Category Archives: Thailand

Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad | The Freelance Explorer

Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad

Where to live as a Digital Nomad is a frequent hot topic around the net at the moment, with everybody having their say on the ideal location to get your business off the ground. So when put to the test, where was my ideal Digital Nomad spot? Penang vs Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is one of the most common Digital Nomad hotspots in Asia, with destinations in Vietnam , Cambodia and the Thai Islands coming a closer runner up. I think, however, that when it comes to choosing your ideal spot it’s more important to work out what factors are most important to you. Of course cheap living and a good climate are at the top of most people’s lists, but what comes after that?

For me, the priorities may have been a little different than your run-of-the-mill digital nomad, but then again – who’s aren’t? We all have our own unique desires and hobbies to fufil.

Penang might not be for everybody, but it certainly was an excellent spot for me. Curious? here’s a blow by blow, Penang vs Chiang Mai comparison between the two, based entirely off my own opinions and experiences of these two uniquely brilliant Southeast Asian cities.

First and Foremost –  Penang vs Chiang Mai, The Food:

Some people bond with Thai food in a way that I didn’t. Given that it’s been almost 6 months since I was last in Thailand and I’m still craving a good Tom Yam, but that’s the exception. I still hold a glimmer of hope in the suggestion that maybe I just prefer Southern Thai food, and the Northern style stuff isn’t my thing. Regardless of personal taste, the variety of foods available in Penang well exceeds Chiang Mai, as well as the availability & price of nutritious food loaded with vegetables.

Sure, you can pick up a taste khao soi or Pork on rice for a couple of bucks, but in Penang’s Indian areas you can spend the same and get a banana leaf loaded with 3 different verge curries, dhals, pickles and rice. Often all you can eat too.

Result? Penang Wins for quality & variety of food for same price.


 Penang vs Chiang Mai on Quality of Internet

Unfortunately, this is one of the big let-downs of Penang for digital nomads. Some cafes provide Wifi, but finding anything hi-speed can be a challenge. Even the internet cafes provide severely limited connections. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is built for digital nomad. High speed internet is readily available in cafes and co-working spaces all around, you can even get it connected to your condo on a no-contract, month by month basis and the speeds (and price) are excellent.

And the winner.. Chiang Mai wins easily for speed & general availability

Who has the best Cultural Experience?

Thai culture can be fascinating, it has a ton of history and an endless supply of beautiful temples and monuments to support it. Anywhere in Asia, in fact, provides a fantastic cultural experience if you’re visiting from the Western world.

Penang has an edge in it’s huge diversity. In Penang, and across most of Malaysia in fact, you’ll find a blend of ethnic Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western ex-pats. You’ll find a vibrant hindu temple just blocks away from a palatial mosque, the diversity is just amazing. This mish-mash of heritage brings so many layers to the Culture that is unrivalled by Chiang Mai.

Penang Wins for blend of interesting cultures, and different areas

Exotic and Exciting Places to Explore

Both Penang & Chiang Mai are beautiful and interesting places to visit, and if you’re really into the tourist attractions  then Chiang Mai is the place to go. Chiang Mai also has a gorgeous old city surrounded by moat and old city walls. Hidden away within the old city walls is a plethora of temples and wandering orange robed monks. However, the old city has become a bit of a haven for the new-age tourist, and at times can all feel a little contrived. Think over-priced lattes and westerner run yoga retreats around every corner.

If you’re happy to rent a car, motorbikes or even a driver for the day, there’s plenty of interesting spots to visit outside of Chiang Mai, But if you’re looking for more diversity yet in a small area, check out Penang. On the island alone you can explore lush jungles, durian and rubber farmed hillsides, snake temples, quaint fishing villages, palm fringed beaches and unesco heritage zoned George Town.

Penang wins again for its great variety – big city, hilltops, jungles, suburbs, western beaches & fishing villages, simply because I like untouched local things to explore. Chiang Mai certainly has its merits too, so this was a super close call.


