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.
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.
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.
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 Myanmar, which 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.
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.
Not 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.