Living in Asia in 2016-Seven Reasons Why The Game Has Changed

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Updated August 2016: Ever been on a holiday in an inexpensive country and found yourself beating back thoughts as to ways you could stay longer?

Me too. Crazy, right? Foolish.

Well this article is for you.

But maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. If you cast those ‘impractical thoughts’ aside before they could make their way into your baggage I’d like to re-introduce you.

Because living in Asia–especially Southeast Asia in my opinion–is more attractive than it’s ever been. Having a base here is more realistic and achievable than ever for Western expats, long-term travelers and digital nomads.

I’ve been living in Bali, Indonesia for over 10 years, but I also remember decades ago when expats in Southeast Asia had a ton of challenges we simply no longer have.

Really.

By the way, when I say ‘expat’ I’m not referring to the variety for whom all logistics and costs are handled by a generous expense package/living allowance. If you have such an arrangement I congratulate you unironically. This article though is for the do-it-yourself expat or traveler, for whom being in Asia is an exercise in self-reliance.

I’ll outline seven benefits of moving to Asia in 2016–just a few reasons why it might be smart to give Southeast Asia another look as place to have either a full-time or part-time base.

But wait! You’ll have to give up all you’ve worked for, leave family and friends behind, compromise your kids’ future, invite career disaster, and jeopardize your retirement.

These are—each of them—untrue. Except for the last one.

Your current idea of retirement will be totally changed, into something better than you ever dared envision. Into a lifestyle with many elements of ‘retirement’ which you can start living much sooner, while you’re vital enough to make the most of your prime years.

I’m not suggesting that having a presence in Asia is for everyone. But I guarantee you it’s been good for many people who felt unsatisfied with their former situations for myriad reasons.

This article is for people who:

* wonder how exactly the apparently ordinary people writing blog posts about faraway places seem to have unlocked a door to double-edged goodness: traveling or living in interesting places AND not having to go to a regular job every day.

* already make some of their income online but aren’t yet aware how easy it can be to become ‘location independent’, spending less to live each month while enjoying a lifestyle that’s in many ways better than we’re used to in the Western world.

* think having a base in Southeast Asia or somewhere in the developing world means compromise in so many ways that it’s neither realistic or particularly attractive. (Spoiler alert: I disagree!)

Skeptical? Keep reading!

Stay with me until the end of this article and I’ll tell you the two biggest misconceptions people have about creating a base in Asia in 2016 (as indicated by emails I get from Wage Freedom readers). Things have changed in the last 10 years or so, and almost anyone who wants to make a new life for themselves in an exotic place can do so, without risking everything.

But first, let’s talk about why living in Asia is so attractive these days.

1: The 21st Century: Asia’s Time

Less-developed places have the most room for transformation, and virtually everywhere in Southeast Asia you can see it happening. Western economies are lucky to grow at 2%-3% per year; many Asian economies are growing between 4%-8%. It might not sound like much but the difference is palpable.

If you come and participate you’ll ride the growth: buy, lease or sub-lease property. Or simply rent. Make business and social connections. Start a business. Make a base, even for part of the year. You have a large range of places from which to choose: urban settings, beach areas and some of the greenest countrysides on Earth.

2: Like Minds Are Also Living In Asia

With both clients and Wage Freedom readers with whom I meet up casually here in Bali there’s a moment that almost always happens. They’ll lean forward and say something like:

“Most people I know would think I was crazy if I talked seriously about (insert one, or more): taking a sabbatical/living in Bali/leaving my job/thinking it’s possible to create an online business.”

“That’s too bad. For them.” What else can I say?

You’ll find no two Asia expats or long-term travelers with the same biography, but an attitude we virtually all must share is a positive feeling toward people willing to work for dreams and visions.

Regardless of age, country of origin, income, IQ or professional background, new friends you’ll make when you stay longer in a faraway place than tourists do are very likely to be interested and supportive of your ideas and endeavors.

You’ve all arrived at a place where you’re more willing to compromise comfort and supposed security than your dreams.

