That Burning Sensation

Although there’s no specific wet and dry season in Malaysia, late January through mid April is generally considered the hottest and driest time of year. For me, suffering through the lazy days of tropical winter usually means limiting outside activities to short afternoon walks looking for monkeys in our boring town and Diane avoids the outside entirely until late afternoon when it’s time for some swimming in the pool. Planning our chores and shopping around our favorite hockey team’s schedule, we’ll stay in on game days and enjoy watching live NHL hockey that starts the following morning between 8 and 11 AM, depending on what time zone the game is from. Yesterday being no exception, we cranked up the internet stream and enjoyed the cool morning breeze from our ninth floor multi balcony condo that faces both the town and the sea. Unfortunately, unlike last year’s El Nino event that produced blazing hot sunshine for an unbearable five months, this year’s pattern features unusually strong wind that forces us to close the windows by mid afternoon.

skies this dry season in Penang

Contrasting the disastrous 2015 haze season that created world headlines due to its severity and environmental impact, the past year produced absolutely no haze anywhere in Penang. Partially due to heavier rains, skies remained crystal clear late last summer and fall which improved air quality immensely. The picture on the right shows how beautiful the sunsets have been this winter. Normally, this would be great news for everyone and the Indonesian government even imposed real fines on several offending companies responsible for the annual event known as “haze season”. But with the rain disappearing until spring and the wind whipping strongly every day, living in Penang means an almost daily interruption of beautiful clear blue skies due to an unhealthy stench caused by somebody burning something. So sure enough, halfway through yesterday’s game, our condo filled with an unbearable stink of plastics, food and all the other shit they burn here despite having laws on the books for 45 years that specifically prohibit open burns. Solidifying our decision to leave Penang in favor of Thailand, the real fun begins now and we’ve been engaged in researching everything about visas, banking and housing all over again as we plan on heading to Chiang Mai by early summer.

Leaving Malaysia is not something we take lightly. Unlike the Millennials, Diane and I are more set in our ways and prefer comfort over constant change. Having paid for six years on our MM2H visa, the original plan was to stay in Penang and use it as a base for traveling throughout Southeast Asia before moving on. But between inconvenient airport connections, horrible over-development that’s ruined the island, food we consider average at best and my number one pet peeve (burning), we’ve decided that’s enough for us. Please remember it’s a personal choice not to be taken as gospel if you’re contemplating retiring here. As I’ve stated before, Malaysia does offer Southeast Asia’s best retirement visa and unlike MM2H, Thailand is a mish-mosh of ever-changing rules, forms, reporting, and short-term visas even for those with lots of money. Unlike respectful Malays, many Thais refer to caucasian foreigners as “farangs”, a relatively derogatory expression although most foreigners don’t take offense. But in their defense, they also issue a lot of citations, fines and penalties to both locals and foreigners. You’d be surprised how many more people obey rules when they know there are consequences and Malaysia needs a lesson in the concept of law enforcement, especially when it comes to open burning.

The small cafe right outside my window burns their whole week's worth of garbage routinely

The small cafe right outside my window burns their whole week’s worth of garbage routinely

Returning back to my story about watching hockey yesterday, we prefer not use air conditioning during the day but despite the crystal blue skies, a heavy stench of lung poisoning burning garbage permeated the air by the second period. Engulfing us from all angles, it forced us to close all the windows and suffer through the heat. Unable to find the idiot offender, no smoke was even visible but with the heavy winds, it might have come from as far away as the other side of the island. Malaysia is better than anyone at disguising themselves as a mostly developed nation with laws modeled around the U.K. and Singapore that mimic western nations. But underneath the shiny tourist malls and overpriced luxury condo towers, there’s still a lot of low wage earners despite the ridiculous amount of high-priced cars and it’s clear they haven’t yet mastered the art of being responsible citizens. As our well-educated Malaysian friends and condo neighbors tell us, it’s still a nation of convenience where everyone does whatever they want as long as it works for them at that time. And that means somewhere in Penang, someone is breaking the law and burning something.

My problem with the burning lies more with the fact that it’s supposedly been illegal to burn trash and start open fires since the mid 1970’s. Ironically, almost every Malaysian we’ve met takes pride in telling us “Oh, no. We don’t burn here. It’s illegal”. Condo managers, property agents, bankers and even food court owners love to tell you that. Complaining about blatant violations like the military installation across the street constantly ignoring their own federal law by routinely starting wind-swept infernos that go into my living room is pointless. As seen in my homeland where 40% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to vote but now find themselves complaining when their absence allowed a lunatic tyrant to get the nuclear codes, complacency is the enemy. (Despite the so-called president’s claim that it’s the free press). Ignoring consequences that don’t exist is Malaysia’s most prevalent excuse when it comes to why they ignore a law they all seem to understand. On occasion, I’ve confronted a local merchant while they’re burning garbage and asked them nicely if they understand that open burning is illegal. Wanna know how to get otherwise non confrontational people really upset? Neither do I and I learned quickly that they do know how to scream, curse and threaten to call the police.

