Thailand’s Crypto Utopia — ‘90% of a cult, without all the weird stuff’ – Cointelegraph Magazine
The story of how a Bitcoin OG set up a Libertarian crypto community and commune for digital nomads on beautiful islands in Thailand three times — and why he hasn’t yet given up on the dream.
It’s a wild tale involving “unchecked merrymaking,” crypto-influencers, police grillings, seasteading, a reported $20,000-a-month burn rate, rumors about shamans and drugs — and a major collision between idealism and reality. It was also, by all accounts, a whole lot of fun.
The spectacular Cape Residences in Phuket, Thailand are a world away from the bohemian backpackers and Full Moon parties of Koh Pha-ngan where I’ve spent the past few weeks researching Part 1 about crypto digital nomads living in paradise.
If you’ve ever imagined how a Bitcoin OG lives, Kyle Chasse’s villa probably fits in the bill, nestled in between residences housing members of the Royal Family of Dubai and early Apple investors.
There are four cars in the driveway, including an electric BMW charging up. Chasse is a big friendly bear of a man who greets me warmly and takes me on a tour of the seven-bedroom mansion where many of the 85-strong Master Ventures team does business, from social media videos to planning investments and Paid Network launch pad projects.
The beds are so large you could get lost; there’s an indoor golf driving range; and as we take a look at the outdoor entertaining area, Chasse flips a switch, and a waterfall starts pouring from a great height into the pool. “This is my favorite thing,” he says.
“This place is like a hub. Everyone comes here, they have lunch, eat and talk and hang out, play basketball. We have movie nights and dinner and stuff like that.”
This is the latest — and most scaled-back — version of his dream to create a crypto commune for like-minded Libertarian dreamers. He’s tried twice before on Koh Pha-ngan, once on Coconut Island, and dabbled with setting it up as part of the ill-fated viral Cryptoland project the internet mercilessly destroyed.
The first and, so far, most successful version saw Chasse and friends take over the Utopia resort on Koh Pha-ngan for eight months. “We had 35 villas and 70 people,” he explains. “We changed it to Cryptopia in 2018.”
“I think someone said that it was like 90% of a cult, without all the weird stuff.”
But despite high-profile residents and visitors, including Tone Vays, Willy Woo and Didi Taihuttu of the Bitcoin family, the whole thing fell apart with furious locals, police grillings and a nasty falling out between Chasse and his business partner which saw him fire the entire Master Ventures team at once.
The Thai Board of Investments backed the next version, also planned for Koh Pha-ngan called House of DAO, which was promoted with flashy videos and an impressive-looking website before operations moved to the 700-bed Coconut Island resort in Phuket.
The big mystery is why he moved out of Koh Pha-ngan — which Chasse has loved since he was a young backpacker — to the more sedate Phuket?
Chasse explains that Phuket has a lot more infrastructure and transport links, a less transient population, and is a much better place to conduct business. But he refuses to comment on rumors I’d heard on Koh Pha-ngan that once the local authorities became aware that a bunch of wealthy crypto folk had set up shop, they had started making all too frequent visits.
“A year ago, the cops started visiting frequently, asking for ‘donations for covid relief,’” a former Utopia resident tells me. The potential for this to escalate scared the House of DAO away from Koh Pha-ngan: “Whereas Phuket is a rich area, so they don’t stand out as much.”
Kyle Chasse’s story
Chasse grew up in Ventura County in California and never wanted to live a conventional life. Instead of college, he spent months backpacking around Europe before a friend started emailing about how amazing Thailand was.
“I just had massive FOMO. I came over here in 2004 and started in Bangkok,” he says. “And then to Koh Pha-ngan for the Full Moon Party, and then just ended up island hopping for five weeks.”
He spent nine months in Thailand on that trip and returned numerous times before making it his home in 2018.
In between, he discovered Bitcoin via media coverage of the legendary Silk Road. A regular on the Bitcointalk forum, he started up his own Bitcoin lottery in 2013, and by 2016, he had become a wealthy man. “Bitcoin hit 1,000 bucks each and, in my mind, like, ‘Okay, now I’m good. I’m never gonna have to work again in my life,’” he says.
