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.
Although there’s no specific wet and dry season in Malaysia, late January through mid April is generally considered the hottest and driest time of year. For me, suffering through the lazy days of tropical winter usually means limiting outside activities to short afternoon walks looking for monkeys in our boring town and Diane avoids the outside entirely until late afternoon when it’s time for some swimming in the pool. Planning our chores and shopping around our favorite hockey team’s schedule, we’ll stay in on game days and enjoy watching live NHL hockey that starts the following morning between 8 and 11 AM, depending on what time zone the game is from. Yesterday being no exception, we cranked up the internet stream and enjoyed the cool morning breeze from our ninth floor multi balcony condo that faces both the town and the sea. Unfortunately, unlike last year’s El Nino event that produced blazing hot sunshine for an unbearable five months, this year’s pattern features unusually strong wind that forces us to close the windows by mid afternoon.
Contrasting the disastrous 2015 haze season that created world headlines due to its severity and environmental impact, the past year produced absolutely no haze anywhere in Penang. Partially due to heavier rains, skies remained crystal clear late last summer and fall which improved air quality immensely. The picture on the right shows how beautiful the sunsets have been this winter. Normally, this would be great news for everyone and the Indonesian government even imposed real fines on several offending companies responsible for the annual event known as “haze season”. But with the rain disappearing until spring and the wind whipping strongly every day, living in Penang means an almost daily interruption of beautiful clear blue skies due to an unhealthy stench caused by somebody burning something. So sure enough, halfway through yesterday’s game, our condo filled with an unbearable stink of plastics, food and all the other shit they burn here despite having laws on the books for 45 years that specifically prohibit open burns. Solidifying our decision to leave Penang in favor of Thailand, the real fun begins now and we’ve been engaged in researching everything about visas, banking and housing all over again aswe plan on heading to Chiang Maiby early summer.
Where does the time go? Approaching the last few weeks of spring, it’s almost one year since Diane and I stepped off the airplane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Already in full swing, Ramadan began a few weeks earlier this year and coincides with the second week of Malaysian School Holidays. Commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islāmic belief, Muslims began fasting for 30 days and although it’s less noticeable in Penang due to the large Chinese population, some of our favorite Nasi Campur and other Malay style food courts won’t serve lunch for a month. Not really understanding why the island seemed so quiet last year, we now know that after school starts next week, it’s the best three weeks of the year for vehicle challenged expats like us. With more room on the buses, we’re not totally clear why it’s so much less crowded but if I had to exist on no water and food from sunrise to sunset in such a hot and humid environment, I’d probably be hospitalized quickly from dehydration so maybe those who observe the fast simply have less energy to travel around.
Ironically, the word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramida, meaning scorching heat and dryness. Knowing I’d make a lousy Muslim since fasting is almost physically impossible for those who engage in cardio training almost daily, Diane and I happily hopped on the empty bus the other day and headed for our favorite food court in Penang. After one year, we find ourselves gravitating mostly to the same food courts and haven’t really found all that many restaurants worth the extra cash. Granted our point of view is probably in the minority because we disagree with Penang’s claim to be Southeast Asia’s best food, but after watching a slew of culinary series’ featuring chefs, restauranteurs and average folks traveling and discovering food all over Southeast Asia, we’re convinced Malaysia’s food is the least interesting of all ASEAN nations. Having said that, there’s a few places we consider above and beyond the others like Chang Sern Enterprises Hawker Center in Palau Tikas. Probably the standard by which all food courts should be judged, this gem is clean as a whistle, has friendly attentive vendors and staff and some of the best local food on the island.
Having lived through the last four winters in California, I assumed moving to the tropics would surely eliminate the problem of drought. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible and here we are stuck in the middle of another severe day spell. Ironically, while California’s been blanketed with multiple large storms and received desperately needed rain this year, the strongest El Niño since 1997-98 is turning the rainforest into a dry forest. Although January through March normally marks the warmest time of year in Penang, it’s been over eight weeks without any rain and it’s blazing hot. Regularly climbing into the mid 30’s every day (mid 90’s Fahrenheit), high levels of humidity go with the heat making every day uncomfortable and way too hot to do very much of anything. According to Expat.go, it’s been the hottest winter since 1998 and schools are considering closing next week in parts of Malaysia.