Not that you won’t also be comfortable here.

But that attitude is the price of being here, and daring to stay for a while. It’s a belief in the power of trying.

I’ve benefited from being around this kind of positive attitude, and on a practical level it leads naturally to networking, client work and business partnerships.

Do you have this sort of encouragement from your current peers? I hope you do, and I wouldn’t regard a new set of friends as a straight-up fix for stagnation you might feel in your life.

But I know the attitudes you find in cubicles and on bar stools in the Western world, espoused too frequently by good people huddled over the depths of what’s not realistic rather than celebrating how high you can fly.

And I know I’m biased, but I’ve debated enough with people intent on making their lives monuments to ‘practicality’ to know the other side intimately.

How about you?

3: Improving Infrastructure

If physical infrastructure in Southeast Asia is not yet on par with much of the developed world, it’s improving virtually everywhere.

Better roads, hospitals, food hygiene, etc. can never come fast enough and improvements are unevenly distributed geographically, but on balance it’s all improving.

By the way, spend time in China, central Bangkok, Malaysia or Singapore, etc. and you just might question the notion that the West always equals ‘developed world’ or even ‘modern’. Even second-tier Asian cities often have first-rate central business districts and big plans for the next 10 years.

In the huge private and public works projects of Asia you’ll find a future vision, the sheer audacity of which is found much less often in the West in 2016. Certainly public transportation seems to be built at a far faster rate in Southeast Asia than it is in the United States!

At some point the deficiencies which do exist—fewer every year—aren’t too hard to overlook for newcomers. In many places, for most people, that tipping point has already been reached.

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4: The Up-To-You Budget

You can still live in Asia for a fraction of what you spend each month in the developed world (exceptions like housing in Singapore and particularly plush pads like Thai or Bali villas notwithstanding).

More importantly, you have a huge choice as to how much you spend, for practically everything.

Street food for lunch and your favorite Western cuisine for dinner. A house near a city center or at the beach if you can afford it, or a cheap local-style apartment if you’re really on a budget.

It’s a critical point: you’re less likely to feel deprived if you’re on a strict budget in Southeast Asia. You won’t be judged, people still smile as you pass by, and how much do you need in a warm part of the world where most of life is happening outside? (For most people the answer is not too much!)

SE Asia is a great place to be in 2016 because if your circumstances demand it you can spend very little and still have a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. It’s true whether we’re weighing different neighborhoods to live within a city or comparing Chiang Mai to Ho Chi Minh City to Bali to Bangkok or or any of dozens other places you might consider for a base in the region.

I make no secret of advocating online income to support yourself as an expat or long-term traveler. Living well in Asia on what would be a severe budget back home means you have breathing room. If you come with some savings it will buy you more time to develop income-generating skills, and to achieve an income level that matches your much-lower expenses.

With motivation and planning you can participate. It was not always like this.

Compare this to the ‘developed world’, where there’s a non-negotiable baseline income you need to avoid living in real poverty. If you’re on a fixed income you might be on the wrong side of that baseline. I don’t say that flippantly. I say it with sympathy.

A word to retirees and people living on a fixed income: I hope I don’t sound patronizing if I say that during the Northern Hemisphere winter months I sometimes think about retired people living in cold cities, getting little sunshine, eating poorly and hardly going outside to fight the cold, and wish I could give a 747 full of them a few days in Bali or a nice Thai beach to see just how comfortable they could be living in Asia on a $1000/month pension or Social Security.

Many of these people have a higher net worth than me and many others I know in Bali.

And yes, you can still survive on US$1,000 per month in dozens of livable places around Asia. With some further effort you’ll have income derived from online opportunities of the kind I point to on this site , which represent the potential for earning in a thousand interesting ways.

I think there would be a mass exodus if retired people could see the possibilities for themselves: the low cost of a high quality of life. They are some of the people for whom I’m writing this article.

Closing this knowledge gap for everyone who might benefit is one of the reasons Wage Freedom exists.

