Penang, Southeast Asia’s Silicon Valley, is a digital nomad dream

Little Children on a Bicycle mural in Penang

City and country slogans are often cringingly bad. Incredible this, amazing that. The “Pearl of the Orient” is one of the few exceptions that ring true.

Malaysia’s small but satisfyingly formed Penang Island shines like a gem, from its photogenic heritage town (now spruced up) to its jungle-clad hills. It’s impossible not to feel seduced by it.

Penang was my first Asian destination, way back in pre-smartphone 2002 when a camera roll of 36 exposures was a luxury, and I was entranced by its exotic smells, wildlife, cultural celebrations, heritage, and prawn mee with belacan. It looked like a sprawling film-set, and the “Asia” I’d imagined.

On my second visit, in 2009, a beautiful young Malaysian couple ahead of me in a street food queue started a conversation that ended with an invitation to their wedding the following month. I returned weeks later; a random, wide-eyed foreigner attending a traditional Chinese wedding. Oddly enough, I had to wear a pair of disposable underwear over my trousers – but that’s a story for another time, as they say.

That’s the kind of place Penang is – blessed by the (many) gods – and in the years since, I have been drawn back again and again.

In more recent years, Penang has undergone a renaissance of sorts.  First, Unesco World Heritage status put it firmly on the international map, resulting in a flurry of boutique hotel and hipster coffee shop openings, giant murals painted on buildings, and steel rod caricatures (some with a tacky feel) labelling key streets. The town bubbles with cultural events like the annual George Town Festival.

And people have noticed. The accolades keep coming. Last year, Lonely Planet named George Town fourth in the Top 10 Cities list for Best in Travel 2016. Conde Nast Traveller named Penang among the best places in the world for retirement.

Second, with its past a major asset that pulls in the tourists (some might say too many), George Town is now looking to its future. There is a crackle in the air, and possibly even a cheeky wink at its bigger and more conservative cousin Kuala Lumpur.

George Town is fizzing with startup energy. Mostly famous for brilliant startup Piktochart (the go to website for infographics), new projects are popping up like mushrooms after a tropical downpour.

The town’s startup culture has been aided by the recent opening of a grand coworking space near the waterfront, @CAT.

Set within a hundred-year colonial heritage building that had laid abandoned for 40 years, Wisma Yeap Chor Ee, @CAT is an ideal location for creative inspiration (film buffs might also recognise it as a filming location for Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution). Of course I had to check it out on my first visit to Penang in more than a year.

I was kindly shown around @CAT by Community & Operations COO & Partnerships Director Zoey Teoh, who explained that the co-working space was supported by the Penang State Government (hence the amazing location) and that its ultimate purpose was to appeal to foreign investors.

@CAT coworking space in Penang
Where Googlers come to talk at @CAT

Penang was ideally suited to tech startups, Zoey added, saying that both it and Silicon Valley shared an electronics industry heritage. (They’re also on the west coast and have long-ish bridges, and that’s probably where the similarities end.) There’s also a bit of Silicon Valley at @CAT, with people from Google and what not coming over for events.

The @CAT community is made up mostly of freelance coders and digital marketers, several of whom are digital nomads who come and go (Zoey said that they were always pleased to see familiar faces return). But there were corporate faces too – two big companies (unnamed) had sent staff over to scope out the Penang scene.

Alongside a board naming startups there was a wish list. Top of the list was coffee (and why not – it tops my to do list every day), which was somewhat of a surprise as there was a huge cafe downstairs.

The Penang Science Cafe was impressive enough in its own right, replete with interesting books that didn’t include the usual tatty airport novels left behind by backpackers. There was even a 3D printed model of Penang Bridge to gaze at.

Penang Science Cafe
Penang Science Cafe

But here’s the really fun part: in an adjoining room there were things to tinker with that included a Raspberry Pi and – how else to write this – an aircraft. So in theory, you could wander over with a flat white and stare at a Cessna.

