Turning out better than planned, our exploratory trip to Chiang Mai came to a close yesterday. Considering it a huge success, we opened our bank account with both Thai Baht and US Dollar sides, got the internet banking set up, ordered and picked up an ATM card, successfully transferred enough cash to cover the requirement for extending a visa based on retirement and signed a one year lease on an 1,800 square foot house. Perfectly placed fifteen minutes south of the old city and ten minutes from of the airport, the Moo Baan (gated community) is one of the nicest and most secure ones we saw and our rent includes free use of a world-class pool and clubhouse, locker rooms and sauna.
With so many stories to tell, it’s hard to know where to start and since I’ve been stuck using a shitty IPad that freezes a lot and now that we’re back in Penang, I see Word Press somehow switched the “add new post” function to a minuscule font that’s obviously not supported on my old OS. Also almost impossible to edit, I figured I’d post one thing we did for the 14 days we spent in Chiang Mai. Now back in Penang for 16 more days, we need to finish packing, go to the bank in Penang to update our information (we are staying on the MM2H program), wait for the Hari Raya holiday period to end, send off our 15 boxes of stuff with the movers, greet the landlord, hand over the keys and begin Chapter Two of early retirement. Not looking forward to the last two weeks in Malaysia, it’ll probably go by real slowly but I guess I can write about how much more we like Thailand since we’re finally disposing of the old PC and don’t need to disconnect it until the last-minute. While the Malays are very nice people, the Thai have a certain Asian charm unmatched anywhere elsewhere we’ve seen in Southeast Asia an despite all the complaints and sarcastic jibes from many farangs all over Facebook about Thailand’s ways, all nations have their own problems and when you’re a guest it’s best to look the other way when something sucks and appreciate the reasons why you chose to live there. So here’s my day by day synopsis.
What else did you expect? We headed for the awesome food court at the Central Plaza Chiangmai Airport Mall before hitting the serviced apartment and had an incredibly tasty feast of duck and pork with egg noodles. Having modernized the mall since our last trip, the large, clean and inexpensive food court area offer some of the tastiest and cheapest Thai food around as well as a whole bunch of great locally made products at reasonable prices. If you like spicy soups, forget Tom Yum (southern style and difficult to find in Chiang Mai) and try Khao Soi. But order the green curry if you like it milder.
Heading to the bank, we met our friend that agreed to vouch for us but it turns out his contact no longer worked at that branch. While the always arcane procedure of that branch did state that foreigners can open accounts if non-foreigners guarantee their credibility the banks seemed happier with an affidavit from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur that stated how much Thai Baht equivalent we had in a U.S. bank. Professional and helpful, the staff at the branch where many foreigners open their accounts went out of their way to help us each time we visited. (Unlike Malaysia, getting started requires several in person visits). Obtaining a bank book or passbook as they call it seemed hilarious because it brought back memories of an obsolete banking process from my childhood yet it’s required for a non-immigrant type O visa and if you lose it, a police report needs to be filled out. Surprisingly, the internet banking is as good if not better than better than Malaysia with excellent levels of security including SMS messages and emails each time you log on.
Spending the next three days house hunting, we narrowed it down to three and chose the best one for us. I’ll talk more in-depth about the experience once we return to Thailand but the long story short is to stay away from the non professional agencies, people who won’t tell you who they work for and shady characters that want to take you around without offering any advance information on what they have to show you.
Returning to the trendy Nimmen area, we parked the car far from the traffic and strolled through the neighborhood. Amazingly empty during low season, we found mostly hipster-type young Korean and Chinese twenty somethings and practically no farangs. Visiting one of our favorite shops, The Elephant Parade is the world’s largest collection of decorated elephants and has a museum that we’ll visit later and four smaller shops. Best of all, they donate 20% of proceeds to elephant welfare and conservation projects.
Ah, salad. Clearly of the healthiest cities in the world, Chiang Mai offers a cornucopia of fresh restaurants from hippie vegan to trendy and everything in between. Going off a list of the ten best healthy options that I’ll share later, we tried three of them and this little gem of a place is called Pun Pun. Offering organic foods, an Isan (northeastern Thailand) style menu with an amazing banana leaf and delicious soups, I tried some fresh hummus, salad and Tom Ca soup. The restaurant near the main road is an oasis of quiet and peacefulness with a little garden and some shady wooden tables.
