White Christmas (almost)

OK, so it’s not really a miracle or a White Christmas. (More on the miracle part shortly). But it is so cold in Chiang Mai today that I hit the spare bedroom where the winter clothing box sits like a prisoner in solitary confinement. Unlike last year when my crazy decision to spend Christmas in Canada with Diane’s family meant spending the entire four weeks hunkered down inside to avoid the frigid temperatures, sanity prevailed this year and we stayed in the tropics. But someone forgot to tell the weather gods. Anxiously awaiting this “cool season” they all promised us would arrive, November brought thirty days of gray on gray and torrid humidity. Then December arrived and magically gave us a few days of comfortably livable almost sub-tropical like days. And then it quickly went back to hot, humid and hazy. Rumors of an early “burning season” began popping up as the sun remained visibly absent and the air outside reminded me of that ever-present stink of Malaysians burning everything from garbage to plastic (despite their insistence that they don’t do that because it’s supposedly illegal).

Lowest reading since arriving in Asia

And then out of nowhere, we got an early Christmas present. Shifting winds brought a wave of high pressure down from China, skies brightened into a brilliant cloud free sky with nothing but sunshine and it got cool again. But it didn’t stop with cool. Like an ignorant tweet from Trump, it kept coming and coming until it got downright chilly. And that turned into downright cold. Forcing us to close every window in the house, crank the shower heater up to 80% and break out the sweatpants and socks, last night was colder than Walnut Creek, California where we used to live. (I checked). Clocking in at an astoundingly low 9 Degrees Celsius, (48 Fahrenheit), we both woke up cold and slept with the blanket pulled all the way up. Never one to complain about cool spells in the tropics, breaking through the single digits when you’ve lived with daily high temperatures of 30 Celsius or more for two years proved quite interesting. Always thinking our living room wall thermometer doesn’t really work because it’s been permanently fixed on 30 and we never use the air con except to sleep, it jumped an amazing 8 degrees last night and now it looks like any typically beautiful Canadian summer day.

The view near our house

So this morning I climbed out of bed, closed the bathroom door, ran the shower for about eight minutes and steamed up the bathroom. Naturally, we picked today as one of the rare days we ever leave the house during the local rush hour. So I did something I literally haven’t done once in 31 months since arriving at Kuala Lumpur’s airport for the first time. I wore long pants. And socks. And a light fleece jacket. While watching the Thai people don five layers, scarves, gloves, hats and parkas suitable for Edmonton in January is almost reason enough to leave the house before the sun warms the air a bit, we did have a purpose. Often forgetting the ways of a paranoid America obsessed with security, we live so close to the airport we can almost walk out on the runway. Separated from a local street only by a five foot fence with a small amount of barbed wire and a sign asking you to please not enter the airport area, the single runway is pretty much within reach of anyone crazy enough to test the Thai military by venturing into an area reserved for commercial airplane traffic.

Waiting for a Wing 41 Pass

Maintaining a Thai Royal Air Force division known as Wing 41 right next to the airport, the military shares space and there’s a road that parallels the airport. Oddly, this road happens to be a shortcut to both the airport and the crowded and trendy Nimman neighborhood. Cutting off as much as 15 to 30 minutes depending on traffic, someone figured out that revenue beats security when your air force is about as likely to take part in any external conflict as Trump making an intelligent statement. With a diplomatic policy that officially lists nobody as an “enemy”, it’s a reasonable assumption that nobody’s endangering national security by taking a shortcut through a local Air Force station. So once a year, thousands of people, locals and expats, stand in a long line at a building on the military base and apply for a “Wing 41 Pass”. Charging 100 Baht and requiring only a form, copies of your passport and “blue book” (car registration history), they offer a sort of open enrollment for 30 days beginning in late November.

Interestingly, like many Thai rules, they rarely seem to enforce the sticker rule but unlike the west where nobody would pay money for a sticker that’s never checked, people don’t chance it. Occasionally, the Thai enforce various rules like a few months ago when they arrested three girls working at a bar handing out flyers because they were “promoting alcohol sales”. Shamed and forced to pay large fines, the girls story made national news and the government conducted strict enforcement of laws prohibiting “the encouragement of alcohol sales” in response to recent negative stories about alcohol related crimes and traffic deaths. Then they abruptly laid off. Long time expats advise every foreigner not to post any pictures on Facebook showing yourself drinking or even holding a beer. Often having to remind myself not to post otherwise innocuous selfies of me enjoying an occasional bottle of Chiang or Singha, it’s one of the things you live with if you want to enjoy life in the Kingdom. Like most Thai queues, there’s a first one to get the forms, a second one to check the forms and a third one to stamp the form. And then of course you wait. Ours says to come back in early March to pick up our sticker.

