Nestled amid the rolling mountains of Thailand’s lush green north, Chiang Mai offers easy access to South Asia’s idyllic beaches, unparalleled Thai hospitality and a sublime standard of living—all for a pittance.
It has long been regarded as an expatriate’s haven and a popular stop-off on the Southeast Asia backpacker trail, with many travelers returning to pick up jobs teaching English. Salaries in the region of US$1,000 per month allow for a comfortable lifestyle in a city where a modern studio apartment with shared gym and pool facilities can go for as little as US$200 a month and a bowl of khao soi—a must-try fragrant northern curry—is likely to set you back around a dollar.
Now Chiang Mai’s makeup is changing. An improved political situation in Myanmar has led to large numbers of journalists and NGO workers—mainstays among the city’s expat community—relocating across the border.
They are being replaced, en masse, by young, tech-savvy 20-somethings harboring aspirations of making their fortune in a tropical paradise. These so-called digital nomads are ambitious entrepreneurs who enjoy life in the slow lane, sipping fresh coconut juice while directing employees from afar.
One such person is Matt Diggity, a search engine optimization (SEO) expert who arrived in the ‘Rose of the North’ in 2013, after deciding that everyday life in the US was not for him. ‘When I was back in the States, I knew my job as an engineer was not sustainable,’ the 37-year-old says. ‘A 60-hour week was normal—I’d either have a heart attack or jump off a bridge.’
Initially planning to take a year off from work, Diggity soon tired of the monotony of endless nights in and around Zoe in Yellow (part of a popular strip of bars around Chiang Mai’s Old City). Having previously gotten into SEO—in simple terms, the practice of improving search-engine rankings on sites such as Google—when considering career alternatives Stateside, he dove headfirst into the industry here.
Diggity created his own websites while outsourcing content work to ‘virtual assistants’. He hasn’t looked back since and now runs his own company, which boasts eight full-time employees, including IT and conversion optimization experts, with around 35 virtual assistants working under everyone.
Interestingly, Diggity has been able to assemble much of his team by tempting English teachers away from their schools. Long hours and never-ending, unnecessary bureaucracy is a constant source of frustration among the young educators who are often in Thailand for a good time, not a long time. ‘I poach English teachers,’ Diggity admits. ‘I match their salary and tell them they can work from home. This way you get people with college degrees working for you for US$1,000 a month.’
As one of a number of SEO specialists in Chiang Mai, Diggity has had to come up with innovative new ways to grow his business, and now offers apprenticeship programs in order to create the next generation of experts. ‘I’m trying to find someone to clone myself,’ he explains. ‘You can’t really hire an expert because they’re already doing their own thing. But [the trainees] learn everything that we know how to do, so it’s essentially a career we’re offering.’
Chiang Mai has seen a huge boom in tourism from middle-class China in recent years, while large numbers of Bangkokians sought new pastures up north after the 2011 floods in the capital destroyed many homes and businesses. Plush new apartment buildings catering to the rapidly expanding city’s nouveau riche and a spate of shopping malls have sprung up in the ensuing years. Direct flights to Phuket, Bali, Hong Kong and Singapore—as well as easily accessible nearby getaways such as Pai and Mae Ngat Dam—only increase its appeal. It’s little wonder the nomads view it as an ideal base.
The knock-on effect of such an influx of people is perfectly highlighted along Nimmanhaemin, a trendy district replete with bars, restaurants and cafes. Traditionally popular among the city’s students, the area is now home to numerous hip establishments catering to online workers and reaping the rewards of the work-from-your-laptop phenomenon.
Punspace, a workspace for digital nomads and students, launched three years ago and has since opened a second branch by the touristy Tha Phae Gate. ‘When we started, there was no real co-working space so we wanted to create a community for startups and freelancers,’ explains manager Pongsatorn Raktin.
In addition to providing a daily base for workers, Punspace has hosted events for companies including Amazon, BBC UX and IBM. Meet-ups among the community, which include presentations and Q&A sessions with specialists, are also regularly held in such venues. ‘The number of expats coming to Chiang Mai is increasing every year,’ notes Raktin. ‘Not many Thais use our space; I’d say 90 percent are foreigners.’ Many within the industry now consider Chiang Mai as the SEO capital of the world.
The rise of the digital nomad lifestyle has coincided with that of CrossFit, the latest fitness fad that is sweeping the globe and is unsurprisingly popular among the online community. CrossFit Chiang Mai, which launched more than five years ago, was the first box to open in Thailand. Many of its early clients were NGO workers who would be assigned duties along the Thailand-Myanmar border and wanted to be well conditioned for long periods in the jungle. It’s very different these days.
‘We get a lot of travelers, many of whom are digital nomads,’ explains Andrew Telfer, the gym’s head of strength and conditioning. ‘About 70 percent of our clients are foreign. Chiang Mai has changed so quickly and it’s not just a sleepy mountain town anymore.’
Long-term expatriate Colin Hinshelwood agrees. He first moved to northern Thailand back in 2001 and has witnessed all the changes firsthand. Recalling the time when he was editing a novel on the hedonistic island of Koh Pha Ngan back in 2005, the Scot explains how he had to ride into town whenever he wanted to check anything online. ‘Now folk can take their tablet or laptop to the beach and do their own thing,’ he says.
While short island breaks are incredibly popular, the white sands and pristine waters struggle to lure the online workers away on a full-time basis. ‘The reason Chiang Mai is such a natural habitat for digital nomads is that it has such a large expat community,’ Hinshelwood notes. ‘And it is modern but cheap; in fact, I dare say it is the best value-for-money city anywhere in Southeast Asia, possibly the world.’
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