The Experiment Evolves; Part Deux

Hoping we’d escape my worst nightmare, I guess I was kidding myself thinking we’d make it until the end of our lease before it began. Continuing Penang’s destruction of the last town without massive development, the pile driving began a few days ago. Like clockwork at 8:45 AM, the ugly space they destroyed right past the new high-rise towers next door comes alive with the most unfathomable and disturbing sound that grates on me like chalk on a blackboard. Proving both the property agents, condo managers and landlord were absolutely full of shit when they rented us this condo 20 months ago, their claim that there’s no further construction planned in the once quiet town of Batu Ferrenghi was as accurate as a tweet from Donald Trump. While we’ve already decided to get out of here, I’m not sure how I can endure four more months of ear shattering noise for nine hours a day for six days a week.

But we did take the first step towards liberation from construction hell by taking a quick 48 hour jaunt to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Recently visiting Jim, Penang’s resident expert on getting all kinds of visas from the local Thai Consulate, he told us we’d need an affidavit stating that our assets exceed 800,000 Thai Baht, the minimum requirement for a retirement visa. Unlike Malaysia’s one step long-term MM2H Visa, Thailand is a never ending revolving door of reporting, applications for extensions and sometime visa runs. Depending on who you are and what you’re in Thailand for, there’s more choices than the supermarket. Also totally opposite from Malaysia, there’s no government website properly explaining requirements and rules for Thai visas and they literally change constantly so we opted for a series of conversations with people who’ve lived there awhile or moved from Penang to help us understand the proper way to get out of our overdeveloped nightmare.

Learning we’d need to first get a 90 day “non immigrant single entry O visa” (usually referred to as a “Non-0”), we’ll need to apply for a “retirement extension” based on being over age 50 sometime before the end of our 90 day period. We’ll also need to physically deposit 800,000 THB or USD equivalent into a local bank account and maintain the balance for 60 days before applying for the extension. Since Diane isn’t 50, we’ll be applying for her to piggy back off mine. Excluding permanent residency that’s usually only given to wealthy investors and other élites, there are two classes of visas in Thailand. The most commonly used is the “tourist visa”. Usually issued in 90 day increments, most digital nomads, backpackers, hippies and anyone else wishing to drop out of life uses these. Sometimes extendable depending on the current rules, people live on them for as long as possible by going on visa runs to neighboring countries and simply applying for a new one. Clearly a ridiculous policy that’s abused by thousands, the military government recently announced they’d like to crack down on those who are obviously not tourists but the revenue loss always gets in the way of that idea.

The scene a few hundred feet from our condo

Alternatively, there’s a non immigrant” class visa that comes in many different categories and includes work, study, retirement and a host of other silly ones that more ambitious applicants use including ones for those wishing to learn self-defense, the Thai language or other variations where you show a bare minimum requirement like a few classes in exchange for a visa. Included in this group, Thailand’s version of a retirement visa is known as an “O-A Long Stay”. Unfortunately, you can only apply for that at a Thai embassy in your home country and it requires a series of requirements like police checks and medical tests. We’re told there’s rare exceptions where people successfully applied for the “O-A” from outside their home country but it’s usually in cases of extended long-term employment overseas.

Fortunately for us, there’s another way to get one from outside your home country and that’s to simply get into Thailand using two “Non-O” single entry visas and apply for extensions based on retirement at the immigration office inside Thailand. Basically, the “O class” means “other” and it’s a rather stupid classification for a retirement visa but then again, most other countries understand retirees don’t want to come and go like young people and backpackers and therefore extend long stay visas to potential retirees. Infinitely easier than applying from the USA anyway, people usually consider the Thai Consulate in Penang the easiest of all neighboring countries and it acts more like a visa supermarket.

Unlike the Thai Embassy in KL. we’re told you can bypass the medical and background checks if you know how to use the system properly. While it’s possible to simply show up and apply yourself, we decided against this based on everyone’s advice and opted to visit Jim, who works out of a small shop on Chulia Street in Georgetown. After discussing our needs, he almost guaranteed he’ll get us two visas for a fee that we’d consider pricey for Malaysia but our other resident expert on ThaiVisa.com (Tod Daniels) warned us that if we apply ourselves, fail, and then attempt to use Jim’s help, they’ll remember us and deny it anyway so we think it’s worth the money.