Let’s Not Forget Massage

For a few months there message became a part of my daily routine. I absolutely fell in love with Thai massage and its amazing after effects, not to mention its ridiculously affordable price. It was probably the thing I missed most (and still do) after leaving Thailand. I once heard somebody refer to it as ‘lazy mans yoga’, an apt analogy.

Chiang Mai wins hands down. Penang massage is far and few between, and double the price.


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Climate & Weather:

Climate preferences are SO subjective, so I am speaking here entirely on behalf of myself. I love hot, love love love it. To be honest though, at times Penang was just too hot. In saying that, I was in Chiang Mai over Christmas (their winter time) and although I would never consider it officially cold, it certainly wasn’t as warm as I like things. Hard choice really, I think I would prefer something in the middle of the two.

It’s a draw! If you love the kind of heat & humid only being that close to the equator can bring, go with Penang. Otherwise maybe Chiang Mai will do it for you.


Digital Nomad Culture:

Chiang Mai is totally set up for Digital Nomads, and rightly so – It’s one of the top digital nomad hotspots of the world. Penang doesn’t have much of a ‘start-up culture’ yet, and finding other likeminded individuals can be a bit tricky, although not entirely impossible. Places such as co-working spaces are hard to find – in fact, we never found any.  If you’re particularly set on a co-working space office and a large group of DN friends ready and easy to meet, then Chiang Mai wins.

An easy win for Chiang Mai 

Accommodation & Condos:

Penang condos can be pretty amazing, often providing stunning beachfront views that Chiang Mai can’t, the prices are about the same as Chiang Mai too. There are a few things that let Penang down on the condo front though, the standard condo in Penang is 3 bedrooms, which can be a bit of a pain if you’re traveling alone, or as the two of you. I asked around plenty, and the general consensus is that all Penang condos are the standard 3 bedroom, it’s just how things are. The other big difference is the length – most landlords and agencies will not accept tenants for less than 6-12 months. In Chiang Mai, it’s incredibly easy to score yourself a studio apartment, fully furnished, and on a single month by month basis.

Another win for Chiang Mai on this one


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Local People

Sorry Thailand, I know you are the ‘Land of Smiles’, however on the friendliness scale it was all a bit of a let down. So much so, in fact, that we wondered if the nickname was given by an ironic, pissed off tourist. Penang on the other hand was one of the most friendly, accommodating cities I have ever visited. Full of smiling, happy people offering us lifts, helping us out and even frequently yelling “welcome to Malaysia!” out the window on the days we happened to be wandering around with out backpacks.

Penangites won our hearts 

Penang vs Chiang Mai: Overall Score? A Draw. 

Both spots have some fantastic things about them, just as both are missing something. When broken down like this, I find both cities draw. Personally, In the moment I prefer Penang. However, It totally depends on what your priorities are, and on a different day when Im seeking something else, the scales might tip in Chiang Mai’s favour.

Penang vs Chiang Mai points all, the best way to find your ideal spot is to just get out there and explore. We never would’ve ended up in Penang based on word-of-mouth alone, so the key really lies in getting out there and testing all the places! Have you got a particular digital nomad spot that you think is amazing or up and coming? Comment below!

Explore The Elements – Travel Photoblogging Challenge | The Freelance Explorer image 1

7 Things I Lost Along The Way (Some Notes on Long Term Travel)

It had been almost 6 months since I last touched foot in New Zealand when I arrived back this May, and now I’m getting ready to depart again in less than a week. In some ways the time I spent in Asia passed by so fast, in others it feels as if I’ve been traveling my whole life.

People say travel changes you, and I whole heartedly agree. The process and catalysts that transform a traveler are as unique as the person themselves. I left my homeland with only a backpack and a violin, but despite my lack of possessions there were still so many less-physical things to be lost along the way.

1. Ability to communicate only in words

I had an inkling that all this talk about the importance on non-verbal communication being true, I had tested the waters once or twice before, but never with a great deal of success. Spending 6 months in Asia really helped me to hone my expressions and sign language. I dropped my perfectionist streak and learnt that the most efficient & effective ways of describing what you want to eat, buy or do aren’t always made with sound.

