I feel rather fortunate to have called both Chiang Mai, Thailand and Medellín, Colombia my home in recent years.
Before I ever knew what a digital nomad was, I found my way to Chiang Mai looking to teach English. Almost two years later, armed with a fresh new blogging career and the motivation to join the ranks of successful digital nomads, I found myself in Medellín rubbing elbows with other bloggers and online entrepreneurs.
Lately, it seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email from a reader who’s eager to make the move to one of these cities, sometimes even asking me to help them decide between the two.
Not all of them are interested in becoming location independent, necessarily, but it’s caused me to really think critically about what kind of lifestyle one can expect to find when they arrive in Chiang Mai or Medellin and whether one city really does stand out as a better choice for digital nomads.
Rather than just share my opinion, I thought I’d reach out to a few of my fellow entrepreneurs (did I just call myself an entrepreneur?!) to weigh in on the matter. I looked for people who’d spent a significant chunk of time (ideally longer than one month) living and working in one city or the other (or both).
The specific question I wanted an answer to?
Aside from the obvious draws like a low cost of living and fast, reliable WiFi, what makes each city a good hub for digital nomads?
Here’s what they had to say…
“While Chiang Mai has blown up as a top destination for digital nomads, there’s so much more to this special city than free WiFi and coffee shops. A welcoming community of locals, expats and longtime travelers make it an easy place to sink into and feel like a part of the community quickly. You can find almost anything here — cheap street food to 5-star hotels and everything in between–but one of the greatest things is the sense of freedom and opportunity here. So many people come here working on their own projects and don’t judge others for choosing different lifestyles – it’s exhilarating!”
—Alana Morgan is the founder of the travel blog Paper Planes and has been working as a freelancer in Thailand for the past four years.
“The open-minded people who have the same blood group PDN are what make Chiang Mai great. PDN as Passionate Digital Nomad. We are always attracted and pumped by the willingness of other travel bloggers and digital nomads to share, to teach you, to encourage you or to help you to make a better decision in Chiang Mai. It’s that kind of feeling when you talk to someone about your ideas and their eyes sparkle and they nod to support your thoughts.”
—Ivana & Gianni are full-time travelers who run the travel blog Nomad is Beautiful. They call the world their home.
“I’ve spent many lengthy stints in Chiang Mai, but what always brings me back time and again is the affordability, the good infrastructure, good education, and the cafe and work culture here. It’s fairly simple to find monthly accommodation under $300 US so it’s a great starter spot for a lot of people boot-strapping their first business, people are super friendly, helpful, and speak very solid English overall. The internet is pretty fast for this region, and it’s incredibly easy to find nice, welcoming cafes where you can work on nearly every corner, and with quality coffee too! For me, it is the perfect place to go anytime for an affordable, quiet retreat to get a project cranked out. And there is a growing network of fellow nomads and entrepreneurial types here. It’s a big city with pretty much everything you could need, but it doesn’t feel like a big Asian city. There is amazing food everywhere you look. Just plan to get out (or wear a mask) for the burning season around March/April.”
“Medellín is a great choice for digital nomads because it is a city on the rise, winning accolades for urban renewal projects, while at the same time celebrating the traditional culture through annual events like the Flower Festival and Christmas light displays. It also offers the chance to live in a big city, but still have easy access to the countryside within a 30-minute bus ride.”
—David Lee is a travel blogger and entrepreneur based in Medellín, Colombia.
“Medellín for me was the one place that had everything I was looking for in South America. It has that Latin ‘vibe’ I love: great music, warm people, beautiful ladies, buzzing nightlife, and always something fun/recreational/educational to do. It has a lot in common with Chiang Mai–good weather almost year-round, great views as it’s surrounded by beautiful mountains, lots of small neighborhoods and nature mixed in there even though you’re in the middle of a huge city… good infrastructure, a budding startup scene, it’s been cleaned up and transformed in a huge way since a decade or so ago and is generally very safe. I’ve also heard that Colombia was somehow awarded as having the “best Spanish” in South America, whoever decides that, but it was a great place to find one-on-one tutoring and start learning the language. There’s lots of cool pueblitos, or small towns nearby, landmarks like El Peñól de Guatapé, and even coffee farms within a few hours’ drive to explore the more traditional Colombian lifestyle.”
—Cody McKibben, blogger at Thrilling Heroics, founder at Digital Nomad Academy
“The City of Eternal spring is a special place which feels like it’s on the cusp of greatness. Yes, nefarious elements still abound and it’s not the most pretty city but it is also a hub for creativity, entrepreneurship and a shining example of how Colombia is changing so rapidly. For nomads, the permanent t-shirt weather, smattering of cool cafés and restaurants popping up every month, transport links and affordable short-term rental options will persuade you to stay. Aguardiente nights, a sense of community and the punchy paisa mentality will make you think twice about ever leaving what is one of our favourite cities in Latin America.”
—Andrew and Emily left the UK with a one-way ticket to Mexico, two cameras and enough money to travel Latin America for two years. Follow their journey on their website, Along Dusty Roads.
As for me?
My life in Chiang Mai was very easy. I never had to look far for good company–the expats really did have a way of coming together and supporting one another. The food was fabulous, getting around was a cinch, and there were always exciting things to do outside of the city whenever I needed a break from the hustle and bustle. But I will say this–I could never see myself staying in Chiang Mai for the long run. A year or two would be great, but I would’t want to build a life there.
Medellin, on the other hand, could very well have sucked me in for good. The culture was easier for me to relate to, the climate was more tolerable, the language was easier to learn, and as an American, I was closer to home if I ever wanted to visit my friends and family. It wasn’t as affordable as Thailand, but still affordable enough to allow me time to build up a freelance career and an online business.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to personal preference and what you’re looking to get out of your life in a new city. And as Cody summed it up nicely:
Chiang Mai and Medellín are both ideal headquarters for the nomadic entrepreneur.
Are you a digital nomad? Have you ever lived in or considered moving to one of these cities? What was the deciding factor for you?
Featured image: Paper Planes