Feeling confident enough about the visa issue, we headed off to KL a few days ago for a quick trip that included dinner with our friend and ex-banker, a one night stay at Traders Hotel, my favorite place to stay in the capital, and a ten minute meeting with the U.S. Embassy. Considered a notary service, the embassy charges $50 USD to place an official seal on a document after witnessing your signature and having you raise your right hand to swear the information is true and accurate. Needing an appointment, they only issue six per day and it’s four days a week so we’d recommend some lead time if you need to go. Traveling on KTM, Malaysia’s rail system, makes a long trip comfortable and easy. Recently having upgraded the nation’s tracks to allow newer high-speed trains, all service is now called ETS (Express Train service) and they offer about six trips per day from Butterworth (on the mainland across from Penang Island) to Kuala Lumpur. Several early morning and one mid day train leaves from Penang and travels to the capital city’s main rail station at KL Sentral Designated as “Gold service” and charging a premium of 79 Ringgit per person, (versus 59 RM for the “platinum service”) the mid-day train that we took skips a few stops and they give you some cookies but strangely, it doesn’t save any time over the non premium service.

Living all the way out in the sticks, we need to hop a 50 minute bus ride to the Jetty where most Penang buses start from to reach the train station. From the jetty, you can catch an antiquated but efficient old ferry to the mainland. Free one way, the return trip is only RM 1.20 and they run from before dawn until just past midnight. Constructing a giant new train station on the Butterworth side deemed “Penang Sentral”, experience tells us it might be ready by the time Trump leaves office. For now, they make you navigate several sets of steps despite the fact that most people using the train carry luggage so expect to sweat if you’re not familiar with torrid heat and humidity. For us, the train to KL takes about exactly the same time as flying thanks to the one hour distance to Penang’s airport followed by the long journey from KLIA to downtown, and the 60 minute lead time needed for boarding. They sell train tickets starting 60 days from departure date and there’s a small KTM ticket office on the Penang side.

On board the ferry to Butterworth

Once inside the steamy hot KTM waiting area, there’s an air-conditioned room that really helps after dragging luggage up all those steps but naturally, on this trip they had it turned off. Like everything in Penang, the poor local economy and weakening currency is probably responsible for their decision to cut comforts like air con but thankfully the trains are very comfortable and always exactly on time. In fact, I’d go so far as saying the KTM trains are easily the most efficient services anywhere in Malaysia. Having used them four times, not once did the train pull into its destination more than a minute or two late and they always close the doors for departure right on time. Seats are relatively comfortable and recline 30 degrees. Avoid buying rows one and two because they have a stupid fixed table that severely restricts leg room. Use the bathroom early because despite being clean at departure, it takes Malays about thirty minutes until all public bathrooms become a soaked infestation of water. Possibly the biggest downfall of the nation besides their insatiable desire to burn garbage despite federal laws prohibiting open burns, Thailand’s hygiene is a world of difference and we’ve never encountered a public bathroom that’s not spotlessly clean.

The KTM ETS Trains

Leaving exactly on schedule at 1:30PM we found our way to seats 11A and 11B. Usually avoiding sleep, I tried to read but as usual I mostly listened to my 5,000 song playlist on Spotify to pass the time. Unlike every other Southeast Asian country we’ve visited, our reliable 4G phone service switches to 3G for the entire train ride and it’s spotty at best which makes internet surfing difficult. Arriving two minutes early despite the standard announcement a half hour outside of KL that the train is waiting for switch clearance, we made our way upstairs and found the Rapid KL light rail station. Convenient and easy to use, the capital’s mass transit improves by the day and there’s about 20 billion Ringgit being spent over the next few years on extensions. Completely neglecting Penang’s mass transit needs, the federal government courts rural voters in other states with small promises every election and it’s always just enough for the world’s longest running continuous political party to stay in power each year. Therefore, Penang’s Chinese majority state government does what it can but it’s no match for the massive capital projects focused only on the Klang Valley and Penang may as well be a different country when compared to KL.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at the KLCC stop where it’s a ten minute walk to the hotel. Despite the cornucopia of excellent food choices in the big city, our favorite place in the city for Asam Laksa and Nasi Lemak is a small chain restaurant in the ground concourse level of the Avenue K Mall. One escalator up from the train station, Ah Chang Laksa serves the world’s best bowl of laksa and most flavorful tasting rendang sauce for their nasi lemak. Already having planned dinner with our friend, we made sure to eat lunch there the next day before our Embassy appointment.

