Where the hell does the time go? Literally feeling like we just did this yesterday, once again empty folded boxes are sitting in our humble abode. Unlike the attachment one gets with home ownership, however, there’s no love lost on leaving our ninth floor condo and moving on to greener pastures. (Thailand is in fact actually greener). Now understanding what they meant in all the blogs, websites and articles that discuss why expats feel culture shock when they return to the homeland, we learned that moving, like almost everything in Asia, is a totally different experience. Having moved an entire three bedroom house from San Francisco to Calgary, back down to San Diego and then up to Walnut Creek, California, you’d think it would be routine but unlike in North America, the key word in Asia for almost anything is minimalism so if you’re contemplating such a move, you’ll need to adjust your thinking.
First off, you’ll need to erase the memories of a Uhaul store and its fancy array of custom sized boxes from wardrobe to specialized art and five different sizes of square from small to extra-large. Hardly anyone in Asia owns 2500 square foot custom-built homes with three car garages, a large yard and room for a shed, pool and some specialized fruit trees. Therefore, we learned quickly that no matter who you call or how much you pay, the choices are standard box and large box. Alas, there’s no industry devoted to boxes, moving and packing either so if you’re thinking you’ll just buy new boxes, good luck with that. Stranger than as anything to us was the notion that hiring a “logistics” (moving) company in Asia means you’ll get empty boxes, packing material and tape delivered to your door by courier as soon as you put down a deposit.
Offering the cheaper option of packing yourself is one of the few similarities between Asia and North America and if you’ve ever watched “movers” at work Malaysia, you’ll soon understand why paying a crew of six 5’1″, 120 pound unskilled foreign laborers that spend half the day stinking up the hallways of condos with no smoking policies is a waste of money. Trust me, if you sold everything to get here like we did and your entire move is personal artifacts, art and some basic kitchen stuff, you’ll want to pack your own stuff. Having used an international shipping company to send 27 various sized boxes from The Port of Oakland to Penang, Malaysia two years ago, the cost depends on volume and if you’re shipping via the ocean, your options are containers and “less than container” (LCL) loads. Perfect for those selling most of their stuff, they pack LCL’s on containers with other similar sized shipments and charge by the cubic meter with most companies charging a 3 cubic meter minimum which equates to about 45 medium-sized boxes.
Remembering the tedious but uncomplicated procedures of retrieving our shipment in Penang, we planned on possibly needing to show up in Bangkok, pay bribes, duty taxes and a host of other middleman charges. Scouring Facebook sites and Chiang Mai forums, we found lots of people making reference to excessively large fees and taxes depending on what they shipped and everyone refers to any of a multitude of ridiculous bribe related gaffes as “TIT” (This is Thailand). Here in Penang, finding out information on the local agent responsible for off-loading, storage and delivery of our shipment was a bit difficult and required a personal visit to our house from an Indian guy and his wife. No doubt assessing our financial status and determining how gullible we might be, it only cost us a 50 ringgit bribe to collect our goods within the five-day government window that’s given to logistics companies to store goods after they’re off-loaded before storage charges apply. Claiming he needed to “buy the customs guy lunch” to inspect our goods before the window with no storage fees closed, it seemed reasonable enough.
Armed with five recommendations from Chiang Mai expats, we collected a list of international moving companies that handle Malaysia and Thailand. Almost unanimously based in either the U.K. or Singapore, we sent emails and were soon quickly discouraged to learn that big multi-national companies are mostly geared towards large, corporate sponsored moves for families transporting their entire lives in the middle of their prime working years. The first company that responded was AGS International. After we figured out that they call moving companies “removal specialists” in British English, we spoke to a friendly agent with a heavy Indian accent in Kuala Lumpur and received a quote north of 10,000 Malaysian Ringgit (Over $2,300 USD). Although well staffed with local agents in dozens of countries worldwide, most full-service global movers and shippers aren’t in the business of small shipments and their minimum charge was way too much for our 2.2 cubic meter move.
