Since arriving in Southeast Asia I’ve often said there’s always something interesting to see every day if you get out and about. Sometimes, you don’t even need to do that. Contrasting our previous lives as homeowners in the highly overpriced suburbs of San Francisco, the other day we saw what Thai homeowners do to combat the effects of overgrowth on their properties. With rainy seasons lasting upwards of four months or longer and downpours unseen by many westerners, it’s no surprise that plants, trees and grass thrive in the tropics. But unlike our previous privileged life in the East Bay hills of suburban San Francisco, people don’t phone an expensive company with professional tree surgeons.
Defining an arborist as “a professional in the practice of arboriculture, which is the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants in dendrology and horticulture”, I’m not sure if Wikipedia has a name for the Thai version. Despite often feeling like we live in a quiet gated community in Southern California, there’s routinely something reminding us we’re worlds away from the old lifestyle. Unlike many comments on social media from disrespectful western expats bitching how Thailand is so third-worldish, we think Thai workers are rather industrious and efficient. Complying with our moo-baan’s strict guidelines requiring homeowners to keep properties neat, our neighbors no doubt followed Thai protocol. Arriving in an old pick up, a guy with a machete showed up, climbed the tree barefoot and hacked away. Supervised by two community representatives, he meticulously hit all the major branches and hacked off large pieces of as they fell to the ground in large piles. Given the late hour of the day, we marveled at how huge chinks of debris somehow wound up neatly piled into black garbage bags before nightfall. And the next day a truck hauled it all away.
Here’s the thing. Often spending Malaysian mornings crafting blog posts about the latest Southeast Asian place we visited or complaining about burning garbage smoke wafting in our condo, there was plenty of time to focus on writing. But that’s the thing with Chiang Mai. Between endless eating opportunities, a small but friendly expat community and interesting places to visit for day trips, I’m simply not finding time to focus on the blog as much as I’d like. By the time my brain gets a chance to remember any anecdotal stories good enough for a post, we’ve moved onto something else. And with all the great food, serious workouts at the local gym become inherently necessary to avoid packing on the pounds. Despite the rain that’s come down in buckets for upwards of 24 straight hours almost regularly since our arrival, there’s always something to see or do and after two months, it’s sometimes hard to get past wasting two years of valuable early retirement time in Penang.
Harissa ribs – entry number three
Having spent Saturday night enjoying a group eating event featuring flame grilled ribs seasoned four different ways at a place called The Flying Pig, we’re both tired and feel like sitting around our comfy three bedroom house with the “High-So”neighbors (who are totally oblivious and indifferent to farang residents). But in today’s world, that means playing with the phone on social media which ultimately leads to a new notification from one of countless Facebookgroups focused on food, cultural events or weekend hiking options. Sadly, although we’ve taken some day trips to the rice fields and surrounding mountains, our nasal passages and throats haven’t yet adapted to a normal active lifestyle in the rainy and humid season so we’ve decided to table the weekend hiking group options until cool season.
Feeling like we’re perfecting the Experimental Overseas Early Retirement a little more each day, Diane and I are now holders of valid retirement visas in two Southeast Asian nations at the ripe old ages of 52 and 46. Despite the guy in Penang that literally followed every word I wrote to secure his MM2H Visa in Malaysia, I’m certainly no genius as shown by this blog which doesn’t even include hashtags, revenue generating advertising or commercialization of any kind. But I did read an article on Marketwatch.com this morning that discusses a new IRA rule allowing Americans with 401k plansto make penalty free early withdrawals at age 55 in cases of “job separation”. (No, you can’t quit at age 54 and then withdraw money the next year and if you roll your plan into an IRA as we did, the rule doesn’t apply). Intentionally designed to catch your eye with a headline, first they discourage this rather foolish act and then explain how most Americans can’t afford to retire at age 55 proving why you should probably get your financial ideas from those with no vested interest in watching others make mistakes.
