Top digital nomad destinations lists are often filled with the usual suspects. These three cities are hidden gems. Each offers superb infrastructure, affordable accommodation, and it’s own unique charm.
What makes top Digital Nomad destinations so special?
As a Digital Nomad, planning where to stay is a complex business. You have to consider the infrastructure. Three questions I repeatedly ask when researching a trip are; is there reasonable WiFi, is the electricity supply reliable and the most difficult question by far; where should I stay?
The answer to the latter question depends on so many factors.
- Are you looking to combine tourist activities with regular periods of work?
- Are you travelling to relax and escape the winter in your home country, but need an occasional flurry of work to pay for the next country?
- Are you travelling, but working on a complex project as you go?
All of these scenarios demand a slightly different infrastructure and mindset. Where you are staying affects your output and your experience. If you are choosing to stay for a month, (or more if you are extending your visa), it is important to get it right.
Think about what you need from your top digital nomad destinations
On this particular trip, I have been through all the phases mentioned above. Most weeks I have around ten to twelve hours of work to do, and the rest of the time is sightseeing and relaxing. In Indonesia, the focus has been on travelling, with lots of leisure activities. Writing projects have been crammed in here and there. There have been times when I have needed to focus. It is those times that have thrown up the biggest challenges.
As a creative writer, there are periods when you have to go deep into your subject, and I am easily distracted. If I need to go deep, then I need to be away from beaches, lively bars and groups of people who invite you to cool things. (Such is their lure to a weak-willed writer). In Southeast Asia, that is a challenge. It is all too easy to chalk gin and tonic up as research. To give you an idea of how much I can procrastinate; in Kho Lipi I voluntarily chose to do my tax return rather than start a second draft of a book I am writing. The tax return wasn’t due for three months.
However, another important ingredient for productive writing is inspiration. Character studies, good conversation, trashy conversation, and contemplative walks are a must. I also need to get out of my creative space for my mental health, access to good (inexpensive) food, chance meetings in (quiet) bars, and if necessary be able to get out of town completely and blow the cobwebs away. For me, this balance of activities is a real struggle to get right.
Walking the road less travelled is the best way to discover top digital nomad destinations
Chiang Mai was a beautiful place, and there were places to head out to. There were also far too many distractions. Gili Air, on the other hand, was an island paradise, with little hustle and bustle. The beach, watersports, and sunsets ate into my productivity though.
In this article, I am going to share the three cities which allowed me to focus, provided great infrastructure and still had it going on. They are also three cities that don’t appear on many lists citing the best places for digital nomads.
Top Digital Nomad destinations: Krabi in Thailand
Digital Nomad lists are full of tips, tricks and suggestions as to where to live. I read many wonderful posts and subsequently visited amazing places for travellers and Digital Nomads alike. Chiang Mai and Pai are two examples of popular cities which appear on a lot of lists. You absolutely should go. However, my little gem from Thailand is further south. Krabi.
Why Krabi is a top destination for a Digital Nomad
I flew to Krabi on a whim, meeting up with Lucy so that we could go to Kho Lanta. I had a few days planned for R&R with her, and then I had to concentrate on one of my ghostwriting projects. Krabi turned out to be the perfect solution. Way down in the South of Thailand, on the west coast, Krabi has everything a Digital Nomad could need.
I stayed in the old town, in the City Hotel, right by the famous food market. I booked through Agoda and secured the modern hotel room for an incredible £11.00 a night. It is not hostel money, but I had a private wet room, king size bed, and great WiFi. I cannot recommend it enough.
From here I could access all of the necessary external requirements; food, beer, people and places. The hotel was quiet enough, and the room big enough for me to tear into my work. I wrote and edited 35,000 publishable words in eleven days. That is pretty good going for me.
Where to eat in Krabi
You can eat in any one of a dozen amazing street food places. All of the restaurants and cafes are fantastic value. Food and drink is not a problem here. The problem is too much choice.
There is a permanent food market opposite the City Hotel which has everything. I mean everything from traditional Thai cuisine, through to fresh fruit and veg, seafood and smoothies. You could eat here every day for a month and not get bored.
