This Northern Thai city is firmly on South-East Asia’s tourist trail. Every year, thousands arrive to zipline through the jungle, visit the golden Buddhist temples, and learn traditional Thai cooking. It’s easy to see why Chiang Mai is popular – there is a lot about the place that Western visitors can’t help but find remarkable. There are the brightly-painted tuk-tuks and their hard-hustling drivers on every corner. The local food canteens serving up all manner of bubbling and steaming dishes. And just above eye level are the telephone poles with their insane tangles of wiring.
It really is quite a magical place.
But while these are all interesting for the casual observer to experience, in truth they are just a mask for a far more interesting story. To see it for yourself, head to Nimmanhaemin Road and the surrounding streets – the area known as “Nimman”, for short.
Once there, go to a cafe.
Yes, a cafe. Preferably one with air conditioning and a fast Internet connection.
There, you will notice a rather incongruent sight. In stark contrast to the heaving chaos of outdoors, the cafes of Chiang Mai’s Nimman district are filled with young Westerners and their laptops. Earphones plugged in, totally oblivious to their surroundings.
At first glance they look rather boring compared with all of Chiang Mai’s exotic delights. Why are they stuck on their laptops, when there are elephants to bathe and Thai massages to partake in? Why aren’t they out there enjoying themselves? But it’s worth scratching beneath the surface, and finding out what they are up to.
You see, although these laptop-wielders don’t look too different to regular tourists, they are something entirely different. They are “digital nomads” – a new class of people who can make money online from anywhere in the world. And with its low cost of living, decent weather, and fast, reliable Internet, it just so happens that Chiang Mai is the digital nomad capital of the world.
Perhaps you have heard of digital nomads before. For most people, the term conjures a picture of a travel blogger, eking out a meager existence on a kind of extended vacation, while uploading the classic social media pose of themselves with their laptop open, to the backdrop of a beachy sunset, cocktail in hand.
But there is much more to the digital nomad movement than meets the eye. Some of them are making real fortunes, in a kind of modern-day make-money-online gold rush.
Gold rush? Yes.
How could it be described as anything but a gold rush? The parallels are impossible to ignore. In the old American gold rush, young men and women would leave their comfortable homes behind, pack up their belongings, and traverse far across the continent to the Wild West. There, they would chase their dreams of adventure, freedom and fortune.
The motivations of the modern-day make-money online gold rush are exactly the same. Dissatisfied with their jobs, these misfits and rejects have similarly left home in search of a better life. Of course, over 100 years of technology has had its effect – their possessions are now packed into backpacks and wheeled luggage, and they travel by cars, trains and airplanes instead of horse-drawn wagon carts. And because the Wild West has long-since been tamed, the frontiers of today’s gold rush are in the East – primarily, South-East Asia and Eastern Europe.
And like the gold rush of the Wild West, the make-money-online gold rush has attracted all kinds of colorful characters. There are the genuine “gold-prospectors” looking to squeeze a buck out of the Internet, there are those looking to sell “pick-axes” to the prospectors, and then there are the “medicine men” – the hucksters peddling their sure-fire methods to success.
But so what? Why should you care?
Because this trend towards greater location independence is going to influence the future of work for everyone. Digital nomads are taking advantage of the Internet to hire remote teams, sometimes numbering in the dozens or even hundreds. They’re breaking down borders and hacking the system. Digital nomads haven’t merely left the old world behind, they are working hard to re-shape it. Chiang Mai, and the other digital nomad hubs like it, are the real ground zero for globalization.
This is what those young Westerners with their laptops are doing in the unlikely setting of these cafes. Though their concentration is greatest in places like Chiang Mai, there are probably some people doing the same in your own city – hiding in plain sight. It’s one of the great untold stories of our time.
I have spent the last four years living among the digital nomads. Some of their business models are inspiring, some are shocking, and some are downright hilarious. What they all have in common is that they are at the cutting edge of some of the biggest changes in the world right now. And it’s time to pull back the curtain and reveal the tales from the frontier.