Well, folks, money management class is closed for The Experimental Expats. Like a Nate Silver poll of the 2016 presidential election, it appears I drastically misread my readers and got it horribly wrong. Based on the response from an old post discussing investments and the importance of a diversified portfolio, I mistakenly thought now would be a great time to share some insight about the recent market volatility, our progress after four years retired and why you should ignore all the “sky is falling” stories in the financial press. But based on an almost total lack of interest in the post and virtually no comments or replies, I guess the financial and money management stuff is best left to other bloggers.
Admittedly, I’m a tad disappointed because I put more effort into it than almost any given day in my last job. Thinking it was too long and complicated, I hereby officially anoint my latest post about expat finances a failure and apologize to anyone that was nice enough to give it a read. Using most of the post as background information to explain why our situation is different than many early retirees and what led to our risky decision to forego work, I planned on a follow up to discuss our budget and share some of my rather simple spreadsheets. Ironically, I stumbled onto an article from Business Insider yesterday about 8 people who retired early and how the decision changed their money habits.
Naturally, they’re all millennials that found a way to achieve “financial independence” at a ridiculously young age and they don’t really explain anything about how much they have, how they intend to fund the next 50 or 60 years (some have kids) or how they travel the world with a total net worth of nothing. Some are professionals that probably thought real work was too hard. Most write for-profit blogs which means they live day to day and hope the “online income” field will carry them into the latter part of this century. Clearly not my idea of being “retired”, I wish them all well but wouldn’t trade my diversified portfolio and the security that comes with it anytime. So like a fitness class scheduled at a bad time, part two of my financial post is canceled due to lack of interest. But please don’t go away yet; I heard you all loud and clear and will now return to my regularly scheduled programming.
Moving on from finances, the next chapter in our experimental early retirement as we countdown the last year in Chiang Mai before moving to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico is a three day trip to Malaysia to terminate our participation in the MM2H Retirement Program. Rather than complaining about the rising US Dollar that’s pounding us right before we need to exchange a large sum of Malaysian Ringgit for US Dollars, I’ll craft a more reader-friendly post with many personal pictures that highlights life in Chiang Mai. Simultaneously, it helps me alleviate some of the sorrow I’m already experiencing about leaving a place that’s safe, comfortable and funny.
There’s always something in season in the tropics from mountain-grown strawberries to smelly durians. Always easily identifiable at the fresh market and supermarkets, huge displays of remarkably inexpensive fruit appear almost out of nowhere. Growing up in North America, all we ever saw were two types of mangoes and they’re expensive and never very fresh. Here in Thailand, there are at least 10 different varieties and they all have different sizes, color, and sweetness. At the moment, it’s rambutan season. Related to lychees, it grows in a tree, is apparently very nutritious and derives its name from the Malay word for hair thanks to its appearance. Similar to longan fruits, it’s got a translucent sweet mushy center and a big pit. Having only seen them in cooking shows, they’re worth trying but not one of my favorites.
Also a late summer staple in Thailand, the mangosteen is another strange looking fruit that looks inedible from its ugly outside appearance. Sometimes used as a flavor in artificially sweetened drinks and other assorted western world products, nothing beats the real thing. This year’s crop is bigger and sweeter than I’ve ever tasted and at about 30 cents a pound, we’re devouring them while we’re still here. Also rich in antioxidants and carrying various health benefits, the juicy white flesh inside rivals mangoes, oranges and other sweet fruits.
One thing I love about Thailand is how everything is already opened, packaged, peeled and laid out in neat little packages. Where else can you see pomegranates sold like this? I’m not a huge fan but here’s a link from someone that is. And of course, they grow in Thailand also.
Fast Food Abominations
Always finding it interesting that so many American fast and casual food companies choose to expand into nations that have nothing in common with American gastronomic palettes, we’ve seen everything from San Francisco based Swensen’s Ice Cream in Myanmar to a small California based burger chain called The Habit in Kuala Lumpur. Even funnier are the flavors and oddities they use to get Asians into the store like this strange new concoction at Auntie Annie’s pretzels
Or this bizarre-looking nugget at KFC with some sort of dark red and probably highly spicy sauce.
And McDonald’s does have their staple food; a Big Mac and fries. Everything else on the menu from pork samurai burgers to the never-ending array of bizarre desserts like this one below is unrecognizable. Even funnier is how they write it in Chinese as well as Thai so the tourists don’t miss out.
Of course, snacking is fun because just as we’ve seen ketchup chips all over Canada but sparsely in the USA, Thai people don’t like sour cream and onion so much but they love anything spicy; hence, a million local flavors of Pringles and Lays like shrimp tom yum and sweet chili.
Then there’s stuff that simply makes no sense to my taste buds
Thailand’s version of Costco is Makro. Easily the largest “cash and carry” store, they’re always open, sell everything in bulk from seafood, meat, and poultry to dozens of innards, Asian veggies you’d never know and thousands of giant processed cans of everything street vendors need to run their business. As for freshness, nobody knows where they get any of their stuff because despite being surrounded by water on three sides, Thailand’s once-thriving seafood industry is suffering thanks to labor shortages. Mostly what we saw in the southern provinces once filled with boats offshore are locals dredging for small clams and anything else they can call dinner. And as for living an early retirement on a cheap budget, you can always find stuff like this and figure out what kind of soup to make with it
Oddly enough, Northern Thai food, known as Lanna style, is nothing at all like the stereotypical food served in any western Thai restaurant. Strangely devoid of Pad Thai and Tom Yum, the most popular soup in the North is called Kaho Soi. Spicy but different from Tom Yum, the Northen Thai version is a mix of deep-fried crispy egg noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, ground chilies fried in oil, and meat (chicken or beef) in a curry-like sauce containing coconut milk. Rarely served in restaurants outside Northen Thailand, almost every farang (white foreigner) loves it (including us). Inexpensive and found everywhere from mom and pops to expensive “high-so” joints (they’re the crazy rich Asian type Thais), it’s roots are probably Muslim Thai but you won’t find many of them admitting that because the Muslims are in the South and the Lanna people are strikingly proud of their Northen Thai heritage.
