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The Real “Whole Foods”

Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.

too "rough" for American consumers

too “rough” for American consumers

Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.

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Culture Clash

Although you’d never know it based on the current political and social degradation of anything non-white, those married to people of other cultures, races or religions understand first hand what an ignorant viewpoint that is. Enriching the lives of all those who’ve embraced multi-cultural marriages, there’s nothing more interesting and fulfilling than learning about and becoming part of a culture other than the one you’re born into. Having married into a second generation Canadian Chinese family, I’ve been exposed to a world very different from my caucasian New York roots and always jump at a chance to learn something new about Chinese civilization. Clearly the most uneducated interview given in the joke known as The Republican National Convention, some moron asked CNN this beauty:  “What has anyone other than European whites really contributed to the world”?
Sadly, the xenophobic idiot was an elected official and the fact they even allow such a comment on the air speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the nation.

imageHad I been asked the question, I’d counter the sadly uninformed racist legislator and delve into a long-winded response detailing the amazingly storied and fascinating history of Chinese civilization. Ruling over territory ten times larger than Europe, Chinese people are the world’s most successful group of emigrants and communities ranging from 9 million to a few hundred live in dozens of nations on every habitable continent. Choosing Southeast Asia as a retirement destination allows expats interested in things other than border walls and isolationism a great opportunity to discover more about eastern civilization, Chinese history and Asian contributions to humanity. Having explored Chinese museums and exhibitions in Singapore and Penang, I’ve gained a plethora of knowledge about Chinese integration into different societies around Asia and always try to learn more when visiting other countries. Having already done the major tourist attractions of Bangkok on an exploratory vacation that included Borneo and Singapore in 2009, our recent trip presented a perfect chance to learn about Thai Chinese culture. Comprising one sixth of Thailand’s entire population, more ethnic Chinese live in Thailand than anywhere on earth making Bangkok’s Chinatown a perfect place to start our trip after a harrowing start the night before at Dun Mueung Airport.

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The not so Good Ol’ Days

Taking modern conveniences for granted, today’s internet generation gets from point A to point B using mobile apps, e-tickets and on-line customer service chats. Leaving nostalgic types longing for yesteryear’s experiences like customer service phone numbers, free food and priority service for premium ticket holders, they model many Asian airports more like small cities than transportation hubs. Thankfully, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), a glimpse of the past awaits thousands of Bangkok bound passengers due to a revival of one of the worlds’ oldest commercial airports. Re-opened after being abandoned and replaced by Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2006, Don Mueang International Airport now provides one of Asia’s worst airport experiences. Remembering why we opted for the overnight train from Penang that’s now been altered due to modernization of Malaysia’s rail system, it’s hard to decide if the arrival or departure was worse. Anxious to share some stories from our eight-day Bangkok trip designed to escape end of Ramadan holiday crowds, I thought I’d get the ever-important semantics out-of-the-way first. Hoping we save our readers some time and frustration, here’s the scoop on flying to Bangkok from almost anywhere in Asia.

Who you expect to see in this 1970's style airport

Who you expect to see in this 1970’s style airport

Having decided it’s easier to treat short-haul passengers like sardines instead of following through on a planned expansion of Bangkok’s beautiful modern airport, officials now route dozens of flights to an obsolete airport first used by KLM in 1924. In the city’s defense, they’re constructing a new extension to the BTS light rail that will ease much of the post-arrival nightmare but that might be years away. Glancing at the airport’s old drab terminal concrete building, it looks like The Brady Bunch  took off from there when they made their Hawaiian vacation episode. Scheduling every arriving flight in a four-hour window each evening means unnecessary delays and adds hours to the landing process. Ensuring long bottlenecks at the immigration counters and a scam that denies most of the city’s thousands of taxis away from entering this airport, you’ll need almost two hours or more for negotiating your way through the mess. Remembering our arrival back in 2009 at Bangkok’s shiny new airport, we cringed when the plane landed, taxied about two miles and then stopped. Somewhere in the middle of a runway, we de-planed on the tarmac and they crammed us into waiting buses that take all passengers to the terminal. Reminiscent of our recent trip to Myanmar’s international airport, we expected better from Thailand.

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Home Away From Home

Although the traffic’s gotten even more horrendous and the prices are not like they used to be, my favorite hotel view from any city never changes and the Chao Phraya River looks as beautiful as ever from the 30th floor. Here to escape Hari Raya’s annual crowd surge in Penang, we’re spending eight days hitting the city we first visited in 2009 when my job was secure, the economy was just beginning to tank and our first glance of Thailand made us realize we’d be back here some day. Given the annoyances of posting on an IPad, I’ll hold off on daily stories and post a few pictures of the things we’ve done so far. Radically different from Chiang Mai, we’d still never live here but Bangkok remains an awesome sprawling city with a unique combination of old and new (although the old is fading fast) and even in rainy season, it’s always worth visiting. Since we did all the must-do tourist stuff back in our pathetic three-week American vacation working days, we focused on secondary attractions and started off with a journey down Yaoawrat Road.