We love the area around The Traders Hotel which includes the Suria KLCC shopping mall, a comfortably relaxing park and the beautiful Petronas Twin Towers. As Malaysia’s iconic landmark, the double skyscrapers feature glamorous steel and unique Islamic architecture that glistens at night. We visited them as tourists back in 2015 when we finalized our MM2H visas. The surrounding plaza lights up with colorful waterfalls at night and there’s plenty of great restaurants to choose from. Although we’d never live in a big city, KL is worth a visit if you’ve never been there. Right next to the hotel is the KL Convention Center and there’s always something going on. With rooms as inexpensive as $135 USD per night, Traders’ is part of the Shangri-La chain and might be one of the best reasonably priced five-star hotels in any Southeast Asian downtown core.

The plaza around KLCC.

The Petronas Towers

Given that Embassy appointments are only available from 1 PM on, it was a perfect opportunity to enjoy the luxurious settings of the hotel, sleep in a bit and enjoy a workout in the gym that’s got to have one of the world’s best views.

After checking out the next morning and eating lunch we took Uber to the Embassy. Although it’s actually only about a kilometer from the hotel, KL is possibly the world’s least pedestrian friendly city and the first time we tried walking there back in 2015, it proved to be a frustrating and complex maze of long-winded detours around enormous boulevards that you can’t possibly cross because the traffic flow never stops in KL. Arriving five minutes later, we knew the drill and waited on the bench outside until 15 minutes before the appointment time. We then handed our passports and an extra form of picture ID to the guard and passed through the metal detectors. Unable to enter with backpacks or phones, we took the affidavit out and headed through the courtyard to the small but elegant looking building. Taking a number once inside, their system is first inside the building, first served and we only waited a minute or two until they called us into the little office with bulletproof glass. Recognizing the American guy who helped us two years ago when we needed letters confirming our California driver’s licenses to apply for a Malaysian license, he instructed the Malay employee on how to process our request and sent us to Window 10 to pay our $50 fee.

You can’t take pictures inside the Embassy. This is the view from outside.

Returning to the window with my document, I remembered something Diane tries to drill in my head all the time and I’m glad I did. Walking away, I noticed that they stamped the date with the wrong month. An easy mistake since it was only the second of the month, I returned quickly and butted in front of everyone. Thankfully, I brought two copies of the affidavit because obviously the Embassy can’t use your flash drive to print something out. Agreeing not to charge me an extra $50, it would’ve been a two-day, one hotel night, eight-hour mistake had I not noticed so my advice is always check all documents carefully before walking away from any government office. Given what’s happened in The United States of Trumpland, I’m surprised there’s still any staff at all in Muslim majority nations. Allowing ourselves one last luxury before the long four-hour ride back to Penang, we went back to the mall and I enjoyed a longan lychee cheese bun to die for while Diane went for a hot chocolate filled bun that was the real thing.

So the first step towards the next step in our Experimental Overseas Retirement is complete. Sometime next week we’ll make a trip to Jim and show him the documents which had bank statements attached from our accounts in Malaysia and the USA. Expecting it’s probably more thorough than most of the backpackers’ documents he sees daily, we just want to be sure. Planning on spending two weeks in June visiting Chiang Mai on a 30 day “visa on arrival” tourist stamp, we plan on opening a bank account and hopefully finding a place to live. Not as straight forward as Penang when it comes to housing, agents and leases, almost everything is negotiable and supply far exceeds demand so hopefully it’s not a problem. We’d then return to Penang, have Jim get or visas and take care of semantics like shipping our limited stuff. Hoping to leave by mid July we’ll see how it goes.

