Strange Places Podcast: Intro Episode with Ben and Thom

In this intro episode we talk about what's in store for the podcast and how we started our company called Flights Machine.

Listen to the episode:

full-width Photo: Thom and Ben in Singapore at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

In this episode learn about:

  • Ben's path to becoming a Digital Nomad
  • On minimalism while traveling
  • Traveling to Kazakhstan and Borat
  • Bangkok and the Hangover 2
  • Khao San Road, the most famous backpacker street worldwide
  • Medellín and Pablo Escobar
  • Choosing a destination to match your budget
  • What it's like in Barcelona
  • Negotiating Airbnb discounts
  • Airbnbs vs hotels
  • How to make money as a digital nomad
  • Shenzhen & Huaqianngbei, the "Silicon Valley of Hardware"
  • Earning 6 figures and never waking up to an alarm

Episode transcript:

Thom: Hey there, welcome to our first intro episode to our new podcast on travel to you by, I'm Thom Allen, I am one of the co-founders of Flights Machine, along with Ben Gelsey my, my co-founder, who I will be speaking to later in this episode, and we're going to tell you a little bit about our company.

But first I want to tell you kind of about the podcast and what it's going to be so we're basically going to be talking a lot about travel, about, you know, traveling abroad, traveling in the United States, traveling via plane, train, tuk-tuk, whatever it may be.

I think we're gonna have on a lot of really great guests that that have experience in these things and some that don't have so much experience. So I think that's going to add a lot of diversity to our conversations here. So definitely, if you're an avid traveler, and you want to hear some great travel stories and you know just maybe pick up some pointers and things you maybe hadn't thought of before, check it out. And if you're not an avid traveler, and you're just getting started or you're interested in travel, let us know what you want to hear and we'll try and make some episodes to answer your questions and help you get out there. We want to, we want to help inspire you to travel and see the world so don't be shy and with this podcast, feel free to jump around to whatever episode you want.

We're not going to be doing this necessarily in a chronological order per se. So you can kind of listen to whatever episode you feel is interesting to you. So even now if you feel that you want to just jump to our most recent episode, feel free to do that. Ben and I the two hosts are also very responsive to emails. If you want to reach out to us – [email protected] or [email protected].

If you have any suggestions for what you want to hear on the show any topics you want us to cover or maybe something that you heard us talk about if you want us to go a little bit more into detail about it, feel free to write to us or if you just have any questions, will you know we can just answer them and we always love talking to new people. I think you'll find where we're very responsive. So don't be afraid to reach out and if you're curious about what we do, definitely go check out our website We have sections on there talking about what we do, how we do it, who we are.

So if you're curious about any of those things, check ‘em out, but definitely stick around for my conversation with Ben, my co-founder and I, we're going to talk a little bit more about that. So I hope you're excited for this podcast and definitely let us know what you think. So now I'm going to play my conversation with Ben that we recorded a couple days ago, so enjoy.

Okay so I’m here with Ben now and we’re gonna talk a little bit about our story and how we met. Ben is a software engineer and he worked at Google a while back and he and I met up shortly I guess a couple of years after that and started doing some consulting together, so – did we meet in Peter Level’s thing in…

Ben: Yeah yeah, you messaged me on there.

Thom: Okay yeah.

Ben: Many years ago.

Thom: It was in the Slack members only type of thing, right?

Ben: Exactly. For those who don’t know, Pieter Levels or is his website, he’s a very famous digital nomad.

Thom: Yeah, yeah.

Ben: In case you never heard, digital nomad it’s somebody who works online and travels at the same time.

Thom: Yeah, he’s a extremely prolific and somewhat mediocre web developer, ha-ha.

Ben: Ha-ha. Hey he gets stuff done.

Thom: I hope he hears this, he’s gonna give me shit but…

Ben: You know I met him in Bali.

Thom: Oh really?

Ben: Yeah, just once, but…

Thom: I, I talked to him like a couple times, he’s actually extremely responsive if you like write to him.

Ben: Yeah on Twitter.

Thom: And I’ve like helped him kinda fix some of the stuff on his site, cause I’m like “Yeah, dude, these things you’re doing are making your site really slow”, so it’s kinda funny but yeah, we met through that community which is kind of a resource for digital nomads to figure out where they’re going next and talk to people who are living in those cities. I guess if you’re not familiar with the term digital nomad, it’s kinda just a person who travels around and works and makes a living as they travel.

