What I Learned From Traveling One Month in Southeast Asia While Working Full Time
Besides studying abroad in college for seven months, the longest I’d ever been abroad is four weeks.
With the rise of digital nomads and remote work, some people actually find my four weeks to be pretty… well… unimpressive. When you scroll through my Instagram, you see an endless stream of adventure seeking and elsewhere-grams. But what you definitely don’t see is the full-time, location-dependent job and the countless hours of work that come with it.
So, when I tell people the longest I’ve ever been abroad is four weeks with a full-time job, that’s when I start to get a reaction!
(Did I pique your curiosity too just now? Great! Keep reading!)
I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person that travels constantly year-round, and I knew in order to do that, I’d have to get a little creative when it came to taking time off. And when it comes to being abroad for four straight weeks, I’ve actually already managed to do this twice so far! Once in Australia, and once, more recently, in Southeast Asia.
In Australia, I took the full month off. But in Southeast Asia, I ended up only taking two weeks off from work. The rest of the time, I worked remotely, California hours (PST), from Singapore, Manila, Bicol, and El Nido.
Looking back, I still shake my head at some of the ridiculous things I had to do in order to make this crazy plan work. From purchasing my own internet modem and driving two hours just to find a town I could actually use it in, to working in a hotel lobby next to sleeping employees because it was the only place I could get WiFi (more on these things later), I’ll be the first to admit that my first overseas remote work experience wasn’t the easiest one. But I have to be honest – I genuinely do not regret a single minute.
Since this trip, I’ve gotten several questions about what it was like to take four weeks away from the office, how I managed to work remotely on a 15-hour time difference, and what kinds of tips I might have to share with other people looking to take their work on the road with them. Of course, while some international readers might be looking at this saying so what, only four weeks?, it’s important to note that the average American employee still only receives between 10 - 15 days per year.
While everyone’s experience with this will be different, and will ultimately depend on the kind of employment you have and the destinations you’re hoping to travel to, I’m more than happy to share what I went through!
Here’s my take on traveling for one month in Southeast Asia while working full-time – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the life-changing.
What I Learned From Traveling One Month in Southeast Asia While Working Full Time: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and the Life-Changing
What I Was Doing in Southeast Asia
I’ll start off by sharing why I was in Southeast Asia, to begin with. My parents wanted to plan a trip to the Philippines to visit some family we hadn’t seen in a while, and they also wanted to renew their wedding vows. Since they got married in the United States, lots of our extended family and even my own grandparents didn’t get to be there in person, so renewing their vows in the Philippines was, in many ways, like throwing the giant wedding party they never had.
So, of course, I wanted to do everything I could to make sure I was able to be there, too!
Because the Philippines is far, I knew I also didn’t want to travel for the ceremony alone. I decided I’d stay in the Philippines for two weeks, and extend my trip further with a week in Bali and just under a week in Singapore – two other places in Southeast Asia I’d always wanted to visit!
Working in the advertising/marketing world (which is what I do), the last three months of the year (October - December) are usually some of the busiest, as clients prepare themselves for the holidays and end-of-year spending. Because of this, it’s usually more challenging to take extended time off. My trip was in November, which is one of the main reasons I ended up negotiating a 2-week holiday, 2-week remote work deal with my manager.
So, that’s what led me to spend four weeks in Southeast Asia while working full-time! Since I am based in the US and normally work in the Pacific Standard Time zone (PST), I essentially committed to working two weeks in PST, which meant a 15+ hour time difference. Woohoo!
My Work Schedule
In order to work remotely in a different time zone while in Southeast Asia (or really, anywhere), your days might be a bit wonky.
Here’s what a typical daily schedule looked like for me, working 10 am - 6 pm PST:
10 pm: Get into bed and try to nap (it’s all naps from here on out, no full night’s rest until the weekend)
1 am: Wake up and start the work day, usually until somewhere between 3 - 5 am, depending on when I had the least meetings and could take a break
Sometime between 3 and 5 am: Another nap!
5 am: Work until 9 am
9 am: ‘Start’ the vacation day and explore!
With a schedule like this, I definitely got a little loopy towards the end of my two weeks. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement. I definitely got sick once it was all said and done. Since then, I have so much respect now for people who work like this consistently for weeks and months at a time!
Here are the good, the bad, the ugly, and the life-changing things I experienced throughout this whole ordeal.
Vowing to Work for Two Weeks (10 days) Allowed Me 19 Days of Vacation
If you think about it, cutting a four-week trip in half by agreeing to work for two weeks still affords you more vacation days overall, thanks to weekends. In my 29 days abroad, I worked 10 days, and spent the remaining 19 traveling.