Although I wrote a clause into our current lease stating we can leave anytime with a two month notice if the construction noise gets out of hand, we’d already bought tickets to visit Bali in April so I’ll have to turn up the radio and stick it out until July. Hoping to keep the blog going, I’d love to hear from anyone living in Chiang Mai that stumbles on our story and might be interested in connecting. Always looking for like-minded married couples that enjoy hiking, eating, sightseeing and cultural events (but not heavy alcohol drinking), I can’t get out of here fast enough given the “progress” that’s ruined the last pristine part of Penang and I’d recommend thinking twice about moving anywhere near Batu Ferringhi for about the next seven years. Cheers from Constructionville, Malaysia.

Comments and questions always welcome.

14 thoughts on “The Experiment Evolves; Part Deux

  1. Mike

    If Penang is anything like Langkawi ( where we are right now) I can understand your feelings. Construction site after construction site along Pantai celang’s main road ! Certainly very different from Koh Lipe where we were a few days ago…..
    We are going back to BKK via Penang, 3 night stay there 1st-4th….hopefully I will be able to find a restaurant that serves laksa, unlike here ….was hanging out for a bowl of laksa, not a single restaurant serving it ! lots of Thai, chinese, mexican, italian, even arabic food, but the only place with laksa on the menu that I could find was closed !

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Mike
      Nice to hear from you. We’ve not been to Langkawi and have no desire to go there. Construction for the wealthy foreign investors is what Malaysia is all about along with cooperation with the Chinese government that’s basically sold the soul of the avereage citizen in exchange for multi million dollar agreements that will give everything but the government itself over to China. Penang is so over developed and in our town there’s so much empty space in the two million ringgit luxury condos it’s almost like a ghost town. And they build it right next to slum a like in India and hide it with aluminum fences.

      As for laksa, you need to go to Balk Pulau on the non tourist side of the island to get the island’s best laksa. I wrote a post in our visit there that tells the name of the best place but the name of the post slips me. Dont eat laksa in restaurants. It’s overpriced and not very good. Hawker stands are the way to go. We mostly eat in and anxiously await the move to northern Thailand. While it may be many steps down on the developmental scale, the beaches, expat community and Thai culture is much more appealing to us.

      Cheers

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  2. reb of Melbourne

    Hi Rob

    I stumbled across your blog after doing a google search on MM2H. My partner is from Penang and although we both currently live and work in Melbourne, we travel to Penang 2 or 3 times a year. My partner is close to retirement age and so we are thinking of eventually moving to Penang and maybe spending 8 months of the year there and a few months in Melbourne.

    We have a condo at Batu Ferringhi too, past Uplands School – Ferringhi Residence. Is all that new piling work for the new road?

    We also like Thailand and will be heading to Chiang Mai in three weeks’ time (via Penang and Bangkok)..

    Your blog is very interesting. It’s great to read about your experiences, as I am also in the throes of applying for MM2H (just sent my application off in Feb).

    We also figured that we could eventually spend part of the year in Chiang Mai if the heat gets too hot for me in Penang! Anyway, I’ve still got a few more years of work left to do before I can fully retire (I’m 51)..

    Cheers
    Steven

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Steven
      Thanks for writing. I walk past your condo almost every day and am sorry to report that the heavy equipment has just arrived and takes up hundreds of acres of land behind the Ferrenghi Residence. Basically everyone will eventually be subject to about four years of noise. At the moment it’s mostly just digging but once the real work starts I wouldn’t live there under any circumstances. The areas around straits Quay looked like that two years ago and although several large condos are now built, there’s still lots of land left and the Malaysian government stops at nothing when it comes to over development so I expect another two years of noise around there also.

      Thanks for the compliments on the blog. I’m running low on things to write about Malaysia as our lives are mostly just waiting for June to get here when we take our exploratory trip to Chiang Mai and look for a place to live and open bank accounts. It’s way too hot for us but at least it’s raining more than last years hot season in winter.