“At that point, I kind of took a bit of a step back from hustling, and I became very obsessed with just adoption.”
People in the real world were not that eager to listen to Chasse extol the virtues of Bitcoin adoption, however. “I always felt very, very isolated. I was only able to talk to people online,” he says. The exception was at crypto conferences where everyone was on the same page:
“All of a sudden, you step into a conference or even the city where it’s being held, and now suddenly, you feel immersed in crypto, and it’s a really amazing experience and feeling.”
He became addicted to the optimism and energy of crypto conferences and would literally fly out to attend them in various locales every three to five days. “That was super unsustainable,” he says. So, then I decided that I really wanted to be able to have that environment (at home).”
Instead of going to crypto conferences, why not bring the crypto community to him? He dreamed of creating a crypto commune that digital nomads could work from, where projects could be nurtured and incubated, and everybody could live and breathe crypto all day every day.
It would be a “mecca on the planet for crypto entrepreneurs to come to and that just propagates throughout the cryptoverse,” he says.
“I figured that if I felt this way, there must be other people out there that feel this way, too. And so, I looked all over Koh Pha-ngan for a good place to set up.”
The concept of the Crypto Utopia recalls the mystical Beach from Alex Garland’s novel of the same name — a magical place that everyone wants to find, but once they find it, everything starts to fall apart. Fittingly, the inspiration for the novel is said to be one of the beaches on Koh Pha-ngan.
Chasse has long been a fan of seasteading. That’s where you create a permanent home base in international waters with like-minded folk where you can do what you like and create your own little sovereign state. Libertarian Bitcoiners, in particular, love the concept and keep making attempts to realize it, including an abandoned attempt to turn a cruise ship into the MS Satoshi, and a Bitcoiner couple who set up a floating home 15 miles off the coast of Thailand and declared their independence — only to get hauled in by the navy and charged with violating Thai sovereignty.
Jessica Gonzales, who is Chasse’s partner and chief marketing officer of Master Ventures, explains:
“The ultimate goal of House of Dao is we’re going to be a small nation. We’re going to be our own nation. That’s where it’s going: micronation. And that’s our alliance with the Seasteading Institute.”
Chasse clarifies it’s not a formal alliance but says the guys behind the institute have agreed to mentor them.
Given how difficult it is to make seasteading work in reality — and who wants to live on an oil rig anyway — the island of Koh Pha-ngan that’s only accessible by ferry seemed the next best option. A bohemian wonderland of days-long parties, magic mushrooms and yoga enthused “spiritual egoists,” the normal rules don’t apply here. At Full Moon Parties, they soak chains in petrol and set them alight to use them as giant skipping ropes for drink and drug-affected tourists to burn themselves on. So, it’s a whole heap of fun, but you can get yourself into serious trouble.
“Koh Pha-ngan, it’s a bit more of the wild west than it is here,” he says from the comfort of his Phuket villa. “You don’t really ask for permission for anything.”
Chasse looked at every single resort and available piece of land on the island. “If you’re thinking about starting a new government structure and having room to experiment with what that looks like… would need privacy. And so, that was really important to me.”
“And finally, Utopia (resort) is where I decided to do it because it’s really amazing. We called it Cryptopia at the time. You travel up this steep hill for a while and then you’re in a kind of beautiful serene place.”
Perched atop the hill at Haad Thong Lang Bay with fantastic views of the Gulf of Thailand, he made a deal to buy the resort for 17 million baht (about $510,000 at the time), and took over 35 villas, paying for everything himself.
Unfortunately, of course, Chasse admits he had no idea how to manage a resort. On the day all the responsibilities for the staff, utilities and everything became his, the water went out.
“The water came from a waterfall nearby, and sometimes, an animal or something knocks the pipe out of the stream. And suddenly, there was no water. So, it was an interesting first day.”
