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.
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.
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.
So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Yes, I did actually order that monstrosity that’s quite possibly the biggest cardiac arrest food offering in all of Chiang Mai. No, I didn’t realize it would taste even worse than it looks so I only took a few bites and offered up my review on one of the dozens of Facebook food groups. Regular followers of this blog know I’ve sworn (even promised) not to make this another “foodie blog”. But arriving in Malaysia two years agomeant sampling a cornucopia of new tastes normally unfamiliar to most western pallets so I decided that writing about local food was an important part of our expat experience. With Malaysian favorites like Nasi Lemak, Hokkien Mee and Laksa part of daily life, I figured I’d post the original Dreaded Foodie Post once and never look back.
Fast forwarding two years to our present expat life in Chiang Mai, I found myself wondering how to continue a blog mostly written in storybook fashion in a place known as “The Digital Nomad Capital of Southeast Asia.”Competing with thousands ofgen X bloggers trying to sell people e-books and information seemed pointless and as you may know, monetizing and commercialization are synonyms for workin my book. Keeping the overall theme of two North Americans experimenting with early retirement overseas meant asking my readers how to find a niche to avoid duplicating other blogs.
After reading your comments, the consensus was to write about life in Chiang Mai for married, childless middle age couples that voluntarily chose a place usually reserved for backpackers, drop out of lifers, and complaining retirees that live here because they’re “financially challenged”. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s very unique “season free” climate spoiled us and we didn’t expect four straight months of rain almost every day and night even in rainy season. Mostly describing the weather since July as worse than Seattle in winter but much hotter, our adventures haven’t really panned out yet . Since we’re not big fans of hiking in the rain and can’t afford the gas money associated with driving for the sake of creating stories, I’ve decided to devote a post to the default topic that’s universally appreciated by almost anyone. So today we present theThaiversion of That Dreaded Foodie Post. Keeping with the blog’s theme, this post is a suburbanite expat’s guide to food in Chiang Mai with most places south of the old city and airport. Also including a few choices in the main drags, it’s certainly not all-inclusive and of course all food reviews are subjective so I’ll understand if you patronize one and think I’m way off base. (Disclaimer: a long wordy post with lots of pictures follows so don’t click if you have no patience)
So here’s an Only in Thailand story. Busy buying everything from kitchen supplies to bedding while we anxiously await the arrival of our stuff that we shipped form Malaysia, we found ourselves in the one of the city’s excellent shopping malls the other day. Did I mention that malls in Chiang Mai aren’t like Penang? There’s actually people in them all day. And not just one group of people like the Hokkien Chinese of Penang that own all the luxury cars, live in the million dollar condos and have all the money. Despite being statistically lower on the development scale, Thailand somehow manages to act more like California. Consumerism is plainly visible and my favorite local food court at Central Airport Mall teems with Thai people eating deliciously local dishes from duck noodle soup to Khao Soy (spicy Northern Thai soup) pretty much as soon as they open the doors. Unlike Penang, there’s a cornucopia of western stores with brand names all westerners know and sizes that fit. Granted I had to buy an extra-large pair of running shorts which initially made me feel very out of shape but at least the Nike store carries dozens of styles at very affordable prices.
A typical Chiang Mai mega store
Anyway, as we strolled through the floors we came across a book store called B2S. Looking more like Chapters or Barnes & Noble than a Southeast Asian chain, they also have a separate chain called Asiabooks that’s prominently located near the entrance. Ironically, that store features all English language books while they relegate Thai books to the back of the store somewhere. Practicing my Thai numbers with the young English-speaking cashier that firmly understood the need for multi language skills in today’s globalized world, we noticed some computer chairs displayed in the middle of the store that looked comfortable. Having searched already at Baan and Beyond, Home Pro, and a few of the other mega superstores that make life in Thailand often feel like suburban North America with Thai signage, we’d tabled the idea because there were more choices than my brain was ready for at prices from dirt cheap to unreasonable. But the large sale sign read “Ha Ha Ha Ha”(Ha is the number 5 in Thai and the expression “5555” is one of the most common responses on social media from westerners that think it’s hipper than saying “lol”). Doing quick mental math, it seemed like we’d found yet another amazing consumer steal. (On our exploratory tripwe scored a brand new 47 inch Samsung HDTV for on sale for about $325 USD). Coming in at $165 based on the rate we bought our Thai Baht for, Serta (the mattress company) manufactured the leather swivel chair and it felt as nice as a quality mattress.
