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As it has become more and more popular to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, Chiang Mai has emerged as what’s likely the most popular destination. I went there for a couple of months and here are my notes.

The advantages of being a digital nomad in Chiang Mai

  • It’s cheap
  • Housing is easy
  • Getting a local SIM is convenient and inexpensive
  • Scooters
  • There’s a great community of nomads
  • The weather and air are nice (except during burning season)
  • It’s a generally high trust society

Work from paradise
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Over the years, I’ve offered an extra bed or at least a couch to a number of online friends who have stopped by Taipei or wherever I happened to be living. I’m not sure my grandmother would approve, but I think the conventional wisdom about is wrong on this topic. The risks are mostly over-stated and the benefits are often overlooked. People are mostly good and on the whole and as far as I can tell, helping travelers out is a net gain for both the traveler and the host.

The online friends I’ve invited over fit into three groups. Some, such as Brian, keep mostly to themselves, spend a lot of time on their laptops blogging or doing whatever it is they do and don’t really impact my routine one way or the other. Without exception, they’re always good for an interesting conversation or two. Hosting them is definitely a net positive. The second group are people like Darin. They make plans to come and I offer them a place to stay, but then they end up canceling the trip. Nothing is lost and nothing is gained… except maybe an increased chance of them offering me a place to stay when I visit the country where they live. The third group is those like my friend Wayne who end up becoming great friends and hanging out with me regularly for months or even years. That’s not only worth it, but it’s enough to upset the risk of a really bad guest (which I haven’t experienced yet).

One other thing that has been absolutely wonderful is that an unusually large number of people have let me crash at their places. John, when I visited Shanghai, PR when moving in Taipei, Matt before I left Colorado and now Ben in Kunming. I can’t really draw any connection between me having other guests at my place and them inviting me to stay at theirs, but if I did believe in earthly karma this experience would certainly reinforce that belief.

I came to Thailand because my Chinese tourist visa only allows me to stay for 30 days each trip. Thankfully, Thailand offers visa-free entry to Americans. I hadn’t really ever had much interest in visiting Thailand, so this is the first time I’ve come here. I came as late as possible so as to maximize the amount of time I get in China before making another visa run, and I didn’t really plan the particular day I’d be here at all.

It turns out I was incredibly lucky. The one full day of my trip in Thailand happens to be the one day of the entire year that the lucky Buddha statue is open to the public. It’s also the one day that the big Buddha is free to visit. Ditto for half a dozen other places. I woke up with the sole goal of finding a place to buy size 12 running shoes, but after learning about my good fortune, I turned this into a tourist trip after all, visiting half a dozen temples.

I didn’t really have any idea what to expect before coming to Thailand, but all in all it was pretty nice (aside from the tuktuk drivers). I even found the shoes I was looking for! I hear that the internet is censored here, but unlike China, it didn’t have any effect on me. It may have bothered me if I were really interested in reading about controversial religious topics or things related to the Thai monarchy, but I didn’t even notice it. Youtube was accessible. So were Facebook, dropbox, blogspot and all the other sites I can’t get at in China. I might come back someday to visit again.

It was already midnight when I got to the Kunming train station. Unlike other train stations I’d seen in major Chinese cities at that hour, it was mostly dark and deserted. Fortunately, my friendly cabin-mate from the ride in was kind enough to call my friend Ben and let him know I was in the city and on my way to his apartment. Thanks to a recent party, the apartment was a disaster, messier than any place I’d set foot in in years. I didn’t care one bit. My friend from Taiwan was there, the wifi worked and there was an actual bed to sleep in.

By the time I got onto the train to Kunming, I was exhausted– exhausted from lugging a backpack and two suitcases around the Guangdong Railway station while looking for a bank, exhausted from getting offers for overpriced services, and most of all exhausted from from sleep deprivation. In the end, though, I did manage to get done what needed to be done. I changed my HK dollars to RMB (losing 100HKD to a slight of hand artist first), I made it from Guangdong Railway Station to Guangdong East Station via the subway for 4RMB instead of the 50-100 that taxis kept offering me, I got my ticket and I stayed awake long enough for the train to arrive.

