Already fifteen days into Chapter Two of our Experimental Overseas Early retirement, it’s hard to know where to start writing. Immensely different from Penang in a hundred different ways, we’ve been very busy getting set up in our new two-story house which involves about fifteen more steps than Malaysia. Possibly the world’s most tedious nation when it comes to getting established with life’s little necessities like utilities, phone service, buying a car and of course, figuring out exactly what the immigration folks need, we’re about half way through. Exhausting and tiring, we almost forgot what a pain in the ass moving is and waiting 40 days for your stuff to arrive means deciding how much cash to spend on household goods and unlike Penang, there’s no bus service which adds pressure to the car buying process because the clock’s ticking on the weekly rental car.
Thankfully, we found a suitable used car from the only really reliable source (by western standards) in Chiang Mai. Despite having almost every western convenience from superstores to gated suburbs and everything in between, Chiang Mai is sadly devoid of used car dealers. Unclear why a used car market never evolved in a place with so many foreigners and an extensive and well signed road network, we panicked when even the farang Facebook groups couldn’t offer much advice other than buying from a private source. Since that generally means an expat desperate to dump their car quickly because they need to leave the country before their visa expires, we shunned that idea given Thailand’s obsession with rules, procedures and fines for inadvertent violators. Luckily, there’s almost always a westerner that fills the gap when there’s a service expats need that nobody’s done yet and Expat Auto Chiang Mai is that company. Offering a complete bumper to bumper warranty and extensive servicing of all their vehicles, the biggest problem is often buying the right car before someone beats you to it. Choosing a 2011 Nissan Tiida (mostly because it was the only thing in our budget that wasn’t a Malaysian built car), we picked it up last night and began readjusting to the world of motor vehicles. Bye, Uber, Grab and Rapid Penang.
Leaving the car buying topic behind for a bit and promising to come back to all the important (and interesting) way they do things in Thailand, let me follow-up on all your suggestions. Implying there’s way too may blogs on Chiang Mai, many of you commented how there’s not really a lot of American or Canadian retirees younger than the “traditional retirement age” talking about middle class suburban life in Chiang Mai. And based on life so far in our secret little moo baan hideaway where the residents are mostly Chinese, professionals and Thai people with well-paying jobs, we think you’re all correct. (Although we’ve seen two white girls walking a dog, there’s very few farangs other than us). Somehow finding a community so quiet you can hear every single animal and bird (including the crazy “tokay gekkos“ that make the strangest mating call you’ve ever heard), I’m hesitant to even tell you where it is.
Well, maybe a little hint. Strangely close to the airport but not right in the flight pattern, the sound of planes overhead depends on the weather but isn’t really annoying and in fact provides a welcome break from the silence if that makes any sense in a developing nation. Down the street from possibly the most popular interchange in the Southwest quadrant of the city, we can walk to Big C, Home Pro and Rimping.. Oh yeah, those are the very western style large superstores, home centers and gourmet supermarkets not found anywhere in Penang.
Trying to differentiate the blog from thousands of others talking about digital nomad life (internet generation people who leave their homeland so they don’t have to work), or the endless amount of foodies (understandable given how much variety is here), I’ll try to stick to stories. So here’s an interesting one. Purveying a dozen or so of the most popular Facebook groups covering Chiang Mai, we kept reading about a place called Chiang Mai Smokehouse. Discerning if it’s a store, restaurant or expat business is a tad difficult given it’s Facebook page with no real story (more on that later) but everyone claims they have the city’s best New York style deli meats like pastrami and roast beef as well as a cornucopia of related east coast USA-style items for picnics, bar-b-q’s and events. Searching over and over, all I could find was some pictures from a brochure but the address appeared to be fairly close to our house so I sent off an inquiry via Facebook Messenger making sure to include the fact that I’m a native New Yorker that makes Katz’s Deli the first stop on any return visit to the old stomping grounds.
Responding rather quickly, the proprietor and I exchanged some general chit-chat about his background whereby he told me he’s a “New Jersey Jew” and he learned the business from his parents who owned a deli in the 1920’s. Realizing he operates the business from his house, I was kind of expecting a storefront type operation and since it said he needs to make some of the items fresh, I asked if we should order ahead but he said to just show up. Somewhat near the route home from the used car shop, we made a left turn onto a little side street. One of the first driving lessons about Chiang Mai is what I call “navigating the right side”. Loosely put, this means learning how to be on the correct side of the street because although there’s plenty of North American style underpasses and exit ramps off the main arteries, many only allow entry to a corresponding direction so going south, you can exit westbound but if you need to go east, it means going straight to the nearest U-turn break which are strategically placed all over every main road to avoid traffic light costs.
Often backed up twenty deep in rush hour, Chiang Mai does this very strange thing whereby somebody coming the other way decides everyone’s been waiting long enough and so they stop to allow a few cars to U-turn. For reasons unknown, the cars in the other two lanes also stop as if they have some strange Thai walkie-talkie communication system. Completely contradicting the other major Thai driving habit of never allowing anyone to merge, change lanes or do any maneuver that slows them down, it’s like a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome that nobody we’ve spoken to understands. Anyway, in our case, the connecting road to the Smoke House was inaccessible from the main highway due to an underpass so we followed Google Maps down one of those one and a quarter lane roads that they place a yellow line on thus turning it into a two-way traffic situation that requires extreme caution and forces you to play a game of “who has the right of way” when an oncoming vehicle is coming around the blind curve.
