Where did all the time go? Like almost everyone on Planet Earth for the last 14 months, I ask that question often but even more so every time I get an email informing me that someone read one of my posts despite an 18 month lapse of current content. Surprisingly, it seems people still find, view, and even inquire about our pre-pandemic overseas expat experiences. Realizing another annual subscription fee awaits like a wild animal stalking its prey, I decided that wasting more money for the privilege of retaining a dormant domain name is counterproductive. Having built a small but relatively loyal readership over five years, it’s high time I resume our chronological journey through an experimental overseas early retirement. (Spoiler alert; we’re back in Canada so the overseas segment is now Part One of Who Knows).
Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten my block editor basics and Grammarly refuses to work unless I use some ridiculous backdoor method of logging in so please excuse any sloppiness. Pondering how and where to start given the amount of disruption and pain to countless souls across the globe, I felt like nobody needs yet another story of how I spent my pandemic year. But for what it’s worth, we did experience a classic “Only in Thailand” experience and were somehow able to hide out through the peak of the chaos in a small beach town in the only province that still allowed beachcombing (minus the water sports). Retrospectively, it made a difficult time quite easy, albeit a bit repetitive in a tropical beach kind of way. So first let’s catch up on my last post back in the last presidency when we’d returned from Malaysia for the last time after cashing in our MM2H Fixed Deposits.
Ironically, we wound up trapped in the same pool villa we’d normally be visiting every March and April to escape the annual Chiang Mai Burning Season. Perilously close to disaster, we also literally just made it back to Thailand from Australia before they closed the borders to everyone including their own citizens. Having reluctantly canceled a well-planned 20th anniversary celebration to Italy scheduled for early March, my frustration with Covid grew and I wanted to go somewhere although Diane was very against traveling in what was fast becoming a worldwide health crisis. As usual, her intuition was well-founded, and had I not panicked and booked an earlier flight home, we might still be stuck in Australia to this day living with our friend Rose in a country ten times more expensive than Thailand. Not to mention we’d have everything we owned back in Chiang Mai. Sadly, that’s what happened to thousands of expats stranded outside Thailand after the borders closed.
As our blog followers know, we decided to retire early after I was laid off from the financial services industry in 2013 at age 48. Needing to be 50 years old to obtain what was once Southeast Asia’s easiest and best retirement visa (The MM2H or Malaysian Social Visit Pass), we didn’t yet have a sizable enough portfolio to be financially independent and so Diane worked another 18 months and then we sold our overpriced suburban Bay Area house along with almost all our possessions. Armed with enough living cash by Southeast Asian standards for 10 to 15 years, we settled in Penang but moved to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand two years later. Over the course of five years, we traveled rather inexpensively to neighboring countries including Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Myanmar.
Given the recent military coup in Myanmar, we’re quite disheartened because the Burmese are one of the nicest people anywhere and deserve democracy. In one of my only controversial posts, a young journalist from the publication Coconuts Yangon apparently took offense at my honest praise of a beautiful nation stuck in a rut. Worthy of your time, please peruse my posts titled Shedding The Burmese Legacy, Big City Changes, or Long Train Running to learn a bit about this fascinating and still relatively untouristed nation.
While Canadian winters are no fun, climate change affects the tropics also. While Malaysia was uncomfortably hot and humid 365 days a year, Northern Thailand traditionally enjoys a three-month “cool season” that runs anywhere from comfortable in the morning (15 to 19 Celsius) to downright cold for the tropics (10 or even single digits). Having left everything resembling long sleeves and jackets at our relative’s basement in Calgary, we almost froze in December 2017. And it stayed cool and comfy all the way until March when normal humans are forced to flee the annual burning and pollution that would make Greta Thunberg cringe. But winter of 2018 brought less relief and 2019 was hotter than the previous two years with little or no rainfall. And by the time Covid arrived, Chiang Mai was averaging 35 to 40 degree days for months on end. Tired of spending all day in the air conditioning and dying from workouts in gyms where the Thai consider thermostats set at 26 Celius (almost 80 Fahrenheit) too cold, we decided five years was enough and began our Asian departure plans in the fall of 2019.
Despite an astounding gain of almost 70 percent in our retirement portfolios since leaving North America six years ago, we’re still several years away from modest pensions, penalty-free retirement account distributions, and social security benefits. Concerned that living expenses in Canada exceeded our means, we hastily joined several social media groups, did some research, and settled on Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as our next move. Possibly the world’s simplest road to permanent residency, Mexican visa criteria is based on “economic solvency” using proven savings (cash or investments) and you only need to demonstrate a minimum monthly balance over the last 12 months in multiples of Minimum Salary or UMA, depending on what measure the Mexican Consulate you apply at is using.