I Got to Solo Travel
While the purpose of this trip was to visit family, I spent half of the month solo in Bali and El Nido. Why? I like to squeeze in solo travel wherever I can, so I can explore new places at my own pace. It’s usually on bigger trips like this that I’ll tack on a couple of extra days solo! In fact, I did this in Australia too, and spent a week in Tasmania where I drove on the opposite side of the road for the first time and stayed in an ultra-romantic hotel. Why do I always do this to myself when I’m traveling alone? The world may never know.
I Got to Change My Scenery While Getting Paid
I’m grateful that my employer was flexible enough to let me do this, and happy with myself that I was able to see it through. Again, whether or not this type of trip is replicable will really depend on your unique situation.
I Had My Days Free to Explore
Working PST had it’s definite downfalls (see below), but when the exhaustion didn’t get in the way, I had the full day free to explore! Every day, I got to ‘clock-out’ around 8 or 9 am, have some breakfast, and hit the beach or explore the city.
Changing Locations is Not Very Easy in Southeast Asia
Traveling around in Southeast Asia can be pretty time-consuming, confusing, and often, stressful. Unless you’re traveling for an extended period of time without the added factor of working remotely, I’d suggest keeping your inter-trip travels as simple as possible.
If you are changing locations regularly, like I did going from Bali to Singapore and multiple locations in the Philippines, know that nice (4-5 star) hotels are going to be your best bet for decent WiFi.
Working in Hostels is More ‘Normal,’ But You’ll Still Be a Spectacle if You’re Working PST
Hostels are a common stomping ground for backpackers and digital nomads, so it’s not out of the ordinary for remote workers to join in on the party. But keep in mind that while digital nomads often set their own schedules, remote workers who have to prescribe to a specific time zone are still the odd ones out.
In the hostel I stayed at in El Nido, the only WiFi I had access to was in the common area. This was fine, except for the fact that hostels are lively spaces filled with people looking to have a good time. I can’t tell you how many intoxicated (yet generally well-meaning) people I had to explain myself to when they asked me why in the world I was glued to my laptop at 3 in the morning! The last ones standing at the end of the night, and the early risers, ultimately ended up being the ones getting me coffee at sunrise out of sheer awe that I was powering through (if you’re reading this, ILYSM).
You Have to Forfeit Some Evenings
Because of the overnight work required to keep up with PST, most if not all of my evenings were completely shot. This isn’t a big deal if you’re traveling to more chill, relaxed, or remote destinations. But it’s definitely something to consider if you like to go out or are easily influenced by FOMO (same).
WiFi Was Very Unreliable
There’s no softening this – WiFi can be pretty unreliable in Southeast Asia. In fact, it can be pretty unreliable anywhere if you’re going from a dedicated office space to a couple of weeks on the road.
In Southeast Asia, I experienced everything from the best of the best in hotel WiFi to internet coverage so weak, I had to seat myself right next to the hotel reception desk in order to use it. The latter wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t working overnight hours. In the outdoor reception area just steps from the ocean, hotel employees around me played cards, gossiped, and eventually fell asleep all while I was busy sending emails, taking calls, and listening in on meetings remotely while curled up on the floor in the corner of the patio.
Weather Was Very Unreliable
Southeast Asia’s tropical climate is one of the main reasons people dream of visiting, but it also invites all kinds of crazy weather, from scattered rain and thunderstorms to mega typhoons and volcanic eruptions (rare, but still).
Of course, I ended up needing to work during a category 4 typhoon that tore through the Philippines. And of course, this typhoon obliterated our power and downed all of our nearby power lines for eight straight days.
Granted, I was in a small town visiting family when this happened, and more urban areas in the Philippines got their power back more quickly. So in order to work, I ended up driving two hours to the nearest neighboring town, checking into a hotel that promised WiFi, and plugging in my own modem to work because that hotel was still being powered by a generator.
Moral of the story, always check the weather forecasts, and never trust a hotel’s promise of WiFi in Southeast Asia without calling ahead to confirm (and, even then…).
My Motivation Waned
The first couple of days, I was genuinely excited about working remotely. You all know I love finding new ways to work and travel, and this was definitely going to be one of them. But there’s only so much adrenaline and excitement to power you through continuous days of irregular sleep.
By day three, I was absolutely, completely, and utterly drained.
By day six, I was adjusting to my schedule and the long nights were feeling more bearable.
But after the ten days were up, I actually fainted (hilariously, I fell on my mom who is a good five inches shorter than me! Fun!) and felt lightheaded for a good four or five hours. The sleep deprivation, mixed with the travel and packed schedule of sight-seeing, is not sustainable and should definitely be spread out more manageably, if you have the time to!
