Why a growing army of ‘digital nomads’ are choosing Asia as their base
For many who wish to get away from the daily commute, working online offers them a chance to fulfil their dream, and safe, cheap and friendly Asia is the perfect place to do it
What if you could choose where and when you worked, and live anywhere in the world? With the rise of web-based working, physical location is often irrelevant. Cue the rise of so-called digital nomads, a group of ‘location-independent workers’ for whom the daily commute is whatever they want it to be.
Digital nomading is often sold as ‘work while you travel’, but for an estimated 500,000 people globally it’s more about remote working than perpetual travel. For many, it’s a simple reaction to economic realities. “I see digital nomads as a good example of how the world is changing, and how it can solve some of problems that our society is facing,” says Youjin Do, who is making a documentary about digital nomads called One Way Ticket , which will soon be available online for free.
She talks about overcrowded and overpriced cities around the world, and how a new category of ‘remote company’ – typically start-ups – are collaborating online with team members across the globe instead of paying high rents in cities, or heading to Silicon Valley. “If more and more people are able to work remotely, there won’t be this many people who are willing to live in a big city,” says Do.
Beach or big city? For digital nomads looking to work fast and efficiently, the latter often triumphs because of the need for guaranteed high-speed internet. “Thailand consistently maintains the top of the list of cities for remote workers and digital nomads as it’s relatively cheap, safe, and its internet infrastructure is very good, especially 4G,” says Pieter Levels, 29, from Amsterdam, Netherlands, who runs NomadList, which rates the best cities for digital nomads on criteria from places to work from and internet speed to cost of living and racial tolerance. “Vietnam is close by, but its internet infrastructure is a lot less good, it’s a little less safe, and it’s not as hospitable,” he adds.
“Compare Asia to South America, and you’ll see South America is relatively expensive, not modern, and has severe problems with crime and safety,” says Levels, who is nevertheless trying to push destinations outside Asia on NomadList. “There are now places like Budapest, Belgrade, Prague, Gran Canaria and cities in Mexico popping up that also fit the bill,” he says.
Most of those co-working spaces are in urban areas. “Hubba Thailand is located in Bangkok, and I keep coming back even though I’m not a big fan of huge cities,” says Do. “It’s a unique community which has a 50/50 mix of locals and digital nomads … everyone in Hubba is so friendly and helpful, so it makes me feel like I’m back home.” Co-working spaces are becoming popular because for those living ‘on the road’, a sense of belonging becomes a precious commodity; one of the biggest challenges about being a digital nomad is loneliness. “The fastest way to a mental disorder is becoming a digital nomad full-time,” admits Levels. “It seems romantic not to have a home anywhere, but it’ll literally drive you crazy, you’ll lose touch with your old friends, your family, your culture … the freedom is great, but it’s also debilitating as you’re not part of anything.” Levels advises going on three-month trips then returning back home.
Backpackers with laptops? Many people think that digital nomading merely refers to being young and footloose, a period many people go through in their early 20s. Although many are young freelancers who travel perpetually in developing countries, the real skew is that almost all digital nomads are from rich countries whose passports have generous visa options. “An EU passport holder, for instance, can get a lot farther than a Vietnamese one, who faces the huge possibility of their visa application getting rejected,” says Do, who explores such limitations in her documentary.
It’s not for everyone, and it’s not open to everyone, but digital nomading is growing fast. However, to pepper talk about digital nomading with phrases like ‘travel the world and get paid for it’ and ‘perpetual travel’ is misleading. “With remote work, you can spend more time with your family,” says Do. “It’s like a normal life.”
1. Jeju Island, South Korea
With unbeatably fast 100mbps internet within a natural setting, the volcanic Jeju Island in the Korea Strait scores highest of all, but lacks any nightlife. Try the J-Space in Jeju City for co-working.
2. Daegu, South Korea
It lacks tailor-made working spaces and air quality is poor, but everything else about South Korea’s fourth largest city suits digital nomads, with free city-wide WiFi and 40mbps internet speeds.
3. Bangkok, Thailand
Asia’s co-working capital, places to rent a desk include Hubba, The Hive, Kliquedesk and Basecamp in this nomad-friendly city with a low cost of living.
4. Busan, South Korea
Like Daegu, this lively port city boasts fast internet and plenty of Wi-fi hotspots. It’s also linked by a ferry to Fukuoka in Japan, which also ranks very highly among digital nomads.
5. Tokyo, Japan
Although it lacks free Wi-fi and can be expensive, Japan’s capital is foreigner-friendly and fun. Co-working spaces include Co-ba Shibuya and Samurai Startup Island.