lifestyle . Interview

My Lifestyle, My Choice: YouTuber Phoebe Leonor On The Van Life

Life on wheels

My Life, My Choice: Be inspired to live and love life even more with these empowering women set out to make the 'unconventional' conventional through their lifestyle choices.

We're not sure about you but at some point in our lives, we've daydreamed about what it's like to quit the daily hustle and live out an adventure on our own terms. This is the allure of #VanLife. The idyllic photos uploaded on its hashtag page certainly give us the impression of an easy and sweet escape from our sometimes stressful life in the bustling city. But what is it like to live more with less? Filipino YouTuber Phoebe Leonor shares the realities of life on wheels — from how she built her van to the perks and perils of this unconventional lifestyle.

Choosing a simpler life

In recent years, there has been a growing shift in sentiment about frugal habits. Along with other alternative lifestyle movements like minimalism and thrifting, the idea of living in a van is now seen as a conscious choice in living a simpler life.

It was during one of her camping trips when Phoebe realised that not only could she live on less, but it also dawned on her that she had the desire to. As someone who worked as a marketing specialist for a real estate company, she was familiar with different types of housing. What caught her eye back then weren't the luxury condominiums — it was the dainty little houses. "I'm amazed at how creative minds can make a small space functional and livable," she said. A few months after, she got to work and started building her dream van.

Building a brand new home

Just like building a typical house, creating a van home requires time, patience and commitment. "The most important thing is you'd have to be sure that this is something that you really want. If it's in your heart, your mind and it's all you ever think about, then pursue it," she said. In other words, it's an investment — and you do need to pour your heart, soul and a significant amount of money for it. How much exactly? "It depends if you already have a van that is in good running condition then you wouldn't have to spend much," Phoebe said, and shared that one should be willing to shell out around a PHP100,000 to 120,000 (~USD2,000-2,500) for a van with a similar build like hers: a 1996, 2.7 Engine Kia Besta equipped with a mini kitchen, toilet and shelves. "But a simpler build can cost only around PHP20,000 to 50,000," she shared. 

The first step is to plan your van build. "List the things that you absolutely want to have," she said. "By doing this, you'll then realise what works and what doesn't. Remove what you're willing to compromise. In my case, I knew I wanted a fixed bed. I also wanted a sink and a cooktop that I can easily access instead of having to set it up every time I need to use it. I put that in my priorities and worked my build around it."

In her YouTube video which garnered thousands of views, Phoebe detailed all the challenges she had to face while building her own van: the engine was broken and she had to hire mechanics to fix it, the van was full of dust and rust which she had to painstakingly scrape off, and she ran into an accident with a power tool that almost cut her leg off. Despite all these, Phoebe pushed through. It was "a long journey, a series of rollercoaster emotion and unimaginable experience". Her ultimate advice for anyone who wants to do what she does is this: "Be patient. Ask for help and don't put yourself in danger. If you have to pause for a while because there's no help available at that time, then pause. Don't push yourself to do something that would put you in harm's way."

Adventures on the road

After working on the van for months, Phoebe finally took it on the road. For the most part, it was a dream come true. She travelled freely and visited several landmarks on Luzon island. To date, her favourite van experience was camping near the Linasin Trapsi Resort in Zambales (a province known for its pristine beaches). "They have a gated parking lot across the resort with a water source. The resort itself has a pool, a beach, and a river. You can use their restroom, pool, raft, kitchen, and grill for only PHP70 (~USD1.50) entrance each per day. You can also park there for free," she said. 

But van life isn't all bliss. For Phoebe, there are three major challenging aspects of living in the van. "First is the heat from the sun, but it's easily manageable. You can park in a shaded spot where you can still get a little bit of sunlight for the solar panel. If that's not possible, go outside. I didn't build the van to stay in there the whole day anyway; might as well do that in our house. I wanted to travel and explore," she shared.

Another one is the limited availability of restrooms. "I have no problem with 'going number one' because I have a portable toilet inside the van. But for 'number two', it would have to be planned out. Before I park in the area, I make sure that there are available public toilets or pay toilets nearby. If I can't do that at night then I'd scout the area first thing in the morning. Surprisingly, it's very easy to find. Gas stations, fast foods, restaurants, and even carinderias (small food stalls with a dining area on the street) would have a restroom. For showers, an old-style water pump is widely available in resorts. Some even have free running water," Phoebe said. 

Internet connection is also a concern. "I have an internet connection on my phone, but I can easily use it all up for Facebook and Instagram, especially when I try to upload YouTube videos. If I go over the cap, my bill would cost more than paying for internet connection at home," she said. Her solution? Coffee shops and restaurants with free wifi.

There's also the issue of safety. Parking in secluded areas could potentially be dangerous so we asked what she does to ensure safety in an unfamiliar place. "What I do is trust my gut feeling. If I have even just a small sense of uneasiness, I won't park there," she said. Phoebe also has a safety process when setting up for the night. "I park my van with the backdoor against the wall or fence so it won't be possible to open it from the back. I make sure all the doors are locked. Parking in a well-lit and secured area is also a plus. If I can't find a good spot, I'd settle at a gas station, a 24-hour convenience store or fast-food restaurant," she shared.

On stigma and criticisms

Although already widely accepted, the stigma for van life isn't entirely gone. On top of that, it has paved a new way for criticism. Some have expressed opinions that this way of life — with the intricately designed vans and beautiful Instagram photos — glamorises poverty. To this, Phoebe said, "People have a lot to say about something unusual that they haven't really experienced yet. But people are entitled to their own opinion. Cliche as this may sound, I don't really put much thought into what others think. All I know is I am doing this because I want to travel and explore the Philippines and to make it as affordable and convenient while doing so. Imagine paying PHP1,500-2,500 (~USD30-50) per night for a hotel room. I can use that money for diesel so I can travel farther or spend that money on groceries instead."

Living life the way she wants

Phoebe continues to live her life the way she wants to; keeping it simple yet adventurous. And that's something admirable and aspirational. Currently, she toggles between living in a house and her van, and she now works as a makeup artist for films, commercials and other projects. "When I'm offered a project that pays well and it's reasonable for me to go back to the city, I pause van life," she said. But she plans to make van living full-time eventually. "Maybe for just a year or two. I want to explore the Philippines from Luzon to Mindanao and visit historical and tourist spots in every province. Then, I'd settle for a tiny sustainable house afterwards," she shared. 

We're primed to think that living a conventional lifestyle is the gold standard and that any deviation from it is less than. But happiness and stability aren't exclusive to a single path. The meaning of having a successful life isn't limited to amassing material wealth and gaining status. Sometimes, a simple and what many assume as an unconventional lifestyle might just be the key to satisfying your soul. If the current path you're on isn't working, there are hundreds more that you can pivot to. As they say, life is what we make it. Through Phoebe's story, we are inspired to think outside the proverbial box. 

(Cover photo from: @phoebekhins)

Want to get know more bold inspirational women? Check out our feature on Krystal, an unapologetically eccentric makeup artist.