When I was finally able to board the train, it was an immense feeling of relief. I stowed my luggage, climbed up to the top bunk and fell asleep before the train even started moving.

An interesting travel companion

One man I shared a compartment with was particularly out-going. At first after hearing all the r sounds in his Mandarin, I thought he was a northerner or maybe from Kunming on his way home. It wasn’t a terrible guess since he had, in fact, spent the first ten years of his life in Beijing, but after that he’d lived only in Hong Kong. As far as I could tell, his Cantonese was the same as a any other Hong Konger, but he’d never felt the need to alter his “standard” northern Mandarin into the heavily accented HK version. I suppose that’s pretty understandable. Anyway, the guy was full of stories. He told me about a ruthless gold-digger from Guangzhou. He talked about how he got into EFL teaching dispite having questionable English skills himself. Most surprising were his plans for after he got to Kunming.

On Chinese Police

“Be careful about Chinese police,” he told me. “They aren’t like Hong Kong police. You really don’t want to make them angry.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Well, there’s this one time I was on a train. It was a long distance one like the one we’re on now. In one of the compartments, there were four or five off-duty police officers, and they were smoking!!!”

I didn’t understand. “Lots of people smoke on the train,” I answered. “What was so bad about them?”

“There was a no smoking sign! They were police! I went into the room and said, ‘How dare you!!? It is your job to uphold the law and you break it yourselves! Have you no shame?”

“Uhh… what did they do then?”

“They continued smoking! And they spoke to me very coldly and told me to leave.”

“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe this guy. I wouldn’t ever talk to police like that in any country.

His plans for Kunming

“So, what are you going to do after you get to Kunming?” he asked me.

“I’m going to look for a visa-granting Chinese school for foreigners. I’ve got a friend to stay with. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m just traveling. I’m going to get a hotel room and go the supermarket to buy some paper underwear.”

“Paper underwear??!”

“Yes. It is available.”

I’ve just recently arrived in Hong Kong for the first time. It’s not at all what I’d expected from all of the HK movies I’ve seen, or even from what my friends have told me.

The Airport

The airport in Hong Kong was fantastic. It was very clean and new-looking. I found the immigration and security processes quicker and freer of hassle than those when I visited LA International Airport last year, and there was a lot of help for a newly arrived foreigner such as myself. The tourist information desk was great. Not only were they familiar with the hostel where I planned to stay, but they were able to give me directions to get there cheaply by bus instead of taking another train. A++!

Transportation

Actually, I found the public transportation very much the same as it is in Taiwan. There’s an MRT, but they call it an MTR. There’s an Easy Card (悠遊卡) for the subway and buses, but in Hong Kong, it’s called an Octopus Card (八達通). As in Taiwan, the card can also be used at convenience stores. In short, the transportation is excellent albeit a bit pricier than in Taiwan.

Prices

I didn’t find prices anywhere near as bad as I’d been lead to expect. From what people had told me, I’d had the impression that everything in HK would cost huge sums of money and I’d burn through my entire savings in a single week. The reality was much more mundane. The subway, buses and taxis were all a bit more expensive than Taiwan, but by less than a factor of two.

Food was the same for local stuff, cheaper for Chinese food of varieties hard to find in Taiwan, the same for fast food and ridiculously expensive in western style restaurants and pubs. 7-11 seemed about the same, but had more expensive options (e.g. Starbucks coffee for sale right next to the Mr. Brown). Beer in HK was cheaper.

Housing was definitely a bit more, but it was hard for me to judge since I was staying in a youth hostel. I paid about $150HKD (~$19US) for a small room and my own small bathroom. That in Kowloon, but less than a 5 minute walk from the subway.

All in all, I’d say that HK is a bit more expensive than Taipei, but you could spend far more if you love western-style pubs.