With the lease signed, we set out to explore the amazing array of western style consumerism packed into some of the largest superstores we’ve ever seen. Between Big C, Home Pro, Macro Cash and Carry and Tesco Lotus, the choices for everything are mind-blowing and having seen virtually nothing close in Penang, it made us feel like we stepped back into Canada or California. Except for the Thai speaking employees of course. Even better, the malls in Penang offer seven floors of nothing for us whereby all malls in Chiang Mai offer clothing that fits at affordable prices and is basically the same type of clothing we owned before we left North America. Taking several hours to explore each store, there’s hardly anything not offered here that you can’t find at Costco or Wal-Mart albeit less expensive. Small ovens cost a few hundred dollars and since many Thai kitchens don’t have one, these stores are quite practical for western expats.
Deprived of good Italian food for the last two years in a pork-challenged environment, our friend took us to Yummy Pizza in the suburbs for some of the tastiest sausage, meat sauce and pasta this side of the Pacific. Missing out on real cheese, we feasted on lasagna and meatballs (unknown in Penang) and the stayed for the weekly Wednesday night live music. Featuring a band from Colorado, the patrons were mostly American and Canadian families, retired people and mixed farang/Thai couples making the atmosphere friendly and comfortable. Nothing like the loud bars of the old city or sexpot clubs near the Ping River, it’s more like Western Calgary or The East Bay of San Francisco. Perfect for our age group, the music starts at 7 and ends by 11.
Weekends are “walking street nights” which is a tourism industry name for the night markets held on various streets. Saturday nights are held on Wua Lai Street which runs from the southern end of the old city down one north-south street and meets up with the main artery to the southern suburbs where we’ll be living. Naturally, it was time for some fried insects and since I hate the grasshoppers and crickets getting stuck in my tongue and thirst, I opted for some softer silkworms that taste mostly like satay snacks with salt.
Continuing with the shopping, we bought some shorts and shirts, went to Decathlon which is a Thai version of the mega super athletic chains REI in the USA or MEK in Canada. While lots of farangs bitch about the place, they have no idea how lucky they are to even have a store that specializes in outdoor activities. Mostly unheard of in Malaysia, mega stores for athletic equipment wouldn’t really be lucrative in Penang’s given its limited active scene. Conversely, Chiang Mai offers cooler climate in winter along with great mountain trails. Marveling at the rice aisle in the neighboring superstore, Diane wondered how the hell you choose a brand when there’s fifteen acres of rice. And I’m hoping to reinstate my mountain biking habit once we’re settled
Probably the best salad restaurant anywhere in Asia, The Salad Concept is constantly rated number one in the city and it’s well worthy of its honors. With about fifteen pages of menu choices including and option to build your own, I enjoyed a custom-made treat with the best sesame tofu I’ve ever had, tamarind sesame dressing to die for and farm-to-plate freshness unmatched anywhere. Even if you hate salad, there’s something you’ll like here and a little healthiness never hurt anyone. The pumpkin soup, although not hot for some reason even after I complained and they put it in the microwave, is one of the creamiest I’ve ever had.
Yeah, technology ain’t my thing. Believe it or not, we’re still using the same obsolete hard drive with Windows Vista that we bought in 2007 when we first moved back to California from Calgary. Obviously needing to jump into the 20-teens, we asked for recommendations and the consensus was to hit Computer Plaza on Sri Poom Road near the Chang Phuak Gate. Further narrowing down suggestions, we tried Goodspeed Computer and found Thailand’s version of a geek from Best Buy. Explaining to us that an “all in one system” with no tower is better for non gamers that simply need internet browsing and picture storage, we found the system we need for about $475 USD but didn’t buy it yet pending our return. Passing on the recommendation to all of you, I’d say its a good place for the early retiree crowd that wants simplicity with quality.
Since the computer shopping comparison tour started and ended with the first option and we parked the car on the street which isn’t really that hard on weekday mornings before 12, we took some time to walk the northern perimeter. With dozens of beautiful wats to explore, it’s often hard to know where to visit first but Wat Lok Molee just happened to be two blocks west of the computer stores. Serene and steeped with history, the sixth Lanna King of the Mengrel Dynasty invited a group of 10 monks from Burma to bring their study and practice of Buddhism to current day Northern Thailand. The monks stayed and built the temple in the 1300’s. Well worth your time, several buildings adorn the corner of Maneenopparat Soi 2 and it provides some quiet time to reflect right in the heart of the busy main street.
Easily the coffee capital of Southeast Asia, you can’t walk more than a few meters before running into a café or coffee-house. GIven how much time the digital nomads spend doing whatever they do, I guess it’s a perfect business opportunity for ambitious would-be business owners. Returning back to trendy Nimmen after a stop at the bank, we happened onto one of the most successful Thai owned coffee shops of all. Independently owned, the owners of Ristr8to Specialty Coffee learned roasting skills in San Francisco and their baristas are award winners in several major competitions worldwide. Naturally, everything is overpriced by Chiang Mai standards but the menu proved so interesting, we indulged in a three ounce cup of something that had Melbourne based espresso, steamed milk and caramel. While I wouldn’t spend my fixed income becoming addicted, it’s hard to resist the occasional indulgence so I’d say give it a shot.