Thankfully, we found a new mom and pop place around the corner that calls it “Northern Chinese Thai curry” and makes it “pet nit noy” (just a little spicy). If you’re contemplating a move to Chiang Mai or just a curious type and enjoy being well versed in local history and culture, here’s a great link from City Life Chiang Mai magazine
Although technically classified as a Central Thai dish, green curry is our other favorite Thai dish that’s never prepared the same way in western Thai restaurants. Usually bolder than mild red curries, a typical dish will have coconut milk, green curry paste, palm sugar, fish sauce, and a strange marble-sized eggplant known as a pea aubergine. The flavor in the curry paste comes from galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, cilantro (known as coriander to the whole planet outside of America), shrimp paste, cumin seeds, and white peppercorns. Generally served with a protein like fish balls or beef, palm sugar and fish sauce are also included. Given its complexity, it’s easy to see why almost nobody in a modern society makes their own handmade paste anymore but if you visit, be sure to take a class and learn how anyway.
Duck Duck, Goose
OK, they don’t have goose stands in Thailand but they do have tons of duck. Often found as a food truck’s only dish, we found this guy out on a suburban highway after an illness apparently put him out of business for a while. Gastronomically speaking, most duck in Thailand is leaner than versions I’ve had in Hong Kong and North America and I’m unclear how they raise them so lean. But one issue I have with Southeast Asian nations is they all add their own touch according to their tastes when it comes to sauces and condiments. So in Thailand, that means the duck comes with an insanely spicy relish-like hot sauce and sweet soy sauce (a sweetened aromatic soy sauce originating in Indonesia) which is easily their favorite condiment. They use it on dumplings instead of a vinegar-based sauce as give it to you to add as the sauce if you get beef teriyaki to go (It’s nothing like teriyaki or regular soy sauce).
Often spending afternoons reading or cooling off in coffee shops, we’d heard of digital printers that put a picture on top of your cappuccino but had never seen one. Unclear why anyone would want this, I figured it’s just another way for narcissist millenials to stare at themselves along with the twelve thousand selfies they take everywhere they go. Recently, our favorite local hangout installed one and since it didn’t cost anything extra, we tested it with an old photo of our wedding. Impressively clear, we liked it so much we barely wanted to drink it.
And a Taste of Italy
Originally planning on visiting China before we left Asia, President Shitbrains changed our minds with his Unwinnable Tariff War on China. With new rhetoric every day and trouble brewing with the Chinese government in Hong Kong, we thought perhaps it might not be the ideal time to play tourist in Beijing. Besides that, at $140, the cost of visiting didn’t make the list of the Top 7 most expensive Tourist Visas for Americans but came close so who needs that when you’re living on a fixed income? Knowing we’ll need to leave Chiang Mai one last time for seven weeks in March and April to avoid the annual environmental disaster known as “burning season“, we decide to celebrate our 20th anniversary six months early with a trip to Southern Italy.
Conveniently, Thai Airways flies daily nonstops from Bangkok to Rome for about $950 USD although they’re one of the only full-service Asian based airlines not yet offering premium economy. Continuously ranked in the world’s top 10 for economy seating, the pitch between seats on their long haul Airbus A350-900 fleet is 32 and according to SeatGuru, that ranks relatively high among the industry, Given the time of year, we thought the Southern Mediterranean region would be cool to mild which sounds great given the insane heat in Chiang Mai this year. And with Easter falling in April next year but the peak of the rainy season finished, we learned that mid to late March can be an ideal time for visiting if you’re not looking to beachcomb.
With temperatures hovering between 8 and 18 Celsius and many resorts and restaurants beginning to open back up, it sounds perfect for exploring without the crowds. Ironically, there’s a strangely large number of chefs from Rome that left Italy for Chiang Mai and opened up restaurants here in the tropics. Having researched and planned our entire vacation online rather than using a guided tour, I learned that the cost of living is high and competition is immense so many of them become working expats. Having heard about a very reasonably priced place called Why Not Italian Restaurant and Wine Bar, we recently went to try it and gave it five stars.
Choosing Rome, Naples and The Amalfi Coast as our destinations in Italy, it harkens me back to my childhood roots in Brooklyn. Growing up in a heavily Italian neighborhood, most New Yorkers hailed from Sicily and Southern Italy so my mouth watered as I researched dozens of restaurants serving food so close to my heart. As for the financial aspect, the trip falls outside the scope of our annualized budget and is one of those things I feel we just need to do while we’re still on this side of the world. Earmarking a portion of our cash reserves, we’re lucky enough to have enough Thai Bhat left to use for purchasing Euros before we leave. Foreign exchange rates at money exchange shops are much better in Southeast Asia than North America where we once paid upwards of 9 percent to convert some Canadian Dollars to Malaysian Ringgit. Oh, but I’m back on personal expat finances for early retirees and that’s a topic I’ll trust my instincts on and stay away from unless enough readers tell me otherwise.
Thank you very much for spending some of your day reading our blog.