Feeling much like the Vietnamese street vendor above, basic laziness kicked in when it came time to plan our recent trip to Vietnam. Bucking Experimental Expat tradition, we clamored over the big decision on how to plan the adventure and although Vietnam is both inexpensive and relatively easy to self-plan, we gave in and went with a customized private tour option. As one of the last places on our to-do list in Southeast Asia and knowing our time in the Eastern hemisphere is limited, we couldn’t decide between Hanoi and the north, Danang’s central beach region or the big city insanity of Saigon (nobody here calls it Ho Chi Minh City except the airlines so don’t correct me). So we gave in and let the experts at a German-based company come up with a regional vendor specializing in the area. While certainly not inexpensive, it’s easier than planning individual trips on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Clearly not the best or worst travel decision we’ve made since starting our experimental overseas early retirement, I’m 50/50 on booking a private tour for Southeast Asian destinations. While not quite good enough to endorse, it was very well organized. On paper, anyway. No strangers to private tours, we’ve had a host of professional guides enhance our best vacations with their expertise, great personality, and local knowledge. From rainforest expeditions in Borneo to wildlife viewing in Ecuador’s jungles, we’ve made lasting friendships with our guides and remain Facebook friends with all of them to this day. Usually taking Experimental Expat Destination Vacations where we’d combine bucket list hot spots with a potential future early retirement home, we often paid a premium when the income was still rolling in. And if you have the means, I’d highly recommend not skimping when it comes to specialized trips like our Galapagos Island trip on a luxury catamaran. But alas, things change drastically once you’re living on a fixed income and especially so when you’re potentially looking at a 40-year retirement. So I’ll focus a bit on the pros and cons of our Vietnamese guided tour.
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.
Well, that got your attention, didn’t it? Despite having a military junta control its elections, parliament, and constitution, Thailand remains devoid of any big beautiful Trumpwalls. Granted, nobody living here finds much to celebrate about the Thai Government, especially when the topic of immigration comes up, but at least the nation’s not run by a narcissistic ignorant toddler who spends his days detaining despondent Burmese women at the border and separating them from their children. Possibly the world leader when it comes to the number of expats, dropouts, retirees and illegal foreigners, Thailand’s immigration system is a revolving door of endless paperwork, passport stamps, and reporting. While not exactly campaigning on a policy of stereotyping immigrants as “sending us their worst”, there’s been a recent slew of significant changes clearly designed to send as many westerners packing as possible without coming out and saying so.
Returning from hiatus a few posts ago, I mentioned that The Experimental Expats are leaving Thailand next year for Mexico. Between a burning season that’s now turned into a three-month poisonous air fiasco and climate change that’s extended “hot season” into a five-month version of Las Vegas in summer with crappier skies, the change in immigration policy for folks who “extend their visa based on retirement” was the final straw. (more on what that means later). But what changed and for that matter, who the hell really understands Thai immigration rules anyway? Here’s a hint; Not the folks at Thai Immigration. While most educated Thai people (and even most working class folks) apparently want a representative government, the military junta runs the show which means policy decisions are made by whoever has power on any given day.
Rarely discussing the ramifications of implementing said policy change, the appropriate agencies responsible for day to day operations of whatever (in this case, immigration) are usually left in the dark. Citing an example, here’s an article telling us all how the Thai Immigration Department had no clue about the major shift in policy days after it was announced. And with over 90 provinces all operating independently of one another in terms of enforcement, the Thai Immigration system often runs a smoothly as one of Trump’s tremendous summits with totalitarian dictators. (Pre-click warning: Posts about Thai Immigration are always lengthy).
Spending millions of marketing dollars on ways to relax, unwind and spend more quality time with loved ones, corporate America often implies we’d be happier if we only had more free time. As one who’s now spent almost 24 hours of every day with their spouse since our Experimental Early Overseas Retirement, allow me to clarify things. Having been plunged into our situation thanks to my unexpected layoff, one of the first things you’ll learn is too much “quality time” together often leads to bickering. After four years, neither of us has embarked on a new career, pursued higher education, started a business or even had an epitome of “the next great thing”. While that’s not really bothered us because it’s allowed us to travel, cook fresh meals, spend time with friends and stay fit through walking, swimming, and the gym, it inevitably leads to the occasional argument.
While we love being together, our personalities are quite different and this often leads to clashes. For instance, I get irked about stupid shit in developing nations like incompetence in retail supermarket inventory and supply chains. Often asked about what’s different in Asia compared to North America, I respond by talking about bread. Considering how many choices are in North America from 12 grain to dark rye and dozens of artisan varieties, I often get frustrated how hard it is to find a good loaf of bread in Thailand. (Or Malaysia). Before being ripped by the non-North American expat crowd, let me explain something. It’s not that there’s no bread here; Europeans eat lots of bread. And to me it all sucks. Dry, hard and almost always tasteless compared to a delicious ciabatta, fresh hot loaf of San Francisco sourdough or a classic New York Italian hero bread, all the bread in Chiang Mai the expats rave about is about as appetizing to me as a piece of Hardfiskur (with apologies to Icelanders that enjoy dry salted fish).
So now that we’re back from our long North American jaunt where we pigged out like there was no tomorrow, let’s address the foodie thing from an expat’s point of view. Promising I’d try to avoid mindlessly posting uninhibited pictures of everyone’s favorite internet topic (food), I wrestled on how to highlight all the great things we ate and still stay on topic. Noticing that Skip the Dishes is the latest craze in Canada and the USA, it seems that today’s lazy millennial generation need not even step foot outside, never mind picking up a kitchen utensil to cook anything. With everything from McDonalds to gourmet five course dinners available at the touch of a smart phone, it’s no different here in Asia with one big exception. Often compromising taste, quality and style, eating “western style food” in Southeast Asia means tempering one’s expectations.