5: Personal Technology And The Internet

Quality of life today means access to personal technology and the Internet, and in much of Asia in 2016 it’s another way you might feel you’re not really compromising.

Yes, Internet speeds and reliability in rural areas of Southeast Asia vary from hit-and-miss to non-existent, but in populated areas connectivity is quite comprehensive. In addition to cheap local carrier SIM cards and data plans, you’ll find Wi-Fi in most restaurants and cafes, increasingly on public transportation, etc.

For example, my Indonesia carrier data plan: each month I pay 55,000 rupiah (US$4.50 at the moment) to top up my Excel data plan with 1.5 GB of data. With low-latency, 1-to-3 Mbps Internet coverage and the fact that most of my friends and family (worldwide) are on Viber, WhatsApp or Facetime, we have free calls, instant messages, photo messages, etc.

Having traveled for years often feeling isolated it’s still fun to quickly share a Bali sunset photo with friends or tweet a photo of a luscious feast with my phone. Naturally your home Internet connection will be faster and most likely cheaper than a few years ago. Again a Bali example: in 10 years here I’ve gone from maybe 350 Kbps for about US$200/month to just under 3 Mbps for less than US$100. I could certainly spend less. At least one superstar digital nomad I know simply uses his phone as a hotspot.

Naturally it’s all totally changed the game for travelers and expats in Southeast Asia (and everywhere else): using your laptop or phone to avoid so much confusion and wasted time, pointless in-person visits to agents or god-knows-who for in-person payments and god-knows-what, etc..

We can debate whether travel as an activity is diminished by having more control and less of the random discovery and confusion which used to characterize it. Like everybody else who traveled around the world before the Internet I collected lots of crazy stories that wouldn’t happen today.

On the other hand, getting off a bus after midnight with an outdated Lonely Planet guidebook trying to gracefully ask the group of 40 yelling touts the name of their city–for example–wasn’t always a value-added exercise either. I was a pre-digital nomad, but I’m not one who looks down on travel hacking or the efficiency of ‘silent travel‘.

That’s because the personal technology which facilitates ‘the efficiency’ is also your foundational tool to make income to fund your base, or remain traveling for as long as you want to. After 20 years of ending trips for lack of cash even after working crap jobs in hostels, bars, etc., etc. in far away places just to survive, I can tell you: it’s better today.

6: Regional Airfares

Deregulation and increased competition between airlines has seen the cost of air travel plunge. (Maybe that’s a bad way to put it)

Getting to destinations all over Asia now means 1-3 hours on an airplane instead of hours or days on a minibus or boat. A little planning and the ticket will cost less than filling your gas tank for a weekend away back home. $20 or $30 for a flight to somewhere exotic on an airplane that is actually maintained? Absolutely.

Whether for business, visa runs or quick trips for fun, this will enrich your experience of living in Southeast Asia, if you’re interested in travel.

7: Better Get It While You Can

The quality of life I’ve described here won’t always be available at its current discount.

Globalism is raising wages, prices and living standards in Asia and the rest of the developing world, sometimes incredibly quickly. Cars are becoming more common, prices for food and consumer goods are rising and in desirable parts of many cities you’ll find property prices approaching (or even exceeding) levels in the developed world.

It can’t be a surprise though. And it seems unfair to begrudge people the opportunity to have the same higher material standard of living so many of us in the West have grown complacent over, doesn’t it?

And here’s the thing: usually–not always–higher prices are accompanied by higher quality. So, value for money is still obtainable.

And again, you can still opt for good value at lower prices for many things too.

I’ll present my humble plate of spaghetti example.

In 2007 at a terrific Italian restaurant (Marzano) near me here in Bali a plate of spaghetti with red sauce cost me about US$2.70. At the current USD/rupiah exchange the same plate is now US$4.10. Still cheap, but a substantial jump in seven years.

Across the street I can still have a very nice plate of food for under $2.00 in the excellent and hygienic Warung Melati, still in the middle of the tourist part of Bali. So, as of today you still have options.

