With Chiang Mai’s beautiful but very short “winter” now behind us, it means temperatures begin climbing, skies get hazy due to inversion layers that occur during the hot and dry season and many expats begin their annual bitchfest known as “The Burning Season” all over social media. For us it means the end of day tripping and a short break before a one week beach vacation at a moderately priced Koh Lantaresort. After that we return home for a week and then hit the road for four weeks for a month-long escape from the bad air. Given Thailand’s low-cost of living, we’re running about $3,500 under our annual fiscal year budget so it’s affordable to overlap monthly rent if we stay away from the more popular Andaman Sea beach destinations where everyone else goes. Searching for a more low-key area still far enough south to escape the haze, we found a three bedroom house for rent on Airbnb at a ridiculously low rate of about $21 USD per day in a sleepy beach community half way between Hua HIn and the gateway town of Chumphon. Planning on driving, we’ll be able to cart more stuff than flying and see a bit of the country as well.
So for now, let’s talk finances. Depending on your situation, some of you may have noticed the one and only positive aspect of the Trump Disaster is a rather fast rise of the stock market. Simply put, Wall Street loves billionaires and while very few of his moron supporters will ever see one penny since they’re mostly financially ignorant, underemployed and too stupid to understand why trickle down economics always fails miserably, those of us in the “sweet spot” (invested properly but not wealthy) are doing well. Finally seeing an enormous albeit very short correction that brought the markets down to earth last week, I thought I’d post a follow-up to my recent financial comments.
Having received an unexpected amount of positive feedback when I briefly touched onasset allocation and diversification, let’s get the disclaimers out-of-the-way. Most importantly, I am not a licensed professional and nothing I say should be taken as a solicitation or endorsement of any financial products. But I did spend 32 years working in various administrative and support roles for some very well-respected financial institutions in New York City and San Francisco. Not intending to make this an economics lesson or online college class, I’ll keep the teaching down and include an educational link when I use financial terminology. With lots of great blogs focusing on how to retire early, not that many focus on what to do once you’re there so I’ll give it a shot. While never wanting to manage anyone else’s money, I’ve been a “self-directed investor” for over 20 years and that’s enough time to analyze all the graphs and after almost three years of early retirement, I can say we’re ahead of the curve so if you don’t mind some boring graphs to make my points, read on. Please also note that since we’re both American citizens, some strategies I discuss only apply to U.S. residents but the concepts are universal and can be applied from almost anywhere.
One of my favorite song lyrics during the dreaded working years was from the Canadian band Loverboy; “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the developing world where many people work six days a week and leisure time is highly coveted. While Northern Thailand offers a cornucopia of beautiful scenic spots for relaxing, hiking and enjoying nature, the local population likes these beautiful spots as much as expats and tourists. Thankfully, Monday mornings change from crappy to glorious when you no longer need to jump out of bed at 4:20 AM to catch a 5:15 commuter train and everyone else’s work day becomes your quiet time. Having so far lived through four months of heavy rain, dreaded heat and humidity and a strange month of dead sky overcast that looked ominously similar to our disastrous experience with Penang’s worst haze in twenty years, the beginning of this year was a glorious month of perfect weather in Chiang Mai.
Typical Thai motorbikers
Looking and feeling more like Canadian summer days, it’s hard to believe the difference and with temperatures moderating to a comfortable range of 16 to 27 Celsius, January presents a perfect opportunity for day tripping. So we always wait for the least crowded weekday and hop in our 2011 grey Nissan Tiida that we bought from ExpatAuto.com for under $10,000 USD. Unwilling to risk our lives with an entire population of motorbike riders that do stupid stunts often worthy of an extreme sports competition, we highly recommend sticking to four wheels, especially if you’re unfamiliar with That traffic laws. Yes, that was sarcasm. The only rules on Thailand’s roads are do whatever’s most convenient (like riding against traffic on major four lane roads to avoid driving an extra half mile to the U-turn), make sure you put the entire family on one motorbike (including infants and don’t bother with helmets) and most importantly, make sure any accidents you cause involve farangs because it’s always their fault in the eyes of the Thai law.
After spending a few hours three months ago with thousands of other expats, immigrants and foreigners at everyone’s favorite place in Thailand known as The Immigration Office, we decided to buck the Thai trend and give the online reporting system a shot for our second “90 day report”. As laughable as everything involving immigration in Thailand, they do actually have an electronic means of checking in with the teacher (Kingdom) every 90 days but catching it working is about as likely as Donald Trump tweeting something truthful. But like the expression “once in a blue moon”, which just happened to occur a few days ago, sometimes pigs fly and believe it or not, our online application switched from “pending” to “approved” in only two business days. Saving the hassle of a wasted morning, we printed out our shiny new “internet version” of the TM47 form that gets stapled and takes up valuable space in your passport. Along with our original visa, a departure card, an “extension to stay based on retirement “ and an optional “return entry permit” that gives you the privilege of returning to the country without reapplying all over again, (for a 1,000 THB fee), our passports are now up to date with five pages of Thai paperwork. At least for another 90 days anyway.
