When Kyrie Melnyck tells people what she does for a living, she knows what response to expect: “Hashtag digital nomad,” she parrots with an unbothered smile.
“Over coffee last week in the upmarket Russian Market cafe where she frequently comes to work, Melnyck said she knew there was a certain image that came with the popular social media tag. “I think it’s cool to be honest, but not everyone agrees with the term,” she said.
“It’s been coined by a category of people who not everyone feels they fit into ... It does sound a little bit hipster.”
“Location independent" is the neutral descriptor of what 27-year-old Melnyck and a growing host of predominantly Western, skilled workers have chosen to do over the past half dozen-odd years: trade in the nine-to-five for a job that can be performed anywhere in the world with a fast enough internet connection.
In Melnyck’s case, it’s email-based customer support for the Canadian company she worked for back in Vancouver. She covers their night shift, which is the morning in Phnom Penh. “I sold it to them as me catching a time zone they can’t hit,” she said of the move, which she only made last month.
Other digital nomads that Melnyck has encountered either through online forums or in person work on tech projects, start-ups, or use sites such as UpWork to bid for remote assignments.
A large percentage of those living the itinerant lifestyle also run travel blogs, a phenomenon that Melnyck hasn’t quite got her head around: “There are a lot of people who have made money as digital nomads by teaching people to be digital nomads, which is a strange concept to me.”
For Melnyck and the still-small community of digital nomads who have adopted Phnom Penh as their temporary home, it’s a city that makes sense.
The cost is key, (thanks to Canadian wages, Melnyck’s 16-hour working week is enough to cover her rent and basic expenses) as is the relatively fast internet and liberal culture for foreign travellers.
Also significant is the ease of obtaining a visa for those wishing to extend their stay – a one-year business visa can be purchased in Cambodia for $280 without the backing of a sponsor.
“I don’t think any other country has that,” enthused Els Rijke, a 38-year-old consultant from Holland currently living in Phnom Penh.
Rijke’s story offers an insight into the challenges that come with a country-hopping lifestyle. During the first half of 2015 she travelled with only a suitcase around Africa, Asia and Europe.
“I was in 12 countries, that was a bit too much,” she said, grinning at the memory. Next year she is planning to use Cambodia as a base camp between consultancies in far-flung locations: “I’ll still be travelling, but hopefully a bit less.”
While the number of digital nomads spending time in Phnom Penh is growing, the town still pales in comparison to regional hotspots such as Ubud in Indonesia and Chiang Mai in Thailand. In both towns, prosperous hubs have sprung up, enticing fleet-footed nomads with co-working spaces, video conferencing rooms and yoga studios in Instagram-friendly surrounds.
Phnom Penh has two coworking spaces – Impact Hub and CoLab – but, according to Impact Hub co-founder Laura Smitheman, they’ve yet to see a large influx of location independent travellers.
“We’ve had some people because Impact Hub is a globally recognised brand, so people work in them in other countries and then come through to us,” she said, “but I would say the majority is people who are based here focusing on longer term projects.”
Norwegian start-up entrepreneur Espen Antonsen, who has based himself at CoLab during several stints in Phnom Penh, agreed.
“It is increasing, but even if it’s doubled it’s still few people,” he said speaking via Skype from Kuala Lumpur, where he’s been for the past month.
But he’s confident the scene is growing. “Now it’s easier to do freelancing remotely; it’s more accepted by the clients,” he said. “And especially if you’re in tech and starting a company, the location is becoming much more irrelevant.”
As Melnyck points out, there is something counterintuitive in the way nomads gravitate towards established hubs.
“People have this desire to be grounded and stable but also to have adventure,” she said. “Everyone still has that ‘Does anyone understand me?’ feeling, and you definitely want to meet in person with other people doing the same thing.”
Rather than move to Thailand, Melnyck has an alternative solution for finding kindred spirits. Along with three other nomads, she has just launched 7in7, a series of conferences that are scheduled to unfold around the world over the next seven years, starting in Asia and ending – ambitiously – in Antarctica.
The conferences will focus on the longevity of the nomadic lifestyle, as a counterbalance to the overabundance of resources available for those looking to take the first steps.
“This is more like, ‘What do you do if you want kids?' and ‘How do you plan for retirement?' – and even how the future of this industry is going to work,” she explained, adding that she was currently looking for appropriate venues in Cambodia or elsewhere for the first meet-up in October 2016.
Like Rijke, Melnyck is trying to guard against the possibility of burnout by giving herself some kind of structure for the next few years.
“It’s hard to find the motivation if you’re not talking to people,” she said. “I want to check seven continents off the bucket list, so I thought let’s do seven conferences in seven years. It should be interesting.”