Ben: Online.

Thom: Yeah.

Ben: You’re not working at a local job, you know, doing WWOOF organic farming or working at a hostel or being a bar crawl tour guide; you’re working online the whole time.

Thom: Yeah. So Ben has done this a lot. Currently doing this and has been for three years now, is that right?

Ben: Yeah I mean I started in 2014 but I did spend some time in the US since then but I think I am getting close to two and half years abroad.

Thom: You were basically nomadic in the US too.

Ben: True, true, I haven’t had a year lease since 2014.

Thom: OK so yeah you were in the US for a bit but basically for years you’ve been pretty nomadic.

Ben: That’s right, out of two suitcases and a backpack.

Thom: Yeah I think that’s pretty hardcore.

Ben: No, hardcore would be live out of a backpack only.

Thom: Oh yeah yeah a lot of people do that.

Ben: Yeah, you know, one of my favorite minimalist digital nomad bloggers is this guy named Tynan,, he is an interesting guy. He only owns like two shirts.

Thom: Yeah.

Ben: But they're merino wool so you know.

Thom: Yeah, I mean, if you're going to own two shirts then.

Ben: Yeah, you could splurge a bit, on the good stuff.

Thom: Yeah, I've done some traveling where I've only taken a little bit of stuff you know it's actually super nice but for the longer trips like this year going to Bali for two months we had a, we each had a small backpack and then one small rolling luggage so still pretty light on luggage for two people.

Ben: Oh yeah, definitely.

Thom: Compared to the people who go on like, weekend vacation and bring their two giant Louis Vuitton pieces of luggage.

Ben: Yeah, you see those every now and then.

Thom: I think that's the norm. Yeah, like what most people do so they go on a, on a five day vacation and they have like 70 pounds of luggage. Definitely not convenient.

Ben: Yeah.

Thom: Not my style. So I definitely can get down with minimalism it's just being traveling for so long, it’s hard. You ever feel like it’s been pretty tough being out that long?

Ben: Oh for sure. I mean, we’ve even had a conversation about this, where I think in 2019, I'm going to be spending a lot of time in Mumbai actually. So I think that's going to be my home base, so to speak in 2019. Yeah. So rather than, you know, taking one way flights from one destination to the next every couple of months, instead, I'm going to be living in Mumbai, have an apartment and just go on three weeks to five week trips and book round trip tickets to places in the area.

Thom: Yeah. So you said you're going to go to Kazakhstan?

Ben: Yeah, that's, that's one of the trips I want to take, you know, Mumbai of course, is on the west coast of India. And so for example, just to the north, you know there is Kazakhstan, Almadi is a city in particular that I am interested in. It has got direct flights from New Delhi, which is close to Mumbai and it's literally only around three, three and a half hours for that flight.

Thom: Yeah that’s awesome. Kazakhstan is gonna be really rad.

Ben: Yeah, well, it's, it's, you know, it's a country that has been somewhat maligned, for example, the famous movie Borat, he, he was allegedly from Kazakhstan.

Thom: Yeah.

Ben: Yeah it’s an interesting country and I've read some anecdotes online and people who have visited, people are incredibly welcoming, friendly. There's a lot of great stuff you can do.

Thom: Yeah well you should never trust anything coming out of Sasha Baron Cohen’s mouth ha-ha. He’s pretty funny but he’s nuts.

Thom: So yeah I mean, you've obviously traveled to a ton of places. What do you think, I know, India has been big one for you. What are some of your other favorites? I know Bangkok is one of your favorites?

Ben: Yeah, I mean, I spent actually close to nine months living in Bangkok. You know, Bangkok again, you know, a lot of these places there's like these iconic movies that kind of people get image of their head of “that’s the place”. So for Bangkok, I think in the last few years, the most notorious movie was The Hangover 2.

Thom: So start a bar on fire ha ha.

Ben: Yeah well, I think the bar I think the bar actually was in Bangkok. In Bangkok, there’s basically the the Old City and then the New City so obviously The Hangover 2 was exclusively filming the Old City and portraying it like that was the entire city. But Bangkok is actually really nice.