Taking about an hour in total, the sun began rising in the sky but the temperature didn’t climb to tropical levels and topped out at a not very steamy 22 degrees Celsius which made my daily afternoon dip in our moo-baan’s pool “invigorating“. Realistically, it was more like crazy and ten chilly laps was all I could muster before my body began telling me that I never swam in Canadian lakes even in the dead of summer. But before we headed back for the Thai Polar Bear Club Dip we headed to the grand re-opening of an American owned part-time restaurant rumored to serve the best “American style breakfasts” and light lunches. Only opening Thursday through Saturday from 8 AM until 2 PM, The Lazy Elephant is well worth the time and effort even if you don’t live close by. Owned and operated by a guy named Shaun that returns to his native Humboldt County in Northern California four months a year to do seasonal work, we met him for the first time and made an immediate connection. Along with his Thai wife and young child, he runs the restaurant as a part-time venture and although his background isn’t food or cooking, his breakfast was the first thing I’ve had in Chiang Mai that made me really feel “at home”.

Chiang Mai’s best breakfast burrito

While there’s literally dozens of “western style” restaurants and a handful that call themselves “American style”, we haven’t found anything to write home about. Catering mostly to European and Australian tastes, most places lack great hometown food even though there’s plenty of North American expats here. Maybe the long-term people are too far removed from their homeland to remember what real American fare tastes like. (A notable exception is Rose’s Roadhouse and New York Style Pizza)  Anyway, as long time California residents, Diane and I love breakfast burritos and real crispy style smoked bacon. (The European version, known as “streaky bacon” is of no value to me). With the best Mexican food coming from a local food truck owned by two Thai girls, we marveled at Shaun’s version which came stacked full of fluffy eggs, flavorful sausage (hard to find if you don’t like European style), hash brown potatoes and topped with incredibly tasty sour cream. Simple but so hard for everyone else in town. Also coming with the best guacamole we’ve had made with fresh Burmese avocados, Shaun explained how and where to buy them which solved an ongoing issue we’ve had trying to find and store them. Topping it off, I sampled his tomato soup which is also radically different and tastier in North America than any can we’ve had whether it’s Baxters (Scottish), Waitrose (British) or the Australian version of Campbell’s Chunky.

Quesadillas with real American style bacon

Having previously documented my feelings about the local Facebook community in Chiang Mai being a private club for a bunch of opinionated folks (mostly non Americans) sitting around waiting to insult anyone with the audacity to question their expertise on all things, I learned from some other patrons at that many North American expats in Chiang Mai agree with me. Dominating every conversation and thread on social media, this limited group of people mostly hate me and I’ve been slandered, insulted, called “deranged and mental” and a host of other moronic comments not worth mentioning . As one of the very few choices in Chiang Mai not targeting the aforementioned crowd, Shaun’s place is where you’ll find down to earth people and once his regulars find out he’s up and running again, you can be sure we’ll be there weekly so please visit him and drop some positive vibes on TripAdviser  if you’re in the area.

And now for the Christmas Miracle. Six months and fifteen days ago, Diane and I strolled into the offices of Telecom Malaysia in Penang to cancel our service and request a refund of our rather sizable 1,200 Malaysian Ringgit security deposit that’s required before they’ll let you sign up for home broadband service. Having heard stories from other expats that left the MM2H program about deposits they never received back, we kept our Malaysian bank account open since we’re still on the program which should’ve meant a routine electronic bank deposit within 30 days. But this was Malaysia where they act like number 200 on the world development scale despite bragging about how advanced they are. After a series of over 25 emails to TM, they used every possible reason in the book to stall. Thinking most expats eventually give up, first they told me my bank account statement doesn’t match the account (It’s a joint account so there’s two names on it). Then they went back and forth for half a year apologizing and telling me to “revert back to them” after a certain period. Unwilling to give up, I persisted and believe it or not, I’m amazed to report a major victory when I received a wire into our bank account less a nominal amount they decided to keep.

And so it seems sometimes pigs do fly. Having received our early holiday present of our own cash, we look forward to our upcoming Christmas Eve dinner at the Shangri-La Hotel complete with real turkey. We hope. As you may recall, we thought we’d be eating holiday turkey on Thanksgiving but a misunderstanding on my part had us chowing down on processed breast meat courtesy of Norbert, a Utah based company specializing in “premade” turkeys. I’d also like to reiterate that we no longer live in Malaysia. Still receiving a ton of hits on my now aged Malaysian posts and a rash of questions about the MM2H program, I’d rather not address questions about Malaysia any more.

Having said that, let me offer my opinion on a recent email. Someone asked me how they can extend 90 day tourist visas in Malaysia and simultaneously set up residency ties like bank accounts and utilities. Simply put, you shouldn’t do that. Like most countries (except Thailand), most sovereign nations accepting non immigrant visa applicants want either folks working legitimate jobs or middle class retired people with sufficient means. Malaysia highly discourages people who use tourist visas for short-term stays longer than 90 days and offers one of the world’s best retirement visas. If you’re not working a legitimate job, they don’t want you coming in and out on tourist visas. While it may not happen right away, we’ve known cases where folks live in Penang but refuse to get MM2H visas for whatever reason.  Instead, they simply come in and out on tourist visas. On one occasion, immigration officials refused entry to one of these people and they weren’t even allowed to collect their possessions. Diane and I went through the legal, tedious and rather lengthy process of applying for and obtaining a legal retirement visa before we became residents. Please respect us and the host nation by NOT asking advice on how to skirt the rules.

Happy Holidays from Cold Chiang Mai.  


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