English and Mandarin

Unlike what I’d been told, most people in Hong Kong actually speak pretty bad English. There are more westerners there than in Taiwan, but of the locals I’d say that less than one in fifty really spoke good English. The travel agent’s English was far worse than that of those in Taiwan in areas with similar numbers of foreigners. The clerks at a lot of western stores and restaurants knew the English they needed to sell their specific wares or food, but it wasn’t universal and that was usually about it. On the whole, I’d say a higher percentage of people in HK are capable of the bare-minimum levels of English than in Taiwan, but it’s certainly not like you won’t be isolated from the society if you’re a mono-lingual English speaker.

Mandarin on the other hand, is pretty widespread. About three quarters or so of the people I met in HK spoke much better Mandarin than English. It was still heavily accented, and mixing in Cantonese words here and there wasn’t uncommon, but communication wasn’t a big problem for short conversations. I even met some westerners there who studied Mandarin, but not Cantonese! I’m not sure I’d have made that choice though. Cantonese is clearly the language of the land.

Haggling!

I was kind of surprised to find that haggling is so common in such a rich, well developed territory! I bought some hair clippers at a pretty nice looking electronics store. Originally, after seeing the price of $285HKD, I decided to wait until getting to Guangzhou to buy them. I told the clerk I’d have to think about it and started heading for the door. At that point, he chased me down and said I could buy them for $250. My movement towards the door hadn’t even been a negotiating tactic, but I guess he took it as one. I’d never ever try bargaining at that sort of store in TW, but after realizing the price was negotiable, I came back with a lower offer and the game was on!

Annoying Salespeople

On my way home to my hostel, a charming Indian man came walking up to me with a gigantic face-splitting smile. “This shahrt!”, pointing to his admittedly slick-looking button-up dress shirt. I was a little shocked and didn’t react. “These trousahs! I can make a suit for you!”, he continued with the same grin.

I pointed to my shorts and T-shirt and said, “I’m not a suit guy!”

“Come on! Just let me show you something…”, he continued. I have to say the salesman exuded charm and somehow made a tailor’s shop sound like the most exciting, wonderful place in the world. I smiled to myself and continued on walking. It wasn’t so easy to continue smiling after the third or fourth Indian guy stepped out in my path with the same offer, after a differently accented guy tried to get me to buy a watch, or especially after the streets filled with self-promotional prostitutes.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I once read an English writer who claimed that the fastest, simplest measure of the civility of a place was whether you had to hail a taxi or if the taxi drivers all hailed you. Hong Kong doesn’t do well by that measure.

For Mandarin speakers, 尖沙咀 is a terrible name!

I was staying near the Tsim Sha Chui (尖沙咀) MTR station. As an aside doesn’t that name look terrible to a Mandarin speaker!!? 尖沙 is pronounced jiānshā, which is 姦殺 or “rape and murder”. I don’t know what’s going on at that station, but it sure sounds bad!

World Cup Madness

What a difference from Taiwan! There probably aren’t many places more crowded and less conducive playing a game that requires lots of space and well-conditioned runners, but these guys love it here! I was in a huge mall called iSquare in the 尖沙咀 area, and they had a big screen up for people to watch for free and it looked like about a thousand people were crowded in the area watching a game! I could hear their moans of agony on missed goals from the street outside!

Aggressive, but friendly people

I’ve definitely seen more aggressiveness in general in Hong Kong than I’m accustomed to, but people were still pretty friendly. It may be a by-product of not working, but I found it surprisingly easy to meet people. I liked HK, except for the harassment from salespeople and I’m sure I’ll come back in the future.

After not making it in time yesterday, I had to make another trip from Hanover, NH to Boston today. It was an adventure to say the least.

Heading out

Since I had such a hard time finding the Taipei Economic Office yesterday, I made sure to get a print-out of an online map of the relevant part of Boston before heading out this morning. After that, I was off! It was freezing, at least to my wussified-by-life-in-Taiwan point of view, and the roads were snowy, but at least the sun was shining. I got onto the highway at about 10am, and headed out in high spirits. I missed the turnoff from 89 to 93, but with only a slight detour through a “vote Guiliani sign” infested portion of suburbia, I got back on the route and things were going fine… for a while.