Thom: Yeah, I mean, I, I went shopping with their electronics mall. It's like the fourth story of their huge mall, the one with the big water fountain in the center. Yeah, and that was insane. It was like, I went to go buy a portable speaker and it was like the widest selection of electronics I've ever seen in my life. And they were all super high end stuff. So there's definitely a lot of different areas of Bangkok that are very different.

Ben: Different scenes.

Thom: Yeah, I mean, there's great public transportation in that area, too.

Ben: Yeah, there's what's called the BTS Skytrain. Yeah, so it's kind of like a subway. But instead of being underground, it's an elevated track. So you get a beautiful view of the city as you go along.

Thom: And, yeah, I met up with a friend there that I met while trekking in Nepal. We hung out and got foot massages, and got some good food.

Ben: Oh yeah, the food is, you know... I have a top five Ranking of World cuisines, and Thai food is definitely in that top five.

Thom: Yeah, if you've never had Khao soi, that's my favorite.

Ben: Oh yeah, exactly.

Thom: Northern cuisine, it’s incredible.

Ben: Goes well beyond Pad Thai that we get in the US.

Thom: And it gets much spicier although they can kick your ass in the US too, I’ve experienced that. It’s always the rating system that gets me. It's a rating system is one through five. What do you want? Like? Oh, I think I can handle a three. And then they melt my face off. And then some, you know, some of the restaurant it's like, totally different. I've heard it's based on chilis though. Like it's the number of chillies they're going to put into your dish. Maybe a Thai chef can clear that up at some point. Yeah, I love Thai food. Thailand was really cool. There's definitely a lot of like, hardcore party stuff going on.

Ben: Oh, yeah. No doubt there's different scenes. Yeah, I mean, you know, the classic backpack road is called Khao San road. So that's just like a straight line with bars, hostels and shops selling kind of like trinkets, souvenirs, street food and that's party seven days a week.

Thom: Yeah, I only went and visited that road for a day I think I was meeting up with another travel buddy, yeah it seemed like it was a little too party.

Ben: Well i mean you have a little different tastes, I've never found the place that was too much party for me.

Thom: True, I'm definitely more hiking in the mountains.

Ben: Right right.

Thom: I like to party though.

Ben: Yeah you throw some good parties.

Thom: Yeah had a good one this weekend. I was feeling it though on Sunday. So yeah. I mean Bangkok's one of your favorites, what other what other cities have you spent a lot of time in and really loved?

Ben: Well, most recently, I was in Medellin, Colombia. Yeah. So that was a really eye opening experience. Amazing place. You know, Colombia obviously has a reputation of a rough past. Medellin in particular, is where Pablo Escobar came from. Yeah, with his Medellin Cartel was the name, which was the principal group in Colombia responsible for exporting cocaine from Colombia into America. And he became incredibly wealthy off of that, but this was all back in really the 80’s and early 90’s before he was assassinated and since then Medellin has completely changed its image.

Thom: Yeah, yeah, I actually I think I sent you that documentary the other day about Medellin how they've been changing kind of cracking down on crime and actually becoming kind of a model city for other other cities that are having crime problems. Seems like it's improved dramatically, so that’s awesome.

Ben: Definitely.

Ben: Yeah and one thing I'll emphasize with the places we've covered so far is a lot of them are very affordable so for example on you know people have this misconception that travels can be expensive but it really depends on the destination yeah so yeah Bangkok in Thailand, Medellin in Colombia, Mumbai in India, these are all very affordable places whereas other place I really liked was Barcelona in Spain but unfortunately it's not that cheap there. There's a real housing problem actually because so many tourists are interested going to Barcelona that in the summertime rent prices skyrocket.

Thom: Oh everything's just Airbnbs.

Ben: Yeah i mean they cracked down actually and actually Airbnb for under 30 days are not actually in Barcelona.

Thom: Oh yeah.

Ben: Yeah but obviously there are still some available but you know to counteract the risk they the hosts really charge a high rate.

Thom: Yeah, crazy. I mean travels definitely a lot cheaper if you are know a little bit more about what to spend money on and what not to and it can be difficult, like, you know, looking at place that's cheap is kind of an art form and I can't say I've completely mastered it.

Ben: Well even with platforms like Airbnb there's negotiation involved. Yeah. So basically you can send a well-crafted message to the host, especially if you're staying for a little bit longer. Maybe wants to be there for your whole two week vacation three week vacation. And because of that, even there's not an inbuilt weekly discount on Airbnb, you can often negotiate one. So I've definitely done that before.