Construction crews create enormous garbage dumps in the fields and streets. And often they just burn it all

Construction crews create enormous garbage dumps in the fields and streets. And often they just burn it all

Before you ask us if we’re aware that Chiang Mai has a three-month burning season that’s caused by local farmers in the surrounding countryside burning their fields annually, let me stop you and say yes, we’re perfectly aware. But in their defense, Thailand is over 25 positions lower than Malaysia on the developmental scale and lacking any government subsidies or more advanced farming techniques, the locals genuinely need to make a living so although it’s an environmental shame, I’m more sympathetic. Small merchants, residents and especially military bases in Malaysia have absolutely no excuse. Modern, large-scale garbage trucks run by private companies serve the entire island. Unlike what we saw in Myanmarwhich has a serious problem and no waste reclamation systems in place, I’m flummoxed why the small café right next to our condo starts an enormous fire several times a week behind his property. Or why the less fortunate Malays that live in shambles right next to a plethora of million dollar luxury condo construction sites also start big fires routinely if everyone knows it’s illegal?

On one hand, you’ve got a capital city that looks as modern and clean as almost any developed nation but here in Penang, you’ve got many people acting like they either don’t understand any rules, think they don’t apply to them or simply don’t care. Driving is another issue. Granted all Southeast Asian nations drive crazily, but again, Malaysia’s government spends a lot of money on signage. Blaming the government would be wrong; they do their part. Constantly putting up pylons, repainting lanes and clearly showing what’s expected of drivers, no matter where I walk in town, someone comes within a millimeter of plowing me down. Or crawls up my ass because they need to park or pull in wherever I am, even if I’m on a sidewalk.

Traffic gate in your way? No problem. Just run it down

Traffic gate in your way? No problem; just run it down

Basically, most traffic laws are a suggestion and motorbikes routinely run stop lights placed so pedestrians can cross safely. If you see a sign saying “Do not block the driveway”, there’s always a few cars right in front of it. While this irritates me less than the burning, it’s another reason it’s time for us to move on, even if that means opening up a whole new set of developing nation irritants. Although Thailand’s motor vehicle death rate is the highest in Southeast Asia, many deaths occur after the bars let out and we’ll be sleeping and not driving at 2 AM.

mm2hNot wishing to sound entirely down on Malaysia, I’d reiterate that almost all Malaysians are warm, generous people with no hatred of others and that alone beats the living shit out of a nation with a moron president acting like an immature imbecile. Before we leave, however, I wish someone would help me understand why they bother with federal laws designed to protect people but don’t teach them why it’s wrong to break them. Maybe some day Malaysia will change from “a nation of convenience” to a fully developed and well-respected bastion for progressive democracy. For now, those days seem far off.

Coming up in the next few months, I’ll post about our experiences obtaining a non-immigrant visa from outside Thailand and the next steps after we arrive there. Immensely different from Malaysia’s tedious but straight forward long-term social visit pass known as MM2H, we’re utilizing as many resources as possible and will share what we learn. Unable to get the longer term visa we’d prefer, we’ll be seeking a 90 day single entry visa and then applying for a “retirement extension”. Stay tuned.

Comments and questions always welcome.

11 thoughts on “That Burning Sensation

  1. Stukish

    I have lived in Cebu, Philippines for 7 years now and it’s time for me and my family to go. They burn plastic trash all the time. It’s a national disgrace. I can’t take it anymore. Is Chiang Mai a lot better? I have no tolerance for plastic smoke. Crop burning is bad. But plastics are way deadlier.


    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Well it’s ironic you asked. We have just returned from vacation down in a southern Thailand to escape the burning season and are driving back down to a house that we rented for a month. The short answer is Chiang Mai isn’t bad when it comes to burning plastic and other toxic shit. Penang was a horrible offender. However, despite a 90 day ban on open burns that just started March 1st, because it’s a polluted valley and it never rains until May, Chiang Mai is trapped in a layer of smog worse than when I was a kid in New York prior to any environmental laws being passed. While the sun still shines a hazy blue, the mountains literally disappear, the air is still and the smell is distant fires almost every day. The AQI 2.5 standard is 50 or less for healthy and CM will be between 150 and 300 for about eight weeks every year.

      While I’m not as affected as I was during Penang’s 2015 debacle, we choose to get out of here since you can find and Airbnb for about $20 a day in cheap towns down south.

      So the answer is it’s better from June until January and pretty bad from mid winter thru May. Don’t expect Thailand to be much of an improvement over The Philippines other than a different kind of poison.


