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.
Granted 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.
Needless to say, our first month in Malaysia was both fascinating and challenging and we booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur from Vancouver. Having been lucky enough to get our Malaysian bank account opened from overseas, we spent our first few days in the big city, visited our awesome relationship manager to deposit some cash for living expenses and played tourist while enjoying the beautifully modern comforts of the City Centre (known as KLCC). Departing Canada about six weeks after filing for MM2H, our efficient agent ensured us we’d have the conditional letter of approval way before our 90 day tourist visa expired. (It came later that month).
Continuing on from KL, we hopped another flight to Penang and got off the plane with everything we brought (two suitcases filled with t-shirts and shorts), leaving 17 boxes of personal goods in a California storage locker to be shipped later. Utilizing the island’s best property agent, we secured a two-year lease without much fanfare just a few days later. Details of all the things we learned are here. Spending the first two weeks at local hotels, we spent our time mostly exploring our new surroundings and working out semantics like phone service, utilities and of course, where to eat. Learning how to use the bus was important for vehicle-challenged expats but the arrival of Hari Raya caught us off guard which is why we’re off to Bangkok next week to escape the crowds and noise that come with the annual celebration of Ramadan’s end. Like every other expat blog written by westerners, we described Malaysia’s mysteriously filthy bathrooms and lack of toilet paper as well as addressing all the cynics wondering why we’d be crazy enough to choose Penang over KL.
Finishing our July, we made our first trip to the local wet market and learned how to shop for fresh items including fruit, veggies, fish and chicken. Unable to sell chicken with feet or heads in the USA because Americans somehow think its “primitive”, we quickly erased all thoughts of Costco, Safeway and all things processed. Changing one’s mindset about food is critical if you expect to survive in Southeast Asia and after seeing what fresh food is, it doesn’t take long to understand why Americans are so obese.
Beginning to explore Penang and everything it had to offer, we visited what’s possibly Southeast Asia’s best small museum after discovering what’s become our favorite homemade noodle shop. Later that month, we had our first (and so far only) visitor from North America. Ironically, it was an old female friend I hadn’t seen in literally 20 years and we spent time exploring the hike to Monkey Beach and teaching her what we knew about Malaysian food. Later that month, we returned to KL after receiving our approval letters and became official MM2H Holders. While in KL we took a day trip to Selangor and had one of the best monkey encounters ever. If you’re curious why KL feels like prison to outdoor enthusiasts, I detailed the never ending maze of enormous indoor malls complete with connecting walkways and tunnels in this post. Once back in Penang, we celebrated our first Malaysia Day, the nation’s version of July 4th or Canada Day and found it to be a million miles apart from the standard display of backyard bar-b-q’s and flag waving.
Choosing not to buy a vehicle wasn’t the easiest decision for obvious logistical reasons but we’re lucky enough to be neighbors with a Canadian married to a Hong Kong native and we quickly became good friends. Offering to drive us, we all took a day trip exploring the less visited back side of Penang. Later that month, I realized my Iphone pictures of food were accumulating beyond reason so I gave in and posted my Dreaded Foodie Post where I described some of the most popular food served in Penang. Pondering why our electric bill kept crediting back the last month’s payment, I put the question out there but nobody seemed to know so we let it ride. The biggest disappointment to date also arrived in September when we learned we’d be unable to film an episode of House Hunters International at our condo because the building manager was uncooperative with the required release forms. Celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary was sure different from the first fourteen and in another post I detailed why you need patience when dealing with Malaysian businesses. Trying to get a local telecom guy to diagnose an outage, he took all day, tried unsuccessfully to sell me something off the books, blamed the landlord’s wiring and finally switched boxes downstairs which of course solved the problem.
Fall ushered in the very worst of Southeast Asia. Otherwise known as The Annual Haze Event, it’s a sad political story based on greed that’s been going on for 21 years. Choking 70 million people, Indonesia ignites thousands of illegal fires every year so they can quickly use slash and burn techniques and clear land used for palm plantations. Shaving years off the natural way of replanting, greedy corporations pay local farmers and during the dry season, the unchecked fires pollute the skies for thousands of miles. Obliterating the sun for weeks at a time, the horrible air quality forces school closures, creates airline delays and in my case, makes me prisoner in my air-conditioned living room due to irritations caused by breathing poisonous toxins.