“Approved” online. Yay
Having checked my stats page lately, I’m glad to see folks are finally beginning to understand we don’t live in Malaysia anymore. Questioning if I’d be able to keep the blog worth reading in the “digital nomad capital of Southeast Asia“, enough people convinced me that our niche is writing about two North American early retirees that chose to live in Chiang Mai. Lacking middle class 50 somethings that have enough cash to live in other expat friendly nations that prefer retired people with decent means and white-collar working families, Chiang Mai is a good place for anyone on earth that wants to escape their homeland, live a work free lifestyle or otherwise drop out of life.
And although my stats still show the posts about Malaysia’s MM2H Visa Program leading the way as my most viewed, I’m finally starting to get some inquiries about how to become an expat in Thailand. Once again expressing that my Google ranking as the one the internet’s top five sites for Malaysian visa information is not by choice, I realize I haven’t shared much about Thailand’s redundant revolving door system of visas. First and most importantly, if you’re considering a move as a retiree, you should know there is an “elite visa” program that offers long-term status (five years) but the redundant 90 day reporting rules still apply and the financial requirements are wholeheartedly unreasonable like tying up 1 million Thai Baht in their banking system a year at a time. Excluding some millionaires living in the most expensive luxury condos in Bangkok, I don’t know anyone with that much money who wouldn’t choose somewhere much nicer like the South of France so I’ll focus on the type of visa most average retired people choose which is known as “The Non-O Visa”.
There’s an old expression that says “Good fences make good neighbors”. Whoever wrote that obviously never lived in a middle class moo baan in Thailand where real doors would be better than fences. Having researched housing options in Chiang Mai for about a half-year before we moved here, we decided that a gated suburban community with amenities like a pool and gym suits us best. Unlike Malaysia that mimics most western style countries with agents specializing in housing needs, Thailand requires some more due diligence. With no regulations, anyone can open up shop on the internet and claim to be an “agent” and many people find rentals by simply driving around and looking for signs. Given the limited number of legitimate agents showing houses, we’re happy and lucky that we found a three bedroom house in a beautiful tree-lined community that hardly anyone knows about. Too bad the architects didn’t understand the words peace, quiet and privacy when they designed an entire housing development devoid of front doors. Using screen doors as the main entrance, the idea works fine for those with an end house on small streets. For the everyone else, I suggest researching the neighbors and not taking the word of your landlord who told us “they’re not usually around”.
Our main entrance is a screen door
Astoundingly similar to our neighborhood in Walnut Creek, California or our first crack at suburbia in a West Calgary, our gated community features modern three and four bedroom houses ranging from moderate sized to large. Coming in at about 1,800 square feet, our corner lot is way in the back on the last street. Other than the occasional airplane noise that subsides by midnight, you’d normally be able to hear a pin drop. Strangely quiet at night, it’s easy to forget it’s a developing nation and most residents are elderly upper class retired Thai people, Chinese nationals that somehow don’t speak a word of Thai orEnglish (more on that later), some working farangs and scores of well to do families whose kids sound more American than Asian. Inclusive in our very reasonable rent of 20,500 Thai Baht, we get unlimited use of an infinity pool and a rather crappy gym (We pay for a better one outside the community). Despite paying 30% less than our old condo in Penang, many fellow expats on the Chiang Mai social media groups think we’re high-class because we own a car and pay triple what they do so they think we’re living the good life. Unfortunately, there’s one real pain in the ass family in the entire community and they live directly across the street.
Late last year, Diane and I took some basic Thai lessons form a private tutor. Unlike an actual classroom environment with anyone resembling a real teacher, we paid 400 Baht per session and sat with three others at a table in a crowded mall once a week for a series of 20 lessons. Providing us with syllabus binders and a small supplemental quiz book, she titled it “Conversational Thai” and each chapter contained some vocabulary in no particular order, a dialog that was anything but conversational in a real life setting and a few sentence examples with basic phrases. Rarely mastered even by long-term expats that spend time and money on real educational endeavors, Thai is a highly untranslatable tonal language and making it worse, the Chiang Mai region has its own rural version of phrases that sophisticated city people wouldn’t understand if their lives depended on it.
