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Being a Digital Nomad in Malaysia

Digital Nomad in Malaysia

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard from a number of people who are interested in the digital nomad lifestyle but aren’t sure exactly what to expect. I’ve covered some of the ways location independence can backfire on your business already, but I haven’t talked about the experience of working online from a new country yet. Here’s a day in the life — weekend edition.

Calvin Harris, thick black coffee, and free wifi — I’ve got a table all to myself at the Forrest Edge Resort in Sabah, Malaysia.

My girlfriend is poolside while I get started on work. It’s pretty much always sunny here, and hot too, so I’m wearing thin Under Armour shorts, a thin Exofficio shirt designed for travel, and flip flops. Well, I would be wearing flip flops, but the Muslim custom is to take shoes off before entering a house or building, so I’m sitting barefoot at my table.

Macbook Air, iPhone and Rayban sunglasses at my side — let’s do this.

I open my browser (Google Chrome of course) and all my saved tabs pop up:

  • Trello (personal tasks)
  • Asana (work/team tasks)
  • Fitness spreadsheet (track exercise)
  • Google Cal (meetings/calls)
  • Personal Gmail Account
  • Work Gmail Account
  • Blog Gmail Account

I open Slack (team messaging) and Spotify (streaming music) and I’m up and running.

It’s go time.

I check my Kanban board in Trello. I have a pretty simple system and it keeps my work organized and prioritized.
Kanban in Trello

A gecko runs across the floor as I check my to do’s for the day.

My first priority is “getting up to speed” work for the new job I started (gotta have money to live). After that, I’ll get to work on my own business tasks.

Since leaving my FT job in January, I’ve often struggled with knowing what to do, when. Without the structure of a traditional 9-5 job, I have to manage my work and priorities carefully. If I don’t, I’ll find myself in 2017 with still no real progress on creating a business. And that just isn’t acceptable.

Today is Sunday, the one day of the week I’m not working with orangutans.

Today is my “get ahead” day. I need to really hustle and crush action items today if I want to stay on top of my work load, the work week is hectic enough as it is.

Normally I’d be overseeing a feeding platform full of adolescent orangutans, or out in the jungle trekking, or teaching orphaned orangutans how to climb — but today is all mine.

Sitting at my table, I can see other travelers and nomads taking advantage of the resort’s cafe. A couple walks in with their luggage and heads to their room, a group sits around a table playing a board game, and a fellow nomad sits with his laptop, staring intently at his screen.

We’re all here on the island of Borneo enjoying a world unlike our own. We’re all white (the locals can’t afford resort prices), we’re all from the “Western” world (US, UK, Australia, etc.), and we’re all addicted to wifi.

The occasional nod or curious glance from another traveler seems to say, “Hey, we share the same skin color… hi!”

Whites are the minority here.

When I say, “Terima kasih” (thank you) to our server, he smiles in surprise and responds, “Sama sama” (you’re welcome). Knowing a handful of common words and phrases in Malay will go far here. And from what I hear, making an effort to speak a little of the local language will go far in most countries (Paris, France a notable exception).

When I leave the resort later on with my girlfriend, we’ll head back to the guesthouse where we sleep. Modest accommodations — we do our laundry by hand in a bucket — but it was expected and we’re grateful for the air conditioning, which works on most days.

We might camp out in our room where I’ll use my SIM card to keep working online, or we could walk to the nearby cafe that caters to tourists visiting the orangutan centre. There we can find more free wifi, reliable air conditioning, and plenty of food choices with Western options if we want them. And they’re open late, which means I can do more work after dinner if I have the energy for it.

Somewhere between now and bed time I’ll find 45 minutes for a run down the main street that takes tourists from the highway to the orangutan centre. Wearing my Vibram running shoes, I’ll watch out for snakes and remember that cars drive on the left side of the road — I had some close calls during the first couple runs where I forgot this simple fact.

But for now, I’m enjoying the wifi, the coffee, and the relative peace and quiet (you wouldn’t believe the bizarre sounds birds in Borneo make).

It’s going to be a productive day.

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