Study hard, find a well paid job as a lawyer/doctor, get married and have kids… Sounds familiar? This traditional definition of a successful life progression is applicable worldwide, and especially prevalent in Asia. The region is home to many digital nomad hubs, but the lifestyle is not as common among Asians. In this episode, Kach from the Philippines shares how she broke free from this traditional mindset to find her own success and happiness while traveling around the world. We discuss family communications, building remote income sources, creating a successful travel blog , yacht life and Montenegro as a home base.
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The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started from your journey of a corporate job to basically travelling around the world and meeting the love of your life and then to where you are today?
My name is Kach, and I am from the Philippines – in 2013, I quit my job. I worked in Kuwait and Iraq for almost four years – my last job was for an oil company. Before I know it, it was like a quarter-life crisis. I was 24 and earning decent money for my age and my nationality. I decided to quit my job and then go travelling for six months, like just a sabbatical using my savings.
But unexpectedly, I met my husband, Jonathan, who is four years older than me. He had left his architectural job to go backpacking and go on a motorbike trip around Southeast Asia. But his plan was not like six months and going back to the UK. He planned to retrain and become an English teacher. He knew that teaching English abroad as a British citizen would make good money. So, he was on a motorbike trip around Southeast Asia and ended up living in Hanoi, Vietnam. I was only backpacking, and I decided to travel for two, three months. After meeting Jonathan in Laos, Luang Prabang, I realized I liked this guy and wanted to meet up again. So, I visited him in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he started teaching English and ended up not leaving. I ended up teaching English there. And we live in Vietnam together for almost nine months.
Then we decided to travel the world. We booked our flight tickets to India, where we live and travel for three months. That’s where we trained to become yoga teachers and massage therapists because we knew we wanted to keep travelling, but we needed to fund our travels. We didn’t have that much money, just some savings from teaching English in Vietnam. After that, we flew to South America, where we lived in Peru. We volunteered in exchange for accommodation and breakfast. At this point, we decided to start a travel blog, and that’s where it all started. A few years later, I’ve travelled to 144 countries. My husband and I’ve travelled to around 80 countries together. I’ve travelled solo more than him especially when we lived on a sailboat for two years. During this time, I would go out and travel solo for two to three months per year.
How did you go from the Philippines to working in Kuwait and Iraq? Why did you choose these countries?
Filipinos usually go abroad to work and most probably to the Middle East. The reason why I chose Kuwait is that my father had been living there for ten years. He works for the Ministry of Dental Administration. I planned to work for the Philippine embassy because I planned to take up law. But then I found a job in the private sector, earning good money for a 20-year-old Filipina. Why would they go back to the Philippines? Then I learned about Couch Surfing, backpacking, because in the Philippines when you travel, you stay in hotels because that’s the only vacation. But when I learned about these platforms, I realized I would never go back to the Philippines. I would not become a diplomat, so I could have a diplomatic passport that would allow me to travel to other countries. I didn’t need it. I could couch surf.
How did your parents feel about your desire to travel and changing your plans?
My parents separated when I was seven. I was raised by my mom. I didn’t have a close relationship with my father until I was in university and needed to ask him for an allowance. When I finished university, he offered to send me to law school. For Asians, our parents pay for our tuition fees. But in university, I was a scholar. So, they didn’t pay anything at all, except for miscellaneous fees. I ended up not doing law. When I arrived in Kuwait, my father helped me get there. I never really grew up with him. I don’t really know him that much. I lived with him for a year. I brought my mother from the Philippines to Kuwait. She’s also a dentist, and she left everything to come with me. My mom is pretty cool. I moved out of my father’s house and moved in with my mom. I was exposed to the international scene, meet new people who liked travelling – it was just like my dream. I left my current boyfriend – we separated because we had a different mindset. He wanted to have a family and to buy a house in the Philippines. I never really imagined myself having children anytime soon.
My mom raised me to be independent, so when I told her I was moving to Iraq to work and then started backpacking, she never really questioned my decision making. She knew me – she raised me how I am. When I left my job to go backpacking, my father had many comments. He thought if this guy’s living with you but isn’t going to marry you, he had an old mindset. He didn’t talk to me for years. When my blog started to have more attention in some newspapers and had more followers, he started talking to me and thought I wasn’t a failure. He accepted what I wanted to do. But he didn’t communicate with me for three or four years. But that was quite normal because I didn’t talk to him from elementary into college.
Is there anything that you do during your travels that relieves your parents concern?