Back on a secondary road, we made a left turn until we reached a small side road and followed it until we saw a small sign pointing straight to the Smoke House. Arriving at a beautiful piece of large property with some cows across the street, we parked and approached the gate. Faster than we could imagine, two cute young Burmese girls came out and greeted us but spoke not a lick of English. (We recognized them as Burmese from the thanaka, a cosmetic yellowish paste applied to the face.) Thinking the owner was inside, they motioned us up to the house and sat us down at a table. Out of nowhere, the friendliest ladyboy we’ve ever seen also came out but also didn’t speak any meaningful English. Attempting to communicate that we wanted to buy some stuff, it appeared hopeless and we had no idea where the owner was. Undeterred and apparently having no clue what we wanted, they sat us down at a table and brought out an enormous plate of mangosteens and some paper towels. About to give up hope on finding the owner, one of the girls finally understood we wanted to buy some stuff and called the owner. Asking us if we could wait a half hour, he said we’d “sit down and chat” even though I’d already emailed that we just wanted to buy some stuff and be on our way. But then I realized the only people who talk more than me (according to Diane) are New York Jewish people and I knew we’d be in for a rather long social engagement before getting any food.
So we graciously ate all the fruit and exchanged smiles with the girls while the ladyboy went about doing some chores. Soon after, the owner showed up with his wife. Not really what I expected, he introduced himself as Mike and launched into a conversation about everything from Thai politics to the history of New York delis like we were old best friends. Learning he’d spent most of his adult life “in the music industry” (he didn’t really define what that meant), he then moved to Hawaii where he apparently learned to make the Hawaiian style items on his menu. Somehow along the line a friend asked him to move to Thailand and I’m unclear how or where he met his Thai wife but he went on to tell stories of living in a rural village with her relatives although somehow he speaks little if any Thai and he also tried to explain why the Thai language makes no grammatical sense (his words, not mine). Somehow, they returned to Chiang Mai and bought the property and now the young Burmese girls live there and work for him as well as his wife’s brother. We’re unclear about the ladyboy’s story. Below are some of the items Mike sells.
Confessing that some of what he told us went in one ear and out the other, it’s been years since I’ve met a New York Jewish personality and it was very hot and humid. During the course of the requisite long conversation, an old British guy came over. Having built a spa worthy of a resort on the property, apparently his wife was preparing some sort of local herbal concoction designed at healing a neurological condition that the British guy had. Swearing that his wife’s family healed gravitational edema in his legs when he lived in her village despite unsuccessful treatments at western hospitals, Mike swore by the strange voodoo like healing power but sadly, the Burmese girls seemed to misunderstand something so the potion wasn’t ready yet. Ironically, he said they understood everything he said despite their limited English yet every time he asked them to bring something out of the kitchen, they got it wrong and when we finally got around to inventory for the items I asked for, we noticed they mislabeled a few. But they’re so damn cute and friendly, I guess he doesn’t mind.
Defrosting the ribs we bought the next night, they were very tasty and the price was right so the next night we broke out the pastrami and attempted some reuben sandwiches. Although authentic looking, the salt content was too high even for this Katz’s Deli loving New York Jew so maybe the time in salt-free Malaysia took its toll. The cole slaw and potato salad are New York deli style and very good but not perfect (my opinion only) but the sauerkraut is spot on and delicious. Also buying some kilbassa and smoked ham, we’ll be eating his food for a few nights which is OK since we’ve run around so much getting settled and bringing back take-away dinners in between discovering new eateries.
After Penang’s very average and limited choices, Chiang Mai’s proving to be a food lover’s heaven so far and ironically, the folks at Chiang Mai Eats are sponsoring an all you can eat dinner at Chiang Mai Smokehouse next Friday so we’ll probably get a chance to eat much of what we didn’t order. So if you’re out and about, look it up on Facebook and come join us. Immediately sending me a friend request and reading many of my posts, it looks like I found a friend that’s longing to hang with others who understand strange New York Jewish food like stuffed derma, creamed herring and motzah brei. Still leaving Jamaican Beef Patties, Gulden’s mustard, real beef hot dogs and red onion sauce as the only New York street food items you can’t find in Chiang Mai, maybe I should investigate what it takes to become an importer. Oops. Sorry, Thai Immigration Department; just kidding. (I’ll cover why it’s worthwhile researching the visa rules over the coming months but suffice it to say there’s been a recent crackdown on those who probably don’t belong here anyway).
Let me add that I’m sorry for the long interruption between posts. Considering I haven’t written in three weeks, I’m surprised the readership continues to average about 150 page views a day. Possibly the biggest difference between getting established on a retirement visa in Thailand and Malaysia is the sheer number of tasks, rules and procedures that need to be followed to the letter if you expect to settle down with no issues. But once we muddle through, we expect life in Northern Thailand will be more fulfilling than in Penang. And one more thing; life moves on and so have we. Please understand we have no affiliation with or reason to endorse Joy-Stay, our MM2H agent from two years ago so please don’t email us with negative comments about their responsiveness or difficulties with getting Malaysian visa approvals. Concentrating on expat life in Thailand remains complicated enough and we’re no longer concerned with anything involving Malaysia.
Cheers from rainy Chiang Mai, Thailand. Comments always welcome.