Expat life without a car in a tropical heat wave means lots of excess dehydration for “type A” restless personalities like me that refuse to sit in he condo from sunrise to sundown. (Luckily for Diane, she’s perfectly fine relaxing with a good book all day on our breeze filled balcony). Even the locals agree it’s way too hot and anxiously await the return of cloud filled skies and afternoon thunderstorms. Without much else to do, we find ourselves hitting the air-conditioned mall quite often which gave us an opportunity to try the hottest new restaurant in Penang. Waiting to queue is something Diane and I rarely do and certainly not in Southeast Asia where abundant food choices makes it seem ridiculous to stand in line. Achieving Michelinstar status, the famed Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung opened a few months ago with daily lines that snaked half way around the mall. With Chinese New Year festivities finally over and everyone back in school, we decided to give it a try now that the excitement wore down a bit.
Watching yet another round of useless U.S. presidential primaries that helped solidify the inevitable shift towards a twenty-first century version of 1930’s Germany, the real life American Horror Story played out in three more states as American voters continue making the biggest mistake in the history of free elections. Flipping through Facebook looking for anything positive, I stumbled on a new report from Condé Nast Traveler that ranked Penang the number two place in the world to retire. Citing the convenience and ease of theMM2H Visa along with access to historic architecture, culinary delights, a thriving art scene, international standard health care and an English-speaking community of expats, this didn’t really surprise me that much although that’s higher than most rankings I’ve seen in the past.
The view from our condo
Further noting Georgetown’s UNESCO status, proximity to Singapore and many beaches, the brief caption summarized some of the best highlights. While agreeing with many points, I’m unsure what target audience the magazine hopes to lure in. Given the millions of serious inquiries by Americans about moving to Canada should President Trump become reality, I’d almost swear it’s for disgruntled but sane American voters not so pathetically angry and broke like the newly created populist rebellion crowd. Add in the fact that they’d rank a Muslim country so high while conveniently forgetting to mention the official religion and you’ve almost got a scandal on your hands at least according to any CNN exit poll of Republican voters who almost unanimously agree with barring two billion people from the entering the world’s model of freedom.
For those unfamiliar, today is the 58th anniversary of Malaysian Independence. It’s a national holiday but not quite as crowded in our little tourist town as Hari Raya (the end of Ramadan). Generally speaking, expats should steer clear of local politics but I feel it’s appropriate to wish Malaysian a happy day and hope they all put aside the many challenges facing their nation for one day and focus on all the positive things that make this multi-cultural nation worth living in. Having said that, I’ll return to our KL Summer Vacation trip that was actually to complete our MM2H visa, allowing us ten years of unlimited entry and exit in this great place. Haze notwithstanding; that’s the one real downer for me and makes me too aggravated at politicians to bother complaining about it. Let’s just say “fully developed” status (sans China) will never be granted in a place that exposes 29 million citizens to unhealthy levels of toxic ash annually for eight straight weeks while its neighbor engages in illegal burning of its forests for financial convenience.
Thinking my last post describing Kuala Lumpur as an indoor paradise may have sounded a bit harsh, I figured I should clarify. Not necessarily a negative thing, my comments were just observations based on our lifestyle choices and since we don’t need a big city for work, Penang happens to work better for us. In fairness, there were many times we came across new and interesting items while strolling the endless maze of malls, shops and eateries. Often wishing Penang had the space or customer base to accommodate such incredible stores as we saw in KL, we thoroughly enjoyed browsing through them all and often wound up sampling foods, buying stuff we had room for in our small travel bags and constantly posting picture on Facebook, hoping our Asian born friends might shed some light. Possibly the biggest and most amazing mega-stores is Isetan.Founded in 1886, this Tokyo based superstore is so immense, it needs space on six different floors of the mall to display everything it sells, including an enormous market dedicated to food.