Thom: I think I did that before as well where you can basically say like okay I rented, your place for a week you know I'm not crazy. How about a month right.

Ben: Well, yeah, I mean, definitely. Anytime you go offline, you're gonna get the best rates. So that's kind of what you're describing where after you've been on site at the person you can work a deal. Similarly, if you're on the ground, you can negotiate in person as opposed to online where yeah it's just tougher to get good deals.

Thom: I personally really like just is my favorite. So I've kind of gotten burned by Airbnb, a couple times and been trapped in their horrendous customer support well they just don't have support so right when you run into a problem you're really on your own, you end up just eating the price and it can be really bad. So I've never had that issue with the hotel through, it is a lot more reliable. So you're going to pay a little bit more a lot of times, but honestly Airbnb are pretty on par with hotels in a lot of places.

Ben: Yeah, it's a it's a case by case basis. You got to know the place you're going.

Thom: And like I've I also can say the convenience of a hotel is often very valuable. The fact that you can walk in and there's a person at the front desk and you just check in and you're in your room. Everything's clean everything's you know, where with an Airbnb like I got one in Thailand - that was just like I opened the door and immediately was just like “I’m not staying here”.

Ben: Oh wow what you see.

Thom: Oh, it was just this like, first off the climb up to it was this was in Phuket, which is kind of, has some sketchy areas to it. You know, it was like in this weird industrial back alley or I was like climbing of fire escape to get to the room and then I opened the door and it's just this like you know the cold creepy flickering fluorescent bulb and just this gross bed that's like made out of cardboard and I am just like “What is this”. That was one of the situations where I was just like, and I think it was kind of pricey for considering on so I was just like, I'm not paying for this yeah had to try and get my money back. But I don't think I did, I ended up running another place and Airbnb didn't refund it I thought that was weird.

Ben: But that's all part of the adventure.

Thom: Yeah. So when you're traveling and working this digital nomad - I mean I'm familiar with this process, but people listening might not be. What are you doing, how are you making money?

Ben: Yeah, that's a great question. You know, for me, I really fell into this almost accidentally where back in university I was basically about to graduate. And that's basically the prospect, am I going to get a regular job work in an office but an opportunity just presented itself to me where some of my classmates actually got incubator funding from a startup incubator, and then they essentially wanted me to join them as their quote unquote CTO, but I basically made them the offer - no, rather than being your CTO, how about I’m your contractor, your consultant where you just pay me by the hour. And it just so happened they were okay with me working remotely because I actually already had a trip plan where I was going to go to China for a month.

Thom: Yeah, that's a score.

Ben: Yeah, yeah. So literally I continued working for them while I was in China, and that was my first experience with remote work and from then on, I realized, wow, this is this is amazing.

Thom: You were in Shenzen?

Ben: Yeah, exactly. It was I was thinking about actually moving there to work on electronics product Fitbit for weightlifting.

Thom: Shenzen is like the current, kind of the Silicon Valley of hardware and embedded electronics.

Ben: Exactly. Yeah, there's an area called Huacing Bay, which is just filled with these skyscrapers with nothing but stalls selling electrical components. So whether that's resistors or CPUs or you name it, they have that little microphone chips, it's all there. They have PCB printing and PCB is printed circuit board, by the way those green things that you can get that prototype in a day. Otherwise, if you're in the US, you're trying to get it done prototype done in China, it's gonna take weeks to ship to you so you can just really cut down on your iteration time by actually being on site where they're getting manufacturing.

Thom: So you guys were building and programming fitness hardware and software.

Ben: Yeah, I was trying to make it wearable. That's what I was considering doing, obviously nothing ever really came of it but you know this is how I got my start remote work and then I realized, you know as soon as you do something once you realize, “Oh, you can replicate this” so then I was just hustling online trying to find a new client after that project ended and I was able to actually and since then this was back in 2014 worked on maybe eight to 10 different projects. Yeah, and all that have been remote and upfront I explain you know how I work and travel and I'm going to be a different time zones, but with a little bit of flexibility on the client side in terms of meetings, especially if you're for example in Asia, while they're in the US it's definitely workable.

Thom: Yeah they make it work because Ben is a pretty kick ass web developer.