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Possibly the biggest and best Chinatown anywhere, we also ventured into a sparsely visited but excellent museum known as The Chinese Heritage Center.

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Sticking to street food, I found an amazing bowl of fish maw soup. As one of the most Asian white boys around, I’m not even sure why I like Chinese food so much but if that’s your thing, Bangkok is the place for you with an enormous Thai Chinese community that enjoys one of the most symbiotic relationships between China and another nation anywhere on the planet.

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Although the rain pounded down for hours the first day we arrived, we booked a trip to Khao Yai National Park and lucked out with a perfectly overcast and comfortable day and the rain held out until the late afternoon. As Thailand’s first national park, it’s a long two  and a half hour day trip from Bangkok but it’s well worth it. Maintaining well signed and beautiful national parks, Thailand does nature very well and I look forward to seeing many more in the future.

Having recently watched lots of travel documentaries featuring cooking in Southeast Asia, we wanted to visit Thailand’s largest wet market to see what it feels like in person and Khlong Toei Market didn’t disappoint. Ten square blocks long and totally off the main tourist track, it’s one of the world’s most amazing markets with so many stalls, vendors and people it’s staggering.

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Taking notes while watching those TV shows, we splurged at Samboon, one of Bangkok’s busiest and most amazing seafood restaurants where we ordered curry duck, mantis prawns and oysters in stir fry sauce

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And last night we ventured out to the new boxing stadium for some live Muay Thai. Lumpinee Stadium is a new and very modern comfortable arena up there with any western stadium and although the ringside seats where they make foreigners sit are not cheap, the excitement and noise level is highly contagious. Watching the Thais using the cheaper balcony seats to engage in never ending rounds of strange betting by screaming and waving fingers, you understand quickly why they don’t let foreigner’s sit up there. But you also get to take pictures with the winner of each round making for a very enjoyable evening.

With three more days to go until we return, I’ll cut it off here because it’s time to hit the breakfast buffet before throngs of never ending visitors overwhelm the way too small restaurant of the Chatrium Riverside Hotel. Today we plan on visiting the Bank of Thailand Museum, another little known gem that becomes a pain in the ass to reserve except on Saturdays when they let people walk in without advance notice. After that it’s a revisit of Khao San Road to see how the backpacker neighborhood’s changed into a trendy version of Asian SoHo (or so says the guidebooks anyway). Please check back next week when I’ll detail each day with in-depth and post lots of great pictures.

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Cheers from cloudy and wet Bangkok.

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My Independence Message

Ahh, long holiday weekends. Almost missing the joy of wrapping up work early and beating the traffic, we’re off to Bangkok for eight days of eating. Well, perhaps we’ll do some other things but honestly, it’s mostly eating. Basically, we chose the 4th of July for two reasons. Falling only two days after July 4th, the Muslim holiday of Hari Raya will soon shatter the overly serene atmosphere we’ve enjoyed for over three weeks. Commemorating the end of Ramadan, July 6th and 7th are national holidays in Malaysia and being mid-week, many people will stretch it into a long five-day weekend. As we learned last year, throngs of people leave wherever they’re from and flock to our beach community for some R&R. As vehicular challenged overseas expats relying on buses and Uber for our basic needs, this means either hunkering down at the pool and living on whatever food is in the house or enduring 90 minute bumper to bumper crawls on two lane roads to get anywhere. Always craving real Thai food, we decided to escape to Bangkok for eight days and see what’s changed in seven years.

Train 36

Train 36

Modernization played a role in the second reason we’re leaving on the 4th of July. Originally planning an overnight train excursion two days later, we discovered they replaced the otherwise convenient direct train to Bangkok with a commuter train to the border. Thanks to high-speed trains unfit for Thailand’s rail system, passengers need to transfer at the border town, buy a different ticket for the Thai train (if there are any available) and then hope the Thai train arrives as scheduled. With heavy travel to Southern Thailand where most Muslim Thai people live, we defaulted to Air Asia’s daily non stop instead of fighting the crowds. Planning on attending our first Muay Thai match at the new Lumpinee Stadium, visiting some floating markets, shopping for whatever catches our eye and escaping the downpours at some museums, we’re happy to leave the hoopla behind. Bypassing Bangkok last year on our first trip to Thailand as MM2H holders, we love Bangkok’s controlled chaos more than most big cities but fully understand why so many urbanites with disposable cash flee the noise and traffic for quieter northern enclaves like Chiang Mai (as we hope to do next summer).

Statistically, more than half my readers come from the USA and before wishing everyone a healthy, safe and happy Independence Day holiday, I need to get something off my chest. Understanding I promised to lower the political content on my expat blog, I’d be remiss without commenting on the unacceptably high level of really ugly, vile hatred I’ve seen on American social media towards the entire Muslim religion.