Revisiting Kuala Lumpur seven weeks after arriving as “fresh off the plane” North American newbies, our perspective was a lot different the second time around. First impressions aside, although we loved the modern flair, food and luxurious five-star hotels at cut-rate prices (by Western standards), the first three-day stay was really just a quick glimpse and a chance to deposit some cash and meet our banking relationship manager. Impressed with how modern the city centre was, second thoughts set in about Penang when we first viewed its rustic environment compared to “the big city”. Fortunately it only took six weeks of island living to realize that KL is the place to be for working expats, especially those with spouses looking for social activities, big city amenities and nightlife. For the rest of us, it’s a smaller version of Singapore where shopping centres and massive office towers dominate the landscape, construction never stops and traffic rivals any big Southeast Asian city (in fact, it almost rivals San Francisco). Basically, it’s where you go when you need some pampering and a few goods unavailable in the laid back island up north.
Enjoying the beautiful view of Malaysia’s most iconic landmark from our luxurious room in the Traders Hotel, we settled in and had visions of hitting all the local places we didn’t have time to see the first time. As outdoor lovers, we chose the KL Bird Park as a day trip last time and decided to soak in the big city culture this time. Flipping through the local brochures describing the city’s top ten attractions, it takes minutes to realize the city’s biggest draw is the unspoken national sport: Mallhopping. Notice I didn’t say shopping because Singapore still owns that title. Patronized by a multi-cultural combination of locals and tourists, most of the cash seems to be doled out in the unbelievable multitude of food outlets that come in every size, taste and ethic flavor. Visiting the upper floors of the high-end malls offers a chance to shop prcatically distraction free since nobody seems to be interested in shelling out three month’s salary for a Kate Spade handbag. Mesmerized by the sheer size and volume of retail shopping space crammed into one square mile, Diane and I spent about an hour negotiating the air-conditioned indoor walkways and finally meandered our way to the Pavillion, KL’s answer to Orchard Road. Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue.
Proving all good things are worth waiting for, our return to the big city culminated with a full-page color stamp in our passports. Exactly 660 days after the Japanese owned and California based bank “eliminated my position” and then mysteriously hired two less experienced people six months later, Diane and I are officially MM2H visa holders. Bypassing all traditional and secure methods of early retirement, we filed the paperwork from overseas as soon as my 50th birthday arrived. Six short weeks after that we sold our overpriced but very comfortable suburban San Francisco Bay Area house, thereby rendering us homeless. Spending six weeks in Canada and probably overstaying our welcome with friends and relatives, we figured we’d take a chance and get a head start, knowing the visa would take about 10 to 12 weeks until we received our “conditional letter of approval”. Defying conventional wisdom according to dozens of forum posters and even our MM2H agent’s advice, we successfully opened a foreign bank account from overseas, bought a one way plane ticket to Malaysia and headed out the door with two suitcases, an Ipad, an Ipad mini and two old Iphone 4S phones that we’d need to replace and bid farewell to our old life in North America.
Fast forwarding six weeks later, we’d already been settling in to our awesome condo unit in the beachfront town of Batu Ferrenghi when our agent informed us the approval letter came through less than 10 weeks after filing. Allowing applicants six months to complete the rather tedious process of fees, medical check-up, buying medical insurance and placing two fixed deposits (MYR 100,000 and MYR 50,000), we needed to travel to Kuala Lumpur and ultimately to Putrajaya, the Malaysian government centre before our 90 day tourist visa expired or risk having to re-enter so we hit the road last week. Deciding to use the Malaysian train system instead of flying, we packed a week’s worth of light clothes into a newly purchased medium-sized suitcase, ensuring it would fit in the small overhead compartment of the train and contacted our Uber buddy for an early morning pickup. Penang’s airport is rather far from our house and KLIA, in the nation’s capital, is almost an hour away from the downtown core whereas getting to the train only takes a 20 minute drive to the ferry terminal and a 10 minute ride on Southeast Asia’s oldest continuously operating ferry. Conveniently located right at the other side, Butterworth’s train station allows easy access to trains that journey as far south as Singapore and as far north as Bangkok for about the same price or less than Air Asia.
