The Global Nomad Lifestyle: A Journey To Personal Freedom

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How To Have Your Cake And Eat It, Too, When Living Overseas

We’ve all read axioms about travel…

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey… ”

Or this from J.R.R. Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost… ”

Or this gem from Caskie Stinnett, which rings so true to me: “I travel a lot; I hate having my life disrupted by routine.”

Why, when choosing to retire abroad, must it be a matter of exchanging one home in one location for another in a new location? One daily routine for another?

Why should there be one and only one new destination?

The benefits of settling in a new location overseas are numerous—from a reduced cost of living to a better climate… from a more comfortable lifestyle to a richer cultural experience.

And settling in one place means we have our own stuff handy—books, CDs, clothes, keepsakes…

But some of us imagine a different lifestyle overseas. Maybe you, like me, appreciate fresh challenges and new learning experiences. And maybe, like me, you’re not in a hurry to find one particular spot.

If that’s the case, then perhaps you’re a good candidate (again, like me) for becoming part of the fast-growing global nomad community.

I have a long history of traveling and living abroad, both personally and professionally, most of it unplanned.

I took off for Europe for a few months in the late 1970s and ended up staying 13 years… I went to Thailand for 3 months and left 4 years later… and I traveled to the United States from my native Canada for a few months on assignment and didn’t depart until 15 years later.

My current adventure overseas is as unique as each of the previous ones.

Four years ago I was pushing 56 and decided enough was enough. I disposed of every possession I had except a small airline crew-style roll-aboard suitcase, my trusty laptop, a few T-shirts, a few pairs of shorts, and a backpack… and then I took off.

Checked out, as they say.

In project management terms it’s called a “big bang”… when the old system is unplugged and the new one started up on the same day.

It can be a high-risk effort because it can seem tough to go back if the new methods don’t work.

But that’s what I did. I big banged my life.

I finished my job, sold my house, its contents, and my car, then took a leap of faith.

For me this giant leap was easier than it might be for someone else because I’ve packed up and moved all from one country to another seven times in my life.

But anyone can do this. A little bit of homework and a lot of nerve go a long way, and things usually have a way of working out better than expected… sometimes much better.

It’s simple in today’s world to set up the practical infrastructure required for this kind of move (banking and credit cards online that can be managed from anywhere, for example).

One holdback can be money. If you don’t have enough saved or invested to live on for the rest of your life as you roam and discover the world, you’re not alone. The good news is that, again, in today’s world, this challenge is more easily overcome than ever in history.

When I took off for my current adventure, I headed to Southeast Asia, first stop the Philippines. From there I traveled to Malaysian Borneo, Indonesia, Vietnam, and, most recently, Cambodia. Next up, probably next year, will be Burma/Myanmar now that the political scene in that country has stabilized.

I chose the Philippines as my first stop because I thought that country could be the right place for me. Boy, was I wrong. The Philippines is far too Westernized for my liking. I like an exotic flavor to keep the fire stoked.

But one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor…

Point is, it takes time… a year or longer… to be sure of our feelings in a new place.

So far, I’ve done a deep dive on four different cities: Manila in the Philippines; Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo; Bali, Indonesia; and Da Nang, Vietnam.

When I say deep dive I mean I know those places well. I know the neighborhoods offering the best values, I know the best beaches, I know where to eat, where to shop, how to get around, things to seek out, things to avoid, etc….

The best suckling pig on Bali for US$3, the juiciest steamed meat buns in Borneo for 75 cents, the most divine Vietnamese-style steak and eggs for US$2, the best Filipino bulalo oxtail soup in Manila for 2 bucks…

I also have great friends in each place, so I’ve always got buddies to hang out with when I’m in town. In Bali, many of my friends are Australians, so I learn their take on things, while in Malaysian Borneo my coffee shop and beer buddies are mostly locals educated abroad.

In Cambodia I’ve connected with American and British retirees, and in Da Nang my entourage is nearly all local.

Each location has unique themes, offers unique opportunities, and each day is an enriching experience. I show up from time to time and take my spot at the table, and we start up right where we left off.

Each of my preferred destinations has an upside, but no place is perfect, at least not 12 months a year. Weather is a big variable in Southeast Asia. Destinations in the northern hemisphere are hit hard by rainy seasons in the second half of the year.

