lose this joy or forget how remarkable it is to be in a place that should be so foreign to humans.”
Getting to Know Chiang Mai
In northern Thailand, just a comfortable overnight train ride away from Bangkok, is the digital nomad capital of the world, Chiang Mai. It’s also one of Thailand’s largest and most-visited cities. We weren’t too sure how we’d feel about it, but true to cliché, we fell in love.
Thanks to two housesitting gigs, we’ve ended up returning to the city three times now and have spent over six weeks there altogether (and we’re tentatively planning another visit this summer).
We’ve gotten to know the city well enough that we really look forward to certain things each time we return – lots of healthy restaurants, the best pancakes in Southeast Asia, top-quality yoga classes, and weekly kayaking excursions, open mic nights, and women’s lunch meet-ups. Our time in Chiang Mai is admittedly never authentically “Thai,” but we so enjoy the experience we carve out there every time we go back.
The Slow Boat to Laos
I’m not sure if I’m ready to proclaim Laos as our favorite country this year, but I’m definitely ready to sing the praises of the amazing journey we took to get there. To get to Laos from neighboring Thailand, you can fly (expensive and not eco-friendly), you can take a bus (uncomfortable and nauseating), or you can take a two-day slow boat down the Mekong.
Make no mistake, this boat ride is a Tourist Experience, but it was awesome. I’m talking two full days of front-row seats to unreal scenery, eighty or so travelers with no Internet or cell service who instead just read, relax, and talk to each other, and an overnight stop in a small riverside village. It was the perfect break and the perfect introduction to Laos.
Hiking to Villages in Laos
In the area around Muang Ngoi, Laos, unlike many places we’ve been, it’s easy to hike independently to rural villages. We spent two days hiking alone through the countryside and stayed overnight in two different villages, places where electricity, cell service, and food options were extremely limited, and the only foreigners around were two other people who’d done the same hike we had.
Our accommodation in both villages was a rustic building made of bamboo, where the rooms had no electricity and weren’t much bigger than the double mattress on the floor. Exploring the small villages and chatting with local people in very limited English (and our few words of Lao) was an amazing peek into rural life and a reminder of what the country is like for the majority of its people.
Riding in a Hot Air Balloon
I definitely can’t leave one of our biggest bucket list experiences off this list of highlights. Vang Vieng – a town in northern Laos that’s somehow equal parts party hotspot, package tour stop, and adventure travel destination – has the world’s cheapest hot air balloon rides. They take place every morning and evening, and just seeing the balloons float through the sky is absolutely magical.
We were lucky that Ryan’s parents gifted us a ride for Christmas, and we got to experience it for ourselves. The scenery around Vang Vieng is unreal, and a hot air balloon ride meant unobstructed bird’s-eye views.
Traveling as a couple means getting to spend most of your time with your best friend and having someone to share the incredible moments with and to support you during the frustrating times. But even for people who are married, solo travel is a special – and totally different – thing, and we’ve traveled separately a few times during the past year.
Each experience left me struck by how empowering it feels to handle everything on your own, how natural it is to meet other solo travelers, and how okay it is to enjoy doing your own thing. Actually, I think spending some time apart, pursuing your own interests and meeting other people, is critical to traveling long-term as a couple.
One of the biggest myths about travel is that it’s super awesome and glamorous all the time every day. That’s so not the case, especially when you’re working and traveling at the same time. So to add a dose of reality to this post, here are some of our biggest lows from the past year.
Staying Largely on the Tourist Trail
More than almost anything, we love traveling off the beaten path, experiencing the local culture, and partaking in outdoor adventures. Not surprisingly, some of our favorite experiences from this year have been the most experiential and offbeat.
But our work – which requires decent Wi-Fi, reasonably comfortable workspaces, and large blocks of time – isn’t super compatible with that style of travel. It’s just easier to work in big cities, tourist-friendly towns, or expat hubs, so that’s often where we’ve found ourselves. While we’ve loved many of those places, it’s not the only way we want to experience the world.
I hope we’ll figure out a way to get back to our travel roots and see more off-the-beaten-path destinations in the next year, but that’s going to require finding a better balance…
Struggling to Find Balance
Traveling and working at the same time means, well, trying to balance travel and work. And as it turns out, that’s easier said than done. When you work for yourself, there are no weekends, evenings, or days off. There’s always more to be done, and you only get paid when you work – and when you’re basically starting a new and difficult (and not-super-lucrative) career, every dollar counts.
For us, it’s been hard to ever get “enough” work done to justify spending time exploring, or to turn off the feeling that we “should be” working. Many times in the past year, we’ve packed our bags to leave a destination, and found ourselves feeling that we hadn’t actually seen much there beyond our hotel and some work-friendly cafés. And that inevitably brings up questions of whether this lifestyle is “worth it.”
Truly, I think more structure and better time management could help us feel more like there’s time for everything, and that’s something we’re really trying to work on.
Lack of Community
They say it’s really easy to meet people while traveling, and it is. Or rather, it’s easy to meet people when you’re on vacation; everyone’s relaxed, nobody’s rushed, and you have the freedom to do what you want every day. It’s decidedly not easy to meet people when you’re working and (seemingly) everyone around you is having a good time, and I think that’s why we’ve felt isolated at times.
But we’ve found that work exchange positions often come with a built-in community, and we’ll definitely be looking for opportunities to do more. We’re also planning to start using co-working spaces more frequently, which we’ve mostly shunned in the past because of the cost.
Many towns with big expat communities also have lots of meet-ups and other events, often geared toward digital nomads, and we’re hoping to take advantage of more of them when we pass through places Hoi An and Canggu. Since, you know, we’ll have figured out the whole balance thing by then and will have plenty of time.
In a stroke of bad timing, I had surgery a few months before we left the U.S., and a long recovery time and high risk that the procedure wouldn’t ultimately be successful made everything uncertain. We spent our first several months in Asia in a constant state of fear that we’d have to pack up and return to the U.S. at a moment’s notice.
We never knew whether everything was about to change, and had no idea how we’d manage if it did. We were hesitant to make plans more than a couple weeks in the future, and we twice found ourselves unexpectedly returning to Bangkok for better medical care. Fortunately, although I might not be completely in the clear, things are looking okay for now and it’s no longer a constant stress weighing on us.
The Next Year
Our current plans have us visiting Vietnam and Indonesia in the next few months before returning to Thailand to host some visitors from home (!). Then, we’re planning to spend part of the summer and fall back in the U.S., seeing friends and family, attending weddings and reunions, and hopefully doing some housesitting.
Montana and New Mexico are our only definite destinations at this point, but if we can work in a visit to Boston, that would be a dream. And after our time in the U.S., well, who knows?
Curious about how we’re funding this lifestyle? Check back next week!