Working Abroad is a Solo Emotional Battle (Your Coworkers, Clients, and Customers Will Not Understand)
No matter how much I tried to prepare in advance, no matter how many spreadsheets I created or emails I scheduled ahead of time, nothing will really prepare your coworkers, clients, or customers for your absence. Again, this depends on your line of work, but I think we can all agree that your coworkers’ perception of you being gone is always a big deal and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
What I’ve learned is that there will always be three kinds of people – the ones who support you, the ones who don’t get it, and the ones who will be straight-up envious. Regardless of their attitude towards your trip, they won’t necessarily understand your emotional or physical journey – and all the hurdles that come with it – while you’re there. This is understandable, and honestly, it’s expected. But just know that you will have to work extra hard before, after, and sometimes even during your trip to help out the coworkers covering for you. At the end of the day, your goal should be to make everyone’s lives as easy as possible while you’re out so that your absence isn’t a nuisance.
And of course, you can do everything right and prepare everything in advance to the best of your ability, and things could still go wrong. Even worse, there will still be the random coworker or two that speaks negatively about you being gone. If you’re like me, this might get to you. Try not to let it!
(On the flip side, I always remind myself to never be the person that makes a fellow colleague feel guilty for taking time off. If you’re a hard worker and a diligent employee, and you schedule your trips courteously, you more than deserve to use 100% of the time you accrue without judgment!)
I Got to See My Family
While traveling and working can be a delicate and often stressful balance, at the end of the day, I got to see relatives I hadn’t seen in 10 years. My parents’ wedding renewal ceremony was an adventure in itself (read this post to see why).
I Got to Go to a Full Moon Party
In the spirit of saying ‘yes,’ I try to embrace any opportunities that come my way when traveling, especially when I’m solo. While I was in El Nido, I learned that there was a Full Moon Party happening nearby during the same week of my trip. The party took place from roughly 9 pm to 3 am at a beach club, and the entire town was being shuttled in to go. How could I not?
You can bet I showed up for that Full Moon Party, had the time of my life, and still made it back to my hotel to ‘sign on for the day’ by 2 am that same evening.
I Got to Kayak in El Nido’s Famous Lagoons
On my final day of working remotely (which was coincidentally after the Full Moon Party), I found myself logging off and hopping on a boat first thing in the morning, bound for a full-day tour of El Nido’s lagoons, beaches, and neighboring islands. Suffice it to say, I was truly a shell of a person at the end of this tour, but again, I don’t regret this one bit.
I Got to Watch the Sunrise Every Morning
Every single morning, by nature of having worked overnight, I got to watch the sun rise. I got to see purple-orange clouds in El Nido, misty blues and pinks in Bicol, and yellow rays of sunlight in Singapore. Every morning, I got to have each place I was in all to myself before the rest of the world woke up. Plus, I got to be a morning person for once in my life!
I Stayed in Some Really Fun Hotels
I Learned Just How Disciplined I Could Be at My Work
If there’s anything traveling while working teaches you, it’s how disciplined you are (or aren’t) capable of being. Working overnight hours when you aren’t used to it is incredibly straining – there’s no sugarcoating it – but if you have a will, you’ll find a way.
For me, reminding myself that the trade-off for my overnight hours was the opportunity to be in a different country, see the world, and visit my family was the fuel I needed to keep powering through.
In the two weeks I worked remotely, I still managed to meet all of my essential deadlines, clean out my inbox by the end of each business day, and keep all of my clients happy. I even managed to keep Rachel Off Duty going, publishing a handful of articles and maintaining most of my social media channels while away.
I Proved To Myself That It Wasn’t Impossible (And That it Could Probably Even Be Done More Often)
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again – traveling and having a career do not have to be mutually exclusive things. You can find creative ways to see the world, and you don’t necessarily need to quit your day job in order to do it. Sure, you may not need to go to the extreme of working a 15-hour time difference, but there’s always a way to squeeze in an adventure, whether it’s a one-month stint abroad or a one-day getaway somewhere closer to home.
At the end of the day, I have zero regrets about taking a month to travel, work, and enjoy Southeast Asia. While there was certainly some pain and frustration during the craziness of the experience itself, I don’t think about any of that anymore (though it’s definitely something to be mindful of – don’t attempt something like this without research and careful planning!). When I look back on this trip and I think of all of the incredible moments I had, I can’t help but feel inspired, empowered, and honestly even hungry to do it all again. It’s often the crazy experiences that end up becoming the most rewarding, and I think that’s exactly what this trip was for me.
Are you thinking of taking your work on the road with you, and spending some time working remotely while abroad? I’d love to know!