One of my favorite song lyrics comes from Semisonic’s 1999 hit, Closing Time: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”. Borrowing that line is the best way to describe why it’s time for us to leave Penang and move on. A few days ago, my good friend Cimeron published a post titled Cost of Living in Penang on her excellent blog Oh MY Expat Life. An eternal optimist, she always sees the glass half full although she’s certain not blind to her surroundings and often refers to some of the less than attractive features of life in Penang quite bluntly. Understanding everyone’s different, we admire and respect each other’s views but recognize that sometimes two couples see the same things in a different light. Readers familiar with my blog know we’ve decided to leave Penang once our lease expires and move to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Given recent developments in The Draconian States of America under the “leadership” of an unqualified tyrant that’s quickly changing the world’s largest superpower into a racially pure isolationist state, I’ve received lots of page views from potential MM2H applicants. Short for Malaysia My Second Home, it’s technically a long-term social visit pass but with unlimited multiple entries for ten years, it’s easily Asia’s best retirement visa.
Concerned that something’s specifically wrong with Malaysia, I’ve also had questions about why we’re leaving. In a nutshell, there’s a host of reasons why we’ve worn out the attraction. Unlike working expats who often enjoy large high-rise condos at the company’s expense, we’re not on a stipend. Paying our rent with Malaysian Ringgit that we incorrectly bought way too much of at a rate that’s now 23% lower versus the US dollar, we’ve lost precious savings by fixing our rent at $850 USD per month (3,200 MYR) which is now about $720. But money’s only one reason. As a native Canadian, Diane knew the heat and humidity might be too much but we trudged through the first year and did as much as practical given our limited transportation options. Opting for life far in the island’s touristy beach community in exchange for a quieter atmosphere and lower rent, it’s become tedious having to leave town by bus and return via Uber every time we need supplies or groceries or want to visit the culturally rich Heritage area of GeorgeTown. Having visited the other side of the island with neighbors willing to drive us, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing an environment totally different from our old life in North America but it’s just not somewhere we want to stay long-term.
Always planning on visiting neighboring Southeast Asia countries, we’re not fond of big cities so we chose Penang as a base to explore from. Compared to upscale and modern Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s bustling capital, Penang is worlds away despite having the nation’s second largest population. Unfortunately, the majority Malay government pays little attention to the Chinese dominated state and it shows in Penang’s small antiquated airport, relatively inferior infrastructure (when measured against KL) and total disregard for local citizens with its ridiculous amount of large-scale over development designed for wealthy foreigners. Traveling when possible, we made several two and three-week trips over the first 18 months including three weeks in Myanmar, a work exchange program in Tasmania, two weeks in Cambodia, an exploratory trip to Chiang Mai, a week in Bangkok to escape the noise of Hari Raya, (the Muslim celebration of Ramadan’s end) and even a return to Canada for a holiday visit with relatives. But returning often brings post travel doldrums that make us count down the days until the next trip.
Famous for its food, Penang is often called the Foodie Capital of Southeast Asia. Disagreeing wholeheartedly, Diane and I are not big fans of Penang food but keep in mind that food, like movie reviews, are completely subjective. With backgrounds that include Cantonese roots for Diane and New York style “lo-fan” (white person) Chinese restaurants for me, we’re not fans of Hokkien style Chinese food which dominates Penang. With runny sauces that lack salt, texture and staples like oyster sauce and black beans, we like Thailand’s Chinese food better and considering almost all Thai people’s ethnic heritage comes from Han Chinese roots, this is not a surprise.
Soups are my favorite but that’s only because I love the strange shrimp paste based spicy creation known as Hokkien Mee that’s only found in Malaysia and Singapore. Uniquely different, Malaysian food and its spicy cousin, Indonesian, isn’t bad and uses lots of spices and pickled veggies. We like Nasi Campur which is basically a self-serve buffet of rice and various proteins but Diane says if she never eats it again after we leave, she’d be fine. Hailing mostly from the Southern ranges of the country, Penang’s Indian food is quite different from Punjabi style, the Northern version found in most of the world’s Indian restaurants. Although healthier, it lacks the creamy deliciousness of fat, yogurt and rich sauces we love. With only one branch of our bank almost an hour by bus from our house, we’re thankful we rarely need to visit but the other day we did so we made a rare trip to Little India for lunch. Clocking in at 70 Ringgit, it’s way too expensive by Penang standards considering how little meat was in it.
