Introducing: Geo-Arbitrage for Digital Nomads and ESL Nomads

We are under attack.  It comes from all sides – a pickup truck pulls up from behind and suddenly a bucket of water is hurled at our heads.  Children jump out from behind telephone poles with super-soakers as big as they are and send a stream our way.  Sometimes a sharpshooter from across the street even, will tag us.  The other travelers are the worst – they see us with bags, break out in evil grins, and open fire.

Every street on Chiang Mai looks like this during Songkran.

We are in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and it’s day 2 of the Songkran festival – a giant country-wide waterfight at the end of the hot/dry season, to welcome the rainy season.  We were excited to check out Chiang Mai during the festival, as we heard it was the place to be, but I was picturing something like a couple city blocks dedicated to shooting and splashing.  Turns out it was the whole city.  So we’re walking around last Friday with documents to mail (nope, post office was closed) and a laptop in a flimsy little plastic shopping bag Minah picked up at RoxyGirl somewhere along the way, I have that clenched in one fist, hoping to keep everything dry.

Mostly we gave up and walked around the city, enjoying the many charms of Chiang Mai, a city I’ve read a lot about and looked forward to visiting again (it’s been 10 years!).  Chiang Mai is distinctive in that it is far-and-away the capital city of the “digital nomad” lifestyle – the best place for people who work online (“from home”) to hook into the fast internet, cheap prices, and laid-back lifestyle of the city.

Leveraging Purchasing Power Parity

From Thailand to Vietnam and back to Thailand, Minah and I have been on the road for 6 weeks.  We’re not working yet, just traveling.  And though we’ve been living (and eating!!) very well here on the road, we’ve been spending Thai baht and Vietnamese dong, currencies that are weaker compared to the Korean won.

A vegetarian feast for 2 in Hoi An for about $12 – beer was 12 cents a glass

When we hit the ATMs here, money is pulled from our Korean bank accounts, and delivered to us in the local currency,  at a relative purchasing power of double or triple what we’d have in Korea.  What we’re doing feels a little like playing the video game of life with cheat codes enabled.

This phenomenon is well-known to anyone who has visited a country with a relatively lower standard of living.  The costs of going out to dinner, buying a bottle of water or beer in the market, and services like massages and taxis, are refreshingly cheap.  Many people choose to stick to a home-country budget and indulge in luxuries when vacationing abroad.  Our plan has been to use this our purchasing power advantage to stretch our travels as long as we can.

Just how cheap are things here?

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Late night pad thai near the Sunday Night Market

We booked a room in an ocean-side resort, with pool, for USD $13.50 a night in Mui Ne, Vietnam.  Dorm beds went for about $5 in Hanoi.  Here in Chiang Mai, we ate at this street-side restaurant, where everything on the menu was 25 baht – about 72 cents.  Digital nomads rent apartments in Chiang Mai for around $150-200 a month depending on amenities, and it’s possible to live a bare-bones life here at $500 a month, a decent baseline for starting a new online venture.  With entrepreneurial success could come more luxuries, or maybe a move to a more expensive city.

Nomadlist – the Catalyst

Enter NOMADLIST – which blew my mind around this time last year.  This is the ultimate starry-eyed-fantasy-inducing site for the aspiring traveler.  A list of cities with per month cost of living estimates, temperatures, reviews of WiFi speeds – the folks running this website have all my curious questions answered, and then some.

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Our very own Koh Lanta makes it to the front page of NomadList

How much would it cost to live in Medellín and work online?  $1243/mo.  What’s the best city for a digital nomad to set up shop in Europe?  Budapest, without a doubt.  What are the relative merits of Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City?  All these questions can be answered in seconds, with just a few clicks.  And this is where I disappeared last year, dreaming of writing from a cafe in Lisbon or developing my website on the beaches of Goa.

Student loan debt-free, I no longer have to worry about how much my money is worth in the States.  Teaching, writing, and developing my own web content — these are things that I love doing, but they aren’t always super-lucrative in America.  However, combine them with my love of traveling (especially in cheap cost / fast WiFi spots like Chiang Mai), and that’s a recipe for geo-arbitrage.

Geo-arbitrage & Co-working Spaces

Live and spend money in a place with a low cost of living, while earning a stronger foreign currency – this is the essence of geo-arbitrage.  Of course, the pros/cons list of living abroad in low-cost countries has some pretty big cons.  Luckily for Minah and I, we see many of these cons as pros.  Language and cultural barriers?  We love to be immersed in these sorts of differences, and learn about them.  Unfamiliar foods?  Yum.  Random troubles on the road?  We love a challenge, and I love writing about our little scrapes on this blog.  Far away from family and friends?  Well – this one can be tough sometimes, but technology has made it very easy to stay connected.

Imagining a digital nomad conjures that iconic image: feet-up next to a laptop and a beer, waves crashing on a white-sand beach, all against a perfect blue sky.

Minah on the beach in Koh Lanta with her Kindle, living the dream.

But hey, spoiler – nobody gets work done at the beach.  Or propped up on the bed at your hotel.  For one thing, you’ll spend your whole day chasing reliable WiFi; even the guesthouses we’ve stayed at have been more spotty than consistent.  And then there’s the effect that SpartanTraveler explains – the allure of working from the beach can feel empty if you’ve got nobody to share it with, or no real reason (hobby?  personal development?) to be in that location, other than it’s sunny and exotic.


