Glancing at the Yahoo business headlines today, I came across an article about annoyed Starbucks employeescomplaining about heavy workloads, excessive demands being made on them, increases in drive through orders and a host of other issues. Obviously, the head honchos in the boardroom are sadly unaware of how things work outside the United States. Returning from a local diagnostic center halfway between Gurney Plazaand Georgetown that screened my blood for cholesterol and glucose, we decided to stop in at a well furnished Starbucks for a french press. ironically, it’s in the lobby of Penang’s largest hospital and my prior experience visiting the Starbucks in Diane’s old employer’s lobby (a large San Francisco hospital) made me think twice about stopping. Constantly crowded, waiting twenty minutes for a grande latte wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. But alas, this is Malaysia.
Sharply contrasting the retail world we left two years ago, Starbucks in Penang cracks me up. Not even opening until 8 AM or later, Malaysians are not morning people, have no interest in a morning jolt of caffeine and would just as soon spend their mornings doing whatever it is they do instead of waiting on long lines, spending exorbitant sums of money on overpriced western products and then hanging out all morning long. Choosing just about any seat you want, a mid morning visit is an almost surreal experience where bored-shitless employees are so happy to see a customer, they’ll even give you the eight cup French press even though you ordered the smaller one (and paid the lower price). Unclear why or how the company wants to invest in a market where employees sleep on the job while their American counterparts slave away, it’s one of Malaysia’s fun quirks that we’re sucking up before making the next move to Thailand in a few weeks.
As the time winds down to our last two months in Malaysia, I’m reflecting on the success (or failure) of our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement.While it’s time to move on, I wanted to clarify a few things based on some recent comments. First off, I’m not writing a “travel blog”. With thousands of really good travelogues out there, I wouldn’t even try to compete with any of them nor am I trying to tell any of you what hotels, restaurants and attractions to visit. Rather, our blog is for sharing stories about two middle class North Americans that decided to try an overseas early retirement and not stay in the workforce after an unexpected layoff. Calling it an experiment implies uncertainty and neither of us knew if we’d succeed or wind up crawling back home desperate for work. Honestly, if I had my way, I’d either stay in Western Canada without working or live in a sub-tropical or Mediterranean paradise like Turks and Caicos, Hawaiior Monaco.
Asam Laksa – The best of Penang
But unless you’re born with a silver spoon or your family name rhymes with Hump, life isn’t about what you want to do all the time so we chose to push up our original plan a half decade or so by compromising some comforts in exchange for a middle class lifestyle in the developing world. Considering ourselves lucky with timing but smart enough to pay off most of our 15 year mortgage in 7 years thanks to a lot of Saturday nights spent watching free DVD’s from the local library, we always had an emergency plan for a possible mid-career job loss. Although it may not seem like it, we’re actually living that emergency plan (at least financially) and not some digital nomad dream. At the same time, we’re also not struggling to make ends meet in a place where almost everything is two-thirds cheaper than back home. Like most compromises, there’s positives and negatives and I’d rather write my blog as a storyteller. While I strive to be respectful of locals, expats and readers, there’s a lot of things that need a good dose of constructive criticism in Penang. Like our well-educated Malaysian friends of both Malay and Chinese descent, we’d love to see some attitudes and habits change along with the ultra modernization happening all over. Make no mistake; citizens, companies, and businesses that burn garbage every day and turn crystal clear air into stinking health hazards despite federal laws on the books for 45 years explicitly prohibiting this are not representing anything close to “fully developed”. Nevertheless, I’ll focus on some funny and positive aspects.
Where the hell does the time go? Literally feeling like we just did this yesterday, once again empty folded boxes are sitting in our humble abode. Unlike the attachment one gets with home ownership, however, there’s no love lost on leaving our ninth floor condo and moving on to greener pastures. (Thailand is in fact actually greener). Now understanding what they meant in all the blogs, websites and articles that discuss why expats feel culture shock when they return to the homeland, we learned that moving, like almost everything in Asia, is a totally different experience. Having moved an entire three bedroom house from San Francisco to Calgary, back down to San Diego and then up to Walnut Creek, California, you’d think it would be routine but unlike in North America, the key word in Asia for almost anything is minimalism so if you’re contemplating such a move, you’ll need to adjust your thinking.
Goodbye old faithful used boxes.
First off, you’ll need to erase the memories of a Uhaul store and its fancy array of custom sized boxes from wardrobe to specialized art and five different sizes of square from small to extra-large. Hardly anyone in Asia owns 2500 square foot custom-built homes with three car garages, a large yard and room for a shed, pool and some specialized fruit trees. Therefore, we learned quickly that no matter who you call or how much you pay, the choices are standard box and large box. Alas, there’s no industry devoted to boxes, moving and packing either so if you’re thinking you’ll just buy new boxes, good luck with that. Stranger than as anything to us was the notion that hiring a “logistics” (moving) company in Asia means you’ll get empty boxes, packing material and tape delivered to your door by courier as soon as you put down a deposit.
Hoping we’d escape my worst nightmare, I guess I was kidding myself thinking we’d make it until the end of our lease before it began. Continuing Penang’s destruction of the last town without massive development, the pile driving began a few days ago. Like clockwork at 8:45 AM, the ugly space they destroyed right past the new high-rise towers next door comes alive with the most unfathomable and disturbing sound that grates on me like chalk on a blackboard. Proving both the property agents, condo managers and landlord were absolutely full of shit when they rented us this condo 20 months ago, their claim that there’s no further construction planned in the once quiet town of Batu Ferrenghiwas as accurate as a tweet from Donald Trump. While we’ve already decided to get out of here, I’m not sure how I can endure four more months of ear shattering noise for nine hours a day for six days a week.
But we did take the first step towards liberation from construction hell by taking a quick 48 hour jaunt to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Recently visiting Jim, Penang’s resident expert on getting all kinds of visas from the local Thai Consulate, he told us we’d need an affidavit stating that our assets exceed 800,000 Thai Baht, the minimum requirement for a retirement visa. Unlike Malaysia’s one step long-term MM2H Visa, Thailand is a never ending revolving door of reporting, applications for extensions and sometime visa runs. Depending on who you are and what you’re in Thailand for, there’s more choices than the supermarket. Also totally opposite from Malaysia, there’s no government website properly explaining requirements and rules for Thai visas and they literally change constantly so we opted for a series of conversations with people who’ve lived there awhile or moved from Penang to help us understand the proper way to get out of our overdeveloped nightmare. Continue reading →
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.