But it’s clear: whether you come to Asia funded by a nest egg you’ve saved for decades, a monthly income deriving from a pension or social security, or income you can create from online enterprises (or any combination of these), leverage from your dollars, euros, etc. going much further in Asia than they do back home is diminishing.

It will get harder over time to find the deals Asia expats and travelers enjoyed when there was a bigger gap between ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries.

Personally, I’m happy for my neighbors here in Indonesia.

But it is a reason for you to come sooner rather than later.


If you’re still reading I thank you. I’ll close with a word about you.

I hear two big misconceptions from people interested in moving to Bali, and it applies to anyone thinking about living overseas in 2016.

I alluded to them earlier but they’re worth restating because they might be holding you back unnecessarily.

Misconception 1: Moving means ‘Moving’

(Fact: Moving isn’t what it used to be)

You no longer have to think of ‘moving’–to live in Asia especially–in black and white terms.

Selling everything, buying a one-way ticket and plowing all your cash into an untested new lifestyle might be an appealing romantic notion, but if you’re going to spend extended periods in Asia don’t think in terms of cutting ties back home which you don’t need to cut.

You can have it both ways, maintaining some presence in multiple countries, and I recommend it.

‘Planting multiple flags’ used to be for the wealthy, or a celebrity you’d read about with homes around the world. It was unrealistic for most people. It cost too much to even consider.

But in our connected world it is much cheaper and easier to do. Follow me here:

You can still rent a clean, comfortable and safe apartment or room in many places in Southeast Asia for a few hundred dollars a month. When you are here you enjoy a huge deceleration in spending.

This is power.

It’s freedom from the tight budget tyranny you feel back home, breathing room for a while. But do not think like a tourist. This is part of a bigger idea.

Use the time to plan your next move, or if money’s tight to get a little client work on Elance, write an Ebook, create a new affiliate website, learn a new skill you can market online, etc.

You could do this as a ‘long holiday’ or sabbatical from a job you’ll return to. If you’re between jobs or fear you might be unemployed soon, know you have an alternative to spending much more money in the Western world stressing over finding the next job you might not really be looking forward to anyway.

But as you take steps toward creating a presence in bustling Ho Chi Minh City, near a beach in Bali, or up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, etc. at the same time–at a very minimum–maintain a bank account in your home country. Moving money will be immeasurably easier this way. Also, for online income generating activities in which you’re likely to engage sooner or later, it is an absolute must.

Everyone’s situation is different, but also look hard at renting a home you own or sub-letting a place you rent rather than simply cutting because you’re ‘moving to Bali’ or Thailand. Look into a home swap with someone living in a place you’d like to be for some months.

Don’t sell your car if you can store it or possibly rent it. Leaving things in a friend’s garage or cheap storage means you avoid spending money on basic items when you return. Having a professional wardrobe for a job opportunity you might return to, or simply cold-weather gear you can slip into if you come for a visit in mid-winter is worth it.

Do it this way, minimizing expenses in both places, and you have options, and more freedom. If living in Asia works out you can slowly shed elements of your life back home based on the the financial and psychic expense they represent. If you decide not to stay you’ve reduced the cost of returning.

You maintain the basic framework of a life in two places, so that the variable–your preferences–can be accommodated no matter what happens.

There is a psychological benefit as well. Proceeding responsibly like this, with less fear and stress, could be the difference between taking concrete steps toward moving to Asia and never allowing yourself to think of it as realistic.

If you can, avoid thinking of moving to Asia (or any move overseas) as a one-way trip where you’ll rebuild everything from the ground up. I did it more than once in the pre-Internet years and even if you make it work, parts of your life will feel like a mess. It’s better to stay flexible, and today you can.

Misconception 2: Supporting yourself means employment

(Fact: Not exactly nowadays, especially for long-term travelers and expats!)

How to support oneself is the biggest question most people have about moving to Asia, not surprisingly.

Almost every person I talk to or correspond with on the subject launches into questions of finding a job and getting a working visa.