The good thing is that at the beginning of my travels, I met Jonathan. We’ve been together since 2013, so my mom was not worried. We have travel insurance, and they are aware of our itinerary – they know our schedule. I don’t call them because they know everything from our travel blog on Facebook, so everything is heavily documented. But if I don’t post, I inform my mum why. The only time she has been worried was when I had a car accident in Pakistan in 2019. I make sure that every year I bring my mom to a new country with me. We always have a catch-up. She knows that I can handle things, and she says that she always prays the rosary because she’s very religious. She says “God is guiding you, so I’m not worried about you.”
Tell us more about the challenges that you faced travelling as a Filipino? I know you address visa issues a lot. What are other challenges?
Having a Philippines passport, it’s always hard to get a visa – thankfully, I’ve passed those hurdles. If you’re a first time traveller, the impression is that you are going there to look for work and not go back to the Philippines, that you want to work illegally with a tourist visa. That was the historical perception. I passed that hurdle. The hard part now is getting a visa to visit some African countries.
In some of these countries, for example, in South Sudan, or Sudan, the closest embassy is in London or France. For me to go there, I have to get a visa to enter France or the UK to get a visa to enter South Sudan. That is the reason why my husband and I decided to sell our sailboat and move back to the Caribbean to live there. It’s not easy travelling to other places – that is why we decided to move to Montenegro. We’re able to get residency, making it easier for me to apply for visas to these countries that we planned to visit next. The other issue we had was our Filipino currency – it is not high and getting visas for a passport is difficult and expensive. Aside from all the requirements that you have to submit, you have to show three to six months of bank statements, proof of your income, the reason you’re going there, and have a guarantor or an invitation. For African countries, the complicated part is where you will apply and how long before you could apply.
Can you debunk some of the myths that Filipinos often have about long-term travel?
They ask about safety and how safe it is. I couldn’t answer it, because it depends on the location and the situation. You could avoid going out at night, those kinds of things. Of course, you cannot control accidents – you never know what will happen next. Another thing is how expensive it is. One thing I want to debunk is that if you quit your job to go travelling your career or your life will end. However, you could build a career from travelling and doing something. That’s the big trend of digital nomads – why work from home if you can work anywhere. I don’t consider myself a digital nomad anymore – I have a permanent base and still travel. I will never lose that part of the adventure.
On social media, I post personal things as well as reality. That’s why we have two pages. One is two monkeys, where I’ll post the best things in life or guides and how to teach people. Then we have a page, where I post everything that I do in a day, even if I’m complaining, my health issues, just the reality. People need to see that this is the reality of life. It’s not just like super nice unicorns all the time. If they compare it to life on Instagram, it’s different because that is just the highlight of your life.
Travel blogging is another thing that is very often misunderstood by people. Can you tell me about your journey shifting from backpacking to teaching English and then writing a blog?
We got into the travel blogging world in 2014. I’m not saying it’s saturated now – everyone has different personalities, different journeys, different style. If you decide to start a travel blog, do it, it’s not too late. When we started in 2014, not many people were doing it. We had a niche and was able to get into that market. People don’t know we worked 18 hours per day because you had to write content, do SEO, keyword searches, photos, and we spent a lot more time promoting it. If you have no readers, then there’s no profit. You have to learn about affiliate marketing and how to get sponsorships. Sponsors will only come to you if you have enough readers and analytics to promote and prove it. You need people who follow your blog, and they have click-throughs and a good return on your investment – my ROI is high.
Some people write travel blogs as a hobby to share them with family and friends. Some people do it for a business. It helped pay for our trips, with buying our house and paying our bills. Before travel blogging, we tried teaching English, doing yoga and massages and e-commerce. We then started to do lifestyle blogs, that kind of thing, you end up making money from your commissions, and you have to think of products and services that you could sell to support your experience. If you have a good readership or following, they will buy your products and services.
Eventually, with our travel blog, we got sponsored by Turkish Airlines, and then hotels and tourism boards. That’s why we’re able to stay in nice hotels and get proper tours – otherwise, we would still be in the backpackers’ hostel. If you go to our two monkeys page and look at our first photos, one with a brown and a white monkey with backpacks. You will see that we didn’t expect it to go so big. It was just for fun – we call each other monkeys. It’s a good brand, Two Monkeys Travel. Our goal was to go from monkey backpackers to luxury travellers. Law of attraction works dreams do come true.
How long did it take for the blog to become sustainable full time?
We started the blog in 2014, and it took off in 2015. We purchased the domain name in 2014. Our first writing income came from Rappler, a publication in the Philippines. They paid us $50, and they agreed to give a link back to our brand-new website. We wrote an article that went crazy viral – it’s on social media, on that website. We got immediate clicks on our page, so that was a good thing.
