Since arriving in Southeast Asia I’ve often said there’s always something interesting to see every day if you get out and about. Sometimes, you don’t even need to do that. Contrasting our previous lives as homeowners in the highly overpriced suburbs of San Francisco, the other day we saw what Thai homeowners do to combat the effects of overgrowth on their properties. With rainy seasons lasting upwards of four months or longer and downpours unseen by many westerners, it’s no surprise that plants, trees and grass thrive in the tropics. But unlike our previous privileged life in the East Bay hills of suburban San Francisco, people don’t phone an expensive company with professional tree surgeons.
Defining an arborist as “a professional in the practice of arboriculture, which is the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants in dendrology and horticulture”, I’m not sure if Wikipedia has a name for the Thai version. Despite often feeling like we live in a quiet gated community in Southern California, there’s routinely something reminding us we’re worlds away from the old lifestyle. Unlike many comments on social media from disrespectful western expats bitching how Thailand is so third-worldish, we think Thai workers are rather industrious and efficient. Complying with our moo-baan’s strict guidelines requiring homeowners to keep properties neat, our neighbors no doubt followed Thai protocol. Arriving in an old pick up, a guy with a machete showed up, climbed the tree barefoot and hacked away. Supervised by two community representatives, he meticulously hit all the major branches and hacked off large pieces of as they fell to the ground in large piles. Given the late hour of the day, we marveled at how huge chinks of debris somehow wound up neatly piled into black garbage bags before nightfall. And the next day a truck hauled it all away.
Having spoken about the negativity, sarcasm and culturally insensitive comments often found on many Facebook groups in Chiang Mai, I’d like to offer my take. Never trying to instill my morality or personal beliefs on others, I do think it’s both rewarding and practical to understand more about the place you’re living when it’s outside your homeland. While many long-term expats speak and even read Thai, few we’ve met seem to know a great deal about local Lanna culture. Differing immensely from southern Thailand, the Lanna people ruled a great kingdom steeped in history before joining The Kingdom of Siam. Often speaking a local dialect that seems to confound some of our Thai speaking western friends, we hear expressions and commonly used phrases for something as simple as a greeting that you won’t learn in Thai language class. For instance, since Diane looks Thai to the locals, women often greet her with “Khop Khun Jow”, instead of the traditional female greeting of “Kap Khun Ka” and our community security guards substitute “Khop Kun Krub” with “Khap-Ohm” when addressing me on our way in and out. Both are local expressions usually reserved for comfortable social situations.
Although it won’t do much to enhance your Thai language skills, The Chiang Mai National Museum offers an interesting collection of displays and artifacts that teaches visitors the rich cultural heritage and history of the people from Northern Thailand. Comprised of two floors, they devote the first floor to history while the second floor displays secular and religious artifacts arranged by theme and historical periods. Flying quite low on the radar compared to the larger and more popular National Museum in Bangkok, the museum recently completed a long renovation and at only 100 Baht, admission to the well-lit air-conditioned building is well worth an afternoon out of the hot sun. Not far from the old city, I enjoyed it so much I mentioned it on one of the more popular expat Facebook groups and garnered over 100 likes as well as positive comments from expats that had never heard of it. Taking about three hours to cover it all, most of the English translations are easily understandable and we came away with a thorough understanding of the region’s unique culture.
On a more downbeat note, let’s talk a bit about the sagging U.S. Dollar. Usually unnoticed by domestic financial sites except perhaps those devoted to currency trading, it’s probably the most important financial consideration for anyone living overseas who hasn’t (foolishly) converted large sums of U.S. Dollars into local currency. Declining almost 5% since we arrived in early July, this is the second time in our two country overseas expat life the local currency’s value changed dramatically right after we arrived. Unfortunately this time around it’s the USD getting pummeled which makes everything more expensive when you’re on a fixed income and your cash sits in American banks denominated in US Dollars. On the bright side, US equity markets are at or near all time highs despite the weakness of the dollar proving once again why it’s important to own a fully diversified investment portfolio for future cash needs as well as having a sizable amount in liquid cash and risk-free fixed deposits like CD’s.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your timing), potential retirement visa candidates that choose Thailand will always need to convert and then segregate a large chunk of U.S. dollars into a Thai bank account for either 60 or 90 days. (The requirement for those without pensions is 800,000 Thai Baht. The 60 day requirement is for the those extending the visa they entered Thailand with “based on retirement” for the first time and it’s 90 days every time you reapply.) Once extended, you’re free to do whatever you want with the cash so in our case, we wound up with about eight months living expenses using cash worth more than current exchange rates. Essentially forcing would-be expats to take a mandatory hedge against currency risk, most countries ask retirement visa applicants for a moderate up front cash commitment so it’s wise to have a “no foreign transaction fee” U.S. dollar denominated credit card when living overseas.
