And so after a hectic 24 hours of flying to Malaysia, late-night commuting to the hotel and a stressful morning at both the immigration office and our bank, it was time for some fun. Given Kuala Lumpur’s sweltering climate and lack of enjoyable walks, that means doing two things; eating and shopping. While Diane would be fine if she never ate Malaysian food again, I’m a huge fan of sambal chili paste (impossible to find in Thailand), laksa (even harder to find outside Malaysia and Indonesia) and beef rendang (the Southeast Asian Muslim world’s best culinary contribution). Thankfully, Diane’s memory towers over mine and she knew exactly where my favorite place to eat laksa was in the seventeen miles of mazes that make up life in downtown KL.
Regretfully, my stand became a western food place and Malaysia gets my vote for Southeast Asia’s worst version of all western food from burgers to ribs. Determined to eat laksa and nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish and Diane’s only choice for local food), we embarked on a quest but only had to take a few steps through Level UC of the mall named “Avenue K”. Possibly my favorite casual fast food restaurant in all of Malaysia, Ah Cheng Laksaserves one of the most flavorful and complex bowls of soup in Southeast Asia. According to their Facebook page, their origins date back over 56 years and one of the family members brought the unique family recipe to the Klang Vallery in 2004. For me, nothing beats a bowl of Asam Laksa, a sour fish and tamarind based soup. Its perfect combination of flavorful ingredients includes small mackerel of the Rastrelliger genus, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chilies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, Daun kesum (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), and pink bunga kantan, also known as torch ginger. Normally served with thick rice noodles and topped with a thick sweet prawn shrimp paste, it’s spicy, sweet, salty and tastes like a piping hot combination of perfection.
Having shared a harsh and powerful inconvenient truth about TheVietnam War as told from a non-American point of view, I realize my last post may have been a bit much for some readers. Describing the horrific exhibits in the Saigon’sWar Remnants Museum, I called it the best, hardest to look at and most important museum in Southeast Asia. And it doesn’t end there. Experiencing a slightly easier historical account of The Vietnam War (known as The American War of Aggression to the Vietnamese government), we also visited the Cu-Chi Tunnels. Another must-see while visiting Vietnam, they’re an immense network of connecting underground tunnels used by North Vietnamese fighters as hiding spots as during combat. Also serving as communication lines, supply routes, hospitals and even living quarters, the tunnels helped keep the Vietnamese resistance going strong despite American efforts to destroy them.
But while the tunnels warrant an entire post to themselves, I thought it best to lighten up the mood a bit since it appears entirely possible that the Orange Ignoramusmay lead the USA into another unnecessary war of aggressionagainst a nuclear-armed foe (Iran, in case you’re not paying attention). So let’s jump ahead and talk about a highly enjoyable activity available to Northern Vietnam visitors. About two hours away from the chaos of Hanoi in Hai Duong Province. you’ll find fertile rice fields in a picturesque village called Ngoc Hoa. One of Vietnam’s newest tourism draws, farm vacations give visitors a chance to become a Vietnamese rice farmer for a day. Doing everything from planting the seeds to plowing the fields, you don traditional clothing, get barefoot in the mud and literally hop on the back of a water buffalo. While full day and overnight trips include fishing, hiking and a full day of farming, Diane and I got the short version thanks to our laziness. Easily accessible on the internet with an English website, Vietnam Farm Homestay invites visitors to “experience country life”. But as you may recall, we chose a fully guided tour for our two-week jaunt through Vietnam and like our debacle with unprofessional guides in Saigon, we had some bumps along the way on this half-day trip also.
Unlike the Thai, who spend countless sums of money on skin care products seeking eternal youth, I’ve never wanted to be young again. While I enjoyed my early adulthood, I’m thankful I was born before the age of online instant gratification, fake news, and modern-day right-wing propaganda. Despite my public school education in the debt-ridden 1970s when New York City was a cesspool of a city, we all still learned basic tenets of civics, history and current affairs; all of which are gone in this moron generation of Trump tweets and ignorance. Taught that America stands for freedom, democracy and all that’s good in the world, most of us grew up with a basic sense of patriotism. All of us understood there are three branches of the US government, knew what the first amendment was and believed our history teachers who taught us that we fought wars to spread democracy and fight evils like communism and fascism.