Then we partnered with the TEFL company because we were writing about funding this travel. We told them that we were ditching English to make money to travel. We started the Blogspot in March when we were still in India. We started content and promoted it as Blogspot by June. We bought the domain in October, and by January, we made $1,000 because we were promoting a TEFL course. Then we signed up for Agoda, booking.com, Skype – where you can make money from affiliate marketing. Once we graduate and got more followers on social media, we got more sponsored posts. We had 10,000 followers, so we asked for free night stays in five-star hotels, in exchange for working together. It was like a snowstorm. Once we had a higher domain authority and more readers, we could get more sponsorship and advertising.
We were making money by January 2015. But you need to maintain the momentum. It’s not like you just made money, and then you’re done. You need to make sure that you are consistent, and you have to be diverse. In the beginning, we had some volunteer writers because we couldn’t afford to pay for them. But they got a free trip to places in exchange for content.
Now we have six full-time staff working with us, who manage some of our websites and help us with our social media and editing.
Tell me about life on a sailboat because that was in the last few years of your life?
After we got married in 2016, my husband wanted to have a boat, but we’re broke. In 2017 we were able to buy a sailboat because he was semi-retired, and we’re making passive income. You know passive income is not passive – you need to work to make money from it. So, we bought that boat in the Florida Keys in May 2017. Jonathan has an RIAA certificate. He figured out the boat, and I went to Africa. I travelled to 17 countries in Africa for almost three months, and then I went on a Caribbean sailing cruise with my mother. When the boat was ready, we went to the Bahamas. But two weeks after we arrived, the Florida case was hit by Hurricane Irma. In the marina where we were, there were 300 boats, but only 50 survived. Thankfully, our boat was still there in the morning. It had minor damage. I believe in miracles. My husband had been visualizing it was protected by a bubble. We were so worried because the boat wasn’t insured. It took us two months to fix it.
By February, we took off with a cat, Captain Ahab, that we adopted in the Florida Keys who survived the hurricane. We didn’t know how to sail – we just followed the cruise ships. Later, we sailed around from the Bahamas until we decided we sell the boat and move back to Europe. It was amazing, and that’s the reason why we started Mr and Mrs Howe sailing blog. The Two Monkeys travel took a hit as it couldn’t be related to living on a sailboat. Not everyone wants to live on a boat or buy a boat. Our followers were affected, but we had a different kind of following.
What was the pros and cons of live on a sailboat?
People assume we left the boat because I didn’t enjoy it. But it was my husband who stopped it. I loved the sailing life. In the beginning, I didn’t because we didn’t have a proper shower on the boat. Before we sold the boat we realised that we had a hidden shower – the space is tiny. If you want to go to land, you must get there in a dinghy. We mostly stayed in the Marina, staying on a boat with a shared bathroom, just like backpacking, but we have our house that we’re dragging along with us. You have the freedom to go to islands when no one is there. The sailing community is amazing. Most of them are retired, and they are chasing freedom. We’ve met wonderful friends through sailing, and of course, it’s just adventure – you never know what’s going to happen. Jonathan is the skipper. He’s always under pressure making sure the boat doesn’t sink. My only worry was, what are we going to eat tonight?
Why did you guys decide to settle down in Montenegro?
When we sold our boat, we planned to move to Europe, but not the UK. We wanted a lifestyle, and we couldn’t afford that in the UK. We wanted to eat out. We wanted to go sailing. We wanted to go travelling. We wanted a luxury lifestyle on a budget. We thought of moving to Portugal or Spain, which was feasible because there wasn’t Brexit, and we could get residency, but then we got invited to go back to Montenegro. I had visited Montenegro twice before moving in 2019. We loved it because we love sailing, and we wanted to buy another boat. We could go sailing in Boca. Jonathan loves motorbikes, and modern Agra is known for the motorbike routes and cycling routes. I got my residency before Jonathan. He was stuck in the UK because of COVID.
The country is tiny and still cheap -the lifestyle is so laid back. It feels like you’re in the Caribbean because the people are so chilled, super-nice, super approachable. You can find fresh food everywhere. Everyone has a garden, fresh veggies, and fresh meat. You could have alcohol and eat steak or eat seafood with every meal. We live in Herceg Novi, and we are close to three different airports. We could cross the border to Dubrovnik, we could fly anywhere, and we travel a lot. Buying a house was not our plan. Our plan was just to rent for a year. We ended up buying a house because I had a car accident and couldn’t walk for a few months. We were renting in a penthouse without an elevator. Even if I went to therapy, I couldn’t go up and down all the stairs. We had enough savings to buy a house, and then COVID happened. We couldn’t renovate our house.