2. Self Consciousness & Makeup

The last time I wore makeup was the last day of my office job. That was over 190 days ago (not that I’m counting, or anything..) and I couldn’t be happier. I don’t feel a strong pull toward slathering the foundation on again, if anything my self confidence has massively improved and I am quite happy with the way I look, untouched. It’s a beautiful and liberating feeling to enjoy your own skin without enhancement, each step I’ve taken out of my homeland, and my comfort zone, has boosted my self image and confidence in being me – just how I am.

3. Vices & Unhealthy Habits

It’s  a year since I quit full-time smoking and over 6 months since I quit social smoking. That’s a habit I never plan to pick up again. Taking my life, job and even taxes into my own hands this year has really made me see the world in a different way, and I’ve lost my attachment to a few vices in favour of choosing my health over all else. Realising the amount I was spending on cigarettes could have bought me all kinds of interesting plane tickets, and coming to the understanding that it’s pretty tough to live out of a backpack when you’re being treated for lung cancer was the final motivator I needed to treat my body right. I’ve also let go of a few other habits along the way – namely excessive consumerism/shopping and binge drinking.

5. The Pull for Physical Stability

From the moment I stepped back into New Zealand my feet began itching, and the urge to shed some winter clothing layers pulled harder at my heart. I don’t feel at all attached to the idea of a permanent residence or a regular job. I’ve spent my whole life feeling the pull for travel, and each year that’s passed I’ve edged a step closer. Now I’m here, I’m free, and I don’t feel like I ever want to give up the freedom that long term travel brings, not for a house, not for a dog, not for any of those physical things that used to signify stability to me.

6. Judgements and Assumptions

I arrived into Thailand with a whole host of fear based assumptions, mostly about other people. I was freaked out that everyone was out to get me, rob me and rip me off. Turns out, I was completely wrong. 6 months of traveling and I was never mugged, pick pocketed or robbed, nor did I contract food poisoning, malaria or need to get air lifted home. Yes, I understand that these things DO happen, and that certainly some of them may happen to me in the future, but expecting disaster around every corner was a huge mistake that I eventually managed to shed.

7. Preconceptions of Humanity

Everybody grows up with certain social norms – I was no exception. I consider myself well educated, and thought I had a good understanding of what life is like around the world. However, despite my open mind and broad understanding, the thing that hit me the hardest was realising how many human issues exist that are just too big to be easily fixed.

I was prepared for homelessness, I’ve passed through the slums of Mexico City. But that was poverty-in-bulk, you don’t get the one-on-one experience that really hits you with those kinds of explorations. What stunned me was the real day to day lives of people living in hunger. I grew up with the media and my society around me slowly passing me messages about homelessness essentially being chosen – being born from bad choices or addiction. It’s not until you’re face to face with somebody who is genuinely just hungry that all of those preconceptions melt away.

Sitting in KFC in a central city part of Malaysia I was gobsmacked to see a homeless man come in, and politely (yet, terrified) ask to take our leftover chicken bones. He had waited until we were finished eating, and you could just tell from his mannerisms and body language that he had been shouted at, or treated less than human, many times before for doing this.

Of course we obliged, in an awkward and embarrassing manoeuvre to pass over our trash to this man. He scuttled away and ran across the road to share his bones with the others waiting out and sleeping across the road. That moment was deeply upsetting, not just because of the obvious, but to realise that this man did not ask for money, he wasn’t out to buy drugs, he was just, plain and simply, a hungry man who was being treated like a stray animal by the people around him. It broke my heart.

We immediately went up to the counter and bought a full box of (uneaten) chicken, we took it across the road to the group, at first he was way – I suspect many people hand them rubbish. Once he had a chance to look inside, and see that it was actually real food, it must be one of the most genuine thank you’s I have ever received.

That was when I realised how passionately I believe in this one truth: every single person, regardless of their situation or choices, deserves to be treated as a person. Nothing less.