Later that day, we got a call from Asian Tigers Mobility, a firm specializing in Asian moves. Armed with a professional looking website that sports a huge picture of the chairman and the managing director, it looks more like an ad from Goldman Sachs and instead of responding to our email, a pushy English woman called and gave us a pitch worthy of any investment banker’s top salespeople. Insisting “I’m an expert at this”, she told us she needs to come visit us “to find out our needs” despite our explanation that we already knew our approximate specifications and wanted a quote based on that. Using a spreadsheet I saved from the US move, it’s obvious that wasting time sizing up goods scattered all over the condo before they’re even in piles is moronic and designed to bump up their charge. Dismissing them immediately, we didn’t even find out how much they’d want but clearly it was way too much for us.
Another firm with a spiffy looking website, Pickfords garnered some good reviews from Chiang Mai expats but frankly and with all due respect to our neighbors and friends from the motherland, we’re a bit tired of all things British which is one reason we’re moving to Thailand where the expat crowd has more North Americans. Preferring a lifestyle more active than sitting around drinking Tiger beer all day or meet ups that always involve alcohol, Penang was great for its long-term MM2H visa with unlimited multiple entries and some good hawker food but it’s clearly not a long-term choice for us. Receiving the quote from Pickford’s that also had a minimum charge of more than twice what we paid to ship our stuff from the USA, we contemplated storing our remaining stuff in Malaysia figuring it had to be cheaper than the monthly $129 USD we paid at Shadelands Self-Storage in California for a few months when we first left North America.
Hoping a domestic company might be a reasonable alternative to the large international movers, we moved on to a site that some expats that moved from Malaysia liked. But unlike Chiang Mai where competition for most products and services affords expats lots of choices, Penang has nothing similar despite its claim of being so close to “fully developed status”. For example, shoppers in Chiang Mai enjoy at least five major reputable chain supermarkets while Penang has one. (Two if you count Tesco’s low quality products). Ironically calling themselves “the fresh food people”, Cold Storage in Penang exhibits the most incompetent and worst food supply chain anywhere in the world. Plagued with constant empty shelves, most imported merchandise arrives shortly before its expiry, horrible local managers don’t understand their customers and both locations practice improper refrigeration techniques (when the units aren’t totally broken).
Despite this, we liked the look of a Malaysian family owned company named Growpack Movers. Portraying an image of a locally owned business that cares about their clients, we had fun trying to pronounce the names of their executives and we sent them an email since our experience with the last Malaysian logistics company went just fine. Having seen their trucks many times, we thought they might undercut the large companies but unfortunately, they never answered our multiple email requests so we never found out. But we almost chose them anyway thanks to the hilarious slogan plastered on their trucks (“We Lift Your Load”).
Thinking we’d exhausted our options, we asked our new friend in Chiang Mai who they used since they also moved from Penang. Although they used a full service mover due to the size of their shipment, they recommended Seven Seas Worldwide for smaller moves. Based in the U.K. this excellent company is more of a discount firm with an “à la carte” pricing system. Besides international relocation of homes, they also handle also handle shipping of unaccompanied baggage, parcels, furniture, personal belongings (perfect for us) and have a special service for students studying abroad. Getting started is easy as pie and one click allows clients to create a custom quote for anything you’d want to ship. Serving ten countries with their own subsidiary offices, they avoid handing off stuff to third-party agents and deal directly with someone who knows your order. Ironically, Thailand and Malaysia are two of the nations with local offices so they’re perfect for our needs. Self-packing empty boxes they deliver by courier, you simply schedule a day for pickup and avoid extra costs associated with unskilled laborers wasting an entire day packing and loading. (We’ve seen neighbors use foreign workers for this and believe me, it’s faster if a trained monkey did it.)
