If Israel is deservedly the world’s premier Startup Nation, powered largely by small teams of IDF-trained twenty-somethings powered by can-do Israeli chutzpah or fueled by guardian angels or world-class VCs, then Chiang Mai is a high tech hub of a different color, culture, and character. Here in a laid-back urban paradise under the hazy tropical mountains of northern Thailand, another breed of twenty-somethings, supplemented by a smattering of veteran entrepreneurs and expats, has gathered to create and build Internet businesses under the bootstrapping banner of Digital Nomads.
Typically, the digital nomads who have come to Chiang Mai, primarily in the trendy cappuccino-infused Nimman neighborhood just outside the moat-encircled old city, are driven not by the esprit de corps imbued by the pressure cooker of an elite army unit but by the dream to make it big-time on the internet as solo entrepreneurs. They are attracted by the combination of factors that Nomad List, the crowd-sourced comparison shop of Digital Nomad destination, recognized in putting Chiang Mai firmly at the top of the heap, first and foremost of which is one indisputable fact: life here is cheap.
How cheap? Nomad List, assembling and aggregating the data submitted by thousands of contributing entrepreneurs, computes from crowdsourced data that the average monthly cost of living in Chiang Mai is – wait for it! -- a mere $586 all in. That’s right: including housing, food, drink, transportation, utilities. To test the proposition, US-born Chris the Freelancer, a veteran digital nomad programmer who has made the city his occasional home, decided to carefully track his expenses in February 2017. Sure enough, with not too much pain and suffering, and not a few pleasant splurges, he made it through the month in just under 600 bucks and lived to tell the tale.
How does that break down? Well, let’s start with rent. It’s not hard for a solo entrepreneur to find a well-equipped studio for under $200. Couples can split a one-bedroom for under $400. Delicious Thai street food can be had for a buck per portion, and even a proper sit-down dinner for two, with a few courses and a fresh fruit smoothie for each, can cost under 10 bucks. Tips here are optional. Taxis or uber to anywhere in town cost two or three dollars and as little as 60 cents. Or rent a motorbike for under $100/month and live like a scooter-crazy local.
The prices, which compare favorably even to less-developed Asian destinations in Indonesia or Vietnam, drag in a good smattering of backpackers as well, and teachers of English as a second language. The Digital Nomads of Chiang Mai largely keep to themselves and don’t waste their precious time riding elephants or petting tigers in the nearby hills. They are here—usually on tourist visas of two to three months—not to work (because that might be considered illegal, although Thai officials seem ok with Internet work which doesn't take jobs from the locals) but rather, how shall we put it delicately, to innovate and improvise in ways that enterprising Israelis would appreciate and, burdened by Tel Aviv rents and overpriced café hafooch, likely envy.
The nomads of Chiang Mai, hailing from dozens of countries, many wintering in the Far East from colder climes, finding their own little niches and angles on the Wild West of the Internet, quickly learn that bending rather than breaking the rules, learning by trial and error how to not just save money but earn some as well. Not by competing with hard-working Thais, but by developing specialization in the global market that is instantly accessible with a SIM card or a $15/buck a month dedicated router.
Some are outsourced programmers with regular gigs for companies back home or long-term clients. Some have found profitability in arbitrage between wholesale marketplaces like Alibaba and retail platforms like Amazon or the two-way merchandising madhouse that is EBay. They learn their trade from online courses, they find partners and customers via Facebook and LinkedIn, they share their tips and promote themselves on YouTube and Twitter. They create video courses on [platform] or they setup webinars to share their expertise for shekels. A new free web app – Chiang Mai Nomad – aggregates and curates social media feeds of the local community and can be a good starting point for the would-be nomad seeking to get started in Chiang Mai.
Shlomo Freund, who built a business helping foreign application developers enter Chinese app stores and marketplaces while in Beijing and Shanghai, moved after an interlude in Israel to Chiang Mai earlier this year with his wife Michal and their infant daughter No'am. On this second remote-working jaunt, they came to experience the city and build something of their own. Shlomo was able to keep remotely managing AppInChina and his Startup Noodle business development blog from Thailand. Michal, after remotely working for metrics company App Annie while in China, concentrates on freelance projects and motherhood.
