One of my favorite song lyrics comes from Semisonic’s 1999 hit, Closing Time: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”. Borrowing that line is the best way to describe why it’s time for us to leave Penang and move on. A few days ago, my good friend Cimeron published a post titled Cost of Living in Penang on her excellent blog Oh MY Expat Life.An eternal optimist, she always sees the glass half full although she’s certain not blind to her surroundings and often refers to some of the less than attractive features of life in Penang quite bluntly. Understanding everyone’s different, we admire and respect each other’s views but recognize that sometimes two couples see the same things in a different light. Readers familiar with my blog know we’ve decided to leave Penang once our lease expires and move to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Given recent developments in The Draconian States of America under the “leadership” of an unqualified tyrant that’s quickly changing the world’s largest superpower into a racially pure isolationist state, I’ve received lots of page views from potentialMM2H applicants. Short for Malaysia My Second Home, it’s technically a long-term social visit pass but with unlimited multiple entries for ten years, it’s easily Asia’s best retirement visa.
Concerned that something’s specifically wrong with Malaysia, I’ve also had questions about why we’re leaving. In a nutshell, there’s a host of reasons why we’ve worn out the attraction. Unlike working expats who often enjoy large high-rise condos at the company’s expense, we’re not on a stipend. Paying our rent with Malaysian Ringgit that we incorrectly bought way too much of at a rate that’s now 23% lower versus the US dollar, we’ve lost precious savings by fixing our rent at $850 USD per month (3,200 MYR) which is now about $720. But money’s only one reason. As a native Canadian, Diane knew the heat and humidity might be too much but wetrudged through the first year and did as much as practical given our limited transportation options. Opting for life far in the island’s touristy beach communityin exchange for a quieter atmosphere and lower rent, it’s become tedious having to leave town by bus and return via Uber every time we need supplies or groceries or want to visit the culturally rich Heritage area of GeorgeTown. Having visited the other side of the island with neighbors willing to drive us, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing an environment totally different from our old life in North America but it’s just not somewhere we want to stay long-term.
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.
After recent comments about leaving Penang and moving to Thailand once our lease expires later this year, I’ve received a lot of questions asking what’s wrong with Malaysia so I thought I’d address the topic. In one short sentence, there’s nothing inherently wrong. Simply put, Malaysia offers the best long-term retirement visa in Southeast Asia and while the application requirements are not inexpensive and the process is a bit tedious, the benefits far outweigh the hassles when compared to other neighboring countries. For example, Thailand’s never ending revolving door policy of visa runs and short-term non immigration visas with endless reporting requirements and lack of permanent residency options for most applicants makes Malaysia’s MM2H look like an expat’s dream come true. For anyone looking at Malaysia as a retirement option or a temporary escape from the United Trump States of Draconia, I highly recommend the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program and I’ve written extensively about it on this blog.
My best anti-Trump shirt
Having said that, our situation is exactly what the blog’s title implies; an experiment. While Malaysia offers excellent infrastructure, English-speaking citizens and a myriad of annual festivals featuring three different cultures, it’s not everything we’d hoped it might be and it’s simply time for us to move on. Given our situation, it makes sense to stay in the MM2H program since we paid the annual fee for six years (when our passports expire). Additionally, the timing of our fixed deposit purchases was one rare case in our married life where we got hosed big time. (MM2H requires participants to keep a 150,000 ringgit fixed term deposit in a local bank while on the program). Arriving when the exchange rate was 3.7613 per USD, 150,000 Malaysian ringgit cost us $39,879 USD. Even with an annual reinvested interest payment of 3.3%, the current exchange rate of 4.42 means our fixed deposit’s current value hovers just over $35,000 USD. Even though the fixed deposits need to stay intact for as long as you stay in the program, local banks won’t let you take a term longer than one year. Suiting them perfectly, Malaysian fixed deposit rates rise with terms exceeding one year and since the central bank lowered interest rates twice during our first year in Penang we’re now earning only 2.9%. With nobody on Wall Street anticipating a rising Ringgit, even after six years of interest payments, we’ll probably just break even when we leave Asia and cash in our fixed deposits.
While sweating away in the gym yesterday I was listening to Sheryl Crow on my Spotify playlist when “Leaving Las Vegas” came on. There’s a line in the song that goes“Used to be I could I could go up to Barstow for the night; Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might”. Having recently attended our first live Muay Thai match in Bangkok, it struck me that maybe the line “crossroad trucker” would be more realistic by substituting “Little Thai guy”. Thailand’s national sport is a martial arts version of kick boxing unlike any traditional boxing match you’d see in western culture. Needing to be seen live to be appreciated, we considered attending a match in Chiang Mai but the general consensus on most internet circles was that it’s scripted for tourists and Bangkok is the only place to see the real thing. Too busy with major tourist attractions to attend a match way back on our first trip to Thailand, we made sure not to miss it this time around.