Following advice garnered from retirement sites specializing in overseas living, we never exchange more than six months to one year’s worth of living expenses at one time because it’s both costly and risky. Having never had the Malaysian Ringgit be any stronger than our first cash transfer when we moved to Penang, we used a credit card for almost everything we could, paid in cheaper U.S. dollars and saved a few thousand bucks. Conversely, with a sinking US Dollar, we’ve been forced to live almost exclusively on cash which means we’ve used both ends of the spectrum and can at least get eight months until we need to worry about a lower U.S. dollar. Of course next year is a different story and if the dollar continues its plunge versus emerging market currencies we’ll be in for an unfortunate unplanned rent increase next time we need to convert cash and reapply for our retirement visa. Even if there was a 20% decrease in the value of US dollars to Thai Baht, you’d still make out like bandits living overseas if you compare retirement costs in North America to Southeast Asia.
Switching gears from money to food, let’s clear something up. Despite what some of our new friends in Thailand claim, Diane and I are not “eating our way through Chiang Mai”. In fairness, we do enjoy eating out given that we rarely did so in Penang and the food is a million times better here than in Malaysia. And hey, there was a friendly “best ribs” competition going on Chaing Mai Eats, one of the most popular Facebook food groups in Penang. On a recent trip to Mae Rim, we decide to try See Paak, a popular place for ribs that’s consistently among the top contenders.
Owned by a semi-friendly European who greeted but didn’t coddle us, the outside only restaurant swelters in the late afternoon heat and serves ribs “St. Louis style” which means that the ribs are minimally glazed and not “saucy”. Unlike baby backs, each rib is meaty on both ends with a huge swath of fat in between. Kind of like eating a saturated fat sandwich, it’s not my favorite style but they were perfectly grilled and the small portion of side sauce was tangy without being too sweet. Highlighting the meal was an incredibly fresh salad with a honey mustard vinaigrette so good I asked the owner if he’d sell me some.
Devoid of any other sides, the ribs are pricey by Chiang Mai standards and it’s often cheaper to ask about a small rack priced by weight instead of ordering off the menu. (330 Baht for three ribs). Thinking we’d need more, we ordered a side of mashed potatoes that was more like healthy potato salad with nothing but green onions, peppercorns and potatoes. Overall, a good meal if you’re visiting one of the nearby tourist attractions but we fail to understand why so many European owned places claim to have the best ribs in Chiang Mai given that bar-b-q ribs are clearly an American style food. (How many racks of schnitzel have you seen in Germany?)
Back to the topic at hand, if anything, we cook more than many expats in Chiang Mai. With so many digital nomads living in closet sized apartments with multiple roommates, it’s no surprise many of them eat out or bring home take away every night. Some of our friends have no kitchen at all and that’s an outright shame because food shopping in Chiang Mai corrects the most glaring mistake in our convenience-laden western lives. Unlike Costco, proteins like meat, chicken, pork and fish are the cheapest thing in the supermarkets while all the processed shit in cans and bottles is usually overpriced (especially imported goods). And unlike Penang, multiple supermarkets serve the community along with a host of fresh markets where buying salad, greens and veggies is cheaper than bus fare in San Francisco.
Despite living in an 1800 square foot two-story house, our kitchen is also quite small but just big enough to store all the kitchen stuff we shipped from Malaysia. Learning to live without an oven gets easier once you realize that almost anything can be cooked in a wok and a microwave with dual oven/microwave functionality keeps food juicer than the oven anyway. While usually getting our protein from Rimping Market or Big C, the other day we popped into the rather dingy looking meat and seafood section of our local fresh market and came across the largest most beautiful prawns I’ve seen for sale at any landlocked locale.
Deciding if we should buy them or not, resistance was futile despite the friendly merchant who rambled on in Thai to Diane (as usual) even after she explained “English only”. Priced at 600 Baht per kilo, we picked out about six big ones an it came to about $8. Thinking it might be a tad short of a stir fry, we added what appeared to be some fresh squid. Ironically, the squid was one-quarter the price of the shrimp which is the opposite of Penang where they charge lobster like prices meaning it’s never fresh because Malays can’t afford it. Adding only some sir fry sauce, soaked black beans and garlic, we cooked up a meal worthy of any restaurant without the hassle of going anywhere. Also cooking pork chops, Thai style ground pork and finally getting striploin steaks at childhood prices, we enjoy eating in as much as eating out because Thailand’s freshness and affordability factor is unmatched almost anywhere and you’d be nuts to eat out all the time given how you have little to no control of what’s going on your plate.
Promising I’d keep the blog from becoming a “foodie” rag, I find myself once again apologizing for the mouth-watering contents of this post and yes, I realize I haven’t yet posted about the ins and outs of getting our retirement visa. But judging from the amount of views I’m still getting about my posts covering Malaysia’s MM2H Program when we don’t even live there anymore, it seems everyone probably already knows what a pain in the ass being an expat in Thailand is when it comes to immigration. In fairness to myself, we’re both still adapting to the rainy season and finding the heat and humidity worse than living on the windy shores of Batu Ferrenghi since there’s no island breezes to modify the uncomfortably torrid afternoon air. Hoping the cool season arrives sooner rather than later, we still think lifer in Chiang Mai beats the high prices, stress filled commutes and political bullshit of a nation taken over by a lunatic president so I think I’ll turn on the air con now and with electric bills less than $45 a month I think we’ll probably stay until 2020. Or 2024 if the world survives eight years without a nuclear confrontation.
Cheers from humid Northern Thailand. Comments welcome