The initial days as remote workers in Beijing were not easy – “we were a “minimal viable couple”, Michal jokes, playing on the MVP concept of launching a product with just the bare essentials features. But the later move to Thailand, now with daughter in tow, brought a more relaxed and wholistic lifestyle. The couple have been able to enjoy the creature comforts of Chiang Mai and even save some money – all-day child care costs $100/month -- with a better work-family balance than had been possible elsewhere.
Shlomo reflects on the fact that Israeli companies have been slow to embrace the concept of remote working. “If a company in Israel offers the option of one work-from-home day per week, they are considered progressive. “ He perceives a certain “ageism” and “sexism” in the typical Israeli tech company. “If you are just out of 8200 (the elite army computing unit), no problem. But if you are in your forties or fifties, or if you want to dedicated yourself to parenting, few companies in Israel will give that much freedom or flexibility to employees who want to work remotely or spend more time with their kids. Those who want that freedom and flexibility can definitely try location-independent working as an alternative to working from an office.”
Remote workers and location-independent entrepreneurs can benefit from project marketplaces like Upwork, Freelance and Moonlighting. Members can bid for gigs on offer, and contractors can choose from highly competitive offers from digital nomads or moonlighters around the world. When the local cost of living is six hundred bucks a month, it doesn't take many small projects to make ends meet.
Not everyone makes it here, even with the low cost of living. Some come to town attracted by the Digital Nomad hype and fall victim to hucksters and shucksters who may know little but have the chutzpah to promote thousand-bucks-a-course get-rich-quick schemes to the newbies. Chiang Mai was this year rocked by a scandal when a couple of Midwestern know-nothings rode into town, fleeced some sheep and took advantage of some equally gullible young women.
There is money to be made from the Digital Nomad brand. Local legend Johnny D and some location-independent colleagues put on a Nomad Summit that attracted more than 300 attendees – most paying the lion’s share of a month’s rent to hear seven or eight Powerpoint-backed lectures. It was an impressive show of force – and a profitable on for organizers. Attendees, many of whom came for all corners of the globe just for the event, for the most part raved about the camaraderie and networking value of the gathering, which has grown dramatically year after year.
The Digital Nomad phenomenon is a relatively new one, powered by the increasing availability of fast internet even in remote locations, supported even in less developed countries by coworking spaces where there is aircon, fast routers, and the companionship of fellow entrepreneurs. In Chiang Mai, the granddaddy of co-working spots here is Punspace, a round-the-clock warren of cubicles where die-hards may spend a good portion of their waking hours and pay $100-150/month for the privilege. Lately Punspace has been overtaken as a co-working hub by the Camp, on the top floor of trendy Maya Mall, where you can skip the membership fee and get a couple of hours of Internet access and electricity for the price of a cup of cappuccino.
Good Coffee, much of it locally grown, is priced high relative to the omnipresent cheap eats like pad thai and the local noodle specialty of khao soi. A good cup will typically cost almost two bucks but those in the two have their secret places at half that cost. And then there’s Starbucks, but even at three bucks a cup they still outdo their Israeli counterparts. Indeed, many a nomad eschews the coworking spaces for little cafes with fast internet scattered around the neighborhood.
For all its charms, all is not perfect in this urban paradise. While Internet infrastructure is at Israeli levels, the transportation, water, and electricity grids have not kept pace. The streets are cluttered with a mess of electricity wires, the scent of raw sewage competes with the scent of durian fruit and frying pork.
You still can’t drink tap water, and well-fed rats scurrying under street food stands in the Nimman evening are not an uncommon sight. As are their flattened corpses in the roads which municipal sanitation workers can't be bothered with. Take your life in your feet dodging exhaust spewing tuk-tuk taxis and a roaring army of scooter-riding daredevils. Bike lanes? Zebra crossings? In your dreams.
Yet the nomads keep coming in droves, and even citizens of the Startup Nation are opting to sojourn in this northern discount location in the Land of Smiles rather than feel confined to the overpriced land of Milk and Money. More and more startup-ists are reaching the conclusion that Chiang Mai offers the best combination of price and performance anywhere in the world – the best bang for the baht --validating on a human scale the big data number crunching of Nomad List.