Based on the idea that hand to hand combat substitutes for weapons, Muay Thai was a mandatory part of Thai military training during the long period when they were mortal enemies with neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Burma. During World War II, westerners got their first look at the sport and dubbed it “Siam Boxing” as soldiers would practice their sport while Europeans and Americans looked on curiously. After the war, they added formal rules including five round matches and time limits. Unique to Southeast Asia, many Muay Thai fighters spend years practicing and start training as young as age six. Using the sport’s paltry payouts to support their families. prizes of only 4000 Baht ($150 USD) are common and their careers are usually short because this sport ain’t for the weak. Lacerations, concussions and heavy bruising are common and when seen up close, it’s obvious what a toll the sport takes on the body. Becoming popular around the world, Muay Thai is now practiced in many countries and professional martial arts fighters agree that it’s an essential part of learning how to be a skilled fighter. And best of all, it’s exciting to watch.
Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.
too “rough” for American consumers
Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of realfresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.
Although you’d never know it based on the current political and social degradation of anything non-white, those married to people of other cultures, races or religions understand first hand what an ignorant viewpoint that is. Enriching the lives of all those who’ve embraced multi-cultural marriages, there’s nothing more interesting and fulfilling than learning about and becoming part of a culture other than the one you’re born into. Having married into a second generation Canadian Chinese family, I’ve been exposed to a world very different from my caucasian New York roots and always jump at a chance to learn something new about Chinese civilization. Clearly the most uneducated interview given in the joke known as The Republican National Convention, some moron asked CNN this beauty: “What has anyone other than European whites really contributed to the world”? Sadly, the xenophobic idiot was an elected official and the fact they even allow such a comment on the air speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the nation.
Had I been asked the question, I’d counter the sadly uninformed racist legislator and delve into a long-winded response detailing the amazingly storied and fascinating history of Chinese civilization. Ruling over territory ten times larger than Europe, Chinese people are the world’s most successful group of emigrants and communities ranging from 9 million to a few hundred live in dozens of nations on every habitable continent. Choosing Southeast Asia as a retirement destination allows expats interested in things other than border walls and isolationism a great opportunity to discover more about eastern civilization, Chinese history and Asian contributions to humanity. Having explored Chinese museums and exhibitions in Singapore and Penang, I’ve gained a plethora of knowledge about Chinese integration into different societies around Asia and always try to learn more when visiting other countries. Having already done the major tourist attractions of Bangkok on an exploratory vacation that included Borneo and Singapore in 2009, our recent trip presented a perfect chance to learn about Thai Chinese culture. Comprising one sixth of Thailand’s entire population, more ethnic Chinese live in Thailand than anywhere on earth making Bangkok’s Chinatown a perfect place to start our trip after a harrowing start the night before at Dun Mueung Airport.
Taking modern conveniences for granted, today’s internet generation gets from point A to point B using mobile apps, e-tickets and on-line customer service chats. Leaving nostalgic types longing for yesteryear’s experiences like customer service phone numbers, free food and priority service for premium ticket holders, they model many Asian airports more like small cities than transportation hubs. Thankfully, (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), a glimpse of the past awaits thousands of Bangkok bound passengers due to a revival of one of the worlds’ oldest commercial airports. Re-opened after being abandoned and replaced by Suvarnabhumi Airport in 2006, Don Mueang International Airport now provides one of Asia’s worst airport experiences. Remembering why we opted for the overnight train from Penang that’s now been altered due to modernization of Malaysia’s rail system, it’s hard to decide if the arrival or departure was worse. Anxious to share some stories from our eight-day Bangkok trip designed to escape end of Ramadan holiday crowds, I thought I’d get the ever-important semantics out-of-the-way first. Hoping we save our readers some time and frustration, here’s the scoop on flying to Bangkok from almost anywhere in Asia.
Who you expect to see in this 1970’s style airport
Having decided it’s easier to treat short-haul passengers like sardines instead of following through on a planned expansion of Bangkok’s beautiful modern airport, officials now route dozens of flights to an obsolete airport first used by KLM in 1924. In the city’s defense, they’re constructing a new extension to the BTS light rail that will ease much of the post-arrival nightmare but that might be years away. Glancing at the airport’s old drab terminal concrete building, it looks like The Brady Bunch took off from there when they made their Hawaiian vacation episode. Scheduling every arriving flight in a four-hour window each evening means unnecessary delays and adds hours to the landing process. Ensuring long bottlenecks at the immigration counters and a scam that denies most of the city’s thousands of taxis away from entering this airport, you’ll need almost two hours or more for negotiating your way through the mess. Remembering our arrival back in 2009 at Bangkok’s shiny new airport, we cringed when the plane landed, taxied about two miles and then stopped. Somewhere in the middle of a runway, we de-planed on the tarmac and they crammed us into waiting buses that take all passengers to the terminal. Reminiscent of our recent trip to Myanmar’s international airport, we expected better from Thailand.