Every Friday and Saturday the roads behind the hotel become a bustling walking street market. If you fancy a change of scenery then over by the river is yet another street food market, which had twenty plus vendors. That is without all of the restaurants and cafes. Krabi provided some of the best food I have eaten throughout my entire time in South East Asia. I ate Thai breakfast, late lunch and late dinner every day for £4.00. Add a smoothie, and a couple of gin and tonics and you are still under £11.00 a day.
What to do in Krabi when you are not working.
One of the most appealing things about Krabi, is its versatility. Although you can isolate yourself in the old town area and dip in and out of social and culinary moments, most people are travelling through. Many are on their way to the islands; Kho Pi Pi, Lanta, and Lipi are the most popular. You can get to any of these islands for a short break, or even a day trip if you are feeling hardy.
In addition to the islands, there are temples and other sightseeing destinations within a couple of hours.
The town is set by a tidal estuary and expansive mangrove swamps too.
Evening walks along the river provide solitude and opportunities to take a trip on a long-tail boat. Destinations include a floating seafood restaurant and limestone caves.
Best bars and Coffee shops in Krabi
I found my two happy places. Mark and May’s House serves great quality barista coffee and has good Wi-Fi.
The Buffalo Bar is a great place to sit and meet people. The drinks are very well priced, and the owners are friendly and welcoming. They have a regular open-mic to if you are that way inclined. I had some lovely evenings here.
Krabi is not a main tourist destination, at least not for the western masses, and that is what I love about it. I met a few of the more bohemian travellers who were passing through, and the locals were incredibly welcoming. I stayed in the Krabi area for almost a month, I cannot wait to go back.
Top Digital Nomad destinations: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
When I set out to travel through South East Asia, I had a very clear plan of where I wanted to go. That plan was all wrong, for many reasons. If Krabi is Thailand’s unexpected surprise, then Yogyakarta is Indonesia’s. Travelling for the first time is an odd experience. It can get lonely at times, especially when you are writing. It really helps when the local people are warm, friendly and genuinely want to be your friend. That description about sums up the people of Indonesia. I absolutely adore them. I have made some wonderful friends in Indonesia, largely because they make it so easy to connect.
Yogyakarta was a complete accident for me. I was planning on flying back to Thailand. I still had a week on my Indonesian visa, and my new friend Fernando was heading there. As we sat in the car heading to the ferry port I played Skyscanner roulette. Low and behold the cheapest flight on the day I had to leave Indonesia was Jakarta to Krabi. I accepted the challenge. I would join Fernando on the ferry from North Bali to Java and head straight for Yogyakarta. Four days there and then we would fly to Jakarta and go our separate ways.
Yogyakarta is home to the Sultan’s palace and numerous places of interest. Indonesian culture is vast. This city has a little bit of everything. We stayed in one of the suburbs, chosen purely on price. Yogyakarta is massive, and the city, (often referred to as Jogja) sits on the edge of what is known as the special region of Yogyakarta. This area of natural beauty is bordered by the sea along its southernmost edge and stretches out into the rural plains of Java.
Why Is Yogyakarta A Top Destination for Digital Nomads?
Like most of Indonesia, Jogja is inexpensive, full of art and culture and incredibly welcoming. Four days was nowhere near enough time to discover the joys of the city in full. We headed out to see the famous Java temples, which ticked a box. I was running low on funds though, and I needed to get online, find some work and turn it around quickly. Jogja allowed me that space while providing several great experiences. I could easily stay here for a month. Jogja’s secret sauce is its boho vibe. It is hard to ut your finger on, but it has that special something that speaks to you.
The city, although the second-largest in Java, has a very chilled out vibe. We stayed at the Good Karma Hostel booked via Agoda. This place is so cool. If you can get it, there is a private room on the first floor which has its own terrace and open-air bathroom. It is extremely comfortable, and I found I could work there easily. The hostel is always full of cool people, but it is quiet. People respect each other, and there were no noise issues. I paid £7 a night for the private room, with breakfast. Superb value.
Where to eat in Yogyakarta
As we were only in Jogja for four days, I feel like I can’t recommend fairly. There are loads of restaurants and bars in the south of the city where we stayed. There is one restaurant that stands out in my mind, and so I will mention it. You will not struggle to find good food, though. Street food is plentiful, and local warungs line every street. The reason Renzo cafe stands out is that it serves warung price meals in a beautiful space. Other than that, you will need to explore, and you will have fun doing so, I guarantee.
