For a Digital Nomad, planning where to stay is a complicated business. You have to consider the infrastructure. Two of the questions I repeatedly ask when researching for a trip are; is there reasonable Wi-Fi and is the electricity supply reliable? The most challenging question by far is; where should I stay?
The answer to this question depends on so many factors. For example; are you looking to combine tourist activities with regular periods of working? Are you mainly travelling to relax and escape the winter in your home country, but need an occasional flurry of work to pay for the next leg? Are you moving regularly, but working on a complex project as you go?
All of these scenarios demand a slightly different infrastructure and mindset. Where you are staying will drastically affect your output and your experience. If you are choosing to stay for a month, (or more if you are extending your visa), it is vital to get it right.
On this particular trip, I have been through all the phases mentioned above. Most weeks, I had around ten to twelve hours of work to do, and the rest of the time was sightseeing and relaxing. In Indonesia, the focus was on travelling, with writing work crammed in here and there. There have been times when I have needed to focus. It is those times that have thrown up the most significant challenges.
As a creative writer, there are periods when you have to go deep into your subject, and I am easily distracted. The two things do not go hand in hand. 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 South-East Asia, that is a challenge. It is all too easy to chalk gin and tonic up as research.
However, another essential ingredient for productive writing is finding inspiration. Character studies, good conversation, trashy conversations, and contemplative walks are a must. I also need to get out of my creative space for own my mental health. I need access to good (inexpensive) food. I want chance meetings in (quiet) bars, and if necessary, I want to be able to get out of town entirely and blow the cobwebs away. For me, this balance of opposing activities is a real struggle to get right.
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 very little hustle and bustle. The beach, watersports, and sunsets ate into my productivity though.
In this article, I am going to share three cities, which helped me to focus, provided excellent infrastructure and still had it going on. Incidentally, they are also three cities that don’t appear on many lists citing the best places for digital nomads.
It seems silly to call a city a hidden gem. They are huge, after all, and full of people; but here goes:
Digital Nomad Hidden Gem 1: Yogyakarta, Indonesia
When I set out to travel to the South East of Asia, I had a very defined plan of where I wanted to go. That plan was all wrong, for many reasons. Travelling for the first time is a unique experience. It can get lonely at times, especially when you are writing. It really helps when the local people are warm, inviting and genuinely want to be your friend. That description about sums up the Indonesian people. I adore them. I have made some beautiful friends in Indonesia, mainly because they make it so easy to connect.
Yogyakarta was a complete accident for me. I was planning on flying back to Thailand, but I still had a week on my Indonesian visa, My new friend Fernando was heading to Java. I did the Skyscanner roulette, and low and behold the cheapest flight on the day that I had to leave Indonesia was from Jakarta to Krabi.
I accepted the challenge. We would get 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. The city (often referred to as Jogja), sits on the edge of “the special region” of Yogyakarta. The sea borders this area of natural beauty along its southernmost side. North, east and west stretch out into the rural plains.
Why Is Yogyakarta A ideal place for Digital Nomads?
Like most of Indonesia, Jogja is inexpensive, brimming with 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 have stayed here for a month. Jogja’s secret sauce is its boho vibe. It is hard to put your finger on, but it has that special something that speaks to you.
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 terrace and open-air bathroom. It is incredibly comfortable, and I found I could work there efficiently. 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 there for four days, I feel like I can’t recommend with much integrity. There are loads of restaurants and bars in the south of the city where we stayed. Street food is plentiful, and local warungs are on every corner. There was one restaurant that stands out in my mind, and so I will mention it. 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 area 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 there.
Yogyakarta made this list because, in just four days, it hooked me. I will be going back. I will be doing my damnedest to get that upstairs room at The Good Karma, and I will be staying for a lot longer.
Digital Nomad Hidden Gem 2: Krabi in Thailand
Digital Nomad lists are full of tips, tricks and suggestions as to where to live. I read many beautiful posts and subsequently visited Chiang Mai and Pai. Both are fantastic places for travellers and Digital Nomads alike. You absolutely should go. My little gem from Thailand was further South. Krabi.
Why Krabi is an excellent place for a Digital Nomad
I flew to Krabi on a whim. I was meeting up with a friend in the South 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. That is not hostel money, but I had a private wet room, king-size bed, and excellent Wi-Fi. 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 fantastic street food places. All of the restaurants and cafes are incredible value. Finding good food and drink is not a problem here.