Around 30%–40% of the Cryptopia residents were on the Master Ventures payroll, but word spread far and wide, attracting high-profile visitors, such as Bitcoiner Tone Vays, on-chain analyst Willy Woo and Carl the Moon Runefelt.
There were people from China who ran the George Bush family fund, and not to mention “The King of Viral Media,” Dose media founder Emerson Spartz. Didi and the Bitcoin family stayed for months — he agrees to speak with me about it but then ghosts me for some reason.
“Just incredible people came through. A lot of people invited their families to come out, too, which was kind of what I wanted.”
One resident was author and occasional Magazine contributor Ethan Lou, who described a very similar sounding commune on a Thai island — but doesn’t actually name Cryptopia — in his book Once a Bitcoin Miner. So, it was probably a totally different one.
“I lounged by the penis shaped pool… During the incubator’s crazier days, people used to have orgies in the water, I was told. The big boss who funded everything was an early Bitcoiner and had made a fortune, but he had little experience — or perhaps even the will or desire — to run an incubator. People had come and gone, staying for free, indulging in unchecked merrymaking. At least once, they had allegedly brought over a shaman. The ‘burn rate,’ what was needed to maintain the facilities alone, was $20,000 per month.”
Lou writes that he had planned to write off his residency as a business expense for tax purposes but later realized he couldn’t point to a “single business matter that arose from that trip.”
“The longer I stayed, there the longer I had no idea what I was doing on that island.”
Hard Forking founder Sean Stella stayed for months at Cryptopia and made a short documentary about his time there.
“Didi gave me a call when I was living in Singapore and said, ‘Check this out.’ So, I jumped on the plane the next day, met Tone Vays and Willy Woo at the airport, and we all jumped in a taxi together and went up there and hung out. I made friendships and connections through Kyle and what he was doing that have lasted to this day.”
“I was there for three or four months, and it was fantastic. It was some of the most interesting months of my life. He basically took over a whole resort and financed the whole thing. I didn’t have to put my hand in my pocket.”
Stella reports that plenty of work was actually completed and scotches the idea that it was some sort of non-stop party.
“There was certainly fun to be had, but no, it wasn’t,” he says. “The funny thing with a lot of the crowd was they weren’t drinkers. Very intellectual.”
Is that a euphemism for “everyone was microdosing LSD,” I ask him?
“Oh, I have no idea,” he says with a grin. “Drugs are illegal.”
Lou’s recollection of life at the resort was more candid, and he writes of looking out at the incredible sea view one day in wonder and how “the remnants of Ecstasy, speed, mushrooms and LSD coursed through my system as I welcomed the dawn.”
“I will never forget how, for a few fleeting moments that day, the world looked like perfection.”
Cointelegraph Magazine contributor Elias Ahonen was also a resident while writing his book Blockland. He suggests that the dosing that “may or may not have occurred was probably more macro than micro.”
Of course, any drug use by visitors was entirely incidental to the point of the Cryptopia — it was more just part of life on Koh Pha-ngan. As described in Part 1, the island is the kind of place where people go out for one drink and then wake up four days later in a field with a headache pounding in time to a hardcore psychedelic trance.
It’s fun until its not: one digital nomad who lived elsewhere on the island told us of a good friend and colleague who ended up getting so immersed in the non stop partying lifestyle that he had a psychotic break, and they had to rush him off for treatment before he was deported. Another digital nomad said they were leaving the island, in part due to the negative aspects of the drug culture.
Chasse says that while he doesn’t condone that aspect of life on Koh Phangan, he believes everyone has the right to do what they like with their own bodies.
“Like, I’m not going to judge you for that as long as you get your work done,” he says. “Looking back, I think whether we maybe we turned a blind eye to it, I think maybe we would have been, some of the team members might have been more productive out of that environment. Because, you know, maybe they were hungover at work or something like that.”
“I mean, definitely on Cryptopia 1.0, that was a huge problem.”
Ahonen, who managed business operations for a short time, says he found the team generally hardworking and ambitious but says that the utopian dreams of new forms of governance seemed more trippy than anything else.
“There were appeals to a fantastical utopian future that wasn’t entirely grounded in reality, which is perhaps very true to the ‘crypto’ brand.”
