This article is the second in our ‘Digital Nomad‘ series produced by Senior Associate, Heather Lane. Heather is working remotely for GJE from 12 different cities around the world, one month each, with Remote Year. See Heather’s first article here.
Well, the second month of Remote Year couldn’t have been more different to the first. Strolling along the white sand to our beach-front working space, with just the odd sun lounger to negotiate, it was hard to believe that just a few days’ earlier we’d been doing battle with the Kuala Lumpur traffic. And it’s fair to say that we too all shifted down a gear or two, the frantic city lifestyle being very easily replaced with something a bit more relaxed. However there was still plenty to pack in to our five-week, seaside sojourn.
So, it’s been a busy, slow-paced month – which sounds like a contradiction, and it is, but in a way, that sums up my experience of Thailand perfectly. I’ve found it a country of extreme contrasts: the peace and natural beauty of our island home on Koh Phangan (inhabited mainly by yoga instructors) vs. the noise and chaos of Bangkok (where there are apparently more cars than people); the modern hustle of the night markets (selling “Rolexes” for ten a penny) vs. the deeply respectful atmosphere of the ancient temples; and on a more personal level, the wonderful problem of working whilst contending with what can only be described as dream-holiday surroundings. It turns out the answer to that last one is to lock yourself away with the air-con on and the curtains closed, and pretend you are somewhere else!
One theme that was pretty consistent throughout, however, was that nothing pans out quite as you expect it, and often tends to take twice as long as you thought. For instance, it turns out that booking a ferry ticket plus onward transport to the airport probably doesn’t mean that a chap in a suit will be waiting to greet you off the boat with your name on a board – more likely, that you will be faced with a throng of similarly confused passengers and a manic scramble for 45 identical taxis, only one of which is the right one. What you order for dinner may well appear looking almost entirely unlike what you thought you had asked for, and any journey on four wheels in one of the bigger cities will last an eternity. But that’s all part of the fun – you just have to be flexible and go with it.
I’ve found exactly the same applies to flexible working – I know it should be obvious from the name, but somehow it usually seems to be used in reference to the employer being flexible rather than the employee. However I’ve found by far the best way to fit everything in is to largely abandon my previous “9 to 5” relatively rigid work day, and work in 2 or 3 hour blocks of time which I can move round to accommodate other commitments (and vice versa). And if that means working all evening, or on Saturday, or on a train (as I currently find myself – best wifi yet, as it happens), so be it. It seems to work!
That said, I decided to dedicate a full week to exploring the country so I took time off to tear myself away from the island and travel round some of Northern Thailand, which was definitely the highlight of my month. Flying up from Koh Samui, we started with the obligatory one night in Bangkok, seeing the stunning Buddhist temple complex Wat Po, watching the sun set over the wide, murky river, navigating the extensive night markets and never quite getting used to high speed tuk-tuk rides. At least that was a much faster way to get round than sitting in the endless traffic jams, should you mistakenly opt for a taxi!
Leaving the city the next morning, we headed further north to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, which was ransacked by the Burmese in the 17th Century. The result is a beautiful jumble of crumbling ruins, temple spires leaning at unlikely angles and headless Buddha statues. Here, the pace of life is much slower – two of the best ways to get round are by bicycle (especially if your car battery has gone flat…) or by elephant, which seem to know their highway code pretty well over there. In the evening, we were lucky enough to visit the elephants’ favourite bathing spot and to watch them cool off in the river, which was mesmerising.
From Ayutthaya we drove west to visit the site of the Burma-Siam railway – better known now as the Death Railway, where tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war were put to work during WW2. Whilst not perhaps the happiest of places to visit, I was touched by how beautiful and peaceful the area is now, which in itself seems the perfect tribute to counter the ugliness of what happened there.
Finally, we flew to the city of Chiang Mai, full of temples, bazaars – and lots and lots of food. We took a day to scooter round the ancient city centre, getting lost in the stunning temple complexes and soaking up the welcome shade they offered, before driving up to Wat Doi Suthep, perched high on a hill above the city to watch the sun go down. More unexpectedly, our final day was spent running round after a four-year old, the niece of a lovely local construction engineer named Tee who we met by chance and who before we knew it had offered to show us round some more of the area’s highlights. Again, not at all what we had planned, but that is Thailand – and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.