Coffee shops and bars are two a penny in the areas we stayed, but you should go to The Celt Irish Pub for a good night out. The locals are brilliant. A few of us from the hostel had a great night here.
Yogyakarta made this list because in just four days it totally hooked me. I will be going back. I will be doing by damnedest to get that upstairs room at The Good Karma, and I will be staying for a lot longer.
Top Digital Nomad Destinations: Melaka (Malacca) in Malaysia
Where do you start when trying to explain Malaysia to someone who has never been?
Malaysia is incredibly odd. That is as good a place to start as any. Why so? I guess because it is a cultural melting pot, so I found myself constantly trying to work out what was Malaysian culture, what was Chinese (having never been to China), and what was Bangladeshi. These are three predominant cultures, and they collide in a flurry of colour, cuisine and chaos.
Also, what is it with the Hello Kitty and Disneyland obsession? Bars and restaurant seem to play a hybrid of K pop and eastern flavoured EDM, constantly, and way too loud. No one really engages with the idea of you trying to speak Malay. Just speak English, that seems to be a more popular choice. Between all of that, I found a weirdly charming country that provided a ton of inspiration for me as a writer.
Malaysia is a difficult country to categorise. However, top Digital Nomad Destinations do exist there.
I spent exactly one month to the day in Malaysia. This is not a problem for your tourist visa, as Malaysia gives most visitors a three-month stay as a standard on arrival. I wish more countries would do this. There are so many contenders for top Digital Nomad destinations in Malaysia. On my list were:
Langkawi; A beautiful island, but the main beach was way too touristy and there was not enough to keep me occupied for more than a few days.
Georgetown, Penang; Which I absolutely loved, and I may return to for a month next time I am over. It didn’t make this list because it has too much to offer. The street food was absolutely incredible, the town was lively and had so much going on that I couldn’t get anything done. Go, for sure. Unless you are easily distracted and have a novel to write. Georgetown was the most Asian of the Malaysian cities I went to, and I felt at home there.
I went to Kuala Lumpur, but I just don’t like the place, it is as simple as that.
While in KL it dawned on me that with 40,000 plus words to write, and a ton of things to organise before landing back in the UK, I needed a final lock-down. (There is that word again) I had exactly two weeks before I needed to get to Singapore to fly home. I traced a line down the west coast and my finger landed on Melaka, Malacca. (I have no idea… but it is typically Malaysian to have a town with two names). I purchased a bus ticket for £3.50 and headed south from Kuala Lumpur for a little under three hours.
What makes Melaka a top destination for Digital Nomads?
Melaka is the capital city of the state of Malacca. It is split into the old town, which is an arty riverside quarter containing antique shops, clothing shops and riverside bars and cafes.
This area is like a scaled down Georgetown. I chose to stay a good half an hour walk away from here, as I needed to make sure temptation was going to be an effort to get too.
For the novel planning part of my trip, I had it in mind to rent one place for two to three weeks. The accommodation would have to provide me with a secure base, preferably with a pool and adequate immediate resources. The early plan was to rent a villa in Cambodia. Malaysia was so intriguing; I decided to stay longer and found a modern apartment on the 33rd floor of one of Malacca’s skyscrapers. It had free use of a horizon pool on the 13th floor and the added bonus of a gym. Ideal to start shifting the extra luggage I had piled on with all of the Asian food.
Where to go and what to do in Melaka
Silverscape residencies are modern, clean and my open plan studio overlooked the entire city. It was a great place to work on a novel. You can get to the Portuguese quarter on foot in around fifteen minutes. There is a choice of seafood restaurants here. The immediate area is a very new build. It reminds me of Milton Keynes. Maybe not ideal if you are looking for a holiday destination. For a sustained period of working it was perfect.
Jonker Street is the old part of town, and I walked over there for the night market a couple of times. There are lots of things to do and see here, but a forty-five-minute walk is an ideal way of keeping the distractions just out of reach on a daily basis.
With Malaysia’s generous three-month tourist visa, I can see myself coming back and bouncing between Georgetown and yet to be discovered cities. Malacca has really grown on me. It is quite a lonely place, but I was writing a lot. Still, it is not as open and friendly as Jogja, or even Georgetown.
If I am honest, the reason Melaka worked so well for me is two-fold. I am deep into a near future Dystopian novel and the vibe was very conducive to writing in that vein. I am not sure they should put that on the brochure.