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Ep. 230: How this digital nomad explores the world as a travel journalist with James Clark

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In this episode, I speak with James Clark who is a travel writer at Nomadic Notes, and he has been a digital nomad since 2003. 

He is currently in Vietnam, where he is working on his latest project, Future Southeast Asia – a guide to construction, transport, and infrastructure in Southeast Asia.

Listen on to find out how James has been able to travel the world as a travel writer.

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Debbie:

Hey everyone. Thank you so much for being here. I am so excited to speak with my guest today. I’m here with James. 

Hi, James. How are you? 

James:

Hi. How are you? 

Debbie:

I am wonderful. Thank you so much for being here. Can you tell us a little bit about you and why you live an offbeat life?

James:

I’ve been living an offbeat life since 1999, just when I first started working and traveling. And ever since I discovered travel that was how I wanted to lead my life. I wasn’t really satisfied with working in an office everyday and working on someone else’s routine.

I speak pretty much the rest of my life trying to work out how to get out of the office with myself and to incorporate a life of travel.

Debbie:

Yeah. I mean, there’s a lot that you have done already.  Done this for what? Two decades now James? So I’m sure you have a ton of experience and a ton of stories that you can share with us. But, before we get to that, can you tell us how you actually prepare for this journey? 

Because when you started, digital nomadism wasn’t even a thing, right? So you’re definitely an original with this type of lifestyle. 

James:

Yeah. So, there were no resources about digital nomadism or let alone, probably it wasn’t even a word when I started. 

I started by doing the working holiday visa which is available for Australians and some of the countries where we have reciprocal agreements.  saw that there was, like, that 2-year visa available for Australians in the UK. so I was like, “You know what? This is what I’m going to do.” 

So I went over to London in 1999 and I had no qualifications at that point. I didn’t have a University degree, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I was just doing temporary work but that was my ticket to traveling and to start living an interesting life. So I use that as a platform to try and work out what I wanted to do with my life. 

Debbie:

And you mentioned that there weren’t really a lot of resources for you when you first started. How did it end up becoming sustainable for you? How did you make sure that this traveling lifestyle was something that you can do in the long-term, right? 

Because a lot of people will do something that you do, they’ll get a job abroad, and then they come home after the money runs out or maybe they’ll have odd jobs here and there. But you were able to make this really sustainable for you. What type of, I guess, system did you create for yourself that allowed you to do this? 

James:

Well, initially, it was just basically a lot of working as hard as I could to save money and then go traveling in between work, which is fine for a while because I hadn’t been anyways. So it was, like, I’ll go to London, save up a bunch of money working overtime, and then go traveling around Europe. And then come back to work again, and then do it all over again. 

And then I went back to Australia. I didn’t want to stay there so I did another work for one year but then I realized that I needed to do something sustainable where I could do some work on my own terms because I couldn’t do this forever. Like, I was going to run out of working days eventually. 

So, by then, I tightened up a course in making websites. And so while I was doing these jobs, I would come home and just work, learning web design, affiliate marketing, and just everything I needed to know about running a website. 

And then, by the time I’m finished with my work, I was able to start running a business full-time after that. I had savings after that and I started working out how to do it. There was not really any information out there. 

There were a few people on some website forums who were telling you how to make websites and how to make money but there wasn’t really the travel aspect of it. So I was just making it up as I go, really. 

It probably took much longer than it needed to take because there wasn’t really anyone telling me what to do. In that regard, there weren’t any podcasts like this or resources where you can just plug in and go for it. 

But pretty soon, I was able to start making income which meant that I can start traveling and working at the same time. 

Debbie:

That is pretty incredible, James because, like you mentioned, there weren’t really a lot of resources, and you kind of just figure this all out yourself. So, for you, how did you find out where your sweet spot was? 

I know you talked about affiliate marketing. I know you’re also a writer, how did you make sure that this was actually sustainable for you? And what was really going to make you money, that would make you become a real and actual digital nomad?

James:

Probably because I started out making travel websites. At the start, I did a web design course in Australia in August and I just made travel websites ‘cause that’s what I like doing. I didn’t even realize that you can make money at that point so I just do it for fun because I like surfing the internet all the time.