Already fifteen days into Chapter Two of our Experimental Overseas Early retirement, it’s hard to know where to start writing. Immensely different from Penang in a hundred different ways, we’ve been very busy getting set up in our new two-story house which involves about fifteen more steps than Malaysia. Possibly the world’s most tedious nation when it comes to getting established with life’s little necessities like utilities, phone service, buying a car and of course, figuring out exactly what the immigration folks need, we’re about half way through. Exhausting and tiring, we almost forgot what a pain in the ass moving is and waiting 40 days for your stuff to arrive means deciding how much cash to spend on household goods and unlike Penang, there’s no bus service which adds pressure to the car buying process because the clock’s ticking on the weekly rental car.
Our “new” 2011 Nissan Tiida
Thankfully, we found a suitable used car from the only really reliable source (by western standards) in Chiang Mai. Despite having almost every western convenience from superstores to gated suburbs and everything in between, Chiang Mai is sadly devoid of used car dealers. Unclear why a used car market never evolved in a place with so many foreigners and an extensive and well signed road network, we panicked when even the farangFacebook groups couldn’t offer much advice other than buying from a private source. Since that generally means an expat desperate to dump their car quickly because they need to leave the country before their visa expires, we shunned that idea given Thailand’s obsession with rules, procedures and fines for inadvertent violators. Luckily, there’s almost always a westerner that fills the gap when there’s a service expats need that nobody’s done yet and Expat Auto Chiang Mai is that company. Offering a complete bumper to bumper warranty and extensive servicing of all their vehicles, the biggest problem is often buying the right car before someone beats you to it. Choosing a 2011 Nissan Tiida (mostly because it was the only thing in our budget that wasn’t a Malaysian built car), we picked it up last night and began readjusting to the world of motor vehicles. Bye, Uber, Grab and Rapid Penang.
Turning out better than planned, our exploratory trip to Chiang Mai came to a close yesterday. Considering it a huge success, we opened our bank account with both Thai Baht and US Dollar sides, got the internet banking set up, ordered and picked up an ATM card, successfully transferred enough cash to cover the requirement for extending a visa based on retirement and signed a one year lease on an 1,800 square foot house. Perfectly placed fifteen minutes south of the old city and ten minutes from of the airport, the Moo Baan (gated community) is one of the nicest and most secure ones we saw and our rent includes free use of a world-class pool and clubhouse, locker rooms and sauna.
Our new view that swaps seaside for mountains
With so many stories to tell, it’s hard to know where to start and since I’ve been stuck using a shitty IPad that freezes a lot and now that we’re back in Penang, I see Word Press somehow switched the “add new post” function to a minuscule font that’s obviously not supported on my old OS. Also almost impossible to edit, I figured I’d post one thing we did for the 14 days we spent in Chiang Mai. Now back in Penang for 16 more days, we need to finish packing, go to the bank in Penang to update our information (we are staying on the MM2H program), wait for the Hari Raya holiday period to end, send off our 15 boxes of stuff with the movers, greet the landlord, hand over the keys and begin Chapter Two of early retirement. Not looking forward to the last two weeks in Malaysia, it’ll probably go by real slowly but I guess I can write about how much more we like Thailand since we’re finally disposing of the old PC and don’t need to disconnect it until the last-minute. While the Malays are very nice people, the Thai have a certain Asian charm unmatched anywhere elsewhere we’ve seen in Southeast Asia an despite all the complaints and sarcastic jibes from many farangs all over Facebook about Thailand’s ways, all nations have their own problems and when you’re a guest it’s best to look the other way when something sucks and appreciate the reasons why you chose to live there. So here’s my day by day synopsis.
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.