But take a look at the date on SpartanTraveler’s post – 2012.  Four years is decades in the world of geo-arbitrage.  Digital nomads have collectively experienced the same issues that stumped SpartanTraveler, and created a solution.  “Co-working spaces” have popped up around the world in the geo-arbitrage hubs.  If you click on a city on Nomadlist, you’ll find a section that lists names and prices for local co-working spaces.  We checked out a couple here in Chiang Mai.  Punspace had 24/7 access for members and quite a few office-style desks in separate rooms (great for Skype calls).  Mana had a great cozy aesthetic but was smaller and had just two private rooms (both booked when we visited).

Rates at about 55 cents an hour or $3 per day, with guaranteed 50/20 mbps internet

Here’s the irony: daring souls have cut the fetters of location, given the middle finger to cubicle life, and moved halfway around the world in order to discover — they get a lot more work done in the cubicles of a co-working space.  As for us, coffeeshops have been very productive spots so far.  This is our second day in Coffee Plus (see the pic below) in Chiang Mai’s Old City.  The owners are sweet, the WiFi is fast, the coffee is tasty, and the air-conditioning is welcome on this 41C/105F tropical day.

Geo-Arbitrage for ESL Nomads

Geo-arbitrage works because an American salary can stretch into long trips, offset flight costs, or pay for luxurious lifestyle upgrades.  The most common digital nomads are in the tech industry – developers, programmers, engineers.

My view as I write this article, from Coffee Plus in Chiang Mai.  Highly recommend this spot!

These are high paying jobs, and easier than most others to do online.  Is it possible to work remotely in the field of English language education – to be an ESL Nomad?  Absolutely.  I’ve posted before on this blog about the freelance tutoring and coaching services I’ve started offering – and there are an ever-shifting list of corporate websites that will hire online English tutors.  Here’s a recently updated list.  Another option is freelance writing and editing gigs, which can be found through peer-to-peer sites like Upwork.

So am I an ESL nomad?  Not quite yet.  Minah and I have been mostly traveling so far, but in each city or beach we visit we get the lay of the land.  We’ve been looking at coffeeshops and co-working spaces, internet speeds, and presence of long-term expats.  We’ve been asking around and checking online for local part-time teaching jobs, and for universities looking for lecturers.  Best of all, we’ve reconnected with old friends who live in these cities.  Internet research is great for inspiration, but nothing beats a friend’s introduction around town.

Some Highlights: What We’ve Learned so Far

  • Like Seoul, Bangkok is a competitive place to find work.  Bangkok city has everything, and it’s a hip international place to live, so schools can afford to be picky and sometimes pay less.  That said, it’s a good spot for jobs teaching business English and test prep.
  • The expat scene in Hanoi is grounded in the outdoor backpacker cafes and bars in the historical grit of the Old Quarter – it’s got a wild, frontier flavor.  Jobs also seem more plentiful.  The social scene in Ho Chi Minh City is a lot more posh and established.  We walked around District 3 in HCMC where a lot of the language schools are located, and a couple of schools wouldn’t even accept a hard copy resume, referring us to their official online application process.
  • Korea is fairly strict about one year contracts; both Thailand and Vietnam less so.  Part time or substitute teaching gigs can be found on Craigslist Bangkok / Vietnam, or on Facebook groups like Hanoi Massive and Ho Chi Minh City ESL Teaching Jobs.  Ajarn in Thailand is great for full-time, contract positions.
  • Working legally in Vietnam involves just as many, if not more, bureaucratic hoops to jump through than Korea, including a home country criminal background check and notarization and apostille for a whole list of documents.
  • Many schools, reportedly even some Vietnamese public schools, will hire foreign teachers on 3 month tourist visas and then pay for visa runs to Laos, Cambodia, etc, which ends up being cheaper for the school than sponsoring a legit visa.
  • Rates for teaching English in Vietnam start around $20 an hour, up to $35 for experienced teachers.  Thailand is less likely to pay hourly, and monthly salaries average between USD$1000-1500, working out an average of $15/hr assuming around 20 teaching hours per week.  Individual jobs of course vary.  But pay in general is much lower than Vietnam, and given the lower cost of living in Vietnam (maybe 60-70% of Thailand, depending on region), the math overwhelmingly favors the ESL market in Vietnam.
  • Vietnam’s English teaching boom is linked to their Education Strategic Development Plan 2011-2020, which calls for major English proficiency reforms by 2020.
  • In general, the ESL job market is waxing in Vietnam, and waning in Thailand.  We talked to our hostel owner here in Chiang Mai and he summed it up: “So many foreigners come here these days to teach English – it’s just too crowded.”  Crowding in the market, and fighting for smaller pieces of the same pie.
  • Again, nothing beats getting on the ground, meeting people who know people who might be hiring, and going from there.

    Exploring the twisting alleyways of Chiang Mai when suddenly – banana tree selfie!

Moving Forward

I often think about the main reason I left Korea – I felt like I was in a dead end without enough freedom to build my career.  Here in Chiang Mai, we’re at the center of something brand new, something that barely existed even 5 years ago.  I can see how well the online freelance model meshes with the ESL profession.  I’ve got options to develop my own language learning videos and other content, do online tutoring, and expand this website.

At the same time, I already miss the feeling of teaching in a classroom with real students, and the community that comes with being a part of an institution I respect and admire.  Honestly, that’s where I see myself in the next few years.  But for now, this time on the road feels like a sabbatical – a time for reflection and research into what’s going on in the world of ESL, and what’s possible.  And so we keep traveling, talking to people, and experiencing as much as we can, with happy feet and open eyes and minds.



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