And then at some point, these guys with, maybe it was, a hotel or airline website, they’ll pay you commission if you send traffic to them and make a sale and I was like, “That’s interesting. I didn’t know you could do that.”

So, I started thinking, “Maybe I should do websites that are more geared towards making sales in that regard.” So, in that way it became a passion project because it was like, “Well, I actually love travel, I love planning about travel.” So it was no problem for me to finish my day job and then just come home and keep tinkering on my website, to make it work.

And then I started seeing some of the affiliate marketing forums where people were making good money and that gave me hope. So that was the first time I started seeing people in the web business, affiliate business where I was like, “These people are actually doing this as a full-time thing so maybe I can do it as well.”

The people on those sites sort of brought me home. And they weren’t talking about traveling as such. I didn’t even think to talk about that myself. After Ireland, I went to Switzerland for 6 months where I was with my girlfriend at the time and then we just stayed there and I was working there.

And that was my first taste of, sort of, living the digital nomad life ‘cause I was like living in this foreign country. And then I’d be going off on these train trips to these beautiful mountains and I’d come home and then I’d be working on some project.

I don’t remember when the word digital nomad started so I just keep telling people, “Oh, I’m just working on the internet making money or something.” So it was really a much longer way of saying what I was doing. 

Debbie:

It’s so funny because it was a foreign thing for a lot of people, right? Being a digital nomad. And now, it’s become so much more well-known, especially during the pandemic, people are working remotely. And before, what you and I do, James, is very, I guess it, there’s no security. 

A lot of people think it’s very unstable but then when the pandemic happened, now, people see that it’s so much more secure than people originally thought, right? But obviously, before, there was a lot of that misconception, and a lot of times when you’re just starting out with this, there is that sense of, ”Okay. Well, this is not, like, a “stable” 9-to-5.”

Did you ever have that hump in terms of thinking about security? And how did you get over that when the income wasn’t secure? How did you make sure that you didn’t have that type of mentality that really made you give up?

James:

Yeah. There’s definitely a lot of insecurity in this kind of work and especially in travel. I found it to be very seasonal. Like, I was doing very well around the Northern spring when people were planning trips to Europe for example, and I’d just be like, “I’m having a great time.” But then by the winter they just really pull off.

So I was really prudent at the start. Like, I’d see these people who all of a sudden had a great windfall and not go out and buy an expensive car, for example. And then next thing you’ll know, they’ll sell it because it crashed and burned.

So I have always been prudent in that regard. Making sure I got enough runway if something happens in the future. And I think over time, you’ll just get an entrepreneur mindset where everyday you go out and you try to work out how to make money. 

And I just think about where I came from because I had a lot of years of boring, soul-crushing work where I was working in an office, in a factory, or in a laboring, outdoor environment lifting heavy things, for example. I did a lot of work and I can remember that’s where I’m gonna go if I don’t succeed. So I keep working, basically.

What I do now isn’t really that hard. I’m just at home. I don’t have to commute, I don’t have to put a face in an office that I don’t like, and I’m not exerting my body 8 hours a day. So, yeah, it’s the incentive of not wanting to go back.

Debbie:

It definitely gives you a lot of freedom when you have a say in how you make your money. And it also allows you so much more freedom with how you live your life as well. And I think for most of us, that is really the call and the lure to do this type of lifestyle even if in the beginning, it’s a lot of struggle. 

James:

For me, I really love what I do so it’s sort of like I have a set time where I have to think about things. I might be outside somewhere and all of a sudden have an idea and I’ll write it down and then I’ll go and work it out.

Debbie:

Yeah. Absolutely.

And I think it’s definitely not for everyone. There’s a lot of people that do love the nine-to-five and they want, I guess, office space and people they can talk to on a daily basis. But for us, it’s the perk of being able to work from home. 

If you want to start a family and spend time with them, you can do that. If you want to travel, you can do that as well. So I guess for us, it definitely outweighs all the other stuff that comes along with a nine-to-five even if it’s a little bit unstable or insecure in the beginning. So, that’s definitely the beauty of this life.

James:

That’s true.

And also, I would say, you might want to try this lifestyle and find out it’s not for you anyway. So I think the best thing is that you at least had a go with it rather than staying at the office and thinking, “Maybe I should have had a try.” 