As we get older and perhaps more disheartened at a once mighty world leader sporting an ignoramus holding the nuclear codes, it’s easy enough to look back and yearn for “the good old days”. But unless you live in an overseas cave, expat life teaches you almost immediately that not everything they told you was true. In fact, sometimes it’s utter bullshit. Aside from obvious lessons like living in Malaysia and discovering that most Muslims could give a shit less about Americans and certainly don’t“hate us for our freedoms”, there’s a plethora of historical truths to unearth that I’d never know by staying in the homeland. As someone who loves learning and believes education shouldn’t stop when your work career ends, I’m always looking for travel experiences that fascinate but also drive home the message that history matters. While countless media stories explain why running the nation like a reality TV show is killing America’s future, nothing drives home a message like an in your face display of actual reality. And that’s why I’ll go on record as saying that Vietnam’s War Remnants Museumin Ho Chi Minh City is the most historically important museum in Southeast Asia.
Feeling much like the Vietnamese street vendor above, basic laziness kicked in when it came time to plan our recent trip to Vietnam. Bucking Experimental Expat tradition, we clamored over the big decision on how to plan the adventure and although Vietnam is both inexpensive and relatively easy to self-plan, we gave in and went with a customized private tour option. As one of the last places on our to-do list in Southeast Asia and knowing our time in the Eastern hemisphere is limited, we couldn’t decide between Hanoi and the north, Danang’s central beach region or the big city insanity of Saigon (nobody here calls it Ho Chi Minh City except the airlines so don’t correct me). So we gave in and let the experts at a German-based company come up with a regional vendor specializing in the area. While certainly not inexpensive, it’s easier than planning individual trips on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Clearly not the best or worst travel decision we’ve made since starting our experimental overseas early retirement, I’m 50/50 on booking a private tour for Southeast Asian destinations. While not quite good enough to endorse, it was very well organized. On paper, anyway. No strangers to private tours, we’ve had a host of professional guides enhance our best vacations with their expertise, great personality, and local knowledge. From rainforest expeditions in Borneo to wildlife viewing in Ecuador’s jungles, we’ve made lasting friendships with our guides and remain Facebook friends with all of them to this day. Usually taking Experimental Expat Destination Vacations where we’d combine bucket list hot spots with a potential future early retirement home, we often paid a premium when the income was still rolling in. And if you have the means, I’d highly recommend not skimping when it comes to specialized trips like our Galapagos Island trip on a luxury catamaran. But alas, things change drastically once you’re living on a fixed income and especially so when you’re potentially looking at a 40-year retirement. So I’ll focus a bit on the pros and cons of our Vietnamese guided tour.
They say getting there is half the fun. Given Thailand’s dubious status as the world’s most dangerous nation to drive, getting there alive seems more like a more reasonable suggestion. In a nation where 22,941 people die on the roads each year, you might call us crazy for logging almost 4,000 kilometers in this year’s annual “smog escape”. But here’s the thing; despite a surge of new vehicles by a population that spends six times their average lifetime savings to buy Honda Accords and triple that for a BMW, long-distance road travel remains relatively unknown to most Thai people. Unlike the USA, a nation obsessed with highways, driving is more about being seen in a shiny new status symbol than getting from point A to point B. And if you’re Thai and lucky enough to get spare time for seeing the country, why on God’s earth would you drive from Chiang Mai to Bangkok when you can simply fly in an hour?
Thankfully, that leaves most of the open road between major destinations empty and available for the farangs. And unlike America, whose crumbling bridges and aging highways lag the entire continent of Asia when it comes to infrastructure, Thailand recently made major improvements to national highways. Having embarked on a God awful bus trip from the south to Chiang Mai that arrived hours late due to a 300 mile stretch of one lane construction switchbacks only four years ago, we had reservations about taking a road trip. But surprisingly, except for the inevitable military junta of burning, wrong way motorbikes barrelling towards you in the shoulder and tin can pickups carrying shit piled up so high it’s comical, the newly paved stretch from Northern Thailand to Bangkok looks similar to Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Deciding that we’d need 47 days to miss the ever increasing stench of poisonous toxic air permeating Northern Thailand every March and April, we planned a trip that started with a drive to Bangkok’s large international airport. Intending to leave the car in the long term lot, travel to Vietnam for two weeks and then traverse from southeast to southwest, we barricaded the house as best we could to protect it from mounds of soot that creep into the dwelling during burn season and hit the road.