Southeast Asia taught me so many valuable lessons. I lost things, I gained things, I learnt things. I triumphed and simultaneously completely disintegrated. It was the most rewarding, beautiful, exhilarating and challenging adventure of my life so far, and I am beyond ecstatic to be merely days away from returning to the stunning and often overwhelming lifestyle of permanent travel. I can’t wait to see what other things I loose along the way.









Chiang Mai Apartment Review: Riverside Condo | The Freelance Explorer image 2

Chiang Mai Apartment Review: Riverside Condo

After a month spent in Chiang Mai’s happening Nimmanhaemin suburb, our one month lease came to an end and it was time to move on. We were looking for something a little less Westernised, and after lots of careful researching, we found our perfect haven within the Riverside condo complex.

Riverside Condo shares many things in common with our previous condo in Chiang Mai (Hillside 4)

Pro’s of Riverside Condo

  • Great local flavour: Nong Hoi is a great location to experience local Chiang Mai culture. Street vendors set up right outside the apartment each night hawking a variety of local Thai favourites. Just a few minutes down the road is the Nong Hoi market, full of people selling produce, grocery and a variety of delicious foods.
  • Swimming Pool: The swimming pool is a good size and has been positioned on a really sunny side of the building. It is an excellent place to lounge in the sun, overlooking the river. It can get pretty busy with residents going for a dip though!
  • Large rooms: The studios are 45sqm, although the balcony is small the shape of the room really gives them a spacious feel. Much like most Chiang Mai apartments, the rooms are renovated and fitted individually by the owners. This means they are all different. Our studio had a bathtub and kitchen, but they do vary.
  • Close to Western Comforts too: Although the area is very local and far less westernised, riverside is situated right next to a large Holiday Inn hotel which has a great coffee lounge/bar (with wifi) and a range of delicious (albeit pricey) a la cart offerings and buffet meals.
  • Things on site: Although there is no gym or convenience store at this one, the riverside complex houses a reception as well as a great laundry service.
  • Things nearby: Just outside Riverside is a variety of handy stores and stalls – a 24 hour convenience store, very cheap clothing and shoe repairs, great massages and loads of different places to eat.

Con’s of Riverside condo

  • Annoying Elevators: Despite boasting 4 elevators, they don’t run on any kind of schedule and more often than not many at least one (if not three) of them are out of service
  • A bit out of the way: You could walk into the old city in about 30 minutes, but expect to pay more for a tuk tuk than you might be used to.  It’s not an easy walk to any of the co-working spaces I know of, so it may pay to rent a bike.
  • No on-site gym: There is no gym, however there is one at the Holiday Inn next door you can use (for a fairly hefty membership price however)

Things to know about Riverside Condo

  • You can rent through an agent: We rented our condo through Joy (see her page here). The website we’ve found to be rather out-dated with old information, however Joy is super helpful and a great landlord. We had a fantastic experience renting through her.
  • You can get internet through Sinet: Sinet will connect high speed internet straight into your apartment, just ask at the reception and they will help you set it up. You pay a connection fee, then a monthly rate depending on how fast you want it. You don’t have to sign up for any minimum contract time either, just run it month by month. We found this the fastest internet we experienced anywhere in Asia.
  • You can get water refilled: Just pop down to reception during business hours and ask for water. You pay a (small) deposit and they will provide you with a crate of water filled bottles. When you are finished, simply swap the crate there for a whole new tray of fresh water. Don’t want to carry it? Security will bring it up to your room for a 10baht tip.


The Cost of Living in Riverside

The prices vary as different configurations are available (Studio, 2 Bedroom, 3 Bedroom etc), as well as a price variance between different landlords as well as the reception managed apartments.

We paid 14,000 baht per month for a 45sqm studio, rented privately through an owner. It had a kitchen, so we were sold. There were cheaper apartments for rent at the time for around 10,000 and 12,000.

Overall Opinion

Living here was wonderful. We had an amazing setup with our high speed internet and swimming pool as well as a nice blend of amazing local food and western comforts. I would recommend living here to anybody on the lookout for somewhere.

I hope this review was helpful, if you want to ask me any questions about my time spent living in Riverside, or in fact anywhere else I’ve been – please email away or leave a comment for me here.