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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.