Forward Progress

As the North American long weekend holidays for Independence approached, Diane and I quietly celebrated our two year anniversary of expat life in Southeast Asia. Stepping off the plane on Canada Day in 2015, we embarked on a life far removed from Timbits, quality beer and suburban backyard grilling. Radically different from our one year anniversary, this year we’ve waited patiently as the calendar drags off our last 16 days in Penang. Having completed a successful exploratory trip to Chiang Mai where we opened a bank account and found a suburban house in a quiet and picturesque moo-baan, the goal of these last two weeks was secure a single entry 90 day Non-O visa (done), finish packing (almost done), spend the rest of our sadly depleted Malaysian Ringgit that we bought 12% lower than today’s exchange rate (harder than its seems) and close the book on Chapter One of our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment.

Concerned about writing the blog in the Digital Nomad Capital of Asia where I’d be competing with literally thousands of internet generation smart asses that all think they’re Pulitzer Prize winners, many of you pointed out there’s not an awful lot out there from the suburban middle class early retiree crowd. Initial searches prove you’ve all got a good point so to keep the blog mostly free of food reviews, technology and strategies on living like broke backpackers in lieu of working real jobs, I decided on a theme of Suburban Alternatives in the Chiang Mai region. Given the amazing similarities to North American suburbia from single family houses (mostly for rent) to a cornucopia of mega superstores (five good supermarkets compared to Penang’s one pathetically stocked supermarket with serious refrigeration issues), it seems reasonable I won’t run short on stories. Granted the target audience for my little blog becomes quite different in a place with more blogs than Thai people (almost) and I’ll apologize ahead of time for writing more about primers on how to house hunt for age-appropriate neighborhoods than trendy new clubs to hang out in and forty-seven ways to secure a visa when you’ve decided to spend the prime working years away from your homeland in coffee shops with a laptop while avoiding today’s most hated four letter word (work).

So in the spirit of sharing some tips on what we found out about suburban living in Northern Thailand’s most populous province, let’s start with a something you’ve probably not seen anyone talk about. Unlike Malaysia’s relatively straightforward street addresses, understanding where the hell you are by looking at the bottom of a business card or website is a bit daunting. Classified as a unitary state, they divided Thailand into 76 provinces and 1 special administrative division (Bangkok). Simple enough, government in a unitary states acts as a single power where the central government is supreme and administrative districts exercise only the power the central government chooses to delegate. Different from Federalism like the USA, Canada and Australia which combine powers between states and a central government, this means Thailand’s current military government doesn’t need two-thirds or majority approval of provinces for constitutional changes (or pretty much anything else for that matter).

Further subdivided into three administrative levels, an Amphoe (translated as districts) is the second highest level (like a county). Complicating things, a Tambon (township or sub-district) is the third administrative level and there’s 7,255 in Thailand. Finally, the subdistricts are then technically subdivided into administrative villages called Mubans. Translated as a village or hamlet, the word can function on its own or be changed to two words (Moo Baan) when referring to a group of homes. Commonly referred to as gated communities by westerners, there’s actually a method to the madness. The Mu, or groups of homes in a tambon, are given numbers that get entered in sequential order on the books of a register maintained by the district office. The ban, or households for each member of each group are also assigned sequential numbers and registered in the name of the homeowner. Thus, each Moo-Baan uses a map similar to ours as seen in the sidebar picture.

 

Usually, a street address comprises the two numbers discussed above and the name of the community as the first line followed by the tambon and amphoe on the second line (sometimes they’re spelled out as “Tambon” but often they’re simply abbreviated as “T. xxxx and A.xxxx”). Finally, the postal code and province make up the third line. Thankfully, postal codes are five numerical digits unlike ridiculous British versions with six characters of numbers and letters broken up by a space. (Who the hell remembers 5D3 6X4?). Got it all? Good. It took me the better part of the two weeks to figure it out and searching for homes beforehand is even more confusing without a basic understanding of addresses. For the purposes of house hunting, it’s easiest to narrow down which amphoes you’re interested in and then further identifying the moo baans that pique your interest. Making it even harder, there are lots of houses located outside the gated communities and you can rent those if amenities like 24 hour security, garbage collection, community pools and gyms aren’t high on your priority list. (Don’t ask me to explain how those addresses work). Mind you, every moo baan is different and sadly, many of the ones we looked at offered security even worse than our current Penang condo (meaning they let all cars in without stopping and some didn’t even have gates).