There is a permanent food market opposite the City Hotel, which has 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, with twenty or so vendors.
Krabi provided some of the best food I ate anywhere in South East Asia. Budget wise, you can have a Thai breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for £4.00 to £6.00. 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.
Peace and quiet is the most appealing thing about Krabi. You can isolate yourself in the old town area, dipping in and out of social and culinary moments. Most visitors 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, all within a couple of hours. The town sits alongside a tidal estuary and extensive mangrove swamps. Evening walks along the river provide solitude, as well as 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
There are so many, and let’s not forget I was on lock-down. That said, I found my two happy places. Mark and May’s House is a coffee shop that serves exceptional quality barista coffee and has excellent 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 leading tourist destination for the western masses touring Thailand, and that is what I love about it. I had more than enough to do, but most important of all, I was able to focus on a project that demanded my complete attention. Railey beach and Kho Lanta provided me with a weeks respite when I needed it. All in all, I stayed in the Krabi area for almost a month; I cannot wait to go back.
Digital Nomad Hidden Gem 3: 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 right a place to start as any. Why so? Being the cultural melting pot that it is, I found myself continually trying to work out what was Malaysian culture, what was Chinese (having never been to China), and what was Bangladeshi. These are three predominant influences, 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, and always way too loud. No one engages with the idea of you trying to speak Malay. Just speak English, that seems to be a more popular choice. However, between all of that, I found a weirdly charming country. I also had a ton of inspiration for my projects.
I spent exactly one month to the day in Malaysia. 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 in Malaysia for Digital Nomads. 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. The accommodation was too expensive to get a place conducive for work.
Georgetown, Penang; I loved it here, and I may return to for a whole month next time. The street food was 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 exciting of the cities I visited in Malaysia. I felt at home there.
I went to Kuala Lumpur, but I 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 on my new novel, and a ton of things to organise before landing back in the UK, I needed a final lock-down. I had precisely 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 an excellent destination for Digital Nomads?
Melaka is the capital city of the state of Malacca. There is the old town, which is an artsy riverside quarter containing antique shops, clothing shops, riverside bars and cafes. This area is like a scaled-down Georgetown. I chose to stay in accommodation which was a forty-five-minute walk away from there. I needed to make sure any temptation was going to be an effort to get too.
For the novel-planning part of my trip, I had always had it in mind to rent one place for a period of two to three weeks. This writing den would have to provide me with a secure base, preferably with a pool and adequate immediate resources. I switched from Agoda to Airbnb 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 bonus of a gym; an ideal way to start shifting the extra luggage I had piled on with all of the Asian food.
Where to stay 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 are multiple seafood restaurants there. The immediate surrounding area was very new. It reminded 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.
I did no sightseeing at all in Melacca. I ate cheaply at the local Bangladeshi warungs. I treated myself to one can of Guinness a night. (£1.80 if you are interested). The rest of the time, I wrote, read, pondered and worked out at the gym. Perfect.
With Malaysia’s incredibly generous three-month tourist visa, I can see myself coming back and bouncing between Georgetown and yet to be discovered cities. Malacca has grown on me. It is quite a lonely place, it is not as open and friendly as Jogja, or even Georgetown, but in fairness, I was writing a lot.
If I am honest, the reason Melaka worked so well for me is that I was deep into the planning of a near-future dystopian novel. The vibe was very conducive to writing in that vein. I am not sure that they should put that in the brochure.
Post Script-A parting thought.
I wrote all of that last section in the past tense. The truth is, dear reader, I sit here writing it now.
I am on the 33rd floor of Silverscape residencies; the sliding doors are open. The city sprawls before me. It is the components of a printed circuit board, kissed by a grey ocean.
On an open tab on my laptop screen sits the ticket I have bought to take me to Singapore. I have one gym session left. I need to buy two more presents. I have a head full of memories, and a heart made whole with the love of new friends.
I leave tomorrow.
Melacca may be the oddest place I have ever been to, and Asia has been incredible. I love it and want to hold it close for fear I will never get back. I am the happiest I have been in years.
As I look out across this cacophony of culture, decorated with half-empty malls and Hello Kitty tuk-tuks I feel something else too.
A solitary warm tear runs down my cheek.