And so all the preparation work is finally over and the last day in North America arrived. Waking to a blazing heat wave that’s almost unprecedented with temperatures already scorching and expected to hit almost 35 on the coast next week, the Great Western Canadian Road trip comes to an end late tonight when we board a flight for Hong Kong bound for a Kuala Lumpur connection. Unfortunately, Cathay Pacific frustrates me to no end with their crappy internet website that doesn’t work and no available customer service anywhere in North America on Sunday. Having bought our tickets online four weeks ago, it let us pick seats on the transcontinental flight but not the three-hour connection to Malaysia. Attempting to check in online last night, it took about 17 tries until it recognized our booking reference number. Prompted to confirm the seats to Hong Kong, it then brings us to the seat selection for the KL flight where there’s a whopping three seats left to choose from, two of which are premium upgrades. After clicking, we get an error message stating “sorry: something has gone wrong; this is probably temporary: check back later”
Knowing technology is not their strong point we checked back two more times last night and again this morning and still the same issue. With nobody to call, it seems we are stuck until we get to the airline counter where I will complain about their website and the inability to choose a seat on a connecting flight. With no seats available according to the website, I guess they’ll have to upgrade us to first class since there’s one non stop flight per day. Fortunately, Cathay is too expensive for anything except transcontinental flights anyway but I could do without the added stress. On the bright side, our property agent emailed us an itinerary of eight different showings over two days once we arrive in Penang and our friends Eric and Marlina are also leaving for Malaysia in two weeks so we hope to meet up with them by the time we meander back to KL to complete our MM2H Visa. Expecting no issues, we hope to have the approval letter by early August and hopefully we’ll be a bit settled in by then.
Wishing to once again thank our friend Nicole for allowing us to use her beautiful house in South Surrey, British Columbia for a double stay squat, I reacquainted myself with the beauty of the Lower Mainland and hope our investments do well enough to possibly return here permanently after we’ve had enough of Asia (although everything is up in the air). For now it’s goodbye to all the things we’ve both gotten used to for a lifetime and on to interesting but different things, new places and uncharted experiences. Thanks to everyone for all the supporting comments and should anyone wish to meet us in Penang, please use the contact page to email us. Taking bets on who will be first, we’ve had dozens of friends, relatives and even strangers tell us they’ll come visit but realistically I don’t expect too many visits with a 7,000 mile change of address. Hoping the IPad works in Asia, we’ll post again once were comfortably enshrined in our temporary three-day hotel home in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
Celebrating the spirit of the holidays, Diane and I are suffering through our last freezing cold Christmas while visiting her family in the arctic cold environment of Edmonton, Alberta. Delivering news of our upcoming move to Malaysiato her parents, it seemed only natural to experience ice and snow, break out heavy parkas and remind ourselves one more time why Canadians move to the tropics and not vice-versa. Separated from technology in a wireless house reminiscent of the old days (the 1990’s), I scheduled this post thinking everybody loves to eat around the holidays. Although Penang has Southeast Asia’s best cuisine, I started thinking about the things we will likely NOT find anywhere in Malaysia.
Woody Allen: New York’s most famous Neurotic Jew
Sadly, most everything on the list is also not available in Northern California, at least not in its palatable form. Realizing that native New Yorkers celebrate their own original version of food, I compiled a list of 12 lip smacking delicious foods found only at a (non-existent) Kosher/Italian New York style hawker stand. Unclear if that would fly with so much incredibly great other stuff and since the MM2H visa prohibits most forms of employment income, pictures and memories are no doubt the closest I’ll get until my next trip back to Brooklyn.