The modern nomadic life is full of joys and frustrations. One year ago my partner and I decided to move to South East Asia to bootstrap our start-up. In search of lower living expenses, pleasant climates, and unicorn developers (more on that later), we were generally unaware of the growing community known as digital nomads. Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, we quickly discovered that we were not the only ones with this idea. Chiang Mai could be considered a hub for digital nomads (DNs), but there are many other places they congregate as well.
The community is an active one – full of developers, online teachers, traders, and social media and PR experts. We were quickly welcomed and invited to a series of meet ups and coffee/talk sessions (some with more dubious ‘headliners’ than others). Generally, the community is quite tight-knit. It is mostly comprised of expats who hangout together, code together, and work together. Many members of this loosely defined group take issue with the name digital nomad, but as far as descriptions go, I think it is pretty accurate. While available statistics are understandably incomplete, the website nomadlist.com offers some insight into the concerns of the community as a whole. Here you can find a list of the cities considered nomad friendly, with different categories, ratings, and information. How heavily the internet is policed, the approximate cost of living per month, and the “female friendly” ratings seem to figure predominantly.
Cities are often chosen by those working remotely based on obvious qualities like internet connectivity, the reliability of services, and availability of co-working spaces. Locals and other expats who work in the ‘offline’ community sometimes perceive the attitude displayed by DNs towards local culture, food, and traditions as offensive. And for good reason. It is easy to see the types of problems that can arise from a large influx of people from different backgrounds who do not interact with the local community on a day-to-day basis. By nature, online work is isolated, and it is easy to fall into a habit of only frequenting ‘expat’ bars, ‘expat restaurants’, or ‘expat events’. In Chiang Mai, a visitor will find a wide range of expat Thai restaurants. These places are often run by westerners, although their staff are all Thai, and they cater to the western crowd, serving less spicy variations of Thai street food classics at prices many Thai people would consider exorbitant or prohibitive (or both). While the influx also brings a large cash injection that benefits many in the city, exploitation is often perpetuated by both local and foreign business owners. Moreover, there is something inherently disrespectful about, for example, living in a country for several years and not learning the language, while still complaining that locals often make errors or provide substandard service. In much the same way that many people complain about the lack of state services while enjoying the low tax rate in Cambodia, many DNs throughout SE Asia are guilty of reducing the beautiful and complex places they live to a laundry list of things that could be improved (or, more problematically, westernized).
The problems with these sorts of implanted communities do not just end there. In Pai, a small town on the Mae Hong Son loop, the influx of expats from both China and western countries like the U.S. and Australia has not only altered the local demographic but also caused the proliferation of seasonal or short-term commercial ventures (like bike rental, or tour guides). While this is a natural byproduct of tourism, the number of new expats moving to the city semi-permanently has driven up the price of land and seen the number of western restaurants and co-working spaces (both of which are financially out of reach to most Thais) explode. The town itself, which I visited for the first time fifteen years ago, has become a sort of backpacker’s paradise. I believe it would be beneficial for those enjoying the beautiful ‘cultural experiences’ these places have to offer to try to take them as more than just experiences but actual people’s lives, homes, and existences. What for us might be a wonderful few years of new and exciting experiences, is for most people their ‘real life’.
Nonetheless, the community of DNs has a great deal to offer – which brings me to the ‘unicorn developer’. By traveling abroad, my partner and I benefited a great deal from being exposed to developers based in Asia. Both local and foreign developers work together on many projects, and the expat DN community brings employment opportunities that might otherwise be out of reach to locals (not to mention often better wages and conditions). A unicorn developer usually refers to someone with both design and development skills, but in this sense, I use it more broadly. The connected but peripatetic nature of our work has meant we are able to source people with special skills and abilities from all over the world. It allowed us to find exactly the type of people our team needed and not be constrained by visas or exorbitant travel expenses, leaving us more money to spend on quality personnel.
Perhaps one of the most (comical) challenges of living this way is trying to convince one’s parents what you actually do. One of the first nomads I met told me a simple story of why he chose to move halfway around the world to teach Chinese children English via Skype from Thailand. At home in Boston, he had struggled to find work. He had lived with his parents since college and was frustrated by his student debt. In Thailand, he lives in a luxury condominium and does satisfying work. He has even saved enough to make an investment in a small business. These types of freedoms were unthinkable at home. Nonetheless, his parents still call him every week asking when he will get serious and return to America. At thirty something, he told me he has tried everything to convince them, but they still struggle to understand.
The world has changed dramatically since our parents were young. While living as a DN has it’s issues, it presents a new opportunity and way forward for many young people who are trying to forge their own lives living by their own rules. In order to be a success, you no longer have to work a 9-5 and aim for a corner office (although there is nothing wrong with that). Many people of my age group feel that such things are just not available to them. This style of living and working requires some flexibility and a willingness to adjust to different environments (in Thailand, for example, most short-term rental apartments do not have a kitchen, just a microwave, fridge, and kettle, and then, of course, there is the matter of the toilet paper), as well as a lot of self-discipline and motivation. But if done right, the DN experience can be greatly rewarding.