One of the nicer pools located in a moo baan behind Kad Farang Village.

One of the fastest growing metropolitan regions of Thailand, Chiang Mai offers a cornucopia of options for single family housing located in all four quadrants of the city. For purposes of the blog, I’ll only be focusing on the districts we searched in but you should be aware that all areas offer something different from very inexpensive large newer communities chock full of amenities and great for large families (in the Northeastern area) to convenient mountain and airport access (Southwest of the city). Feeling almost like a tropical version of both Calgary (for its mountainous scenery) and the East Bay Hills of San Francisco, we prefer the latter which means we searched in Hang Dong and Mae Hia. Ending up closer to the airport than we ever thought we’d want to be, you’ll need to study flight patterns as you house hunt if noise is a concern (it is for me since I’m an early sleeper compared to Diane’s 1:00 AM bedtime). Oddly, everything west of the 108 (the main north-south artery) fends better for airplane noise despite being geographically close. Strictly speaking, if you hop the fence at the end of our street which is the last one in the moo baan, you can almost jog to the runway and hop on although I highly discourage this and all juvenile high jinks given Thailand’s military government.

Our street appears to be much quieter than our current condo in Penang

Given time constraints and the fact that I’m supposed to be helping pack the kitchen goods today, I’ll return to specific property agents and our experiences with both professionally staffed companies (sorely lacking) and third parties claiming to represent owners that you’ll know nothing about even if you ask them their credentials (way too many of those). For now, I’ll share the name of our agent and tell you that their stellar reputation on Facebook groups is certainly warranted if you’re a middle class westerner that prefers to deal with a company accustomed to prior home owners than twenty soemthings scraping by on digital nomad income. Picking us up on time, showing us exactly what we were looking for and executing a perfectly written and simple to read lease in both English and Thai, we recommend PerfectHomes, a local real estate agency specializing in properties for rent and sale all around Chiang Mai province.

Motorbikes drive MUCH better than Penang despite what you’ve heard

But where and how do you house hunt while still living somewhere else? We didn’t know either but figured we’d need a rental car to check out everything from distances to learning why Thailand has Southeast Asia’s highest motorist death rate (statistically, it’s mostly drunk drivers late at night and really tired public transportation and tourist industry drivers). Never having used anyone besides a name brand rental company at an airport, Diane researched and found that BudgetCatcher is a small (two people actually) but very reliable local company with a rather large fleet of over 35 vehicles. Arranging everything by text ahead of time, they’ll either pick you up at the airport or drop off the car anywhere you want. Renting a reliable Nissan Almira for two weeks cost us a very reasonable 8,400 Baht. Dropping the car off at our serviced apartment the day after we arrived, we gave the very friendly english speaking driver (a young Thai girl) a 5,000 Baht cash deposit which she returned later and paid the full balance by credit card. She even picked us up at 6:30 AM on our departure date and drove us back to the airport in the rental car. Highly recommended, we’ll be using them again when we return this weekend since we need to pass a series of only in Thailand hurdles before we’d able to buy a car.

Finishing today’s brief primer on suburban single family house hunting in Chiang Mai’s outer reaches, let me recommend a superb place to stay if your main intent is finding a place to live in Hang Dong or Mae Hia. About a mile off the main road in the middle of some fields and very local communities not yet party of any moo baans, The New Concept Serviced Apartments offer a perfect blend of comfort and hospitality. Offered as both hotel style serviced apartments in one building and condos for investors in the other, this four-year old development stands out as superior and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Laid out as a small one bedroom unit with kitchen, living room and bathroom, the furnishings are modern and comfortable and the staff is both helpful and professional.