The Tailgater

As a rule, I speed on the highway. Pretty much everybody my age does. I try to keep it within about 10 miles per hour of the speed limit, though. At least where I grew up, the penalties for going 9 over were minimal, but they got a lot more serious at 10 over and 15 over. With a posted speed limit of 65, that put my target speed at 73 or 74 MPH. The right lane was at a crawl, and the middle lane was only going at about the speed limit, so I got in the left lane.

I was slowly passing traffic to my right, and enjoying the great scenery when I noticed a white SUV riding right up against my back bumper. I looked to my right, and there was no way of getting over. I can’t stand tailgaters, but out of courtesy, I stepped it up to just under 80 MPH. The tailgater stayed right behind me and started getting all passive-aggressive with the high beams. Not liking that one bit, I slowed back down to 5-10 over the limit and tried to shield my eyes from the high beams, which were amazingly annoying considering it was daytime.

Then a hole opened up in traffic next to me, the SUV behind me changed lanes, it pulled up beside me, and I got a terrible surprise. It wasn’t just some random asshole tailgater who had been behind me. It was an asshole tailgating cop who had been behind me. And at that moment he was holding a badge up against his window and screaming something at me. Yikes.

I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway as quickly as I could, and waited tensely. The cop who came lumbering up to me was dark, heavy-set and seriously pissed of. Before he even got up to the car he was screaming. He was carrying a gun on one hip and a taser on the other. I felt a bit unsettled.

After enduring the initial barrage of cursing, I showed him my driver’s license, and he asked where I was going. He didn’t know what the “Taipei Economic Office” was, but it must have sounded respectable, because he immediately calmed down a bit. Then he asked me why I was driving somebody else’s car, and why I had a Colorado driver’s license. I told him I’d been living in Taiwan for 5 years, and showed him my passport as evidence, and then it was pretty much okay. He wanted to know why I was going so slowly (I replied I had thought the limit was 65), and gave me the whole “I don’t know how the hell they drive out in Taiwan, but around here blah, blah, blah…” speech, and it was fine after that. Five minutes of “yes, officer” this and “yes officer” that, and I was free to go. My pulse didn’t go back down to normal for another ten, though.

Applying for the Visa

Having learned from my experiences yesterday, I parked near the T stop and went into the office on foot. I dropped off an entire stack of documents, including bank statements, and a work permit and applied for a resident visa directly. I must have been the first one to do that at their office in a long time. The assistant seemed like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. With everything lined up, though, it was pretty straight forward. She sent me out to get some larger photos of myself taken, since mine were too small, but that was the only issue that came up. Interestingly, the consular officer told me he’d read a book by some guy who’d given up his US passport to become Taiwanese and then served in the army there. The look on his face when I told him I knew the guy and played a bit part as a bodyguard in his movie was priceless.

Heading back

By the time I left Boston, it was starting to rain. After driving 50 miles north, it was snow, not rain that was coming down. The ride home absolutely bit. It got dark earlier than I’ve ever seen before in my life, I was in a borrowed car, the wipers sucked, and I had to fumble around to find the various defrosters. In short, I could barely see where I was going. Worse still, I actually saw a car slide off the road somewhere around the state border. It only took 3 hours to get to Boston, but it took 5 hours to get back. By the time I got to Dartmouth I was exhausted. Fortunately, the people at the economic office offered to mail my passport back to me, thus sparing me the need to make the trip again.

I made a thoroughly unpleasant first visit to Boston today. You know, I was totally predisposed to like the place, too. I loved the accents in Good Will Hunting. My college buddy’s girlfriend who visited from Harvard was awesome. Just their stand on Pop vs. Soda vs Tawnick is sweet.

The problem is, the roads suck. In trying to get to the Taipei Economic Office, I spent hours drivingriding around and around, never more than a couple of miles away, and yet not being able to find the @#$@!* place until after they had closed at 4:30. A nice grid, like Toronto, would have been ideal. I could have managed a diagonally aligned street system like Denver‘s, though. Any system would have been nice. Boston doesn’t seem to have one, though. It’s almost as if the layout was designed by a bunch of drunkards pushing oxcarts around. Oh wait. It was.