Based on the number of Mexican nationals we encountered in Thailand over three years, I’m unclear why Mexico has a consulate in Bangkok, but sure enough, you can set up an appointment on a worldwide Mexican consulate system and show up with a two-page visa application and twelve months of bank statements. Unfortunately, you have to surrender your passport while they process the application which is by far the world’s most uncomfortable feeling when you’re anywhere in the developing world. (Unlike America, a passport is proof of identity, and literally, anything you do from immigration issues to buying a SIM card requires one.) Ironically, we’d already reserved a month in the aforementioned pool villa back in 2019 knowing we’d be planning on escaping the annual air pollution festival in March. Securing an appointment at the consulate in late March after our planned return from Italy, we planned on applying and staying at the villa while they processed our application. (It’s a three-hour drive from Bangkok). Since the villa was an AirBnb and the onsite manager already knew us, we figured it would be OK to be without passports for a week or so.
By late February, as Italy became the world’s first Covid hotspot, we became increasingly skeptical about our trip, and after some gut-wrenching emotional pain, decided to visit the local Chiang Mai Thai Airways ticketing office and cancel our flights. Offering unusually convenient daily 12 hour non-stop service from Bangkok to Rome, we opted for an upgrade and it would’ve been our first time in business class on a long-haul non-discount airline. Possibly the last people to receive a full refund, Thai Airways suffered more than most airlines and eventually went into conservatorship for reorganization. Already plagued by corruption and greed, the state-run airline was once a top 10 staple in the world’s best list. Sadly, the military dictatorship that poses as a constitutional republic ran the airline to the ground, refusing outside consulting assistance due to the ridiculous Thai custom known as “face”. Less than two months later, a judge froze all their assets leaving tens of thousands of unrefunded cancellations to this day.
Determined and annoyed, we asked our friend in Brisbane, Australia to plan a two-week tour of Queensland because Australia wasn’t yet having major issues. By that time, Air Asia was offering insanely low long-haul base airfares as regional travel plummeted. Strangely, the flight to Australia was totally full but that was due to university classes resuming. Not yet accustomed to masking, the only unmasked patrons on the flight besides us were the few other non-Asians. You see, folks, the reason all Asians wear masks is that they care more about living than “freedom and liberty”. Arriving at an empty international terminal, we set out to try and forget about the ongoing crisis. While we enjoyed ourselves, tourist activities were beginning to shut down. The prime minister was on morning TV for hours on end announcing ever-increasing restrictions and Thailand changed its rules for entering the country faster than airlines and airports could deal with. And for reasons still unknown, Australians cleaned out every roll of toilet paper on the continent. (I’ll detail the entire trip in a future post)
By the time we arrived at The Gold Coast ten days later, cases were spiking worldwide and Thailand was announcing negative Covid tests as requirements for boarding an international flight bound for Bangkok. Details were sketchy but panic set in and I immediately changed our Sunday departure to Wednesday which was two days later and the next available option from Brisbane. Spending a horribly nervous and sleepless night in an empty luxury hotel, Diane monitored the situation all night. Apologizing to Rose, we hurried back to the airport the next morning and approached the Air Asia X counter which is staffed by contractors who don’t work for the airline.
Maybe word of new travel restrictions hadn’t yet reached them or maybe they didn’t care, but we showed our passports and they checked us through with no questions asked. Travelers to Thailand by this point were minimal and about 15 gross old expat men that we knew had young Thai wives were the only passengers besides us on a flight that seats 200. Since the base fare for a 9-hour flight was about $80, we upgraded to “premium flatbed”, the only upgraded class on Air Asia and only available on long haul flights, and caught up on the sleep we missed worrying that we’d be stuck in Australia for who knows how long.