Ben: Yeah, I guess so ha-ha. Yeah you know when you're in Asia oftentimes you might be taking calls at 10pm 11pm, whereas in the US, you know, that might be the morning maybe 9am 10am depending on whether it's East Coast, West Coast, Mountain Time, etc. But it's close to a 12 hour time difference. And so you do have to be flexible and things like that because obviously no employee in America is willing to, you know, take a 10pm call every night.

Thom: Yeah. And you were doing calls at like midnight with your client for a long time in Bangkok right?

Ben: Yeah I mean I usually try to stick to 10 or 11 so wrap up you know before midnight. I think if you have calls that are going past midnight that's been tough to deal with.

Thom: Yeah, to stay awake during the call.

Ben: Well yeah to stay awake and just for your sleep cycle. I mean, if you're, you know, staying up every night till 2am 3am waking up in the afternoon. That's just not really good for you. But I will say nice benefit is to never have to wake up with an alarm when you're over there. And, you know, first thing I'll do I'll eat breakfast and I'll just go to the pool get a little swim in get a tan in and then you should kind of start the day a few hours later.

Thom: Yeah. And you're just kind of doing all that stuff while your clients are asleep.

Ben: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You know, I had a little, see, it was called Work While You Sleep based on the fact that I was working with the client was sleeping. Yeah, so it's worked out well. And me and Thom have already been, you know, working on our company Flights Machine in a similar manner. You know both of us have been on trips where we're in completely different time zones from each other, but you know, use modern collaboration tools like Slack, which is a chat program and things like Trello for project management, you name it. Lots of SAAS tools.

Thom: Yeah actually every everything on the internet in general.

Ben: Yeah, yeah. It's a growing trend.

Thom: So we've been doing that for the year and three months now. Yeah, I think working on Flights Machine remotely and yeah, we've written, you know, 10s of thousands of lines of code got a lot of stuff down and it's been really good. Yeah, I think both of us are pretty skilled at remote work so definitely that definitely helps. Yeah, I did some work. I think originally my first remote client was Tesla when I worked there. I was down in the headquarters when I started in San Francisco living down there and then when I moved to Salt Lake City I went off and did some consulting after working for a Tesla and then when I moved back to Salt Lake City, they hit me up and wanted me to do some more work for them, so I worked remotely for them for a while and then later on, did some stuff with you and you worked for one of my clients here in Salt Lake City remotely. And then you and I worked for Black Tie Skis and also yeah I think I worked for Sidewalk while I was remote. I did some remote work for them from Nepal which was very challenging but it actually worked. I mean, I could I had good enough internet that I could write code and push it and do all that stuff. But definitely, if you need to upload something, it gets pretty hairy.

Ben: Right, right. So yeah, for those real time video calls and whatnot.

Thom: Yeah, that's just not even an option in Nepal. You can barely upload your photos from your trip. So yeah that's a pretty good intro to I guess how you and I met and work together and have made some money as digital nomads and for me I've mostly been a remote worker from my home. You know, I just have an office here and then my clients would normally be in another, in another place and I just do everything from home. So it's pretty nice but like what you were saying, I can kind of take my time and wake up when I when I want to a degree and do my meditation in the morning and then just walk to my desk. Yeah, pressing appeal for me. Yeah, it's a good commute, but can be a little hard little lonely at times, not a lot of human interaction. Find yourself going to coffee shops, just to talk with like your server but now I have a I have a good solid social life in the evening so that helps.

Ben: Yeah no water cooler chat, but that's okay.

Thom: So anyway if you're listening and you find the digital nomad life interesting and or even just a remote working or anything that we've talked about reach out to us let us know. You can email either of us at [email protected] or [email protected] and let us know what you what you liked what you don't like or what you would like to hear us talk about in the future. So we'll wrap this one up for now. Thanks for listening.

Things referenced in this episode:

Flights Machine - Ben and Thom’s cheap flights mailing list

Work While you Sleep - Ben's software consulting company.

Nomad List - - Great resource for learning what certain destinations are like compared to others. Created by Pieter Levels

Khao Soi - You probably can’t find this outside of Thailand very often so here’s a recipe:

Kazakhstan -

Tynan - Digital nomad that only owns two shirts.

WWOOF - Live and work on organic farms around the world

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