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.