So now that we’re back from our long North American jaunt where we pigged out like there was no tomorrow, let’s address the foodie thing from an expat’s point of view. Promising I’d try to avoid mindlessly posting uninhibited pictures of everyone’s favorite internet topic (food), I wrestled on how to highlight all the great things we ate and still stay on topic. Noticing that Skip the Dishes is the latest craze in Canada and the USA, it seems that today’s lazy millennial generation need not even step foot outside, never mind picking up a kitchen utensil to cook anything. With everything from McDonalds to gourmet five course dinners available at the touch of a smart phone, it’s no different here in Asia with one big exception. Often compromising taste, quality and style, eating “western style food” in Southeast Asia means tempering one’s expectations.
New York: Food heaven
Avoiding a third version of That Dreaded Foodie Post, I thought I’d combine a gastronomical recap of our trip with a look at the differences between Asian and North American versions of foods that many westerners grew up with. Sharing experiences of my reunion with foods I know and love by matching them up side by side with their Thai counterparts, think of this post as a comparative food primer for wannabe expats. Believing that exploring local foods is one the best things about experiencing another culture, we avoided reading about an ongoing “best burger in Chiang Mai” debate on Facebook’s Chiang Mai Eatsgroup and tried to delve first hand into “real Thai food”. And although we kind of knew this, it’s worth reiterating that almost everything you think is authentic anything usually lands somewhere far removed from what’s enjoyed by most locals. With abundant European expats here in Chiang Mai, western food often gravitates towards a very non-North Americanized style so let’s dive right in and call this a Cautionary Food Tale for North Americans pondering a move to Thailand. Focusing on Italian food first, I’ll make this a multi part post.
Wondering why retired people with no job waiting for them back home would experience jet leg, let me go on record and dispel a myth. Despite not having any schedule other than deciding what and when to eat, sleep and leave the house, our body’s natural rhythm known as “the body clock”doesn’t care nor understand you were laid off almost five years agoand chose an experimental overseas early retirement. Having returned from our excruciatingly long North American jaunt that totaled just over 34 hours and landed us in our living room just under two full days after leaving, I learned that losing an entire day due to time differences and trans-continental flights catches up to you no matter how much you sleep on the planes. Attempting a return to my rather “anal”routine, it took until the third morning until I finally felt rested. Which leads me into my segment on our choice to spend almost a thousand extra bucks for “premium economy”. Throughout this post, I’ll include pictures showing what you get for your extra money on Cathay Pacific Airlines.
The Cathay Pacific Premium Economy seat
Having returned to Chiang Mai during the off-peak months when the rainy season blues are in full swing, I noticed my first post after a two month layoffgarnered little fanfare compared to my historical numbers despite having somehow picked up dozens of new followers even without posting any new content. Realizing I’m not the interactive type, this doesn’t surprise me but I’d like to at least feel like somebody besides me gives a crap (or even enjoys) my style of slightly off beat cynical yet realistically optimistic expat tales, so instead of spending all the gloomy days in the coffee shop playing Words with Friendsand pretending to practice speaking Thai, I’ll put off the morning walks on non-workout days and focus on getting more content out there. Thankfully, I did go to a gym once in both Edmonton and Calgary which is ambitious for a “vacation” so hitting the weights again was easier than returning from our recent springtime escape from the Chiang Mai Burning Season.
So we didn’t win a million dollars but we do feel like we completed all 11 legs of The Amazing Race.Having flown 18,736 air miles via three different airlines on seven flights over the course of 30 days, visiting two counties and four cities, we’ve had our fill of what both our homelands feel like now that it’s been three years since our experimental overseas early retirement began. Since the blog is about our expat life, I wrangled with how to cover all the great stuff we did in New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton without rambling on like your average travel blog. But before we expatriated, I read extensively about the phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock” and ascertained it would take at least five years before it would hit us since modern technology keeps us in touch with what’s going on back there. I was wrong. Granted there was no way of knowing how a lunatic president would literally alter the course of North American culture but while we thoroughly enjoyed visiting family and friends, eating great food and experiencing a more pleasant climate, we’ve never been happier to be home (home for now, that is).