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Catering to any needs you have, they offer shuttles to the weekend walking streets (which we used to avoid parking woes) and a brand new gym was literally just completed the week we arrived. Also building what’s listed as Chiang Mai’s biggest community swimming pool, it’s a construction site at the moment but based on everything else on the property, it looks very promising and the manager tells us its slated for completion in August. Perfect for using as a base for exploring which suburban enclave fits your needs, its central location is perfect for quick access to the old city, airport and major malls. Paying about $650 USD for fifteen nights, we reserved on Agoda way ahead but learned that Chiang Mai is very seasonal and given that it’s very low season, I’m guessing there’s always a room available. Providing maid service and limited but decent free breakfast in a brand spanking new luxurious looking restaurant, we were literally the only customers for 14 of the 15 mornings and we got to know the staff quite well and they treated us like royalty. (They even let us use the gym before the official opening even though it needed no further construction work). I’d recommend the property over an Airbnb if you prefer a bit of pampering and want to avoid the crowds and noise and higher prices closer to the old city.

Goodbye Penang condo

With someone coming to buy our old monitor on Wednesday I suppose this is the last post form the obsolete old PC with the now unsupported Windows Vista Operating system. Although I did hope to offer some parting words on why Penang turned out to be so wrong for us after about a year I may put that on hold until we get the new computer this weekend. Having served us well enough, the condo still looks good from a scenic viewpoint but between the constant burning, complete lie from Bloomberg about the “success” of a currency that’s coming off a 20 year low versus the USD, very average food and lack of any meaningful activities for relatively young early retired people, its definitively time to get out and move forward. With rumors of an early election from a prime minister apparently cleared of all wrongdoing despite being involved in the world’s largest financial scandal involving public funds, I can’t think of a better time than now to say goodbye and good luck to the people of Malaysia who welcomed us with open arms.

Thanks for all the comments and encouragement. Please continue.

12 thoughts on “Forward Progress

  1. Steve

    Hi Rob and Diane,

    I have read your blog with interest during the past couple of years and I wish you all the best for your new adventure in ChiangMai. It is one of our favourite destinations and came a close second for our retirement location.

    Penang came third, but after spending the final three years of our working lives in Putrajaya, a quiet and beautiful city with some magnificent architecture and beautiful parks, botanic gardens and wetlands we retired to the centre of Kuala Lumpur. We are in our third year here in a condo that is just three minutes walk from your favourite KL hotel, Traders. We had thought that rents would be too high in KLCC but we spend RM3100 ($720) a month for a one bedroomed flat with access to a good pool and a serviceable gym. We absolutely love it. Where else could we enjoy all of the facilities of a modern capital city for far less than in any town in the UK?

    Within ten minutes stroll we have KLCC park, an excellent orchestra, art galleries, two multiplexes, one of which shows the annual European, French and Japanese film festivals, world class medical facilities, monorail and LRT lines and three of the four free bus lines, several hundred restaurants serving every cuisine you can think of, several food courts, and a choice of four supermarkets (we prefer Isetan at KLCC, a Japanese chain). Kuala Lumpur International Airport is 45 minutes by taxi or train. We have enjoyed the Floria flower festival, balloon festivals, kite festivals, city centre supercar racing, and the dance and drama offerings at KLPac and DPac.

    Next month Malaysia is hosting the SE Asia games. Many of the sports are free to attend, some charge RM10 and a few are RM20. We will definitely attend some, perhaps even the ice hockey!

    Kuala Lumpur is much more international than Penang both in terms of the ethnic mix of Malay, Chinese-Malay and Indian and the various cultural events that they offer and also in terms of the work available for expats. Consequently our friends come from four continents and many nationalities.

    Downsides? The rush hour traffic is bad, but since we are retired we can avoid it. We can’t avoid the noise due to building, traffic and air conditioners but notice it less than we used to.