**Side note: I wanted to link to the official website but in typical TIT, I got an error message that said “The domain has been suspended. either the domain has been overused, or the reseller ran out of resources.”. For what it’s worth, TripAdvisor does list as #2 of 131 Tea and Coffee Shops in Chinag Mai
OK, so we spent more time in the old city than we intended to but still feeling like old tourists returning to one of our favorite spots but armed with a one year lease, it’s easy to immerse yourself in endless treats. Mango lovers like us find themselves in absolute fruit heaven and just like coffee, there are hundreds of options to cool off with a fruity treats. Possibly one of the best choices, Mango Tango offers an array of mango based desserts, shakes and smoothies and a few dry products to take home. Right in the heart of Nimmen, I promised to keep the blog “story-oriented” but the best story of the day was cooling off in here so please accept my apologies.
But you don’t have to be in the crowd laced over-touristed old city or even the trendy twenty something consumerism capital to enjoy great food in Chiang Mai. Down in Kad Farang Village is a new addition since our last visit called Cafe Kantary. Appointed as the baker for many quality hotels throughout Thailand, they also make incredibly delicious dinners that qualify as mostly western with a Thai twist. Sadly lacking customers during the apparently very low early rainy season, they embraced us like we world for Conde Naste and wanted to write them up in the latest edition.
Not actually trying to save the best for last from a gastronomical point of view, sometimes life has a strange way of working out. Deciding to spend the last night browsing the mile long main street outside our moo-baan, we marveled at the diverse options available. On just one side of the street was a Korean buffet barbecue, Japanese hot-pot, piano and violin bar, a strange cheesy looking Dutch beer house, an even odder coffee shop with a sheep farm attached to the property, a specialty fish ball soup shop, several small Thai businesses serving local food with no English signage, an amazingly fresh live seafood restaurant that you pick from live tanks, a karaoke bar, a dim-sum specialty shop, a biker-looking bar, four more coffee shops and various others we didn’t have time to check out.
But the gem of them all was the place called New York Style Pizza. Born and raised in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I’m a harsh critic of those daring enough to use that expression, especially as the name of the restaurant. Ironically, the original owner from the Bronx got sick and this once popular eatery died down recently. But the new owner and head chef happened to be starting his first night. Having worked in Cheescake Factory, Outback and best of all, the former head chef of The Dukes, one of Chiang Mai’s favorite and best American style restaurants, this guy knows the secret and although it’s not perfection and needs some tweaking, his crust is the closest I’ve come to the real thing since our last visit to Brooklyn years ago. Looking to expand the menu and looking for suggestions to reinvigorate the business, he accepted my promise to immediately plug the place on the blog. So you’re in the Mae Hia area, please visit. It’s on Somphot Chinag Mai 700 Pi Rd but most people would simply say it’s “on the 3029 between the 108 and the 121 down the street from The Big C.”
And then it was time to return. Receiving a text from Jim, the guy in Penang that specializes in getting Thai visas from the consulate, he told us we needed to visit him on Wednesday to avoid long delays due to the upcoming Hari Raya holiday period in Malaysia. Unfortunately, our passport pictures were sitting in the condo which is nowhere near Jim’s Place. So we endured an almost two-hour trudge in insane Penang traffic from the airport, ran upstairs while the Uber guy waited and turned around back to Georgetown to hand over our documents. Satisfied with the backup (bank book, lease, and letter from the embassy), we gave JIm 740 Ringgit and hopefully we’ll pick up two Single Entry Non-O Visas on Friday that allow us to extend for one year based on retirement once in Thailand.
With more packing to be done and various other tasks, I’ll try to write some more posts in the next two weeks detailing the bank account process, car rental, house hunt and various other aspects of moving to the second place in our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Ironically, I’ve received a slew of questions about MM2H and moving to Penang. Perhaps it’s due to reality setting in under Trump’s United States of Intolerance and Ignorance or it’s maybe just a coincidence. Either way, there are lots of posts about MM2H on the blog but we don’t really have many positive things to say about expat life in Penang compared to what we’ve seen in Chiang Mai. Simply stated, Penang isn’t right for us and I’d like to focus on the positives of Thailand so please refrain from asking about Malaysia while we make this transition. Our last day in Penang is July 7th and I’ll post some parting words at that time.
Cheers from Batu Ferrenghi.
Please offer comments and suggestions. I’m 50-50 on keeping the blog going and although I love writing and sharing, there’s so much out there on Chiang Mai, I hate sounding like everyone else and no matter what I write, someone’s already written about it as long as it’s in Thailand. Thanks.