      Feel free to email me offline if you have any questions I can help with

      Cheers
      Rob and Diane

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  3. Paul Proctor

    Good luck in Thailand. We are renewing our lease for year 3 in Penang. We are on MM2H as well; but I am in the last few years of my career and use Penang as a home base to travel for business in SE Asia. We agree with you that Penang is kind of like a Goldilocks place, not really great, not really bad, just okay. We have friends here who lived many years in Thailand and are very familiar with Chang Mai. They expect that reality will hit you pretty quickly once you settle in there. I hope you find the friends you are looking for, but from what they told me it was not a place they would recommend long term. We are looking forward to returning to the USA after I have finished my business adventures here. I have been traveling in Asia for 20+ years and every time I return home I feel a overwhelming desire to stay. But, of course business calls. Good Luck in your experiment. As with all experiments, some things work and most things don’t but the journey is the thing that matters. Cheers !

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Thanks for the well wishes. If I had my way we’d be in Canada forever since trump ruined the USA and it’s not coming back anytime soon but life is about choices and we choose not to work so we’ll enjoy Thailand for awhile and then move on. We have no intention of staying in Asia much past 2020 and will try somewhere else until we’re closer to actual retirement age and can start using retirement accounts to fund our lives. Cheers

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  4. Adrienne & Dave

    Really interesting post. We love Trader’s hotel too and as we have our PO Box in KL we spend a few days there every 4-6 months. Have you tried running the track around the Petronas Towers? A really beautiful and interesting workout 🙂
    Good luck with the visa!

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi
      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think I could possibly run any laps in the heat of KL. Lol. In fact, this year I’m having serious issues with running down my body just from doing the same workouts in my little condo gym with air con. It’s simply too hot and humid for my lifestyle and I’m winding up with head colds that stem from dehydration if I do much more than some basic cardio. We know CM is much cooler on nights and mornings due to the mountains so we hope to return to more of a lifestyle that we had when we first explored Penang. At the moment Diane rarely goes out at all except to shop which me and hit the pool which is also too hot because they designed it in typical Malaysian style which means whithout thinking (no shade and trees with no leaves)

      On top of that I wrote this while being pummeled by pile driving noise ad I’m unsure how I can even make it a few more months listening to this shit every single day. Good luck to any dumbass that bought houses anywhere in this town. Nothing like paying two million ringgit to haer pile driving and construction noise for five years every day. Oh and they work seven days and holidays in the developing world or they don’t get paid

      Cheers

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      Reply
  5. isbergamanda

    I hope you keep blogging. I am 31 and dream of being able to retire early overseas one day. It probably won’t happen before I turn 50 unless something changes drastically in my life, but until then I will continue to teach my way around the world. So even though I’m sure the rules and processes will change in the coming years, your blog feeds my early retirement dreams.

    -Amanda at http://teachingwanderlust.com/

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Amanda
      Thanks for the comment and encouragement. I probably will keep blogging albeit not as much. Although I get a lot of page views for a small blog I didn’t really get much out of it in the way of interaction with others here in Penang. It seems most people are stumbling on it now and taking a cursory glance but with little further interest. I’ve got a handful of regulars that I recognize but it hasn’t panned out the way I’d hoped it might by now. But I understand it takes hours of social media interaction and reading other blogs and I don’t really spend much time on devices and computers because I have one blind eye and that’s one reason we decided to try early retirement

      Keep teaching and saving and you will be able to quit early if you choose. It’s not as hard as some people make it especially for people your age who have updated skills

      Cheers

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      1. isbergamanda

        Thanks! I understand what you mean with it taking a while to build up your blog. It is so time consuming!

        I just paid off all of my student loans from grad school last month so now I can kick my savings/investments into gear!

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  6. Stu

    Another excellent post Rob – Thank you. I find it very helpful when you describe the various processes you need to go through, esp. the US Embassy routine. Best of luck with the move North and sorry it didn’t work out in Penang the way you had hoped, your posts have been eye opening 🙂

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