Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamt of spending an entire year living abroad and working in a tropical paradise. I fantasized about living in my bikini and sarong, finding a gorgeous beachside cabana from where I would write fantastical travel guides, and boasting a perennial tan which would make all my friends back in Australia green with envy. As I prepare to celebrate my second full year of living and working in Southeast Asia, I now realize how idealistic I had been.
Setting up life in the tropics isn’t exactly how I dreamed it would be, except those special moments when it actually is. I have indeed lived and worked in beachside cabanas, alternating days between writing and swimming in turquoise waters. I’ve had countless adventures, enjoyed stunning weather, and gorged on more exotic food than I care to admit. But I’ve also had endless frustrating moments, wasted days on end looking for that one guesthouse with decent internet connection, suffered deep bouts of homesickness, and fought tooth and nail to resist the endless distractions which can make the “working” part of my life in the tropics exceedingly challenging. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find motivation to work when a picture-perfect beach keeps beckoning for your attention.
If you’ve read our guide on How to Quit Your Job and Travel the World in 5 Steps you will have gained insight into what it takes to pack your life and hit the road; the kind of odd jobs you could seek and the challenges you should expect. But traveling the world and moving abroad are two very distinct experiences. They may seem quite similar, at first. Yes, it’s still a great idea to leave without debt, declutter your life, and keep expectations at bay. But once you get on that plane, it’ll be a whole different ballgame. You’ll probably be looking for a permanent job, will want to make some local friends, and enjoy a much more stable life, albeit in a foreign country.
Before you pack your bags, read our 5 Tips on Living and Working in a Tropical Paradise, to help prepare you for an experience that is bound to be both exasperating and utterly exhilarating
1. Do your homework and pick your destination wisely
Just because you had an absolute blast on your last holiday to Laos, it doesn’t mean that living and working there will be a breeze. There is a very good reason why some countries are awash with expats, and others not so much. Laos is an incredibly wild and wondrous country to explore at length but the lack of infrastructure outside the major cities means that, unless you plan to go for just a couple of months, life can be quite difficult.
Every tropical region of the world boasts a few tried and tested havens which offer a great balance of exotic life and modern amenities. No matter how different the countries may be, they all offer very similar benefits: inexpensive accommodation and food, a glorious climate, great infrastructure, decent internet connection, excellent health care, and an already established expat community. Irrespective of the kind of work you wish to pursue, these are all things which will be invaluable to you. The most popular tropical countries for expats are Panama, Ecuador, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, and Indonesia, although the last is a superb example of how localized most ideal destinations can be. Bali is by far the most revered expat corner of Indonesia and is worlds apart from other Indonesian islands, many of which lack all the basic requirements for a comfortable long-term life. Except for the dreamy climate
2. Set up contacts before you arrive
Life is infinitely easier with friends. This couldn’t be more critical than when you’re planning to live thousands of miles away from your family and closest buddies. Although it will be near impossible to establish friendships online in your chosen tropical paradise, it is certainly possible (and advisable) to set up contacts before you even arrive. Whether it’s to find the right accommodation or job, learn all about the particular ways in which a country works, set up language lessons, or learn about the latest visa regulations – among a gazillion other details – you’ll need to get in touch with a close-knit group of experienced expats.
Before reaching Bali, a friend put me onto the Bali Expat Facebook page and it swiftly became my go-to point of reference for just about everything. Through this group, I found a brilliant long-term rental apartment, a great visa agent, an orthopedic specialist, a ton of fantastic restaurants and stunning hidden gems not mentioned in any guide book. If your chosen country has a sizable expat community, scour the internet for expat social groups, forums, and FB pages. They’re bound to exist.
3. Have a clear idea of what kind of work you’d like to do
Living and working in a tropical paradise is now easier than it’s ever been. Gone are the days where you’d have to depend on fruit picking or casual bar work to get by. With the dawn of the internet and the rise of the digital nomad lifestyle, your work options are considerable. That said, you’ll need to be extremely resourceful and adaptable if you wish to earn a reasonable amount of money. What will help you tremendously, is if you can manage to set up a location-independent job before you even leave home.
Digital nomading is the most exciting thing to have happened to wanderlusters like myself and the internet is brimming with great guides on specific places that are ideal for this kind of work (such as 10 tropical islands and beach towns for digital nomads). There are as copious stories of people who successfully transferred their skills from their office desk to, well, anywhere! Not sure what a digital nomad is? Then read How to Quit Your Job and Become a Digital Nomad before you do anything else.