Beyond the general madness of its design, of course it’s a pain in the ass just by virtue of being big. It’s filled with one way streets, pedestrian only streets, the parking sucks, and it’s freezing. With the subway and all, I’m sure it’s a nice place to explore on foot in the summer, but I didn’t make it to the Taiwanese “embassy” until 4:45, at which time they were already closed. That means borrowing Sonia’s car and making another 3 hour trip back there tomorrow.

What a long trip! I went to the airport in Taiwan at 4:30AM, flew to Hong Kong, took another plane to Newark, flew from there to Boston, and then finally rode a 3 hour bus to get to the Dartmouth campus.

Hong Kong Airport

This was the first time I’ve ever gone through Hong Kong. That was interesting. People’s Mandarin sounded a little bit different that what I was used to, and so did their English. Despite being a primarily Cantonese speaking population, I didn’t meet a single person in the airport who couldn’t speak Mandarin, and English skills were bit more widespread than what you’d find in the airport in Taiwan, too. Also, it was interesting to see simplified Chinese and traditional Chinese signage peacefully coexisting all over the place. It’s not that signs had both, necessarily. Some signs were in traditional and other completely different signs were in simplified… even inside the same bathroom.

TSA

This is the first time I’ve ever seen TSA or Homeland Security officers to the best of my knowledge. Contrary to what I’ve read on the internet, they were very polite. I didn’t see any tasings, hear any officials screaming at random people or see any mothers forced to drink from their babies’ bottles, either. In fact, the Homeland Security I interacted with were the most courteous security guys I can ever recall dealing with. There must have been some kind of sensitivity training.

Dartmouth

I showed up at 10pm, utterly exhausted, and Sonia picked me up at the bus stop. I was delighted to see snow and the natural beauty of the trees and hills all around me.

It was 10 years ago that Hong Kong returned to the mainland. It was also the first time in my life I had gone over-seas. I came to Taiwan, hoping to learn something about myself, and hoping to experience something really different than the life I knew back in Colorado. With very little planning, no ability to speak Chinese, and no idea what to expect, I put the plane ticket on my credit card and came for a few weeks.

At the time, it was a breath-taking experience- the humidity, the Chinese written everywhere, and the rain. It was pouring when I got to the train station. I don’t know how the heck I managed to find a youth hostel, but I did. It was a run-down place named “Happy Family” up on the fifth floor of a concrete building. I must have been quite a sight when I got to the top. A gangly hundred and sixty something pounds, lugging three suitcases, dripping wet and grinning like crazy.

In the hostel I met all sorts of free-spirited people who had abandoned various degree programs or goals to become travelers. There was a bare-chested Canadian guy with long curly hair, who had dropped out of school because he was sick of just reading about anthropology and wanted to see something. There were a pair of Australian girls who were interested in New Age philosophy and wanted to learn something about Chinese traditions. There was a middle-aged American guy who came for a fresh perspective on life after his wife had left him. Dozens of others were just stopping by for a couple of months to fund the next leg of larger travels.

Everything about those weeks I spent here is etched into my memory. What strange, though, is to be able to examine those same memories from my current perspective. I couldn’t understand much Chinese at all then. By necessity, a great deal of my contact was with with the foreigners in the hostel. The area around the train station was torn up for construction and I didn’t know why. At the time I never would have imagined that I’d return to Taiwan six years later, much less still be here now, another four years after that.

I watched the Hong Kong handover on TV then. Seeing it again on Youtube now brought back this wave of nostalgia.

That trip changed my life. There’s no doubt about it. It was my first time going anyplace truly alien. It was the first time I shaved my head (actually the two Australians shaved it for me). It was the first time I went to a bar or a dance club. It was the first time I really got the idea that entire huge places are filled by people speaking a foreign language. If I hadn’t come to Taiwan, there’s no way I would have abandoned my math major for linguistics and then later Japanese.

Related: Former HK Administrator Chris Patten Reflects on the HK Handover (The Guardian)