Cessna aircraft at Penang Science Cafe
Plane bonkers

If that wasn’t exciting enough, you could probably build your own Sky Hawk II minutes later. Across an outside courtyard with potted plants there was a Makerspace and Garage with enough gizmos to make Q from the 007 movies blush. It was an electronics, woodworking and metalworking playground where you could probably just about make anything, apart from Mars exploration rovers.

I could have lingered for hours at the Wisma Yeap Chor Ee building. For young creative Penangites, it’s the stuff of fantasy. For digital nomads and entrepreneurs, it’s an affordable place to work and mingle.

Conveniently, it’s also a few Andaman island hops from Thailand’s Koh Lanta, the scene of coworking community KoHub, which would make a fun trip – something to think about if you’re stuck in a beige office on a grey November day.

Aerial picture of George Town, Penang, from Komtar
@CAT is in there somewhere…

Cebu or not Cebu? Startup Oasis provides digital nomad support in Philippines

Beach in Cebu

This might sound cliche, but the Philippines really is a name that conjures up images of idyllic beaches and islands (there are more than 7,000), probably to a larger extent than any other Southeast Asian destination, barring Thailand. Throughout the years the country has proved a strong lure for those seeking an escape or a chance to “find themselves”.

In the 1990s, back when the fax machine was the height of sophistication, young author Alex Garland was inspired to write his Gen-X classic The Beach after spending six months in El Nido (while the book itself was set in Thailand). And the rest, as they say, is history, with Garland more recently directing Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Such is the creative power of getting away from it all (while I’m admittedly still waiting for my own lightning bolt of inspiration).

Cebu City is a little more accessible than mystical El Nido, and that’s no bad thing. Budding entrepreneurs can easily escape the pressure cookers that are Hong Kong and Singapore by flying over to Cebu for the weekend, where thanks to Startup Oasis they can get an idea off the ground before swimming with manta rays (soothing for those pummelled brain cells).

Startup Oasis as the name suggests, is a sanctuary for startups, providing co-working, co-living and business support from a large villa (almost like a cross between The Apprentice and a tropical Big Brother, minus the television cameras).

Experienced designers and developers will take on an idea, shape it, and turn it into a web or mobile product, interacting with resident entrepreneurs throughout.

There are three packages available: prototype development for two weeks, a one-month summer camp for those “sleeping on an idea for too long”, and a three-month programme for existing entrepreneurs who need an extra pair of hands.

And thereafter, who knows? Perhaps we will see a new Alex Garland emerge, inspired by Cebu and fit for the post-capitalist age. How does an augmented reality version of swimming with whale sharks sound?

Coworking Unconference Asia days away in Chiang Mai

Temple in Chiang Mai

If the future of work is your thing (and it really should be, because change is the new norm), you might be interested in the Coworking Unconference Asia – now just days away in Thailand.

Brought by The Coworking Association of Asia Pacific, co-founded by Steve Munroe of Hubud, Coworking Unconference will take place in digital nomad hotspot Chiang Mai on 8-12 February 2017. The first four days will see a tonne of talks take place, ranging from Seoul’s ecosystem to lessons from Uber in Southeast Asia, along with opportunities for participants to set the agenda (the unconference bit).

The speaker lineup is impressive, with representatives from household names like Google, Uber and Regus to movers & shakers in the coworking world and beyond.

An excursions day will conclude activities with complimentary temple and waterfall trips – a literal cooling down.

Having experienced a conference in Chiang Mai myself, I’m mildly envious of anyone joining Coworking Unconference. It’s a terrific city that allows for both focus and calm (something that cannot be said about most cities) – and the food isn’t bad either!

KoHub coworking space puts Koh Lanta on the digital nomad map

KoHub

Ko Lanta might not be as widely recognised as neighbouring Phuket or Phi Phi, but it has become a hotspot for at least one traveller group. A picture of bliss, the Andaman island that feels like a blend of Bali and Laos (if you take away the temples) has established itself as a popular digital nomad destination. Its sweeping beaches and sunsets are fabulous, its roads are free of traffic, the crowds are mercifully absent, and there is a more mature feel about the place – ideal conditions for both chilling and getting stuff done.

