The changing face of Chiang Mai’s digital nomad scene

Chiang Mai is rapidly becoming the world's number one location for digital nomads, Why are they here and what are they doing?

By | Wed 1 Mar 2017

“Nomad workshops, nomad conferences, nomad gear, nomad retreat, people giving talks to gullible people to build a following they can sell shit to.” This is how the online communities are reacting to the digital nomads in Chiang Mai. Anyone who is active in any of the many locally based Facebook groups will notice that there are an increasing number of biting and bitching posts about digital nomads. And a read of the digital nomad groups will see a community fraught with tension and accusation. You hear odd comments at a bar, read a scathing blog or two, and hear about various ‘scandals’ and accusations of con-artistry. But it is hard to put a finger on what exactly is going wrong or who is it that people dislike so much. Is it a case of one bad sheep or a herd of blind followers? We all know something is going on, but what?

Digital Nomads
Digital nomads are quite simply expats who work online; often professionals in areas such as programming, website management, graphic design, copywriting, marketing or working for a company or client remotely. Although found across the world, Chiang Mai has seen a constant growth of digital nomads, some staying for several months, others settling in for several years. In an article we published just over a year ago, we highlighted why Chiang Mai was so popular: tropical weather, cheap food and drinks, numerous societies and startups — some more successful than others. In fact, life can be so good that many nomads put down roots and turn into long term expats.

Twelve months after the publication of that piece, that growth has not diminished. On the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook group, the number of members has rocketed from 9,000 in February 2016 to 18,200 in February 2017 (the number is not indicative of the number of nomads here at any given time, as many join and move on). However, it is clear that the numbers are significant enough that the nomadic community is experiencing some teething problems.

“Chiang Mai is seen as the starter city for any fresh graduate digital nomad,” explained Dan O’Donnell, admin for the Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook page and now a nomad no longer, having settled in for the long haul. “Here in Thailand your runway can be much longer than somewhere, say Berlin.”

A runway is what nomads refer to as how long you have with the money in your pocket to start earning good money. If you have few thousand dollars, you could last three or four months in Chiang Mai but maybe only a few weeks in Berlin. “This is why so many young inexperienced digital nomads are coming here,” said Max Summer, possibly one of the first ‘digital nomads’ in Chiang Mai, first moving here over 20 years ago to work online remotely. “All these new co-working spaces are also attractive to new digital nomads as they can network easily and learn from their peers without much effort,” he added.

Yet it is because of this growth, specifically the growth of ‘newbie’ nomads that seems to have caused upset in the community. And then there are the scammers.

Kevin Meng, a 28-year-old digital nomad in Chiang Mai talks about such exploitation. “Chiang Mai is marketed as the place to go to start and learn everything. The issue that a lot of us have is that people are turning the dreams of rookies into a profit scheme and sometimes giving bad advice.” It is these schemes that are now causing negativity for digital nomads both bad and good.

Nomad Bickering
“I’ve never had to delete as many comments and posts as I have done in the last few months,” said O’Donnell. “I made the Facebook group to create a platform where people who are doing similar things can share ideas and network but recently it has been full of people just picking each other apart.”

“Unfortunately, the term ‘digital nomad’ has become a little jaded today, bringing up images of self-proclaimed experts and unprofessional millennials who only want to have fun,” said Annik LaRoche Bradford, a 32-year-old Canadian who owns a translation business online based here in Chiang Mai. “The get rich quickly mind-set is detrimental to the entire community. It gives those of us looking to do it right a bad reputation with the local people. People looking for an extended vacation don’t see things the same way that long-term travellers do. You can have more of a take mentality.”

Most recently, a pair of twins from America were chased out of Chiang Mai by a horde of digital-pitchfork wielding ‘locals’ after an explosion of accusations against them emerged, ranging from alleged fraudulent behaviour, con artistry and even rape. Members of the community took it upon themselves to make videos ‘exposing’ the twins. An article titled ‘The Dark Side of Digital Nomad Life’, on a blog written by Nicholas Barang picking apart the twins, was shared extensively throughout Chiang Mai’s many community forums, despite its lack of evidence or reliable sources. Although by far the most extreme case to date, the rise of con artists has negatively impacted the community as a whole, and people are beginning to stand against it. That in itself can be a problem, as hoards of young and new arrivals jump on the condemnation bandwagon.

From what I gathered talking over the issues with a range of digital nomads, it seems that the older members of the community are becoming much less extroverted, choosing to keep away and mind their own business as the young, unexperienced hopefuls try to make their way in a city which sees far more failure than success stories. They are leaving the newer generation to fight among themselves, leaving them to bicker over crumbs of information and work. The older generation are settled, they have a house, a dog, a car, and a steady flow of clients and jobs acquired through their personal networks and trustworthy recommendations.