New York: Food heaven
Avoiding a third version of That Dreaded Foodie Post, I thought I’d combine a gastronomical recap of our trip with a look at the differences between Asian and North American versions of foods that many westerners grew up with. Sharing experiences of my reunion with foods I know and love by matching them up side by side with their Thai counterparts, think of this post as a comparative food primer for wannabe expats. Believing that exploring local foods is one the best things about experiencing another culture, we avoided reading about an ongoing “best burger in Chiang Mai” debate on Facebook’s Chiang Mai Eatsgroup and tried to delve first hand into “real Thai food”. And although we kind of knew this, it’s worth reiterating that almost everything you think is authentic anything usually lands somewhere far removed from what’s enjoyed by most locals. With abundant European expats here in Chiang Mai, western food often gravitates towards a very non-North Americanized style so let’s dive right in and call this a Cautionary Food Tale for North Americans pondering a move to Thailand. Focusing on Italian food first, I’ll make this a multi part post.
Wondering why retired people with no job waiting for them back home would experience jet leg, let me go on record and dispel a myth. Despite not having any schedule other than deciding what and when to eat, sleep and leave the house, our body’s natural rhythm known as “the body clock”doesn’t care nor understand you were laid off almost five years agoand chose an experimental overseas early retirement. Having returned from our excruciatingly long North American jaunt that totaled just over 34 hours and landed us in our living room just under two full days after leaving, I learned that losing an entire day due to time differences and trans-continental flights catches up to you no matter how much you sleep on the planes. Attempting a return to my rather “anal”routine, it took until the third morning until I finally felt rested. Which leads me into my segment on our choice to spend almost a thousand extra bucks for “premium economy”. Throughout this post, I’ll include pictures showing what you get for your extra money on Cathay Pacific Airlines.
The Cathay Pacific Premium Economy seat
Having returned to Chiang Mai during the off-peak months when the rainy season blues are in full swing, I noticed my first post after a two month layoffgarnered little fanfare compared to my historical numbers despite having somehow picked up dozens of new followers even without posting any new content. Realizing I’m not the interactive type, this doesn’t surprise me but I’d like to at least feel like somebody besides me gives a crap (or even enjoys) my style of slightly off beat cynical yet realistically optimistic expat tales, so instead of spending all the gloomy days in the coffee shop playing Words with Friendsand pretending to practice speaking Thai, I’ll put off the morning walks on non-workout days and focus on getting more content out there. Thankfully, I did go to a gym once in both Edmonton and Calgary which is ambitious for a “vacation” so hitting the weights again was easier than returning from our recent springtime escape from the Chiang Mai Burning Season.
So we didn’t win a million dollars but we do feel like we completed all 11 legs of The Amazing Race.Having flown 18,736 air miles via three different airlines on seven flights over the course of 30 days, visiting two counties and four cities, we’ve had our fill of what both our homelands feel like now that it’s been three years since our experimental overseas early retirement began. Since the blog is about our expat life, I wrangled with how to cover all the great stuff we did in New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton without rambling on like your average travel blog. But before we expatriated, I read extensively about the phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock” and ascertained it would take at least five years before it would hit us since modern technology keeps us in touch with what’s going on back there. I was wrong. Granted there was no way of knowing how a lunatic president would literally alter the course of North American culture but while we thoroughly enjoyed visiting family and friends, eating great food and experiencing a more pleasant climate, we’ve never been happier to be home (home for now, that is).
Back in my hometown
Having experienced so many differences between life in relatively peaceful Thailand and crazy, excitable and unpredictable North America, it’s hard to explain it all in one paragraph or even a single post. So instead of droning on about intolerance versus acceptance or complicated versus simplicity, I’ll stick to summarizing some highlights and gradually work into the details of each leg in upcoming posts. Understanding how different things are between developing nations and “over developed nations”doesn’t take too long after stepping out of the plane. Among the first things that jumped right out at us is the lack of retail employees in both the USA and Canada. Pioneered by tax cuts for billionaires that benefit nobody but big corporations and shareholders, the results of Trump’s trillion-dollar gift to the rich is highly visible. And despite the tax code differences in Canada, many major Canadian retailers sold out to American companies years ago which means they follow similar workflow models.
As expected, over half of all Fortune 500 companies in the USA used their tax gift to buy back their shares instead of creating jobs in America which is the stated purpose (albeit it a total lie). For those unfamiliar with financial jargon, this basically means their stock price drops which enriches wealthy investors and companies waste all potential savings on “the one percent”. Completely contrary to that, in Thailand, there’s so many employees in all areas of retail, it’s almost comical. Sometimes they’ll send over five or six staff members if they don’t understand what we want due to language barriers. Forgetting this, we visited a Starbucksin New York shortly after arrival thinking we’d have plenty of time before the Uber driver arrived at JFK. Almost taking longer to get two lattes than the 85 minute drive to Brooklyn, the pattern repeated in every Starbucks we patronized across three boroughs and two Canadian provinces. Often seeing stores using only two employees to do everything in the peak of commute hour, nobody complains because everyone’s been forced to accept a drastically short-staffed retail sector that affects everyone. Experiencing this everywhere from Old Navy in Midtown Manhattan to Sportchek in Calgary, finding someone to help went apparently the way of DVD’s and real presidents.