If I showed you around, you might end up buying a small house with land to grow all your vegetables. For someone like – my husband and I, we really couldn’t live in cities anymore. We preferred to live near the city but still be up in the hills surrounded by mountains. We have cats, and they are happy to run around the village. We don’t have neighbours that live here – it is just their summer home. The city is tiny, and people talk. They think we are weird until they met us.
What are your plans after COVID? Are you looking to go to other countries?
The reason why I wanted to move to Montenegro was, so I could easily bring my family here. If I immigrated to the UK, it would not be easy to bring family or friends who want to emigrate. We started the company, and we are the only licensed company in Montenegro – that caters to Filipinos and other Asian nationalities who need a visa to emigrate to Montenegro. It’s promoting to immigrate, but we’re targeting more business investors because job opportunities here are not high. The country’s population is 600,000 with not many businesses, but it’s going to boom when it becomes part of the EU. So, we plan to settle down, get our company sorted, bring our stuff here and my brother. We have just come back from Moldova, where we spent the week for work, and my brother looked after our cats. We have a big plan to go to Africa – it is a continent that I haven’t visited. We’re travelling on a truck, and that’s our big goal. I still aim to travel to every country in the world in the next two or three years. And then maybe after that, adopt more cats.
Do you think this is the best time to go to Montenegro, before the boom?
Imagine Croatia years ago – people were buying properties there, it was easy because Croatia was not EU. Now it’s not easy to get into Croatia, even for tourism. It’s not easy for Asian people to buy properties there or get a residency visa. Montenegro is trying to be like Croatia. Montenegro has just passed a law for any start-up companies to be tax-free for your income and corporate for five years. Now is the best time to get into it because they’re trying to make it like a hub. They are trying to bring more digital nomads to Montenegro. Not just to invest in properties, but this is where they could have their start-up company.
How easy is it to buy property in Montenegro as a foreigner?
Unlike in other countries, you own your property 100%. For foreigners in the Philippines, you can only buy a condominium, and you cannot buy land. We have a house in law that is shared, 50/50, between my husband and me. There is no standard rate for properties in Montenegro. They don’t have a systematised real estate. It all depends on how much people want to pay. There was a property boom in 2016 when all the Russians arrived here. They paid cash to buy everything because nobody was checking where the cash was coming from. Now it is a little bit stricter. Now, because they know that Montenegro will be in the EU, there is no rush to sell. They will have more value. Now, because of COVID, a lot of Russians who bought the properties – are selling them cheaper because they wanted cash. We paid half of what the Russian guy was asking because we had the cash. It’s cheaper to buy in Montenegro, but there are no mortgages. You pay for everything in cash. You must have a lawyer and a court-appointed translator. You cannot do anything, document wise, without a court-appointed translator. It’s for your protection, and it’s a requirement by law that you have that. We saw the house on Monday, and we put an offer in on Tuesday. The Russian guy flew from Moscow by Thursday. We checked everything in the house on Friday. Then we signed a contract and transferred the money from the UK to Montenegro. We couldn’t send it directly to Russia because there’s a blockage. On Saturday, we met the previous owner, we flew to the same airport because we were going to Bhutan, and he was going back to Moscow. When we got back from Bhutan, the house in our name.
Is the process always that fast?
It is not easy for others – you must do your due diligence. You must make sure the title is clear, that there’s only one owner, because sometimes there are multiple owners. Buying from another foreigner makes sure that the title is clean. We’ve seen more and more on the market because my husband has been getting into it. We’re not into real estate, but we’re just helping some people get permission from the owner and connecting them. There are now so many Russians trying to sell properties, it’s just getting cheaper.
What would be your best advice for Filipinos or Asians who want to get into long term travel?
Just get out there, get out of your comfort zone. People, your parents will worry about you. Because if they don’t, are they psychopaths – they should worry. The best rebuttal is, you raised me. You raised me to be independent. Before you get into long term travel, you need to make sure you’re quitting your job, which is easy. The hard part is sustaining it. How can you sustain a lifestyle like this? My tip for you is to learn new skills to work online, then work as a virtual assistant. Do anything that would make money and the lifestyle sustainable. You don’t want to get exposed to this world and run out of money, then go back home, get back to your old job and do your old thing. Because you’re no longer going to be your old self. Quit with a plan of how you could sustain the lifestyle. I always say to our readers, YOLO – You Only Live Once, but you need to think long term. Always think about what’s next but enjoy the moment.