Yet as popular as this option is, it isn’t the only choice you have when you decide to live and work in a tropical paradise. Your chosen country’s visa regulations will determine whether you can work there full-time, or only part-time (or not at all), whether you need to be sponsored for a job before you arrive, or whether you can simply look for work once there. Aside the ever-popular resort, bar and restaurant work, you can run a guesthouse or campsite, you can be a tour guide, work for an NGO in an aid-related job, and – arguably the most popular choice of all – you can teach English. There is a lot of information online on how to go about teaching English as a second language and, more importantly, how to secure a job abroad, but I found Nomadic Matt’s Teach English Abroad guide book particularly useful.
Although you probably won’t get rich doing any of these jobs, you’re pretty much guaranteed a higher quality of life, simply due to the low cost of living in most tropical countries. This is, perhaps more than anything else, the biggest incentive to living and working in a tropical paradise.
4. Be savvy about your finances
Having no financial commitments at home is the single most important factor that will help you live and work comfortably in a tropical paradise. This includes having no personal belongings in expensive storage units having no credit card balance to repay and no ongoing payments for mobile phones, bank loans, or anything else. Your life abroad will be immensely easier knowing the only income you must secure, is for your living expenses. In some tropical countries, anything between USD 600 and USD 1000 per month) is an obtainable goal and one that will guarantee you a nice and comfy life with a little extra travel money to boot. As a rule of thumb, you should have enough savings to support yourself in your tropical paradise for a minimum of 6 months. That is, of course, unless you already have a job secured abroad. InternationalLiving is a wonderful resource for expat-wannabes and, although highly-subjective, their monthly living cost guides are quite spot on.
Making a financial plan is quite imperative and something you ought to do before you ever leave home. From having emergency funds at the ready for a swift trip home in case of emergency, to having a credit card linked to your home account that charges no fee for foreign transactions, creating a comprehensive financial plan is a great idea. If you want to apply for a more travel-friendly credit card, it’s wise to do this well before you quit your job and move out of your home. Most banks don’t like issuing credit cards to expats as they are seen as high-risk, so get whatever new cards you need before you become an actual expat.
Although it is quite easy to live for years on end in a tropical country without ever opening up a local bank account, your life may be made immensely easier if you do. Especially if you want to rent an apartment or house under your own name, and work for a local company that can only deposit your pay in a local account. Each country has very specific requirements. Some may require you to have a permanent residency visa, whilst others may be content with a simple minimum balance of a couple thousand dollars, even if you are there on a working visa. Make sure you know exactly what’s required in your tropical country of choice, before you leave home.
5. Don’t be afraid to indulge in some home comforts
You’ve no doubt heard about the “expat bubbles” which exist in just about every tropical country on the planet: Australians who only socialize with Australians in Bali, and Americans who only eat at western restaurants in Costa Rica. You’ve also no doubt promised yourself you will never do that, right? That you’ll be different, that you’ll only ever eat the local food and only ever socialize with locals. I certainly had this notion when I moved to Southeast Asia. Yet it took barely 6 months for the yearning of home comforts to begin. Although I am still very adamant not to create a life for myself which is nothing more than my home-life in a more exotic setting, there’s something to be said for occasional splurges and indulgences of home comforts. Those comforts actually help me to live in this region for an extended period of time. Because there’s only so much nasi goreng a girl can take.
The most important thing to remember when planning on happily living and working in a tropical paradise, is that even paradise can quickly lose its sparkle, most especially when you are sick and/or lonely. It’s imperative to create a comfort bubble which includes fellow expats from your home country (but not exclusively), and splurge on a few home comforts which will make you miss home a little bit less. This includes paying more for an air-conditioned room in a guesthouse, if only to enjoy some respite from the oppressive tropical heat. I’ve met plenty of people who threw in the towel and went back home, just because they didn’t include enough comforts in their everyday life.
Living and working in a Tropical Paradise can seem overwhelming at first, but hopefully we’ve given you some invaluable tips to help you on your way. And remember, as with everything in life, no experience is ever all good or all bad. Keep your expectations in check, do your homework, and you could be off on the absolute adventure of a lifetime.