Spending most afternoons inside the condo, it’s too hot for Diane to enjoy hiking, there’s no decent walking opportunities in our town and the infinity pool has no shade at all. So while we very much enjoyed our first year, the glass is starting to look half empty. With Chiang Mai’s 7,000+ American expats, countless chances for mountain hiking and biking, thousands of great food choices, cooler temperatures and dozens more Facebook pages with social activities, it’s just time for us to move on. Unlike our working expat friends, retired people have all day every day and while there’s nothing wrong with chilling out with a book and a chaise if you live in a beautiful beach town, Batu Ferrenghi is a far cry from tropical paradise. Unlike normal beach towns, there’s nobody on the beach itself other than the 23 water sport companies desperately vying for business. Possibly due to the trash, crappy sand and polluted water, most visitors stay on the resort grounds and the locals try to tell me I’m not allowed on the public beach because they think I’m somehow trying to divert business from them. Why I’d do that is a mystery to me.
But despite the heat, I can’t stay in all day or I’d never sleep so here’s a rundown of my typically uneventful afternoon routine.
Walking down the steep hill from my condo, the first thing I pass is the hilarious portable shed sitting on cinder blocks that they built for the security guard that patrols the area around one of the new condo’s sales office. Usually sprawled out away from his duties in the shade somewhere, I guess management decided they’d rather let him sit in a makeshift office and look official.
Crossing the street carefully to avoid getting pummeled by Malaysia’s horribly inconsiderate drivers, I head down the main street. Waiting for the end of any hockey games from the night before to end before walking, it’s usually mid day so I have to dodge the locals wheeling their shanty vendor stalls that occupy the sidewalks in the evenings. Billed as a “night market“, it looks more like sub Saharan Africa. Old ripped tarps, rusted wheels and poorly constructed excuses for stalls contradict the modern malls further up-island and why anyone would invest a few million in new condos placed in a town with one two lane road, no shopping plaza, supermarkets or entertainment, one gas station and some overpriced resort hotels is beyond me. Looking more like Mauritania than Malaysia, this part of Penang may as well be the middle of a rural province.
Continuing down the street, I crossed so I wouldn’t be walking against the traffic. What passes for a sidewalk is actually more like a shoulder but clearly there’s ample room for pedestrians but today, some asshole came barreling down the wrong side of the road on his motorbike at about 30 MPH. Literally grazing me, I usually hold my tongue but yelled at him for almost killing me. Uncharacteristically, he jumped off his bike and started cursing and threatening me like a like I did something wrong by walking on the sidewalk. Although he was about three inches shorter than me, (and I’m only about 5’7″), I resisted starting anything further because I’ve promised Diane I’d always hold my tongue and never confront locals, even when I’m right. Constantly reminded that we live in “a nation of convenience”, many Malaysians do whatever they want whenever they want because there’s never any consequences and very little law enforcement.
Turning left at the Holiday Inn resort, I walked past some stray dogs on the way to the trail where I search for monkeys. I passed the corner where someone decided to use an unoccupied piece of land as a new business location. With a hand written sign, anyone in Penang can simply open up shop anywhere they feel like it. There’s also a guy selling fruit on a stick although the street is so empty I’m unclear how he makes any money and a food vendor that comes and puts out a bunch of Tupperware containers with some Malay food every day as well. This is the real Malaysian economy despite the fancy numbers touted out by a government currently embroiled in a major financial scandal.
Passing the intersection, I walked past the gate that blocks off the construction zones and a giant twelve-foot sign listing all the contractors planning on turning every single square inch of remaining land in Batu Ferringhi into luxury housing for unknown wealthy investors.
Unfortunately, many of the town’s residents live in almost squalor like settlements poised right up against the future luxury. Unsightly for potential future buyers, they simply erect large aluminum walls and keep them hidden from sight. Eventually I’m sure they’ll be evicted but like all “developing nations“, I doubt the government will compensate them with very much. If anything at all.
