How ‘Digital Nomads’ Game the System to Work in Paradise

Visa scams and tax evasion are common as locals struggle with a low minimum wage

Harry Guinness
Published in
6 min readJul 2, 2019


Credit: Made Widhana/Getty Images

YYou can’t throw a USB stick in Canggu without hitting a “digital nomad” — or whatever your preferred term is for someone working remotely from an exotic location. Westerners on their laptops are everywhere, taking up table space in coffee shops or set up in one of the six separate co-working spaces inside a two-mile radius. They might be a small segment of the more than 5 million people who visit Bali each year, but they’re overrepresented in Canggu. There are programmers, entrepreneurs, marketers, scam artists, and, of course, writers like me. If a job can be done on the internet, someone is doing it here.

Canggu, a small beachside village on the Indonesian island of Bali, currently holds the top spot on Nomad List, a website that ranks places around the world based on how easy it is for people to work remotely from them. It’s not hard to see why. The cost of living is low while the quality of life — and, crucially, the internet speeds — are high. For about $1,500 a month, you can live in a private en suite room in a villa with a swimming pool, hire a scooter to get around, surf every day, and eat out for every meal.

But this workers’ paradise in Indonesia leaves out one crucial population: Indonesians.

As of 2017, Indonesia has the sixth worst income inequality in the world. A 2017 report from Oxfam says that the top 1% of the country’s population control 49% of the wealth. Meanwhile, 8% of the population lives in “extreme” poverty (less than $1.90/day); 36% in “moderate” poverty (less than $3.10/day). The country’s economy is booming overall — but not equally.

Gonan Nasution, general manager of the Taman Nauli Boutique Rooms hotel, grew up in Canggu. He’s seen the area change from sprawling rice fields to a thriving tourist destination. “First the surfers came and then the yogis came,” explains Nasution. “And after the yogis, the fitness people came.” Now it’s the digital nomads, drawn to Canggu’s still-somewhat-authentic and affordable vibe.

Since 2012 or so, new hotels, cafés, restaurants, bars, shops, and beach clubs have opened up every month. Former farmers now…