      1. Stukish

        I have a friend that says Chiang Rai is much better. That people don’t burn stuff there. We may just move back to the US. Or maybe to Europe. These 3rd World countries are deadly dirty. Neither of my in-laws made it to the age of 60. They grew up poor and they burned all of their trash. The average lifespan here is 67, I think they are all poisoned.


  2. Kurt Schwitters

    I live in Penang and the trash burning business has long mystified me. The kampung across the road is usually smouldering away. Just weird. I also think Penang is incredibly boring. I moved from small Virginia city you may have heard of, Charlottesville. I’ve gotten vast amounts of reading done here, which is great. All of Checkhov! And my wife and I spend three hours at the gym or tennis courts every week day, which is good. The climate sucks. I’ve lived in Texas and Mississippi, and thought I knew a bit about awful weather.Anyway, at least it is dirt cheap. On my US pension I feel positively affluent, and it is worth more every month as the ringgit drowns in red ink. So we have been able to travel all over SE Asia. Most insane driving award goes to Medan Indonesia. Anyway, my only question is do I stay or return to the USA, getting my wife a green card while possible.


    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Sounds similar to our situation. We like Chiang Mai much better although it’s equally hot and raining almost every day but it is rainy season. As for going back I wouldn’t step foot in that horrible mess known as The Divided States of Racists until that piece of shit drops dead or leaves office. Most things in Chiang Mai are cheaper than Penang BTW. Maybe you’d consider looking here. Cheers


  3. Bonnie

    I have been reading your blogs for the last 18 months. My husband and I have been living in Penang since May 2015. I hope that this does not upset you but have you ever considered that your dissatisfaction with Penang is just boredom? I know that is true for me. My husband and I are older than you and Diane (58 and 60) and we are here because my husband has business interests in Asia –but we struggle everyday to fill our days. I am not sure that would be different if we lived in a place like Chang Mai. Is the expat community big enough there to find enough real friends? Can you volunteer there? I do not know the reasons why you left the USA– but did you ever consider relocating to a less expensive location in the States. We are from Texas and we have always said if money ever became an issue we would relocate to Harlingen Texas. There are many small cities in the US ( outside of California) where you can live inexpensively and still have access to abundant food choices and modern conveniences. I am sorry if this reply is not like the ones you normally receive– I would hate for you to just exchange one bad choice for another. I hope the rain last evening washed away the smoke.
    Bonnie Proctor


    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Thanks for the honest and insightful comment. Actually, you are correct. We are both admittedly a tad bored. Part of it is lack of things for us to do enjoyably like hiking and biking, wildlife searching and exploring on foot. It’s simply too hot for us to do that except early morning and Diane hates mornings. The other part is we genuinely lack of social contacts here. While researching CM we already have several people and couples our age that agreed to help us, meet us and be friends. And that’s without trying. CM has the mountains and national parks nearby and having lived in Calgary, that’s a big plus for us and it’s much cooler. It’s an awkward age where most working expats are very busy and many retired expats are not doing enough activities.

      Volunteering is on the horizon but we’re not at that stage yet and we prefer animals over people because quite frankly, if it feels like work, we don’t want to do it. Sorry if that sounds harsh. As for the US, we explored lots of cheaper destinations years ago. Once you live in the Bay Area it’s almost impossible to go anywhere else and given what’s happened we will never step foot in a Trump run nation. Our ultimate goal is Canada and since my career was financial services, I’ve done extensive careful research and run models that can take us into our 90s on what we have now and what our investments should grow to later. No matter how you cut it, I came up with ten to fifteen years outside North America living on 40-45K per year USD. We love traveling and want to explore Asia and Southern Europe before trying to return to Canada.

      As for the smoke and other observations, as you probably know, unlike most expat blogs, I try to tell the stories and offer some insights and opinion rather than just make everything sound rosy. Life isn’t always rosy, especially in developing nations. I balance the good with the bad and lots of people have commented how they appreciate a different type of expat blog. We left the USA because obviously we can’t live in San Francisco and not both work for at least another fifteen years. We always planned on early retirement but hoped to work another five years. Now, in retrospect, we got out just in time from what I’ve been reading. I’m not so much complaining as wondering why they have laws but won’t enforce them. Nothing changes if everyone sits around being complacent and while it’s not my place to question how other sovereign nations act, I think education of how things really are make the world a better place for all.



      1. Bonnie

        Glad you have researched it so well and are happy with your decision. Enjoy your upcoming trip to Bali. I hope Chaing Mai brings you many friends and adventures.

        Good luck

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Rob Culbertson

    Our “so-called president”?? Can’t bring yourself to pairing the words president and Trump? I understand. President Trump IS an oxymoron! (Couldn’t help myself 😉
    Your disillusionment with the ‘system’ in Malaysia is nothing too specific in geography. I am afraid it’s just another microcosm of pathological human nature being played out in a billion scenes across this globe. And now of course, the new ground zero of the pathology is clearly identified in the geography of Washington D.C. (and Mara Lago).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s