Not everyone lasts this long I suppose. I mean, maybe some people would want to go back to a regular, regimented life. It’s up to everyone to find out what they’re meant to be in life.

Debbie:

Absolutely.

And the thing is you can always get another 9-to-5 and there’s a lot of different opportunities with this lifestyle. So, like you said, if you try it you don’t like it., you can always go back. If you love it, there’s a lot of different opportunities for you. And whether you want to travel or you want to stay at home, it’s really up to you and what you do. 

So let’s talk about being on the road, James, because this is really what we’re all interested in for those who want to be a digital nomad. Tell us kind of what it’s really like. And I think the first thing that most people are interested in knowing is what are your expenses like? 

Because I know you’re saving a ton, right? You don’t commute anymore, you choose countries or places that are less expensive. So, can you give us a little background about that? Like, what it’s like, what is the typical day, and what are your expenses when you are on the road.

James:

Well, the typical day has changed a lot over the years. I’ve been traveling for 19 years as a digital nomad. At the start, I was more energetic, I suppose you could say, where I could easily spend months at a time traveling around.

And then over time, my travel style has changed where I pick a place and stay there for a long time and then go on shorter trips with less luggage and then go from there. And also where I travel has changed a lot too.

So, because I was in London and Dublin at the start, I sort of spent a lot of time, after that, traveling around Europe and I’d spend maybe five months of the year in the summer, in Europe. And then I’ll come back to Australia and stay there for a few months and then maybe one month In Asia.

And then gradually over time, I sort of started spending more time in Southeast Asia where I am now and started using that as the home base. And then Europe became my one-month trip for a year.

So, it certainly changed a lot and obviously, it’s very much cheaper in this part of the world as well. So I’m staying here longer and then traveling around. It has changed a lot too because when I first came here, obviously, there wasn’t much internet. But now, the internet is everywhere. It’s on the roadside, inside cafes, where someone has Wi-Fi there for you.

So, that’s probably the biggest change for this lifestyle where I can do this in all sorts of places.

Debbie:

Love that. And from all of the places that you’ve really traveled to, James, what has been your favorite place and why?

James:

I’d say probably Vietnam. I spent a little time here but it’s really hard to pick a favorite ‘cause I had so many great experiences. I’ve been to about 70 countries, I think, and every time I go somewhere new, I’m always fascinated and I’m grateful to be out traveling somewhere new anytime. 

Debbie:

And I know when you’re on the road, there’s a lot of different things that you could encounter. A lot of it is obviously good but sometimes there are some struggles there too. What would you say has been one of the biggest ones that you had to kind of acclimate yourself towards in order to make this a really great journey for yourself?

James:

By now I’ve got the hang of the travel aspect but I think whenever you go somewhere new, moving to different places and then getting set up or maybe you arrived somewhere and the internet is not working then you end up losing a day because you were just running around doing stuff, I saw the little things, sort of getting in the way of running a well-oiled, online business. 

I mean, obviously, when I go to more adventurous travels heading out to islands or whatever, and there’s less internet or maybe the buses are traveling at 15 miles an hour, you kind of pay for those experiences.

Like, you know that they’re gonna take a while but there’s something that you need to do every now and then ‘cause it’s sort of part of the fun in doing all this.

Debbie:

Yeah. And it’s so interesting when you’re traveling around and then you kind of prepare for so many different things but then there’s always something that you never even expected that could happen to you which is so funny when that happens. Whether it’s delays or no internet ’cause now you’re working online or it’s the people that you meet which is really incredible. 

So that’s really fun when you have those moments. Sometimes it’s aggravating when you’re there but when you look back at it, then it’s a different story ’cause then it becomes moments that you really love.

James:

Absolutely.

Also, over time, there’s been a great community online where you can just plug in anywhere and you can look in the right places and find people to meet or those living a similar lifestyle. Like I said, at the start when I was doing this, there were only people on some forums who were staying at home so I didn’t really meet anyone who was doing what I’m doing.

Now, I consider planned travel around, sort of knowing I can meet people online and go meet them in person. 

Debbie:

Yeah. And now that there’s a lot of these different communities, James, where do you usually go to find them, especially if there are specific places, or maybe you’re just looking around, where do you typically find the people that you can meet all over the world?