I asked Meng if it was the newer community that had the problems, “not exactly,” he suggested. “Chiang Mai is flooded with people calling themselves digital nomads and chasing a dream, and it is those who want to exploit them that are causing the problems, not necessarily the nomads themselves.”

Snakeoil Boom
“There is a tonne of opportunity in Chiang Mai for people wanting to have a remote lifestyle, and I’ve met a tonne of great people who have really helped me learn new and fascinating ways to make money online,” said Meng. “But frankly there is a lot of bad advice going around at many of the meetups depending on which ones you go to. The digital nomad lifestyle has now been turned into a brand being sold to thousands of newbies. So now instead of making a living and travelling the world like we used to, there are people making money solely from selling this dream. This has led to a huge saturation, a lot of bad advice, and a lot of annoying Bromads who really just live off of savings and get drunk in Southeast Asian cities while claiming to be part of the brand.”

“Those American twins are a perfect example,” said Summer. “They are a by-product of the system we have. Recreating an e-book, selling a get rich quick course…they are a product of bad education and lack an ethical business mind.”

“Too often, I see digital nomads posting things like ‘I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 30. How can I live for nothing, travel the world and make a crap load of passive income? Oh, and I have 30 days to do this!’ That’s 100% unrealistic,” said Bradford. “Being an entrepreneur is a lot of work and it comes with steep commitments and responsibilities. It takes time. I’m willing to invest into my business because of the positive things that it brings me, but being an entrepreneur comes with downsides too. Everything does.”

A topic on Reddit then went viral. A user named intrnovertmonologue wrote a post titled ‘Chiang Mai Reviewed by a Skeptic’. In his post he claims that the digital nomad community in Chiang Mai has now morphed into a pyramid scheme. “It’s a bunch of people selling each other shit to supplement their income,” the author writes. “As a newcomer, it’s very easy to fall for it: 7-day yoga retreat at-cost — oh, nice, sounds good. Oh here’s another one. Here’s two more. Wait. Here is another retreat to express our undying love for this community. Stop. Nomad workshops, nomad conferences, nomad gear, nomad retreat, people giving talks to gullible people to build a following they can sell shit to.”

The point the writer is making is that when you have a community full of people effectively selling to each other, you end up creating a false economy full of exploitation. As it currently stands, the digital nomad scene is still growing steadily, and as long as it does then there will always be new people with money to spend. “When the people stop coming, incomes dry up, and it falls like a pack of cards,” the author concludes.

A Moment of Clarity
It was a video by Chris the Freelancer, one of the digital nomads suggested I watch, that shed some light on the anti-nomad backlash. After posting a motivational video about what he enjoys doing around Chiang Mai as a digital nomad, he was attacked by fellow nomads and expats who thought that as each location was around the Nimmanhaemin area, he was clearly ‘uneducated’ about Chiang Mai and a ‘typical digital gonad who never leaves Nimman then complains about how expensive everything is.’ In response to this he reached out to his detractors and invited them to be interviewed in another one of his videos.

In the video Chris interviewed an expat by the name of Jon Scales who compared Chiang Mai to a ghetto, a ghetto of digital nomads. “The vast majority are the dregs of the business world. They claim to be successful but living low end lifestyles,” he said. “The dream they put out there is far from reality.”

The new digital nomad community is moving in circles while the community of more settled nomads and local expats roll their eyes and lay low. What we seem to be seeing is not the destruction of the digital nomad community in Chiang Mai, but the first cracks in an unsustainable economy of false hope and poor investments that will most likely disappear faster than it appeared in the first place.

“The online digital lifestyle is full of people trying to get into money without any ideas about how to run a business,” explained Summer. “People are selling impossible dreams and others are beginning to call them out on it. This causes problems in the community, but to have ridicule and imbalance helps keep the community sane.”

“All it is, is that there are far more people than ever before,” said O’Donnell. “There is a big misconception that Chiang Mai is full of newbies. The truth is, the Facebook groups look that way because the older nomads are happy on their own.”

Meng adds that “if you want to spin it in a positive light, coming here to break into the remote lifestyle is still a good idea, you just need to do it right. Have a plan and some savings and don’t get caught up in all of the rhetoric. Just do your research and talk to successful people. And remember that a few hundred dollars per month is fine for Thailand but isn’t a viable life option.”

“Nothing has changed in the last twenty years,” reminisced Summer. “Events would be 100 people strong and they were full of people sharing ideas, which obviously attracted the con-artists too. They are everywhere, you just have to be aware of them and ignore them.”

Summer concludes it perfectly when he said, “Everyone is having a go at the bad guy but nobody is coming up with good ideas. Instead of focusing on bad, let’s look for solutions together. The digital world was first created so that information could be shared freely. I wish we could bring that back here in Chiang Mai, and for every newcomer to the scene we have a community of experienced nomads to show them the way.”