    I can’t help feeling that you would have enjoyed your time in Malaysia more if you had settled somewhere else. We enjoy Batu Ferrenghi for the sea breeze but wouldn’t choose to live there due to the moderate facilities, the poor sea water quality, the tedious journey whether by bus or car to Georgetown and the limited range and quality of the restaurants (one notable exception is the North Indian food at the Holiday Inn. They have two Indian chefs who really know their stuff, though you will have to ask for spicy if you like chilli heat). If we had decided on Penang we would have wanted walking distance from Georgetown or possibly Straits Quay.

    One motivation for writing this comment is to give your readers a different view of retired life in Malaysia, the other is so I can finish where I started by wishing you good luck and happiness for your future.

    Steve

    ps The UK postcode system is quaint but logical. If I take BL1 3NT, BL1 is the post code area (Bolton 1). 3 indicates the third of 9 sectors of the post code area. NT is the ‘postman’s walk’; it tells the postman which addresses to deliver to and in which direction.

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  2. Mike

    The suburban muubaan addresses ARE logical, but try looking for an address outside those gated communities …..it will almost certainly NOT be in any sort of order !
    One thing to be aware of in those muu-baans is that the developers try and build as cheaply as possible (naturally enough) often using single thin cement blocks for the wall construction, which offer absolutely no thermal benefits …..if yours is like that your air-con will be working overtime come next April/May !
    If/when you do buy a car I’ll be interested to hear your experiences …I’ve been thinking about it and got several different versions of the paperwork required from different people….. and the “certificate of residence” info on the immigration website makes no sense to me !
    Talking of immigration, good luck with Chiang Mai immigration office, it’s often said to be the worst in the country ! Good luck will all of the move actually 🙂

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hi Mike
      It sounds like maybe you’ve been in Thailand too long. All the things you mention are just TIT and it’s the same with different shit here in Penang. However, I’ve had enough of Malaysia to the point where I have very few positive things to say about living here so it’s time to move on. And that’s normal for me because there’s a reason it’s called the developing world and I don’t expect to stay long term anywhere in SE Asia. We’re headed to Canada when we’re old enough to use our investment portfolio and hopefully we can buy another house and live off that plus our small pensions.

      The air con in the new place works quite well and CM is not hot to us after living in 80 percent or higher humidity every day. 40 in CM with moderate humidity is similar to the San Francisco East Bay in summer where we lived and it’s a lot better than Penang at 30 with torrential sweat dripping down after walking two minutes.

      For the car, we have two cars in mind at Expatauto.com which is a local company that specializes in used cars, gives three year warranties and takes care of all the paperwork including getting your residency certificate if you wish to pay for that service. We will get it ourselves right away so we can get a Thai drivers license as soon as possible. Using a third party or other private party would be a last resort

      As for immigrantion, many consider CM as a haven compared to the large noisy overcrowded environs of Bangkok and as such, I’m sure they know this and choose to enforce seemingly meaningless rules much more in a smaller metropolitan area with tens of thousands of farangs. It’s the only place in the nation that actually requires you to report back after re enetering the nation despite the fact that they’ve already given you permission to enter by virtue of a new stamp and your original TM30 needs to be up to date or you’d be fined or even denied so they already know your whereabouts. It’s no doubt a cash cow for a government that can’t really decide what type of policies it wants to enforce.

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    2. Paul

      We bought a car, 4 bikes and sold one bike. The paperwork is pretty simple and straightforward and getting the vehicle in your name not very time consuming, the longest it took us was about 90 minutes. As for the certificate of residency also straightforward, for a fee of 500 baht it can be done in 24 hours. All you need are a lease agreement, and passport copies. Chiang Mai immigrantion office can be busy but you really only need to go there once a year for your visa extension. 90 day reports can be done by mail and so far that works pretty flawless. If you don’t want or like to wait in que for your yearly extension there is the option to use an agent. The one at Promenade Mall (G4T) does your extension for a 3000 Baht fee and their services are excellent.

