Should Chiang Mai really be called a ‘hub for digital nomads’?

Co-working spaces of Chiang Mai have figured out that by calling their city a ‘digital hub’, almost everyone considering the remote-working lifestyle in SE Asia will come across it as a destination to consider. Communications around it are so damn good that, according to the internet, it is THE place to be for digital nomads in SE Asia — to the point that other areas in the region pale in comparison.

Before you pack your bags and buy a ticket, listen up. After spending some time in Chiang Mai and talking to a few ‘important’ local people (such as a senior executive who used to work in the Thai government and knows a lot about the government’s vision for Thailand) we have a pretty good idea about what’s going on.

Hype vs. Truth

Everything that sells Chiang Mai as a digital nomads hot spot has had a significant impact in the development of the city — which is good, of course. That said, Chiang Mai had bigger plans for its community long before any digital nomads arrived and co-working spaces were created! The plan is not one of exclusion focusing only on a niche group of people, but instead, one of inclusion focusing on the community, specifically, on how to help the community benefit from creative thinking and skills.

Allow us to explain.

From the first moment you arrive in Chiang Mai, you’ll immediately realise how everything around this digital lifestyle was buzz. The claims are not all wrong, but they are certainly misleading. We were there during off season, so there weren’t that many people around aside from some tourists here and there. We visited some co-working spaces that looked amazing in pictures, but in real life are, in all honesty, a bit sad — just like any other packed traditional office (even in the low season) with internet the same as anywhere in the city.

But that’s beside the point. The biggest issue we had with the place is all the talk of it being “an amazing place to network”, when in reality, digital nomads there live in a bubble, and like it that way. The community is strong, but they’re isolated from one another.

That said, it’s not all negative. Whilst it might not (yet) be the best place for networking, it’s a space that pushes creativity to thrive. It’s a melting pot for different skills to develop, and the overwhelming passion people have for creativity is remarkable. People here learn from each other and celebrate creativity together. So, the reality is that calling Chiang Mai a ‘hub for digital nomads’ doesn’t actually add value, but calling it a hub for creativity does.

Truthfully, Chiang Mai is a growing creative hub.

To the Thai people, Chiang Mai, is considered the major city after Bangkok and is also seen as an exuberant city of art and culture — both traditional and contemporary. Because of its growing fame as a tourist destination in Thailand, the city has become more urbanised, offering an exponential number of art galleries, handicraft shops, and other cultural attractions.

In 2010, a project called “Chiang Mai Creative City” AKA “Creative Chiang Mai” was initiated with the goal to develop Chiang Mai as a creative hub, so that cultural and creative activities become an integral part of the city’s economic and social functioning. This initiative, which you can read more about here, was set up by the governor of Chiang Mai and other members from the education, private and government sectors.

Why does Chang Mai want to be called a creative hub?

1. Firstly, transforming Chiang Mai into a creative hub is strategic. The approach is a means to an end; placing emphasis on the creative, technolgy and innovation sectors bring growth to the economy, as it’s an enabler for other sectors. Local key sectors such as tourism, handicrafts, food/agro-industry, and healthcare, among others, will grow even stronger if they learn more about innovation and creative thinking.

2. Every creative hub attracts investment. And which sound-thinking city wouldn’t want to attract investment?

3. Becoming a hub for creativity makes it easier for the city to attract, retain and develop new talent that ultimately better meets the needs of the industry not just at a national level, but also at a global level

To put it simply, the trendy and newbie digital nomads are promoting Chiang Mai as a hub for them, because it’s a city that embraces and values creativity.

All that said, the city is much more than just a hub for digital nomads. It’s a place with long term vision — the government of Thailand wants to increase the creative industry GDP significantly in the next few years, because that will give the economy a massive boost and Chiang Mai intends to play a big role in that transformation.

Thailand 4.0 (and why it matters)

A number of countries have begun rolling out innovation strategies for the 21st century. The Obama administration unveiled “A Nation of Makers”, the UK has been promoting its “Design in Innovation Strategy” to support British businesses to innovate and grow, and China has announced a new policy called “Made in China 2025” with the aim to upgrade the Chinese Industry. Thailand, in turn, will transform its economy to a 4.0 one. Many years ago, the economy was agriculture based. It then evolved to domestic production, until finally reaching ‘Thailand 3.0’, which was all about complex industries such as foreign investments. Now, in order to soar in the 12st century, Thailand wants to become “Thailand 4.0” focusing on being a ‘value-based economy and innovation-driven by moving from producing commodities to innovative products”, says The Office of the Board of Investment (BOI).

I think you see where I’m going with this… Supporting the development of the creative and innovation industry is one piece of the bigger strategy.

Could Chiang Mai be the next Cannes?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see what time has to say about that.

Other cities now referred to as ‘creative hubs’ have become just that because of the many successful startups, entrepreneurs, and talented ‘creatives’ who emerged from those places. Chiang Mai is right in focusing on the local community. In our opinion, it has the potential to become the next Cannes but perhaps with an emphasis on startups, technology and innovation rather than advertising or film. We’d love to see brilliant creative minds from all the world meeting and sharing their invaluable knowledge with each other, as well as with the locals, here in SE Asia.

The best way to support Chiang Mai is to promote its actual vision

There’s nothing wrong with the term, but referring to Chiang Mai as a hub for digital nomads without even mentioning this city’s big vision for the creative sector, seems to be undervaluing. Why don’t we refer to Chiang Mai as the world’s next Creative Hub instead?

“Supporting the creative economy is not only about creating a business model as a prototype for the low-capital entrepreneur or skillful designer to follow. It is not as simple as that. A top-down development scheme is not the right path for Chiang Mai if it is to prosper and reach its full potential in the creative economy” said Dr Kengkij Kitirianglarp, Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology Faculty of Social Science, Chiang Mai University, Thailand.

We couldn’t have said it better.


Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia (Issue 16)
Creative Chiangmai Website
Thailand Investment Review, Jan 2017 (vol.21 no.1)