Taking a few days recently to unwind on the island, I stopped by coworking space KoHub en route back to Krabi to see what it was like, having heard about it while attending the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier in the year.

KoHubKoHub wasn’t an easy spot from the road, and I found it to be quiet when I neared the entrance, far from the hive of activity I had been expecting. But there was a good – and somewhat enviable – reason for the stillness of it all.

Greeting me at the door, KoHub’s amiable Polly explained that many of its members were out kayaking, as it was the weekend. Where else can you do that? 🙂 She then kindly took me on a tour of the work spaces and dining areas set amidst a tropical garden.

Established two years ago, KoHub has a swelling membership that comprises web developers, designers and online teachers, in addition to people passing by to connect with like-minded others (the average tenure is a month).

I was told that the transience is such that digital nomads hop from one established hub to the next within Southeast Asia, seeking out locations as the seasons (and prices) change. The circuit starts in Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north, before moving south to Ko Lanta, across the equator to Bali, and North again to Vietnam. I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before other affordable locations join as pastures along the route, from Penang to Yogyakarta (someone who can shed light on this is Dave Cook, whom as I mentioned before, is leading a study into digital nomad behaviour).

Transience aside, there is a strong sense of community. KoHub is not a coworking space alone. Members can take Thai lessons and themselves teach English at a local school, and there are eco-friendly activities like upcycling.

KoHub activities

The environmental message came out strong: outings include the aforementioned kayaking and island tours, and Full Moon parties are organised on the nearby beach (a popular thing in Koh Lanta, apparently).

Indoors fun meanwhile included a games room with foosball and movies, in a setup similar to traditional offices (I was told it’s also popular for Skype calls).

All that foosball fun leads to hungry stomachs (or maybe that’s just me), and KoHub’s food offerings looked better than average. One of the biggest appeals of living in Southeast Asia is the food, which is among the best on the planet, and Thai cuisine in particular is renowned the world over. KoHub’s menu includes familiar favourites like tom yam and tom ka, alongside curries, fruit shakes and fresh juices.

While I didn’t see many members on the day, KoHub is becoming highly subscribed to the extent that a new space on the island is sought to accommodate more people. It has come a long way in two years, and a bright future beckons if more people join the digital nomad movement. Altogether now: ko ko, there’s ko limit…

Blue-sky thinking in Portugal: Coworking retreat planned for September

Offsite Immersive 2016

September can be a month of mourning for many in chilly Northern hemisphere climates (I can confirm this as a Brit), triggering memories of the new school term and a hurtle towards shorter days. A week in Portugal’s sun-blessed south will therefore appeal to many, especially one that introduces a blend of leisure with exciting work possibilities, all against an idyllic backdrop.

Offsite Immersive 2016 will see 18 like-minded professionals interact in the beautiful, and apparently historic, surroundings of Guia (nearest beach a 14 minute drive away) through work and social activities. The co-working retreat is organised by Southwest Collective for the week 11-18 September, and will include the following (according to the website):

  • An inspiring location with everything needed to be focused and productive
  • A community of creative and passionate people that can help accelerate ideas and projects
  • Healthy food choices
  • Off-the-grid meaningful activities and experiences
  • Flash talk and deep-dive sessions with interesting topics to feel inspired
  • Stunning on-site shared accommodation (2/3 people per room) with ample space to work and relax
  • 3 day free pass to coworklisboa co-working space in Lisbon

Did someone mention wine? 🙂

While the accommodation – a traditional house with pool – looks stunning (you could almost imagine a top Primeira Liga player owning such a property), there are also pretty villages to escape to, we are told.

More information, including pricing, can be found on the website and via Twitter (@swcollectiveco).