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  3. durbanroots

    I love the ends of everything and the start of something new. Thanks for this really informative and interesting post – I can’t believe how sort of British your street looks (only the colour of the road gives it away). By the way, my brother’s Ontario postcode is Letter Number Letter Number Letter Number !!! Awful to remember. I do agree about British ones – Letter Letter (denotes geographical area) Number Number Letter Letter. So complex.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Actually I was making up a Canadian postal code and picked one at random since we lived in Calgary but I couldn’t remember our old one. Not sure what a British street looks like since I’ve never been to the U.K. To us it’s quite similar to our suburban streets in both Caloforniab and Calgary. Anyway, cheers mate. Is that British enough ?

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  4. rmgthatsme

    Love the positivity that oozes from this post, new beginnings are always so full of promise. I wonder what lessons you’ve learnt from your first SE Asian adventure that will make the next more successful and enjoyable. I’m sure the town of Penang had its issues but it would be interesting (if you were so inclined) to share a little soul searching of what was your own personal contribution which has led to a parting of the ways. This would be very useful for those contemplating making the jump to have an honest look at their own viewpoints/practices so your experience is of benefit to others.

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    1. rodi (Rob and Diane) Post author

      Hello
      Thanks for the comment. One word that maybe I should clarify. I don’t need to do any soul searching or apologize for why Penang isn’t right for our lifestyle. It’s quite strghtforward.
      1) Where we live is a windy cove which means it’s an inferno of burning garbage, plastic ans other toxic shit wafting in my ninth fooor condo every day. If this was Myanmar, Vietnam, sub Saharan Africa or even Thailand it would be one of the things you accept with life there. It’s not. Their high ranking and love affair wth Bloomberg who touts their bullshit 5.3 percent growth rate means combined with the fact that it’s been illegal to open burn since 1974 under federal law speaks volumes about the real economy versus the fake world of elite investors. The burning is primitive and their own military violates federal law every day across the street from me on a small military base. This is unacceptable to me

      2) There’s nothing to do in Penang compared to Chiang Mai. Their festivals are small and crappy. Every year they claim the Georgetown festival will be “world class” but usually it’s a comedy of errors like so many things in Malaysia.

      3) We don’t like the food. Except for some of the street food, which is being phased out almost everywhere else in Asia because nations understand you can’t be “fully developed” and look third world at the same time, we never eat out, the Chinese food is not even close to anything the western world knows and Malay food is OK at best.

      4) The expat community is largely British and limited to folks older than us interested in drinking. All day. And all night. There are lots of families in our condo and they’re mostly European and while they’re nice enough, they all work and hang out with other parents when they have free time. Not for us.

      5) The disparity of wealth in Penang is ludicrous. They ruined the island with dozens of multi million dollar condos that sit empty or are purchased by mainland Chinese that never live here. The locals in Batu Ferrenghi live behind aluminum fences in absolute third world shanty conditions while the Chinese drive luxury cars. The real economy is suffering drastically in Penang as small shops come and go, all the new luxury retail space in the lobby of these new projects sits empty and the progress is meaningless to almost all of the Malay people. Meanwhile, the PM has somehow been cleared of all wrongdoing after being involved in the world’s largest public financial scandal. And they’ve totally sold out to mainland China whose ass they kiss while the longest running political party in the world remains as rich as the Saudis. And the currency, despite rising three percent recently, is coming off twenty year lows vs the USD. This is not an almost fully developed nation

      6) The concept of doing whatever is convenient at the moment like knowing all the rules and breaking them is fine in nations low on the developed scale. In Malaysia it’s unacceptable to me given their supposedly level of development. Citizens that do what they want because their government refuses to enforce anything gets old real fast and when they literally mow down and kill pedestrians and then get no penalties (real story) that’s really unacceptable to those of us who follow the rules.

      7) It’s torrentially humid almost every day and combined with 30 degree temps every day it’s almost impossible to hike, bike, explore or spend much time outdoors without dehydrating unless you’ve been bred here and are used to it. Not my kind of lifestyle

      Cheers

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