Working in paradise, Part 1 – Cointelegraph Magazine
Walking into Remote and Digital’s La Casa co-working space on the tropical island of Koh Pha-ngan, you wonder how anybody gets any work done. I sip a cocktail and wait for my burrito as James Brown plays in the background.There’s a real palm tree growing at the edge of the cafe, and behind it sits shallow crystal blue water stretching off for miles, with Koh Samui’s jungle-covered mountains jutting up in the distance. Adding to the ambiance, kite surfers are getting massive air off small waves, before gently floating back to earth.
30-year-old Belgian blockchain developer Jérôme Van Vlierbergen is one of the regulars at this Ban Tai co-working space and runs his Equinox Launchpad here. He explains Koh Pha-ngan (or Koh Phangan) has a thriving crypto scene, mostly populated by digital nomads like himself.
“There are a bunch of people here that own crypto or they’re doing something with crypto — because when you have money, you like to be somewhere where it’s a nice place to live.”
Ironically, of course, you need very little money to live here. You can rent a desk at La Casa for less than $3 a day, rent a scooter to get around for under $4 a day, and rent a whole house for $500 a month. With beautiful food, postcard-style views and half a dozen other coworking spaces with gigabit internet, it’s no wonder Koh Pha-ngan has become something of a mecca for crypto digital nomads.
“There’s this crypto island vibe — you can find a lot of workshops, a lot of people that work with crypto, and most of them are in the market,” says Van Vlierbergen. Crypto social media groups based on the island suggest hundreds of residents are deep into the scene.
Known for its legendary Full Moon Party, Koh Pha-ngan’s 12,000-strong population doubles or triples at times with American, European and Russian backpackers drawn by the endless parties, yoga scene and general chilled out vibe. It’s probably one of the last bohemian island hideouts left in Asia, with package tourists seemingly unwilling to take the ferry ride over from neighboring Koh Samui.
“There’s no airport here,” says Edwin de Lepper, who runs the crypto-friendly Buddha Cafe. “So, it is a journey to get here with the boat, which makes it kind of exciting…”
Since the end of the pandemic, he’s noticed an uptick in crypto digital nomads mostly concentrated around the co-working spaces of Tropicana, Sunset Hill Resort, Signature Restaurant and High Life Resort.
De Lepper explains recent visitors include big influencers such as MMCrypto (948,000 Twitter followers) and James Crypto Guru (74,000 YouTube subscribers).
“There is a tremendous amount of people that come here, and they talk to me and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m building a new DEX, or I’m building a new crypto project,’” he says.
“I would say there are crypto whales here. The people that are here that I might suspect that they have a lot of money, they don’t talk about it. You don’t want to scream it from the rooftops I guess.”
Koh Pha-ngan isn’t the only place in the region attracting crypto digital nomads, with a growing scene in the Thai island of Phuket, another in Chiang Mai in the north of the country, as well as other locales in Southeast Asia, including Bali.
Guy Allison, founder of Blockchain Careers, says that many in the crypto scene flit between Koh Pha-ngan and Chiang Mai.
“A lot of people do six months in Koh Pha-ngan and six months in Chiang Mai because the weather can get quite rainy here in October–November, then they go back to Chiang Mai. And then they come back here in February March for the smoky season.”
That’s when farmers burn their fields and biowaste during the dry season to prepare the land for the next year’s crops, which helps create a thick fog of air pollution around Chiang Mai for months.
Work from home, but move home
Paid Network and Master Ventures founder Kyle Chasse called the island home for some time, though he can now be found in the more upscale villas of Phuket. He says people realized during the pandemic that if you could do your job from home, you could pretty much work from anywhere.
“Hello, you’re working from your house, you have the freedom,” he says, pointing out that Thailand is also super cheap compared to the United States.
“You have amazing infrastructure; your cost of living is gonna go down — your transportation, your food, your utilities, your cell phone — everything’s cheaper.”
Chasse moved to Koh Pha-ngan in 2018 after hearing of a budding Bitcoin community on the island. “I went and checked it out and fell in love with it,” he says, adding it’s so safe due to the influence of Buddhism that there have been numerous times he’s left his phone or wallet behind only to have someone return it to him.
“One of the things I love the most is the people. And of course, it’s truly like paradise,” he says.
The safety of Thailand was a big plus for Vlierbergen, who started off his digital nomad days traveling through the decidedly less friendly Central America and Mexico four years ago while working as a web designer. Having taught himself Solidity, he then graduated to the much better-paid blockchain industry. Good pay thanks to the deficit of qualified devs and a decentralized workforce make crypto the perfect industry for travelers.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, he was already in Asia and headed to Koh Pha-ngan to ride out the storm. But despite enthusing about island life, he admits there’s a darker side that social media influencers don’t want to show.
