From Digital Nomad to Expat – Putting Down Roots in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Eleven and a half years ago I set out to see the world. I was 54 years old at the time and had spent the last 36 years working at various jobs that had included, among other things, selling newspaper ads, managing a women’s department store, owning a public relations firm, and managing real estate franchises. At one point I even co-owned and operated a Sno-Cone kiosk in the largest water park in Puerto Rico! None of my jobs, or the comfortable lifestyle they afforded me, had ever made me happy. In fact, I was miserable. But rather than changing my life, I kept repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. And that, as they say, is the definition of insanity.
Fortunately, a severe illness kicked me out of my complacency. When I realized I might die, I promised myself that if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue my true passions of travel, photography, and writing. (Read more details about my journey of self-discovery on my about page). A year later, I slung a backpack over my shoulder and set off on a six-month around-the-world journey. One of my stops was Thailand. I’d visited in 2004 and loved it. After my second visit, I was addicted to Thailand.
In 2009, I finally gave up my apartment in Florida and became a full-time digital nomad with no home base. I worked wherever I could get a wifi connection and carried everything I needed in a 22″ carry-on suitcase and a small backpack. More than 3,000 stories and thousands of photos later, I’d successfully recreated myself as a travel writer, but I was also searching for my perfect paradise. During my 11+ years on the road, I visited 94 countries and seriously considered a number of destinations as potential homes. Budapest, Croatia, and Bulgaria, though intriguing, just weren’t right for one reason or another. But Thailand kept drawing me back.
A couple of years ago, I began having severe problems with my knees and hips. It was no longer easy for me to carry my suitcase up and down the stairs of Metro and train stations around Europe, much less deal with the poor infrastructure in developing countries. Eventually, my chronic joint pain began impacting more than just my physical body. My childlike wonder disappeared. Every destination looked the same. Travel became a chore rather than a joy. My writing lost its luster. I needed a good long rest. I needed to find a home again.
I’d come close to putting down roots before, but never seemed to be able to make the final commitment. I was scared of falling back into “material girl” mode, that I would once again begin to collect unnecessary “stuff.” And what if I didn’t like being in one place? I’d be trapped for at least a year. Fortunately, I’d been wintering in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the past several years. I’d always become bored with other destinations that initially appealed to me, but Chiang Mai never seemed to lose its allure. I was gutted each time I left.
Over the winter of 2016-2017 I spent five months in the city known as the cultural capital of Thailand. And still I was distressed when it came time to hit the road again. There was little doubt that Chiang Mai was the place for me. I met with the management of Smith Suites, the serviced apartment complex where I’d been staying the past few winters, and arranged to rent a year-round apartment when I returned. My days as a digital nomad would be coming to an end, but I eagerly looked forward to my new life as an expat in Chiang Mai.
I moved into my new apartment this past February 1st and I’m deliriously happy. Frankly, I don’t know what took me so long. At some level, I’ve always known I would end up in Chiang Mai. I guess I just had to check all the other places off my list before I could truly admit that there is no better place for me. It’s wonderful to have a home again, where I can plant my “stuff.” A few weeks ago, I got my 90-day Non-O Thai visa, which was subsequently extended to a year, based on retirement. The “retirement visa” is renewable on an annual basis for an affordable fee. And speaking of affordability, the cost of living in Thailand is extremely attractive. I’ve chosen to rent a more expensive modern apartment in a newer building that has a pool, gym, and 24-hour security, however it is entirely possible to rent an apartment or house here for less than $400 USD per month.
Settling down as an expat in Chiang Mai, however, doesn’t mean that I’ll stop traveling. In fact, in 2018 I will reach a long-time goal when I visit my 100th country, and I’ll be doing some really fun things this year. I hit the road again at the end of April, bound for a 17-day tour of Ethiopia with Ethio Travel and Tours. Long on my travel wish list, my tour of Ethiopia will include the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and visits to a number of tribes in the Omo Valley. From there, I head for a fabulous 15-day land and sea tour of Greece with Collette, which will include Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, Delphi, Metéora and much more. September will find me in French Polynesia, where I’ll be sailing on the Aranui 5, a dual-purpose passenger/freighter that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas, Tuamotu and Society Islands.
I couldn’t be more excited about this year’s itinerary, and not only because of the places I’ll be visiting. Having a home base again means I can travel lighter, stay on the road for shorter periods, and go back to my comfortable little apartment whenever I need a break from traveling. I hope that you, my loyal followers, will continue to travel with me vicariously as I take you to more of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
Editor’s note: My readers are often astonished by the vagabond life I lead, assuming it is quite unique. I tell them that there are many digital nomads who travel the world extensively or permanently. If you’re interested in this lifestyle, check out Agness and Cez at eTramping. Like me, they travel full time. In this article, for instance, they feature a photo of Tibet taken from a train window.