Back in my hometown
Having experienced so many differences between life in relatively peaceful Thailand and crazy, excitable and unpredictable North America, it’s hard to explain it all in one paragraph or even a single post. So instead of droning on about intolerance versus acceptance or complicated versus simplicity, I’ll stick to summarizing some highlights and gradually work into the details of each leg in upcoming posts. Understanding how different things are between developing nations and “over developed nations”doesn’t take too long after stepping out of the plane. Among the first things that jumped right out at us is the lack of retail employees in both the USA and Canada. Pioneered by tax cuts for billionaires that benefit nobody but big corporations and shareholders, the results of Trump’s trillion-dollar gift to the rich is highly visible. And despite the tax code differences in Canada, many major Canadian retailers sold out to American companies years ago which means they follow similar workflow models.
As expected, over half of all Fortune 500 companies in the USA used their tax gift to buy back their shares instead of creating jobs in America which is the stated purpose (albeit it a total lie). For those unfamiliar with financial jargon, this basically means their stock price drops which enriches wealthy investors and companies waste all potential savings on “the one percent”. Completely contrary to that, in Thailand, there’s so many employees in all areas of retail, it’s almost comical. Sometimes they’ll send over five or six staff members if they don’t understand what we want due to language barriers. Forgetting this, we visited a Starbucksin New York shortly after arrival thinking we’d have plenty of time before the Uber driver arrived at JFK. Almost taking longer to get two lattes than the 85 minute drive to Brooklyn, the pattern repeated in every Starbucks we patronized across three boroughs and two Canadian provinces. Often seeing stores using only two employees to do everything in the peak of commute hour, nobody complains because everyone’s been forced to accept a drastically short-staffed retail sector that affects everyone. Experiencing this everywhere from Old Navy in Midtown Manhattan to Sportchek in Calgary, finding someone to help went apparently the way of DVD’s and real presidents.
Every Canadian’s biggest complaint about life in The Great White North is always the weather. Even the lucky ones in Vancouver think they have it rough. Often referred to as Road Construction season, summers are short and often chilly or rainy and the other nine months a year are cold. And snowy. Deserting the frigid homeland for as long as half the year or however many days the tax man says is OK, Canadians coined the term “snowbirding”. Defined as “A North American term for a person who moves from the higher latitudes and colder climates of Canada and migrates southward in winter to warmer locales such as Florida, Arizona, Mexico and The Caribbean”, it’s every Canadian’s winter dream.
Chiang Mai; the sun is slightly visible in early March
Conversely, there’s no snow in the tropics which is one primary reason most early retirees consider places like Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, no matter how much the developed world tries to salvage our planet through recycling, elimination of plastics and modern garbage disposal, anyone living in places like Thailand knows it’s pointless because this entire side of the world sits in a perennial blanket of air pollution and smog. Compounded by uneducated citizens that routinely burn everything from garbage to overgrown fauna and governments more concerned with public image than protecting its citizens, Thailand has almost no meaningful environmental regulations. Add in greedy corporate assholes that illegally clear-cut and burn thousands of acres in countries that support the palm oil industry and the occasional El Nino that suppresses normal rainfall and you get a Great Environmental Disaster like the 2015 mess that blanketed five countries in a poisonous stenchfor three months straight.
Despite having five days in between our real beach vacation in Koh Lanta and our one month escape from the unhealthy shitty air that defines Chiang Mai every year like clockwork, I’ve been very remiss with my posts so please accept my apologies. Having just arrived in a small sleepy beach town called Bangsaphan that’s literally three hours from the nearest big tourist area, we’re settling into our two huge bedroom 1,700 square foot house that we’ll call home for a month. Astoundingly priced on AirBnbat about $20.41 USD a day and deeply discounted if you stay 30 days, the house is large, airy and comfortable. Having taken two days to drive 1,150 kilometers, it’s time to chill out in an area with lots of places they call “beach resorts”but realistically most of them are very mediocre two or three star at best. A perfect place to really relax without the crowds, this town isn’t exactly a place you’ll see on any Travel Channeldocumentary that features Thailand’s beach destinations. And that’s just fine by us.
So given my degree of laziness at the moment, I’ll break from the usual story telling format after making a few key points about Northern Thailand during “burning season” and telling you a bit about Koh Lanta. Not yet high on the list of top beach destinations in Thailand, it’s an island that still maintains a bit of rustic charm and simplicity while offering countless less expensive accommodation options for all budgets. Known for a hosting a huge number of Swedes (mostly in the north), the island has about six distinct regions each with different vibes and suited for different groups of visitors. Staying during the mid-season, we saw mostly strangely quiet French and German tourists both young and old, families and a smattering young couples. Most importantly, the skies were blue, there’s no agricultural burning and during dry season, every sunset looks like this.