James:

Actually, I find most interesting people on Twitter and on some Facebook groups. There are digital nomad groups in different cities. There are some types that have audiences to sort of put up the word to meet in a place. They’ll put you on the right track.

Debbie:

Love that. 

And now that you traveled for so long, you’ve met so many different people. I’m sure you got introduced to a lot of people as well. So that’s always fun ’cause it doesn’t even seem like you’re strangers anymore. Because you meet each other online before you even meet each other in person, it’s really nice to have that. 

So James, let’s fast forward to about 20 to 30 years from now and you’re looking back at your life, what legacy would you like to leave and what do you want to be remembered for?

James:

I think I wanna be remembered for my work, what I’m doing at the moment. I’m sort of working on cities in Southeast Asia. So, I’m writing about transport, infrastructure, and construction, modernizing cities.

I sort of fall into that category now ’cause I’ve traveled around here so much that my interest sort of became about modernizing cities. There’s not a lot of information out there that’s available to the public ‘cause they’re always buried in old reports or in fragmented news articles.

So I’ve been archiving news, trying to put together what’s happening here, and trying to make cities a better place to live. 

Debbie:

Love that. That’s such a great legacy to have. And that’s something that a lot of people can definitely get something from. That’s a positive thing that you’re doing for each of the communities. I love that.

So, James, before we say goodbye, I have five rapid questions for you. Are you ready to answer them? 

James:

Let’s go for it.

Debbie:

Awesome.

So, first, what has been the best thing you’ve ever spent while abroad and why?

James:

My first ever laptop when I was in Dublin. So that was in 2002 and I arrived, I had no money and I needed it to start building websites. So I basically maxed out my credit card and bought a laptop.

And I freaked out the day I bought it. Like, “Oh, my God. What have I done?” But I ended up spending on it, just working really hard every night to build my business. And that laptop got me into this lifestyle.

Debbie:

Love that. Amazing. What a great buy and now it’s what you do. 

Alright. Now, describe what your ideal day looks like, James.

James:

My ideal day is a mix between work and travel. So pretty much the life I’ve built.

I get up and I just check to make sure my business is running okay. And if it is, then I don’t have to do anything for the rest of the day. 

So maybe I’ll be in a new city somewhere and I’ll probably have breakfast and just get an hour of emails. I’ll go out exploring a new city, looking around, and having a great time. And at home,  have a rest and then go out again and maybe meet people.

That’s a pretty nice day out for me. Sort of how I built my life.

Debbie:

Perfect. 

Now,  where would you say is the best location to live as a digital nomad or remote worker?

James:

 I guess I’ve done everything the wrong way ’cause I started in the most expensive country in the world. Norway is probably the most expensive but it was fun.

I think if you’re starting out, everyone goes to Southeast Asia, like, Chiang Mai or something like that. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chiang Mai and I think if you’re working at home and then you feel like you can go out into the world, that’s probably a good place to start.

Debbie:

Lova that.

Now, If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

James:

I think it would be dangerous for a superpower, I’ll probably abuse it. 

I don’t know, maybe because the internet helps. I get help every now and then so I think I’ll put health over money.

Debbie:

Oh, perfect. Love that.

That’s a great superpower. You’re, like, always healthy.

What’s the one thing you wish you did sooner?

James:

Good question.

I’ve always fantasized about all of the domain names I should’ve raised years in advance. I’d probably go back and get all those unregistered domains that were available in the 1990s. 

Debbie:

Yeah, that’s a good one. And that’s a good way to make money from those too.

James:

I’m sick of looking for domains. Every time I come up with a name, I’m like, “How could I come up with a name?” But still, you can come up with names, you just need to get someone to help you and it’s fine.

Debbie:

Love that. It’s like hunting for treasure. 

James:

Definitely. Yeah.

Debbie:

Now, thank you so much, James, for speaking with us today. If our listeners want to know more about you, where can they find you? 

James:

You can go to NomadicNotes.com which is my main travel blog and I write about digital nomadism there. 

I’m also at FutureSoutheastAsia.com which is the project I’m talking about: new cities and infrastructure in the Southeast. Asia. 

Debbie:

Perfect.

Thank you so much, James, we really appreciate you for being here. 

We can’t wait to see what else is in store for you and follow your journey along. 

James:

Thanks for having me.


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Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith

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