Arriving around 9 PM at Don Muang International, the smaller Bangkok airport used for regional and domestic connections, we didn’t know what to expect but despite what the Thai websites said about special restrictions, Covid tests, and possible denial of entries, we walked past a thermal temperature screen and proceeded through an empty terminal to the Thai customs. Normally taking 20 minutes to two hours, we literally walked right up to the only open counter where a stern-faced agent checked the multiple pages of shit needed in your passport for re-entry, smiled, and stamped us in. Seemingly unaware of the evolving global pandemic, the Thai simply follow instructions, and two days later we probably would’ve been turned back or worse, left in limbo with no arrival status at the airport which actually happened to dozens of foreigners all over Southeast Asia. Overwhelmed with relief, the eeriness continued when we immediately found a taxi and a driver who said he’d had no fares all night. Whisking us back to Suvarnabhumi Airport where we’d left our car in the long-term lot, Bangkok’s highways were deserted and the hour-long drive took about 20 minutes
Exercising poor judgment by traveling internationally during a global health crisis, my gut check decision to leave Australia early was the smartest decision ever. Later that weekend, Diane found out from Reddit that almost all Thailand-bound passengers on our originally scheduled flight from Brisbane were denied boarding that Sunday. And beginning the day after we left, Thailand began gradually locking down its borders to all arriving international passengers. Checking email once safely back on Thai soil, we received a notice canceling our appointment at the Mexican consulate (that took months to secure) due to Covid concerns. Given the uptight vibe in Bangkok and with no reason to stay three nights anymore, we contacted the AirBnb host who graciously agreed to let us arrive three nights early. Living across the street, he managed four AirBnb units in the small community on behalf of the owners.
Being too late for a three-hour drive south, we stayed the night in Bangkok and then quickly drove to the pool villa the next morning to wait out what would be months of on-again, off-again inter-provincial travel restrictions. Although we were ten hours south of our home in Chiang Mai, at least we had a one-year retirement visa that didn’t expire until October. And thankfully, the decision to leave Bangkok proved fortuitous because two days later, the province of Prachaup Khiri Khan announced an emergency measure disallowing new arrivals at all lodgings and our host told us we just made it. PHEW !!
Describing the strange situation that unfolded over the following months exceeds the scope of this “long story short” so I’ll add more posts about that later. Summarizing what happened after late March, back in 2019 we’d purchased one-way tickets on Air Canada via Hong Kong and Vancouver back to Calgary. Scheduled for June 23rd, we’d planned on stopping off for a month to decompress from the developing world before heading to Mexico with our permanent resident visas. “Plan B” was applying at the Mexican consulate in Calgary (in case the Thai embassy denied our applications). Unfortunately, Hong Kong closed its airport to all transiting passengers so Air Canada canceled our flight. Hoping we’d be able to rebook later, we asked our landlord for a three-month extension to our lease, explaining that we’d be trying to get back to Canada later in the year.
By summer, it was too late to meet the financial requirements of a retirement visa renewal so we had until October 4th to figure out how to get back home. Meanwhile, Thailand’s revolving door of 90-day tourist visas that digital nomads, losers and drop out of life types use to stay in Thailand indefinitely was in shambles and they kept extending all existing tourist visas to avoid social distancing nightmares at immigration offices. Thankfully, they did suspend one idiot procedure known as “90 day reporting” whereby you check in like kindergarten even after you’ve been given permission to stay for one year or longer.
Saving the anxiety-ridden period from May through October for another post explaining how difficult international travel from Thailand to anywhere was during 2020, suffice it to say we made it back to Canada with one day to spare before our retirement visa expired. Naturally, a last-second cancellation of our Asiana Air flight to Seoul almost put the kibosh on our 47-hour journey through four airports. No longer able to collect bags while transiting and recheck to another airline because that’s considered “entering the country” and subjects you to immediate quarantine, an Air Canada codeshare airline willing to cooperate in Bangkok was the only option. Thankfully, the Thai always try to help, and we said goodbye to all our possessions in Bangkok and found them sitting on the carousel almost two days later in Calgary.
Despite a sinking US Dollar, we’ve resettled back in Canada for now. Enduring a two-week quarantine at a Calgary AirBnb, we decided on Edmonton where Diane’s aging parents live so we can help out during the pandemic that’s nowhere near over in Canada. Like a newborn dependant on its mother, Canada is hopelessly powerless for a G7 nation and the Federal government’s inability to either produce vaccines domestically or at least secure enough from America means we live with ongoing restrictions that too many people ignore while variants rage on. Ironically, Mexico’s handling of the pandemic rendered it highly unsafe anyway so for now, the immediate future for us is occupancy in a rented condo in South Edmonton. Strangely, my permanent resident status never went away despite living outside Canada for 14 years. But did have to submit a lengthy application with extensive paperwork that proved I traveled outside Canada with my Canadian citizen spouse for the last five consecutive years to satisfy the residency requirement.
Unsure where to take the blog from here, I’d like to restart but after a dozen or so interesting posts about how we rode out the pandemic in a small Thai beach town, I’m unsure what direction to take. Hoping to get some readers interested again, I’m horribly inept at all things technological so I’ll take it for granted that a few of you pick up where we left off, and please feel free to offer suggestions on what sounds interesting now that our overseas experimental early retirement came back to North America. I’ve contemplated the financial aspect which but think there’s too much competition from folks much more qualified than me. Cheers and thanks for reading.