Our first visitors came from China
Rarely talking about our personal finances because the boss in the relationship insists we keep the specifics private, I’ll share a few tidbits that illustrate how we’re doing after almost two and half years with no employment income. Planning a budget of 40-45K USD annually including rent and travel, Malaysia was an easy place to meet the goal because there’s nothing to do in Penang and we mostly cooked our own meals since we didn’t like the food other than duck rice and inexpensive noodle soups. Spending most of our cash travelling to places like Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and Australia, we skimped on the non travel months and ate in almost every night. Relying heavily on our “no foreign transaction fee” U.S. dollar credit card, we also took advantage of a plummeting Malaysian Ringgit and saved thousands since almost every business other than food courts takes credit cards in Malaysia with no merchant fees.
Recalling days gone by, I once visited Vancouver in mid November with an old roommate. Thinking we’d visit some indoor attractions since it was off-season, we brought umbrellas and I remember it rained almost the entire four days. Years later, Diane and I discussed possible places we might want to live besides the Bay Area and I learned she hates the dreary long rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest even more than me. Immediately ruling out places with gray skies, cool fog and continuous precipitation, we eventually wound up spending six years in Alberta. Aside from the obvious advantage of having family nearby, it turns out Alberta is the sunniest province in Canada and Calgary enjoys over 300 days of sunshine per year despite the little inconveniences like snowstorms interrupting the beginning of gardening season in May.
Having never lived in the tropics before, we’d visited places like Ecuador and Costa Rica at the end of rainy season and spent many expeditions drenched to the core. Realizing the trade-off between lots of rain but no snow, weather was one factor playing into our initial decision to live in Penang. Blessed with a strange meteorological phenomenon, Malaysia somehow defies conventional wisdom that states everywhere with tropical climate experiences wet and dry seasons. So for two years we had some rainstorms here and there but in Penang, skies almost always cleared within an hour and if it rains overnight it rarely sticks around. We also can’t recall more than about two days of continuous rain which makes a retired North American overseas expat quite spoiled. And bored since it’s dry but there’s not much to do without transportation when you live far from the main tourist drag and air-conditioned malls. Understanding Thailand has three distinctive seasons and we chose to arrive at the start of what’s normally the wettest time of year, it’s no surprise that it’s raining. But unlike the past few years, this summer is producing deluges and floods all over the nation not seen in many years (according to people we’ve asked, anyway).
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.
As the North American long weekend holidays for Independence approached, Diane and I quietly celebrated our two year anniversary of expat life in Southeast Asia.Stepping off the plane on Canada Day in 2015, we embarked on a life far removed from Timbits, quality beer and suburban backyard grilling. Radically different from our one year anniversary, this year we’ve waited patiently as the calendar drags off our last 16 days in Penang. Having completed a successful exploratory trip to Chiang Mai where we opened a bank account and found a suburban house in a quiet and picturesque moo-baan, the goal of these last two weeks was secure a single entry 90 day Non-O visa (done), finish packing (almost done), spend the rest of our sadly depleted Malaysian Ringgit that we bought 12% lower than today’s exchange rate (harder than its seems) and close the book on Chapter One of our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment.
Concerned about writing the blog in the Digital Nomad Capital of Asia where I’d be competing with literally thousands of internet generation smart asses that all think they’re Pulitzer Prize winners, many of you pointed out there’s not an awful lot out there from the suburban middle class early retiree crowd. Initial searches prove you’ve all got a good point so to keep the blog mostly free of food reviews, technology and strategies on living like broke backpackers in lieu of working real jobs, I decided on a theme of Suburban Alternatives in the Chiang Mai region. Given the amazing similarities to North American suburbia from single family houses (mostly for rent) to a cornucopia of mega superstores (five good supermarkets compared to Penang’s one pathetically stocked supermarket with serious refrigeration issues), it seems reasonable I won’t run short on stories. Granted the target audience for my little blog becomes quite different in a place with more blogs than Thai people (almost) and I’ll apologize ahead of time for writing more about primers on how to house hunt for age-appropriate neighborhoods than trendy new clubs to hang out in and forty-seven ways to secure a visa when you’ve decided to spend the prime working years away from your homeland in coffee shops with a laptop while avoiding today’s most hated four letter word (work).