It can be difficult (though not impossible) to find an employer who will sponsor you for a working visa or work permit. And unfortunately the terms of your tourist visa, social visit visa or myriad other kinds of visas offered by different Asian countries rarely allow you to work. However, most countries do not yet explicitly restrict you from attending to business related to your job back home or a business you have established in another country. And it makes sense: you’re servicing overseas markets and not taking a job away from a local. ‘Digital nomads’ as a group also pour money into local economies–often large amounts at that.

Meanwhile, the basic economic proposition has changed in the last 10 years for people doing business online, or those who discover or decide they are capable of doing business online.

Any article listing the benefits of living in Asia in 2016 for Western expats or travelers has to touch on how the Internet has made employment redundant for so many people, because it’s changed the way so many people live overseas.

I believe it’s a major historical watershed of our times: almost anyone can ‘create value’ in the largest sense and sell it via the internet. More people every year are choosing to support themselves and their families via online enterprises more in line with their own interests and values, rather than creating generic value for an employer.

If you add ease of mobility and lower expenses in places like SE Asia you have the recipe for tens of thousands of long-term travelers, ‘digital nomads‘ and ‘digital expats’ no longer finding it necessary to ‘go home’ to awkwardly resume supporting themselves. They can attend to business from their laptop needing only a WiFi connection, and if you’re living in Asia in 2016 that’s no longer a challenge in restaurants, cafes or where you’re staying.

What’s the price of participating in this new economy? Embracing the means to do it. Learning income-producing skills and ways to market them, and yourself.

These methods don’t need to be invented; established methods exist. You’ll need some motivation but you don’t need to be a tech or marketing genius.

Making money online is now a way to stay on the road for the kind of person who was willing to do anything to keep traveling. I was one of those people for about 20 years, and this new reality feels like a gift every day, to be very honest. (I reeeeally hope I don’t sound smug; I’ve cleaned toilets in a lot of countries!)

But do you know what is just as terrific?

Asia has become attractive as a place to live for Westerners who’re able to earn online and don’t really consider themselves ‘travelers’. I meet them frequently in Bali. They’re people who already have the means to earn from anywhere and apply their location independence to seeing the world for a while.

For both groups, bypassing conventional employment has been the key, and it’s easier to do than ever.

My heart is with those who had to fight to create the means to become location independent–I think of it as waging freedom–but whichever group you’re in I hope you’ve learned a few things in this article about why living in Asia is more attractive than it’s ever been.

What about you? Can you see yourself ever spending an extended period in Southeast Asia? Let me know in the comments, or @mention me on Twitter. My handle is @wagefreedom .

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5 comments… add one
  • Sam

    Hi there and thanks for another great article. I visited Bali this year hoping to move there but felt like I couldn’t add to the pressures westerners are placing on the land. I’m thinking perhaps I could try living a working in Asia with an environmental charity for example to help relieve problems of pollution while getting to experience the culture and people. Have you come across any organisations or projects you could recommend? Thanks

  • Tom Mullaly

    Hi Sam and thanks for connecting. It is a great question. I’ve met people in passing who are involved all sorts of charitable work both here and in other countries in Asia especially.

    I can’t point you specifically to anyone, but these organizations are normally very visible online not only to raise funds but to find people with good intentions like you who’d like to help. Here’s a start.

    Good luck to you Sam.

  • Thanks you for writing this article! As an independent video/animation producer I am able to work from anywhere as a digital nomad. I’ve often joked about being able to work from a beach in Bali, and now am seriously considering moving around SE Asia as a lifestyle while I’m still relatively young and healthy.

  • Really like your articles. Will decide in next 24 hours if I am coming to Bali in a week or two for a few weeks. Would like to know where you suggest for staying and/or seeing on the island. Have some specific ideas for business and would like to discuss them with you by email and/or in person.

  • Tom Mullaly

    H Daniel — I’m sorry but I get so many requests for info that it’s hard to keep up, email me at Tom (at) wagefreedom.com with your questions, or I’ve been testing this live chat plugin at the bottom right of pages on wagefreedom.com; I turn it on when I’m available!

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