While pleasant enough, our teacher’s patience clearly ran thin towards the end due to my overly inquisitive questions about sentence structure, grammar and even cultural questions. Never one for straight forward memorization, learning foreign languages doesn’t t rank high on my list of strengths and I’m terrible at reciting back what was just taught to me. Often trying to keep it light, our group tried joking with the teacher but almost every humorous comment we made was so culturally unknown to her it literally went in one ear and out the other. Concentrating on a chapter about stuff unique to developing nations like ordering gas (as common here as using online shopping services back home) and dozens of phrases for obsolete post office services, I came across a word that translated into “city water”. Assuming this meant “tap water”, we wasted ten minutes looking for synonyms or other English expressions the teacher might understand but in the end, we left it unsolved. Which brings me to the point. Clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a western expat in the developing world is figuring out what to do when stumbling onto the most common piece of advice in every tourism book; “Don’t drink the water”.
Ah, holidays without cold and snow. After a rather dreary and gray November, skies cleared this month, the temperature dropped, the sun shined brightly albeit a tad hazily for so early before “burning season”, and it began to look like a perfect Tropical Christmas Card. For those following along, you’ll recall how much I’ve craved real fresh roasted turkey. Harder to find than a good pastrami on rye or a beef hot dog, turkeys roam wild all over Asia and maybe that’s because nobody ever tried to catch them. Although commercially raised turkeys are available in Chiang Mai, they’re not very good and the quality and can’t hold a candle to North American Butterballs. Having attended a Thanksgiving buffet last month at a friend’s catered event, disappointment abounded when the turkey turned out to be a pre-cooked processed roast similar to deli sandwich meat.
arriving at Thai Cooking School
Although we didn’t move to Asia expecting to eat turkey sandwiches, burgers and pizza, Chiang Mai is a hub of western expat civilization with throngs of farangs from Christian missionaries out of Omaha to digital nomads from Europe, Australia and everywhere in between. Add in the thousands of retirees, millennial dropouts, begpackers and tourists that never leave and you’ve got a sub culture looking to eat everything from burritos to haggis. (I’m not sure where you can find that but it’s probably somewhere). Since arriving six months ago, there’s been a crush of new western food outlets opening all over and many say they serve “authentic”cuisine. Taking some of the fun out of what used to be a town filled with mostly local ethnic Thai food, the largely opinionated Facebook food group people go on and on posting about the greatest new burger in town and then rave about some ribs cooked by Europeans from nations that normally specialize in herring or schnitzel. Granted there is some good western style food here and it literally blows the shit out of Penang’s version but after a while it all seems to blend together. Yearning for the good ol’ days, we put aside the stereotypes associated with cheesy tourist attractions and did the only sensible thing. Looking for a way to further indulge our inner Thai gastronomic urges. we went to a Thai cooking school.
OK, so it’s not really a miracle or a White Christmas. (More on the miracle part shortly). But it is so cold in Chiang Mai today that I hit the spare bedroom where the winter clothing box sits like a prisoner in solitary confinement. Unlike last year when my crazy decision to spend Christmas in Canadawith Diane’s family meant spending the entire four weeks hunkered down inside to avoid the frigid temperatures, sanity prevailed this year and we stayed in the tropics. But someone forgot to tell the weather gods. Anxiously awaiting this “cool season” they all promised us would arrive, November brought thirty days of gray on gray and torrid humidity. Then December arrived and magically gave us a few days of comfortably livable almost sub-tropical like days. And then it quickly went back to hot, humid and hazy. Rumors of an early “burning season”began popping up as the sun remained visibly absent and the air outside reminded me of that ever-present stink of Malaysians burning everything from garbage to plastic (despite their insistence that they don’t do that because it’s supposedly illegal).
Lowest reading since arriving in Asia
And then out of nowhere, we got an early Christmas present. Shifting winds brought a wave of high pressure down from China, skies brightened into a brilliant cloud free sky with nothing but sunshine and it got cool again. But it didn’t stop with cool. Like an ignorant tweet from Trump, it kept coming and coming until it got downright chilly. And that turned into downright cold. Forcing us to close every window in the house, crank the shower heater up to 80% and break out the sweatpants and socks, last night was colder than Walnut Creek, California where we used to live. (I checked). Clocking in at an astoundingly low 9 Degrees Celsius, (48 Fahrenheit), we both woke up cold and slept with the blanket pulled all the way up. Never one to complain about cool spells in the tropics, breaking through the single digits when you’ve lived with daily high temperatures of 30 Celsius or more for two years proved quite interesting. Always thinking our living room wall thermometer doesn’t really work because it’s been permanently fixed on 30 and we never use the air con except to sleep, it jumped an amazing 8 degrees last night and now it looks like any typically beautiful Canadian summer day.