“Kyle had a vision of using blockchain, decentralization and Libertarianism to transform the world’s basic organizational structures — he once seemed to suggest that I could perhaps rule over a ‘private country’ one day, when the new order came.”
The ideals of the crypto-Libertarian vision brought some political tensions, as the vision of a community-run enterprise conflicted with the fact Chasse was in charge, and many of the residents were either his staff or projects he was funding and helping.
“I think part of it was my fault for misleading people in the way that things would be governed there, I think, maybe alluded a little bit too much toward the fact that, like, I wanted to convert this into a DAO,” he says.
“I think a lot of people who went there with the idea that, like, they would have significant say in what would happen, but I wanted people to work on the things that we had to work on. So, this is why some people left and some people stayed”
How it ended
There are a few different accounts of how Cryptopia fell apart. Stella thinks market conditions and a disagreement over the resort’s ownership were to blame. Foreigners can’t directly own Thai real estate for one thing except in a complicated setup through a company sponsored by the Board of Investments.
“It was crypto winter. The price of Bitcoin plummeted, while I was living there, and you’ll have to ask Kyle, but my understanding was he wanted to buy the resort, and it seemed to boil down to a negotiation over the purchase of it.”
Chasse says the “miscommunication with the owner… wasn’t handled in a civil way.”
“He was clearly wrong in trying to sell me property he couldn’t sell me. But he was able to have the police set up in front of Utopia and eventually come up and get me and take me to the station and question me and try to get me to sign a confession for something I didn’t do.”
“It didn’t shake me too much. I don’t really get too scared. But some people left after that event happened; some people just left Master Ventures altogether — they were terrified. And some of our core team were also pretty freaked out about it.”
He also had a nasty falling out with a “really terrible” business partner that led to the end of not just Cryptopia but that incarnation of Master Ventures, too, in early 2019.
“I fired the entire team, like, a month before I left Utopia. My partner was horrible and tried to take over the whole thing in a coup d’état, and so, I just told Lex, the guy who was helping me on the ground, to kick everyone out.”
House of DAO
Six months later, he met Gonzales on a dating site in the United States. She was attracted by his life’s purpose.
“It’s quite unconventional, right?” she says over drinks in their impressive living room, a world away from Koh Pha-ngan.
“He wanted to transform the world with cryptocurrency as the way, and I’ve always known my whole life, my parents instilled this into me since I was a little girl basically brainwashed me believing that I had a huge role to play in helping transform the world.”
They resurrected Master Ventures, launched Paid Network (which grew from a dispute resolution service to also encompass a crypto launch pad) and rebranded the crypto commune as the House of DAO.
The “blockchain smart village” had an expensive-looking website and slick video ads promoting “Asia’s premier blockchain hub” where:
“Blockchain startups from around the world come together under one roof to accelerate their decentralized visions uniting the world’s best advisors to turn startup visions into reality.”
The House of DAO was all set to launch at The Cabin Resort in Haad Rin — the same location of Leela Beach where Chasse had stayed for his first Full Moon Party all those years ago. But at the last minute, they pivoted to Coconut Island off the coast of Phuket. All the websites and marketing materials still said Koh Pha-ngan (which is how I stumbled across this whole story) perhaps in an attempt to fly more under the radar at their new home.
“There were several events that led to, ultimately, the desire to escape from KP for a while,” says Chasse.
Our Crypto Community keeps growing at House of DAO. What a great family dinner celebration we had last night! The familia keeps growing. @kyle_chasse @jesa_4thePeople @master_ventures @MMcrypto @TheMoonCarl @FelixMago_Dash @HappySasha18 pic.twitter.com/calDVPAh08
— House of DAO (@HoDThailand) August 29, 2020
The authorities apparently weren’t too enamored with their ads featuring jet skis, attractive women and digital nomads working hard and partying harder as they conflicted with the official COVID-safe narrative of the time. And after trekking to every resort on Koh Pha-ngan, Chasse also thought none of them offered enough privacy. That wasn’t a problem on Coconut Island, which has just one resort, a couple of restaurants and a small village.