Naming it The Dead Sky Stench, last year was the worst on record thanks to an El Nino weather event that produced unusually dry skies during Indonesia’s rainy season, causing a lingering haze that lingered from summer until early November. And then it magically cleared and as usual, complacent Asians went on with life without bothering to demand better from their government despite the supposedly Democratic free press. Sadly, this is the one time of year when it’s an absolute disaster living here and this year we plan on traveling to other parts of Asia. Unlike the elitism sparking populist revolutions across the west, this event produces no such resistance in Asia and will probably continue throughout my lifetime. Accepted as part of life, populism hasn’t reached here and probably never will. There were some days in the month with acceptable air quality and we took advantage of them by setting out on a quest to find good Vietnamese Food in Penang. (Pointless).
As the haze faded and skies grew sunny and beautiful, we planned our first international trip since arriving. Knowing we’d be interested in moving to Thailand after a few years in Penang, we took advantage of the incredibly convenient train service and hopped on the overnight sleeper train from Butterworth to Bangkok. (Unfortunately, they discontinued direct service due to an upgrade of Malaysia’s entire rail network). Wishing to stay on budget, we spent only a few days at a nice resort hotel in the beach community of Hua Hin and then took an incredibly long bus trip to Chaing-Mai. Using Airbnb for the first time, we stayed at a large house in the suburbs for a week and then changed to a cramped but convenient modern apartment just outside the city walls. Coinciding with our first Thanksgiving dinner away from North America, the Loy Krathong celebration was also happening. Simultaneously known as the Yee Ping Festival in Thailand, it’s three days of colorful parades, floats and lanterns launched into the sky at night.
Finishing our Thai vacation, I wrote about some incredible day trips from Hua Hin that we highly recommend including a trip to the only place in Thailand to see wild elephants roaming. Remembering how much we loved Chiang Mai the first time we visited, this trip was both vacation and research. Western style suburban housing is popping up further away from the city limits but unlike The Bay Area, you don’t need to be a tech company VP to afford the rent. In fact, almost all houses we looked at were 30% cheaper than Penang and many come with community amenities like a pool and gym. Returning by mid-month, my other annoying pet peeve came to light when the military installation across the street began a constant stream of open garbage burning despite national laws that prohibit this. The Christmas holiday season brought a steady stream of westerners to Batu Ferrenghi along with extra traffic, noise and garbage. With no real reason to stay we’ll be heading back to Canada this year to spend the holidays with Diane’s family. I summarized the first six months as “Transition Complete” and 2016 rolled in quietly albeit fifteen hours earlier than our New Year’s Eve in 2014.
Beginning our second year overseas, I’d say we’ve learned a lot about the world. Exapts share a unique sense of open-mindedness that’s simply not available to people who never leave the confines of their native homeland. Sharing different perspectives, I’ve lost dozens of closet racist childhood Facebook friends for my unspeakable act of not only living in a moderate Muslim nation but educating people a bit about moderate Islam. But I’ve gained something all the xenophobic populists will never understand.
The human experience is far from perfect but condemning those different from you based on the actions of a few is immature, sad and pathetic and everyone voting for walls, deportations and religious discrimination misses out on some of life’s best experiences. Real multiculturalism is more than allowing immigrants into your country; it’s about sharing life experiences in a positive way and rarely does a day go by that I’m not reminded how lucky I am to live in a place where Muslims, Christians, Indians, Chinese, Malays, Europeans, North Americans, Australians and many others get along without the guns, hatred and rhetoric.
Understandably, it’s far from perfect and the world’s longest running political party still in power earth faces enormous challenges in the future. The media write articles even simpler than Trump speeches, people aren’t nearly as driven as westerners and drivers are the world’s biggest collection of inept motorists anywhere in Asia, especially the motorbikes. And that’s all part of what makes it fun.
Cheers from Bayu Ferrenghi, Penang.