Setting Seven Seas apart from the other companies is exceptional customer service. North Americans might know of PODS Moving and Storage, a well-known company that cuts costs by dropping off “pods” (containers) at a client’s house, and picking up fully loaded boxes packed by the mover at a later date. Offering a similar service for larger moves, Seven Seas sent us five different quotes (two with different sized containers and three using specified numbers of empty boxes) based on information we provided. Responding within an hour, we passed on the pods to save money but noted that each quote detailed exactly what we’d be charged for and explained all the details like type of service, (air/sea/road), delivery time estimates, and detailed prices for every individual service provided. And the best part are their custom quotes. Explaining we had five custom sized boxes for art and two that are original electronics boxes, they asked us for the measurements of each box and how many standard and large empty boxes we’d need and created a custom quote within an hour. Changing our request several times after carefully going through all our stuff, their team has no issues responding to multiple emails or phone calls
Playing around with various combinations, we settled on 4 large and 12 standard empty boxes plus our custom sized boxes. Quoting a very reasonable price of just over 6,000 Malaysian Ringgit (about $1,300 USD), it brought the price closer to what we paid for shipping from the USA. Charging by the box and not by total volume, you only pay for what you use and should your shipment be less than the number of empty boxes you ordered, they take them back free of charge and reduce the balance appropriately. Satisfied with everything, we placed a deposit over the phone and requested delivery of the empty boxes, packing material and tape which came the next day by domestic carrier. Although they said the paperwork would come also, it didn’t so we called. Telling us to use PDF forms they attached in an email, we noticed it was 30 pages of documents and we didn’t want to waste so much printer ink. Unfazed, they apologized and sent them by postal courier two days later. Best of all, their price include a multitude of services that ensures door to door delivery as seen below.
Living in the developing world often means planning important functions around a cornucopia of holidays. Working six days a week, most workers in Malaysia don’t get paid holiday leave so they give them dozens of public holidays instead. Unfortunately, the end of Ramadan is the largest and most important Muslim holiday and naturally, it falls right near the end of our lease agreement. Known as Hari Raya, we usually leave town since most work stops for about a week, our beach town gets flooded with Malays from all over the nation and planning a move is almost impossible during the holiday period Fortunately, Seven Seas understands all the local markets they operate in so they suggested we wait until the week after Hari Raya for collection of our boxes to avoid possible delays.
Allowing clients to book a pickup date a few weeks ahead or as soon as two days before as long as it’s phoned by 2 PM, we decided to wait until the first week in July. As far as the paperwork, it’s uncomplicated and only requires passport and visa copies and basic inventory of each box. Needing only to give a postal code as the destination when booking, it’s perfect for expats that plan on moving but haven’t yet secured a lease and they even let you even provide a complete address after the shipment leaves. Dropping off the completed paperwork with the driver, it seems amazingly simple considering Thailand’s extensive list of rules and regulations for almost everything. Estimating 30 to 40 days for our move, the goods are still shipped by sea despite Thailand’s proximity to Malaysia so we should have our stuff my mid summer.
Reading lots of stories about bribes and fees from expats trying to collect shipped goods, this is what we make of it. Bribes are built into the system and conveniently disguised as duty and customs fees. Given there’s no rhyme and reason to anything in Thailand when it comes to government regulations, the bribes you’ll pay to collect your stuff have a lot to do with your mover’s relationship with the Thai customs office. Including a disclaimer on the quote, they say price includes ALL duty and excise taxes except bicycles, two or more laptops and electrical items, items owned six months or less, alcohol, tobacco and perfume yet they end the sentence by saying “You should expect to pay extra duty and excise taxes when the shipment arrives”. Obviously being vague and explicit at the same time, they understand it’s fruitless trying to find current information in English on duties, taxes and other exemptions for foreigners bringing in household goods. After all, TIT. (This is Thailand).
So now we’re comfortable enough focusing our efforts on two things; searching for house rentals in suburban Hang Dong and watching the Edmonton Oilers continue their surprising run towards winning the greatest championship trophy anywhere on the planet (The Stanley Cup). Having beaten the San José Sharks in round one, we’re up two games to none in the next round against the Anaheim Ducks and I’m starting to panic. Our exploratory trip lands us in Chiang Mai somewhere right in the middle of the Stanley Cup Finals. While we have an app linked to the National Hockey League for live streaming, we’d need a TV that supports an adapter to avoid straining our eyes on our phones. With every game starting at 7 AM local time, we’re now thinking a bar willing to show the finals is the best way to watch should our beloved Oilers make the last round. Therefore, I’m appealing to any Canadians in Chiang Mai for help and if anyone knows sports bars or restaurants willing to open early for something besides European footie matches, please contact us. For now, it’s fingers crossed.
Cheers from our 9th floor condo and the never ending beautiful smell of burning garbage from the nation that tells you “We don’t burn because it’s illegal”.