Why is Coworking in Chiang Mai Almost Non-Existent?

I’m currently sitting in a cafe in Chaing Mai, Thailand with a name so long you could boil a pot of tea in the time it took to say it.

Why am I in a cafe? Well, it turns out that while Chiang Mai is possibly the #1 digital nomad hotspot in the world, there are very few coworking spaces. The only quality one I’ve seen is Punspace, which has two locations. At the Nimman Punspace location, at least, you’re lucky to get a seat even if you show up at 9am.

Last night I met a lovely couple from London who are currently living in Chaing Mai for six months. They offered me some help with my workspace plight. They suggested that this cafe, which I’m sitting in now, would be a very comfortable place to work. They’d only recently discovered it and wanted to share the good tip, something I’m finding to be quite common among the nomad community.

I have to say, I agree with their assessment. The place has quality coffee, amazing food, and a cozy and spacious environment. It has a great homey feel, but with decent workspace amenities: mildly comfortable chairs, ample electrical plugs, and fast wifi. In fact, it has everything that many official coworking spaces actually lack. Check it out for yourself:

It’s clear from the layout and amenities that this place has the working professional, or at least the student, in mind. The best part is it’s not crowded at all.

And this isn’t the only place like this. From what I’ve gathered from other nomads, there are dozens of cafes with great workplace amenities. It’s almost as if the market in Chiang Mai evolved to create working cafes instead of official coworking spaces. In fact, maybe official coworking isn’t really needed.

Think about it. The #1 reason most people cite for joining a coworking space is that they want to connect to a community of like-minded individuals. But among the nomadic, the community is already strong in places like Chiang Mai. With tools like Nomad List and local Facebook expat groups, it’s almost impossible to stay disconnected. You’d literally have to hide in your house to not meet people, and even that isn’t guaranteed. If you’re living in any kind of guest house, hostel, or short-term housing situation the other people in your building will be eager for conversation and connection. It’s practically unavoidable here.

So if people are already connected, doesn’t this diminish the ROI on a coworking space? I tend to think so.

However, in general, I do find the lack of coworking spaces in Chiang Mai very surprising. The demand for workspace here is so high because of the huge community of remote workers. While my cafe might be an exception, we know that cafes often lack comfort and fast wifi. And yet, the supply of coworking here is almost nonexistent.

I recently met Jenny Tai. Jenny is from Taiwan, but is living in Chiang Mai, and runs a lifestyle fashion brand. She and her colleagues recognize the need for more workspace. During our conversation, she told me they are planning to convert an old house into a shared workspace. Initially, this space will just be for themselves, but they plan to open it up to the public.

“Here in Chiang Mai, specifically near Samtitum, there are a lot of digital nomads in the area,” says Jenny. “We sometimes feel stuck in our rooms as we need high-speed internet and all the cafes don’t have enough bandwidth. Some will take a chance on how crowded or noisy a local cafe would be, but it’s less than ideal.”

My gut tells me she’s not the only person planning on opening up a coworking space in Chiang Mai, but for now, the opportunity seems ripe for the picking.

A word of caution, though, which I’ve gathered from other coworking space owners/operators in digital nomad hotspots: not all digital nomad customers are good. While some are happy to pay fees for coworking, many are barely scraping by. Just because there’s a massive population of digital nomads, that doesn’t mean there’s a massive population of coworking members. Some DN’s work at cafes because they are essentially free. This could mean that there is a smaller market than there appears to be or that you could attract problem customers who are only looking for a deal.

Next week Chiang Mai will host CU Asia for the first time, so maybe a few of the 350 coworking founders and operators will see the opportunity and over the next year we’ll see a lot more coworking spaces in the region.

Ryan Chatterton
ryan@coworkinginsights.com

Ryan is the founder of Coworking Insights, a coworking media platform focused on delivering unique and in-depth insights for coworking founders and their teams. He’s the Marketing Director at Habu, a quickly growing coworking management platform that is simple, fast, and intuitive for managing recurring billing, bookings, and other admin tasks. Formerly with Impact Hub and PARISOMA, Ryan now has over 4 years of combined experience in a variety of roles in the coworking industry, including marketing, events, operations, sales, software, and partnerships He’s a digital nomad and a lover of wine and tacos..