Late last year, Diane and I took some basic Thai lessons form a private tutor. Unlike an actual classroom environment with anyone resembling a real teacher, we paid 400 Baht per session and sat with three others at a table in a crowded mall once a week for a series of 20 lessons. Providing us with syllabus binders and a small supplemental quiz book, she titled it “Conversational Thai” and each chapter contained some vocabulary in no particular order, a dialog that was anything but conversational in a real life setting and a few sentence examples with basic phrases. Rarely mastered even by long-term expats that spend time and money on real educational endeavors, Thai is a highly untranslatable tonal language and making it worse, the Chiang Mai region has its own rural version of phrases that sophisticated city people wouldn’t understand if their lives depended on it.
While pleasant enough, our teacher’s patience clearly ran thin towards the end due to my overly inquisitive questions about sentence structure, grammar and even cultural questions. Never one for straight forward memorization, learning foreign languages doesn’t t rank high on my list of strengths and I’m terrible at reciting back what was just taught to me. Often trying to keep it light, our group tried joking with the teacher but almost every humorous comment we made was so culturally unknown to her it literally went in one ear and out the other. Concentrating on a chapter about stuff unique to developing nations like ordering gas (as common here as using online shopping services back home) and dozens of phrases for obsolete post office services, I came across a word that translated into “city water”. Assuming this meant “tap water”, we wasted ten minutes looking for synonyms or other English expressions the teacher might understand but in the end, we left it unsolved. Which brings me to the point. Clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a western expat in the developing world is figuring out what to do when stumbling onto the most common piece of advice in every tourism book; “Don’t drink the water”.
Typically available solutions to the problem of untreated tap water include buying bottled water from supermarkets (expensive and inconvenient), private delivery of locally sourced bottled water (often suspect and tastes horrible in Thailand), and home filtration systems (usually installed by unskilled workers from the retail store). Using a fourth option in Penang, we went with one of the island’s only reliable vendors and rented a cooler. Ordering 17 gallon jugs as needed, they delivered reverse osmosis water and while convenient, that option deprives consumers of beneficial minerals typically found in bottled water. Arriving in Thailand, we first went with “Dew Drop” the locally sourced bottled water that comes in dingy looking returnable containers reminiscent of milk deliveries circa 1953 in the western world. Tasting like a mix between dirty well water and a hose that hasn’t been cleaned in years, we finished off one delivery’s worth and decided instead to shop for a home filtration system. (Understanding many people love Dew Drop here in Chiang Mai, I’ll go on record and state I have no idea about purity).
Often comical, shopping for relatively complicated consumer products like filtration systems in a big box Thai store means garnering four to six employees all trying in vain to answer your questions. Given limited English skills by most employees, finding someone to help takes awhile and even though we’ve now completed 20 lessons in “conversational Thai”, it’s still only marginally easier because even though we know some more words, Thai people rarely understand their own language when farangs utter the words. Even if you listen to the Google translator fifteen times and repeat what you think is exactly the same, it’s not. Usually giving that confused look, it normally takes some English words they all know and a few hand motions until they finally give you that uniquely drawn out Thai expression that sounds something like “Oooo-hhhhh-HHHHH” with the tone slowly moving from lower to higher. Buying the filter was really hard because we’d just arrived and I barely mastered the numbers. Returning six months later to replace the filters was a tad easier and after being knocked out cold with food poisoning after an expensive Christmas Eve buffet, it seemed like a good time for routine house cleaning.
Having said I wouldn’t disclose the name of our New Year’s Eve venue until after I ate dinner there, I’m happy to report the food at Yummy Pizza was delicious and there was no vomiting involved the next morning despite my consumption of two beers, a large chicken parmesan entrée and some flatbread. Avoiding the usual hubbub of overpriced celebrations, the owner advertised a little New Year’s Eve celebration on his Facebook page complete with some live music and sing-alongs. Agreeing to join us were three of our closest Australian friends and given that two of them are eligible bachelors, this surprised me although one did leave at 10 for a party in the Old City. Promising to stay open until 1 AM, the owner managed to book a sold out dinner crowd but ultimately declared himself as the sole entertainment citing his inability to find anyone willing to perform for free. Thankfully, he’s about 55 years old and knows dozens of 60s and 70s tunes which he belted out as insanely loud fireworks set off from a field about three feet away interrupted every song.
Understandably bland and about what you’d expect from a crowd of mostly older men and their younger Thai wives and kids who chose a local Italian restaurant for their New Year’s Eve celebration, it seemed simplistically perfect since we’ve spent most of our marriage avoiding the drunken stupidity and high prices associated with December 31st. Grinding out three acoustic sets, the owner took requests and laughed when someone’s adult daughter asked for something from Smashmouth, which was apparently 20 years ahead of anything he knew. Unfortunately, people began piddling away and by 11PM it was down to us and a few friends of the owners so we called it a night and spent midnight watching an unknown but amazingly elaborate fireworks display so close to our house it was visible from our bedroom window. Starkly different from the homeland, all Southeast Asians seem to have easy access to otherwise dangerous, loud and expensive looking fireworks. Usually reserved for organized events where crowds are safely placed far from where they’re ignited, fireworks in the USA are generally ignited by professionals or firefighters for safety reasons. Witnessing an unusually long sixteen minute display as impressive as anything we’ve seen on July 4th, we cracked up because nobody cares about public safety in Asia and somehow everyone keeps all their fingers.