“Most of the time, it is fake. They want to show the best side of it,” he says about digital nomad influencers.
“I don’t really want to party anymore or take drugs or drink alcohol, you know? And when you travel mostly what they want to do is to get fucked up. So, I think one of the many negative sides of it it’s how you can feel like, sometimes lonely and hard to connect with people.”
Three days later
If you do enjoy partying of course, then being on a tropical island surrounded by beautiful people with a new party to go to every day means it’s not always easy to find the motivation to get any work done.
Allison laughs about that one.
“It’s quite a party place. It’s difficult to concentrate solely just on work. And I might see someone in the street on a bike who was going to a party, and next thing you know, three days have passed. So, that’s the issue,” he laughs.
Allison explains there are three “scenes” in Koh Pha-ngan: the party scene (drugs), the bar scene in Thong Sala (booze) and the yoga scene (spirituality). Yoga retreats are a big appeal for some — the sorts of places people go on juice cleansing diets for two weeks. In a sad coincidence while I’m on the island, Australian cricketing legend Shane Warne dies of a heart attack after a two-week juice diet fast a few kilometers away on neighboring Koh Samui.
“All of them [the different scenes] seem to be quite focused on, you know, not doing that much work,” he says.
Van Vlierbergen watched one of his digital nomad friends have a complete breakdown after partying too hard for too long.
“He was partying, doing a lot of drugs hardcore and microdosing as well [at work during the day] and then he had this, how you call it when your brain just switches off…”
“So, this guy went crazy. We had to help him, had to get him to go to a hospital before he got deported back to the U.S.”
How practical is it?
Living and working in Thailand requires a visa, of course, and there are a variety of options — from hard-to-get special tourist visas that allow you to stay nine months a year through to elite visas that cost 600,000 Thai baht ($17,300) but enable you to stay for five years.
You can also get an education visa as long as you spend a few days a week learning Muay Thai kickboxing or studying the language. Most new digital nomads simply get a 30-day tourist visa, extend it for another 30, then take a quick weekend trip to a neighboring country to start the process all over again. Technically, you’re not supposed to actually work on any of these visas, but as long as you’re not taking work away from locals, the government reportedly doesn’t seem too fussed.
The holy grail though is the forthcoming digital nomad visa costing just 10,000 baht ($290), which the Thai government has announced… but hasn’t yet been implemented.
Blockchain media company HardForking founder Sean Stella says it’s been on the cards for a while.
“Things don’t typically happen quickly in Thailand,” he explains. “But every country is wrestling with how to attract people to their countries and make it easy, so I would hope a digital nomad visa to visit Thailand becomes a reality in the near future.”
Stella has been a digital nomad since long before the term even existed. “It’s a lifestyle choice,” he says. “For me, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. I can’t envisage any other way of living.”
“Crypto is an enabler. The phenomenon of being a digital nomad has been around before crypto. But crypto is facilitating the ability for anybody to make a lifestyle choice to go and live wherever the hell they want.”
Koh Pha-ngan’s crypto scene in 2016
Originally from New Zealand, Stella moved to Asia in 2005 and has spent most of his time between Singapore and Thailand, with Koh Pha-ngan a favorite locale over the past seven years. He fell in love with the place at the same time he discovered crypto in 2016 while filming a documentary called Living the Dream about expats who had moved to paradise.
“The middle of that process, crypto crossed my path and slapped me in the face. I went, ‘Holy shit, this is amazing.’” He fell deep down the rabbit hole, socializing with a group of crypto fans every Monday at a bar with mining rigs in the toilets.
“You’d go in there and take a pee standing next to a Bitcoin mining rig,” he laughs.
“Fast forward a couple of months. Here’s me paying my bar bills in Bitcoin. We created a little economy amongst ourselves. So, I literally went from using Thai baht to everything I did, to paying for hotels, paying my bar tabs, paying for a meal within this little ecosystem on Koh Pha-ngan and Koh Samui, I just operated in crypto.”
That ecosystem has mostly disappeared, however, says de Lepper, who bemoans the fact Koh Pha-ngan doesn’t live up to its “Crypto Island” reputation.
“What does that mean, Crypto Island? That means that everybody can go here to the shops and pay in Bitcoin or Dash or whatever it may be. But we’re not there yet.” De Lepper does his best by providing free education for business owners on how to accept crypto and which coins to accept.