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Since Trump turned ignorance and closet racism into an acceptable form of mainstream communication, America is more dangerous than most moderate Islamist nations. Representing a very small cross-section of Facebook, I’ve only got 120 or so friends, mostly childhood acquaintances and a smattering of Bay Area and Canadian friends from our working days. Already forced to de-friend dozens of old neighbors I once called friends for constantly smearing an American who voluntarily lives in a peaceful Muslim nation, I’m absolutely sickened by the racist shit I’ve seen and often pinch myself to make sure I’m not stuck in some World War II Nazi Germany alternate universe.

fascistRearing the ugliest part of technology, too many people use Facebook as a means to validate hatred and while I’m all for freedom of expression, it’s time to take stand and draw the line somewhere before one raving lunatic potentially ruins 240 years of progress. The experiment called American democracy is failing miserably and mimicking some modern version of white supremacy with moronic suggestions like “profiling American mosques” needs to go before it’s too late. Sick of defending myself and knowing I can’t erase ignorance from those blinded by hate, I’m hopelessly ashamed of what America’s become and hope anyone reading this shares my blog with someone willing to preach tolerance as the real “American Way of Life”. My America is black, white, Mexican, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindi, Buddhist and everything in between. Multicultural. Like Malaysia.

 

Happy Independence Day !!

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149 Years Strong

Happy Canada Day !!!

Having just stepped off the plane as newbies to Asia one day before July 1st, Diane and I didn’t really have much time to take in Canada Day last year. Uniquely different from American Independence Day, I always enjoyed celebrating when we lived in Calgary and love how Canadians appreciate independence differently than their patriotic neighbors to the south. Although there are Canadian expat organizations in Malaysia, the main ones are in KL and since we chose Penang over the big city, we don’t envision raising the red flag with any fellow Canucks this year either. With Canada Day falling during Ramadan this year, the island is especially quiet and so in the interest of all Canadian expats, I’m presenting
three ways to celebrate Canada Day; Penang style

1) Eat Duck Rice

One of Penang’s signature dishes, chicken and duck rice like Canadian bacon cheddar burgers in Alberta. Although there are dozens of shops to choose from, there’s one that stands out above and beyond the rest. Conveniently on the way to our favorite park and the Botanical Gardens, Sin Nam Haut serves up generous portions at strangely low prices. Offering crispy roast pork, honey glazed char siu, chicken and roast duck, the tables are large and roomy, servers come take your order right away and the floors are spotless.

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With several locations, we usually eat in the Tanjung Bungah location near Island Plaza on the way to one of only two worthwhile supermarkets where we buy groceries. Less glitzy than the Pulau Tikas shop shown above, the staff always remembers us and we usually order combination duck, char siu and pork along with four marinated eggs. Also offering one of the island’s tastiest homemade soups, the homemade stock tastes like it’s been cooking for hours and it’s chock full of fall off the bone pieces of chicken, greens and some veggies. Granted the rice in Penang is nothing to write home about but the orange-colored moderately spicy sauce tastes perfect on top and for the price, you can’t beat the value. Coming in at about 25 or 30 ringgit, (about $7 USD) it’s one of our favorite lunch time treats and while you can’t chug a Molson Canadian to wash it down, we drink cold green tea and remember that a similar take away order from Edmonton’s Chinatown runs about $25.

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one year asia

Time Well Spent

And just like that, it’s exactly one year since Diane and I stepped off the plane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Looking back, the one word that comes to mind more than anything is “interesting“. Experiencing a totally different lifestyle without the added pressures of raising kids and commuting to work, the year went by faster than we’d imagined and tallying up the totals, we’re almost exactly on budget. Keeping careful financial records of every transaction, withdrawal, credit card charge and foreign exchange transfer, I’d say it’s indeed possible to live a similar lifestyle including moderate travel in Southeast Asia for about 80% of your pre-retirement net salary. Of course, we lived very frugally to get here and my unexpected layoff pushed us into this experiment five years earlier than planned. But with the tumultuous events unfolding back home, there’s no better time to retire in Asia for westerners tired of all the violence, political rhetoric and elitism that’s causing social upheaval not seen since the 1960’s.

imageGranted Malaysia isn’t the least expensive Southeast Asian nation but it doers have many benefits including an English-speaking population, above average infrastructure and inexpensive but excellent healthcare featuring many physicians and specialists that are U.S. or European Board Certified. While Penang isn’t exactly the most convenient airport for connections around the region, it does have daily non-stop service to Hong Kong allowing for a quick connection back to the homeland as well as direct flights to Bangkok, Ho Chi MInh City and many destinations in China. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, our not so little island has mountains, trails, national parks and serene parks. Despite the unprecedented and ridiculous over-development of million dollar luxury condos designed for wealthy foreign investors, you can still lose yourself in Penang. Spending many days hanging out with friendly monkeys or kicking back on a not so beautiful beach that’s mostly deserted over 40 weeks a year, I don’t miss the chaos of long commutes or the daily dose of intolerance that’s hijacked the homeland. Thanking every reader that’s followed my stories detailing our relatively unexciting life, I’ve written a chronological summary of the first six months in Penang with links to old posts for those looking to catch up or read more.

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