Continuing my walk up the hill I pass a local motorbike “store” and a car repair shop. The Malaysian version of a hydraulic jack is propping the car up on some rocks. Exemplifying more of the real economy, the shops are always blocked by heavy equipment trucks bringing endless supplies 24 hours a day although on this day they actually parked up the street.
Right across the street from the hidden neighborhoods is where I turn right and pass by the Uplands International School. Waiting in luxurious Jaguars, BMW’s and Mercedes are the parents and servants of the privileged mostly Chinese kids that ignore the smoke, garbage and hard labor happening right next to their air-conditioned cars. On rainy days they blow their horns and jockey for positions closer to the exit like spoiled Trump children. For a nation whose average salary is $14,617 USD (according to averagesalarysurvey.com) there’s a highly disproportionate amount of luxury cars in Penang and walking past them every day tells me something’s very wrong when Jaguars drive down the same streets where folks barely scrape by every day.
Reaching my destination takes me past a construction project different from the others. Building what appears to be a new marketplace for residents yields an entirely different crew than the condo towers with their “Utamakan Keselamatn” (safety first) signs. When constructing for their own citizens, they use a haphazard collection of unskilled foreign workers that wear no safety equipment, erect no barriers and leave a trail of garbage and destruction to the local jungle that makes environmentalists cringe. Ruining large swaths of jungle and running tractors through land that wildlife lives in, I can barely stand to see it anymore. Understanding it’s still the “developing world” and fully aware that Thailand is lower down on the developmental scale, that still doesn’t make it right. Using equipment that looks like it came from The Flintstones, they’ve thoroughly ruined the main reasons we thought living far from the action might be OK
Finally reaching the trailhead, I still enjoy walking through the forested areas not yet ruined but on my way home that day, something unexpected happened on my way back. Pulling up to me on a very rusty motorbike, a disheveled looking Malay woman with a dirty but adorable child approached me and started asking strange questions like “Are you a big boss?” and “Why are you walking that way?”. Responding that I’m a foreigner living nearby, she began crying and eventually asked me if I could help her (with some money). Striking me as very unusual for Malaysia, I can assure you Muslim women never ask white foreigners for money. Aside from violating cultural norms, Malays are too shy and proud to beg for money and I’ve recently talked about structural considerations if you’re thinking about Malaysia as a retirement destination. In Thailand, I’d say someone targeted me and it was a scam but in Malaysia I’m not so sure. Sadly, the government seems poised to repeat the mistakes of many developing nations by allowing its currency to plummet, seeking only foreign investors for its shiny new developments instead of improving the lives of their citizens and creating disparity of wealth similar to fully developed western nations.
So as you can see, it’s time for us to move to a new chapter in our experimental overseas retirement. Recently our condo’s owner started chatting with us on WhatsApp about a relative and pretended she wanted know about MM2H. FInding this odd, she eventually worked in the part about asking us if we’re leaving after the lease is up. Contractually, we’re not required to tell her anything until May so we skirted the issue but our toilet leaks drastically and I’ve been forced to stop using the second bathroom to avoid cleaning smelly toilet water daily. Having reminded her nicely a few times to please have her handyman come look at it, she responded by saying “Please bear with me and thank you for understanding Malaysian culture”. Which means she’ll never fix it because Malaysians usually do things when they get around to it. Oh, and then there’s that fucking burning garbage stench. Hoping Thai people use some of the more aggressive Chinese traits we’ve come to know when it comes to getting things done, it’s time to view the glass as half full again.
Wishing to continue the blog albeit not as actively, I’m still glad to answer any questions about MM2H and plan on sharing what we learn about the tedious procedures for obtaining and extending non immigrant (non tourist) visas in Thailand. Our journey starts tomorrow with a short two-day trip to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. There’s a resident expert in Penang that helps people get Thai visas and the expat community in Chiang Mai told us to consult him. After a visit, he said we need an affidavit of income that swears we have assets above 800,000 Thai Baht with pretty embassy stamps so that’s where we’re heading. (Email if you want his contact info). Cheers and thanks for reading.