Making a home for digital nomads

Digital nomads are busy in their natural habitat.

“There is no place like this in the world,” says Quinn Zeda, a graphic design entrepreneur, referring to Chiang Mai’s bustling “digital nomad” scene.

From November to February, between the rainy season and the scorching season, Chiang Mai’s Nimman district is full of young foreign freelancers, entrepreneurs and self-help gurus who can work online from anywhere in the world. . And year after year, many choose to spend their winters in Chiang Mai.

Digital nomads are a classification of online workers who choose to work in coffee shops and coworking spaces across the world, instead of staying in their home country and doing much the same job.

The proliferation of accessible and fast WiFi and remote working opportunities has driven many of these traveling millennials to Thailand for its balance of comfort, affordability, and hot weather.

“I think Generation Y and soon Generation Z are facing a very difficult time; they are graduating at a time when the economy is changing, ”said Pieter Levels, the Dutch founder of the NomadList website. “The regular journey isn’t very rewarding either. There aren’t a lot of well-paying jobs and career growth stagnates, so they become self-employed, get bored at home, go on a trip, and then leave. from a distance.”

NomadList, launched in 2014, provides both a participatory ranking of top digital nomadic destinations and a social media platform that allows users to share their locations and meet in real life. For years, Chiang Mai has been # 1 on NomadList, but recently it has been edged out by Canggu in Bali and Bangkok.

“My perfect place would be the hipsterness of Bali mixed with the mildness of Chiang Mai in a climate like Seoul,” Mr. Levels said.

Vichaya and Euam Sirisanthana, the founders of Punspace.

A NOMADIC MAGNET

Despite its third place, Chiang Mai retains the most concentrated and visible nomadic population.

“If you see a ‘farang’ in Nimman, it is most likely a digital nomad,” said James Hunt, digital entrepreneur and moderator of the Chiang Mai Digital Nomad Facebook group, which has more than 30,000 members. “You don’t get that in a lot of other places I’ve ever found. It means it’s easier to find people working in businesses similar to yours. Nomadic life can be lonely in some places. ; Chiang Mai is not one of them. “

The movement itself is amorphous and loosely defined. Many people work remotely, travel and sometimes combine the two. But only some of these people go so far as to create a full-time lifestyle, moving from place to place, every few months or even a few weeks.

Most nomads operate in a legal gray area regarding their immigration status in Thailand. Since most work remotely for companies outside of Thailand, it is not entirely clear if they are breaking the rules regarding work permit requirements. They often stay in the country on tourist visas, then go on a “visa run” outside the country and return if they want to stay longer.

“It would be nice to have clearer rules, but it’s actually very easy to be in the gray zone,” said Johnny FD, a nomad who earns his money in various businesses promoting and monetizing the way of life. . “If this became an official thing where every digital nomad had to apply for a business visa, people wouldn’t do it. They would go to Bali or elsewhere.”

A digital nomad works after hours at the Punspace Nimman site.

ORIGINAL STORY

The term was first coined by two technologists, David Manners and Tsugio Makimoto, in a 1997 book titled Digital nomad. The book came out before the widespread proliferation of wireless laptops and WiFi, the two quintessential necessities of the modern digital nomad.

Mr Manners said they had adapted the term from presentations on “nomadism” in the early 1990s by Jean-Pierre Liebaut, president of Mietec, Alcatel’s chipmaking subsidiary, describing the effect that Digital mobile technologies, then in development, would have people lived and worked in their path.

The movement really took off, however, after the publication of The 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss in 2007, a book that advocated starting an online business, working from anywhere, and having enough underlings to do most of your work for you.

The end goal would be to work four hours a week while relaxing on a tropical beach. Ironically, most of today’s digital nomads who were inspired by Ferriss’s book work far more than four hours a week freelance or setting up online businesses, and many work more hours than a job. traditional from 9 to 5.

Digital nomadism only became a full-fledged community about eight years ago in Chiang Mai and online, where like-minded people doing similar remote work started to come together, hosting seminars. , meetings and networking events. It is questionable whether Chiang Mai can be considered the birthplace of the community, but the city certainly represents a flashpoint in its rise.

Husband and wife team Vichaya and Euam Sirisanthana founded Chiang Mai’s first co-working space, Punspace, in the Nimman district six years ago and have three locations in the city.

“My wife and I were working in Bangkok and really liked the co-working spaces there,” Mr. Vichaya said. “But when we moved to Chiang Mai, we wanted to start a startup but couldn’t find good workspaces, so we decided to create our own.”

At first, they expected local Thai entrepreneurs to be their main clients, but soon realized that digital nomads would be their main clientele. Some 60-70% of customers using their coworking spaces would be considered digital nomads, while expats and local Thais make up the rest.

“There were nomads in Chiang Mai before we started Punspace, but once we gave them a place to meet and network, it was easier for them to create a great community,” Ms. Euam said.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

Chiang Mai offers a great starting point for novice nomads, based on affordability and widespread online associations. They flock to the city with a few thousand dollars and dream of succeeding, or at least maintaining the travel-work lifestyle for as long as possible.

“My first nomadic trip was from April to December 2013, with a few months in Chiang Mai in Punspace, in the first very interesting days,” Mr. Levels said. “There were only dozens of nomads in Chiang Mai then, but now there are hundreds if not thousands.”

Some nomads come to Thailand without any real skills that would make them skilled remote workers, such as programming, graphic design, or a successful blogging history. They often lack existing customers and sources of income.

“A lot of people who come here try to do it online, but the savings are running out,” Ms. Zeda said. “A lot of people are vulnerable to scammers who sell a get-rich-quick lifestyle.”

Many newcomers are particularly vulnerable to scammers who prey on self-help and get-rich-quick schemes, seminars and online courses valued at hundreds of dollars, while offering real value. nothing. Many of these scams act like pyramid schemes or tiered marketing businesses.

Financial troubles and con artists aside, loneliness can hurt many digital nomads. Moving from one place to another every few months often isolates people from their friends and family. But that’s also what makes Chiang Mai such a popular destination. It is one of the few destinations for nomads where the community is easily accessible.

“When you move around so much, it’s hard to have legitimate friends and community around you,” Ms. Zeda said. “In Chiang Mai, it’s the community that keeps me coming back. It’s a place that I can go to and that is always familiar to me.”

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