While it seemed like a great idea at the time, having just 20 people from Master Ventures take over a deserted 700-bed resort, with little chance of attracting new residents due to the pandemic, wasn’t ideal.
“At first, it started out really great. Like, it was a beautiful location — perfect for what we wanted to do.”
“There were a few times when family and friends were there it felt like it was supposed to feel when it was more sociable and more full. We looked at each other and thought this would be amazing and it felt right. It was super encouraging to carry on.”
At the time, they thought the pandemic was just about over, and Thailand was about to reopen to the world. They were wrong.
“It was just quite lonely there and quiet. If you had 400 people, and they’re all in crypto, it would have been fine,” he says. “It led to a lot of people feeling really down because they felt super isolated.”
The second, or third, iteration of Cryptopia/House of DAO shut down around September last year.
House of DAO Family Dinner Night! @kyle_chasse @jesa_4thePeople @master_ventures @MV_CEA @TheMoonCarl @MMcrypto and some amazing new member additions @FelixMago_Dash @HappySasha18, thanks for joining! #DAO #Bitcoin https://t.co/uNG9fe9ORG pic.twitter.com/2q01GmNXwL
— House of DAO (@HoDThailand) August 19, 2020
Cryptoland’s House of DAO v1
Meanwhile, Chasse had been sent an early cut of a promotional video for the Cryptoland project that Max Olivier and Helena Lopez had been working on for three years. Their idea was to crowdfund the purchase of a Fijian island to set up a crypto community by selling NFT plots of land. Impressed with their vision for a 600-acre complex, which they’d negotiated to include the next House of DAO, Chasse bought the first plot of land.
“We get the House of DAO infrastructure included in it, and it solves a lot of our problems,” he says. “We’d still be on a private island but next door having a poppin’-like crazy resort with tons of entertainment and things to do.”
Unfortunately, Web3 Is Going Great’s Molly White got hold of the promo video in January, and it went viral for all the wrong reasons. It has a talking Bitcoin, groan-inducing references to memes like shitcoin casinos, cutlery-based jokes, such as “I’m not a fan of forks,” and there’s even an ill-advised musical number.
The internet tore it apart.
“People say any press is good press, but this was really, really bad,” he says, adding that the founders were defamed as scammers despite having the noblest of intentions.
“They never took a dollar from anyone. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen happen to such nice people,” he says. “It’s amazing how much effort they put into this thing,” he says. “And then all of a sudden, when they decide to reveal themselves vulnerable, they just get smashed down.”
After it went viral, the Fijian government reportedly contacted the project via their lawyers and discouraged them from proceeding.
Chasse says he’s still a big supporter of Cryptoland, which is now looking at different locations from the Bahamas to Dubai.
Let’s do it in the metaverse
Chasse’s plan, for the time being, is to watch how decentralized governance models experiment and iterate in DAOs and the metaverse before trying again in the real world.
“I’m really excited about the whole idea of DAOs and metaverse and these things hypothesizing and delivering and failing and succeeding. And so, this is going to expedite the whole process of trying to physically do it with real people and real families.”
The twist in the tale is that now that Chasse and Gonzales have stopped trying so hard to construct a crypto community, one has grown around the Master Ventures hub anyway. Around 40 staff and their family members orbit around the villa now.
“I think that in building a community, there’s an element of it that has to happen organically,” Chasse explains. Chief technical officer Ben Stahlhood’s wife and kids have joined; Gonzales brought out her parents and four sisters; and Chasse’s mom has visited and is now thinking of selling her beach house back in Ventura to move over permanently.
“It’s interesting because ever since v2 shut down Coconut Island and we all kind of found our own places, people started to bring their families, flying in their kids, the communities continue to grow, maybe not under this official flag anymore,” he says.
“What I think we’ve realized is that we are the House of DAO. Our team, we’re the heart anyway. Like, it’s our team members. It’s their families.”
Read Part One here:
Thailand’s crypto islands: Working in paradise, Part 1