Stella estimates there were around 50–60 crypto fans on the island in 2016 when he arrived, and numbers took off in 2017. But Paid Network’s Chasse says that when he arrived in 2018, interest had tailed off due to the effects of crypto winter.
Numbers picked up once again in 2019 with the arrival of large numbers of Russian crypto hippies. “There was a lot of idealism, people that understood that the financial infrastructure that we blindly followed was broken,” says Stella.
Chasse helped revitalize the local scene when he took over the Utopia resort to create his Cryptopia crypto community, which later rebranded as House of DAO (more about that in part two).
Stella lived at Utopia resort for months and filmed a short documentary (above) about the experience featuring his good friend Didi from the Bitcoin family, and guest stars the on-chain analyst Willy Woo and Bitcoin influencer and occasional insurrectionist Tone Vays.
Stella created his media brand HardForking to help educate people about crypto. It’s now incorporated in Panama and has set up what Stella calls a “legal DAO,” where participants create content and are rewarded in both stablecoins and with equity tokens in the DAO.
“Effectively, I want 1,000s of content creators who are digital nomads living all over the planet to create content for HardForking. And they are rewarded for their efforts.”
“Our intention is to build the first legal Dao in crypto media, or media in general.”
Heart of the community
The beating heart of the crypto community on Koh Pha-ngan these days is de Lepper, who runs the Buddha Cafe in Haad Salad. Originally from the Netherlands, de Lepper moved to the island three years ago and later rented the former cafe as a place to live.
But when people kept turning up asking for coffee, he reopened it and started running weekly talks called “Living Library” on interesting topics. Researching one of these about crypto, he became obsessed, and the weekly talks became “Crypto Cafe” each Wednesday morning with regular guests from various projects.
There’s a bank of computers in an alcove at the back for learning how to trade, stake or set up wallets, and he’s running “Cryptocation” sessions to teach tourists about the space.
“This island is special because it does have a different energy,” he explains. “I feel at home and feel free here. And it’s a beautiful community that is big enough that you don’t see each other every day, but you see each other every week.”
De Lepper says crypto offers everyone the chance to go live in paradise.
“If you know those opportunities, and you start collecting the right projects, the right tokens, over time, you can build up enough money that you can live off the interest.”
He estimates there are about 300–400 people on the island who work in crypto in some fashion.
One of those is Allison, who runs his Blockchain Careers business from co-working spaces or his home office. We meet for a Korean meal and beers at an open-air restaurant in Thong Sala. He explains that he’s been in Thailand since 2011, starting in hospitality recruitment in Bangkok and then moving to Koh Pha-ngan just as COVID-19 struck. On an education visa, he learns the Thai language three days a week, online between work. “I probably need to do it every day, but I’m sort of getting nearly there.”
He fell into crypto recruitment after discussing plans with Chasse that didn’t eventuate but led to a gig sourcing talent for Hathor Network. His main client now is Parity Technologies, which developed the Parity Ethereum client, Substrate and Polkadot.
“Most of my clients are actually in Europe, a few in South America. I’ve got one in America that I’m speaking to now. But over time, I want to try and get 60% or 70% of the business in Asia because I’m sick of working nights!” he laughs.
Crypto to go mainstream
Allison says Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong and now Thailand are becoming hotspots for crypto in the region, citing the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s development of a new digital asset exchange and Siam Commercial Bank’s takeover of the Bitkub crypto exchange in November last year.
“I think that’s a sign that crypto will go mainstream in Thailand. It’s the first traditional bank in the world to buy outright a crypto exchange. And they’ve actually come out and said there’s gonna be no tax on crypto profits in Thailand, which is a good thing. They seem to want to adopt.”
But personally, Allison’s time in Koh Pha-ngan is coming to an end. When we spoke, he had just got back from a trip scoping out Chiang Mai as his new home.
“I’ve been doing it for two years, and I feel like I’ve hit a wall creatively,” he says. “A lot of people are quite extreme here. They’re either escaping addiction or they are addicts themselves. And there doesn’t seem much in between. So, it’s difficult, you know?”
“Maybe I just need somewhere a bit more normal. It is nice here, but a lot of people are very transient, so you’ll make a good friend, and they’ll be gone next week. Whereas Chiang Mai and Phuket a lot of people do live there, and it’s stable.”
In Chiang Mai, he was particularly impressed with the Yellow co-working space, which also offers a business incubator and VC funding. He says that’s the sort of infrastructure Koh Pha-ngan is lacking right now.
“I’m a startup as well, and they said they can help with potential loans in the future. So, for me anyhow, it seemed more serious for work. So, I will try it out probably for six months and see how it goes. And then I can always come back here if I don’t like it.”