I’ve spent enough time in each place to know the weather patterns, a good investment because information available online on this topic is often sketchy or incomplete. When you read that a foot of rain falls in a given location during one month in the rainy season, it sounds like a lot, but it may rain in buckets overnight, leaving the days enjoyable.

Bali has the opposite seasons to most places because it’s located in the Southern Hemisphere. The most developed part of Bali, in the south, lies nearly 9 degrees below the Equator, so the driest and most pleasant weather is in the second half of the year. The rainy season starts in December… whereas December is the start of the dry season most other places in this part of the world.

Malaysian Borneo’s weather is as unique as everything else about the place. There are two mini rainy seasons—one midway through the year, then another in September/October. Neither brings big storms or typhoons, which is why Malaysian Borneo is known as the “Land Below The Wind.”

Central Vietnam, where Da Nang is located, can get cool during the winter months, into the low 70s and cooler overnight, a welcome respite from the humidity and heat of other seasons here.

Sihanoukville, Cambodia, is sheltered from big storms by the peninsula in the southernmost part of Vietnam.

So, while none of these locations is perfect all the time, at any given point during the year, at least one of them is enjoying good weather.

Works well for me… as I want to be moving around anyway.

Health is another big consideration. As I’m describing, I like to keep moving, and I’m grateful to be able still to do so.

To help make sure that continues to be the case for as long as possible I have chosen to invest in an international health insurance policy that covers me everywhere in the world outside the United States. I selected a policy with a large deductible (of US$10,000) because I don’t have a history of health issues.

The main risk for me is a serious ailment or an accident that requires extensive care that comes at considerable cost. I’ve mitigated that risk with my insurance policy. I can put down the US$10,000 if needed and feel comfortable that the rest will be taken care of.

How does a global nomad address the question of visas and residency?

This leads to another benefit of the global nomad lifestyle. A nomad like me has no immigration issues anywhere.

A friend in the Philippines spent more than 183 days in that country last year and got a nasty surprise when he attempted to leave the country. The local authorities accused him of being a resident without the proper paperwork, meaning he was liable for an immigration fine.

I don’t stick around anywhere long enough to have to worry about acquiring status beyond that of a tourist.

The red tape in some destinations in this part of the world associated with becoming a permanent resident can be heavy and frustrating. In Indonesia, retirees must hold a KITAS retirement visa, which is costly and time-consuming, and the goalposts are often moved with little notice.

It seems my friends in Indonesia are either renewing their visas, waiting on their visas to be processed, or running around to meet new and changing requirements.

Vietnam, on the other hand, makes it easy to stick around. This country recently introduced a one-year tourist visa for U.S. citizens at a cost of about US$160. Perfect.

Vietnam also offers a business visa but not a retiree visa. One is in the works but may not become available for a couple of years.

Malaysia gives citizens of most Western countries a free 90-day pass on arrival, no visa required.

However, I’ve heard stories of complications for some who try to extend their stays by doing visa runs to a nearby country over long periods of time. If you want to stay in Malaysia beyond the 90 days you’re granted upon arrival, consider this country’s retirement program Malaysia My Second Home. This status comes with lots of benefits but at a not insignificant cost.

Cambodia requires a visa, but it’s cheap and can be easily extended indefinitely. One friend in Cambodia has been extending his visa for eight years.

A new three-year tourist visa has been announced for Cambodia, but the implementation date has not been set yet.

Me… I’m very happy to avoid all those choices, complications, and costs by coming and going under the tourist wire.

For me, nothing beats the freedom and flexibility of this global nomad lifestyle. I go where I want when I want.

And I can continue doing that until I don’t want to anymore. At any time, I could decide to settle in one location or maybe to share time between two or more places long-term. If that day comes, I feel well-prepared to make the best choice for me

In the meantime, I’m having my cake and eating it, too.

Rick Ellis

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About Author

Rick Ellis

Rick Ellis is a career expatriate, semi-retired from a Senior Program Management position at a major airline. Born and raised in Canada, Rick has lived in 9 countries over the last 38 years and traveled to over 50 worldwide, speaks 6 languages and is now working on his 7th. Rick escaped from corporate life at the beginning of 2013 and has since been roaming around between Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. Rick continues to explore new destinations in South-East Asia while choosing his own retirement location.