And then, just as the first week of 2018 came to a close, my stomach flared up again. Unlike the food poisoning, this one was mostly painful indigestion, appetite suppression and one full day of sleep and thankfully lasted only five days instead of eight. Unsure if it was part of the food poisoning bacteria or a different virus, we nonetheless decided to change the filters in our kitchen sink. With four different filters, the employees at the store recommended changing the first two every six months, and the other two annually and bi-annually. Designed to filter out pathogens and bacteria larger than 0.3 microns, we changed the first one and here’s the before and after picture
Always learning something, we now understand a telltale sign that your filtration system needs changing is when the flow trickles to a point so slow it takes a few minutes to fill one water bottle. Odds are your filter will come out looking like the second picture if this describes you. Thinking there was a lesson to be shared with the local expat Facebook groups, I made a somewhat semi serious comment about why you’re not supposed to drink the water in developing countries and posted the pictures. Naturally, this led to a long-winded comment 79 comment thread where the world’s most opinionated (and obviously intelligent) expat community commented that the sludge was probably iron minerals and then further debated with each other about how harmful this is to human health. Admitting there was some useful information posted backed up with reliable links and sources, comments came from all sides including a guy that worked at a Canadian water filtration plant and long-term resident that insists he’s drank tap water in Thailand with no ill effects. While not claiming expertise on any of this, for my two cents I’ll say that I’d rather not ingest whatever is in the brown colored mess that’s my six month old filter but feel free to live on the edge if you dare.
And since this is my first post of the new year due to my unfortunate first (and second) bad stomach experiences since moving to Southeast Asia, I’d like to say Happy New Year and wish everyone prosperity and good health in 2018. Usually avoiding financial discussions that touch on our personal finances, I’ll admit that 2017 was an incredibly profitable one for us thanks to both the reduced cost of living in Thailand and a 16.23% gain in our investment portfolio. Despite living on no salaries for almost three years now, our total net worth is actually 3.8% higher than the day Diane said goodbye to the office. Offering a disclaimer that I’m not a licensed professional nor am I legally qualified to offer financial advice, I thought I’d share one small tip without specifically endorsing any product or company. Not inherently complicated, my tip involves familiarizing yourself the two most important words in investing; Asset Allocation.
Having now completed about 20 years worth of investing jointly with Diane, the graphs speak for themselves so you can believe me when I say that staying the course with a sound investment strategy works wonders in any market environment. And asset allocation is the most important way to both keep what you make and lose less than everyone else when markets are down. Simply put, diversifying your cash across multiple asset types is more important than any individual stock, bond or even cryptocurrency. (which I believe is as fake as anything Trump says). Not just enough to own “stocks and bonds”, understand that there’s always one part of the market that goes up when almost everything else goes down.
Without being too specific, I’ll say we own almost all actively managed open end mutual funds, an individual stock or two, and a laddered group of fixed deposits. Easily the best way for an average investor to own a well diversified portfolio, an actively managed mutual fund is one where someone chooses each security rather than “owning an index” or a basket of securities that mimic the same stocks as the Dow Jones Industrials or other popular index. Why would you want to “make the market”? I want to BEAT the market and when it goes down, I want to lose LESS than the market. With thousands of mutual fund managers out there it’s quite daunting and I’d be glad to PM anyone who wants a list of what companies work for us.
Citing a large rise in the equity market during 2017, I noticed our portfolio became too top-heavy so I “rebalanced” it last week by selling some equity (stock) funds and using the proceeds to increase our fixed income (bond) exposure. Always trying to stay at a certain target that balances risk, I recommend you do this also after you decide on an appropriate asset allocation for your risk tolerance. Keeping in mind that while asset managers and other financial advisers are legally bound to protect your best interests, realize that you’ll lose tens of thousands in fees over an investing lifetime. Although I spent 30 years working in financial services, I assure you anyone can do what we’ve done and you don’t need an MBA.
So if I’ve lost you at this point you’ll understand why I tend to keep financial matters to those much wiser and smarter than me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep it light and look forward to our next eventual destination. (Probably Puerto Vallerta, Mexico). But there’s an exciting five week trip back to the homeland planned for June and I’ve lined up a reunion that includes four childhood friends I haven’t seen since the late 1970’s so for now, we’ll just keep enjoying Thailand, change our filters more often and hope that my bacteria stays as far away as Trump should from the White House. Cheers from still chilly Northern Thailand.