About three hours south of Bangkok, after navigating the trudge normally associated with highways 35 and 4, most cars exit the junction near Cha-Am Beach and head to Hua-Hin. Overhyped in Thailand but fairly low on the must-do list for international tourists, the late King turned this once sleepy town into a cluster of high rises and beachfront properties now cluttered with entitled Bangkokians every weekend and holiday. Unbeknownst to many, including us when we first needed a place to escape the Annual Northern Thailand Burning Festival, if you drive south for about another hour you’ll reach one of the last remaining uncrowded and beautiful beachfront regions in Thailand. Visited mostly by a devoted group of kiteboarders drawn to the large sandy beach and seasonal afternoon winds, Sam Roi Yat qualifies as one of Thailand’s only remaining hidden gems.
Thankfully, we’d discovered it a few years before The Great Hunker Down year entirely by chance. Having spent the previous “burning season” further south in a very deserted beach town called Bang Saphan, we didn’t yet feel like returning back home so we found an AirBnb in Khao-Tao, just south of the main Hua Hin tourist drag. Rented out seasonally, the house was in a moo-baan (gated community) known as Manora Village and was literally built in a field next to shanty-looking dwellings where you’d almost feel uncomfortable walking if you didn’t live in Thailand. Wishing to avoid Hua-Hin, we ventured south down some local roads and discovered a few developments too expensive for most Thai people, a strangely well-developed mangrove forest park with boardwalks and English signage, a country club (probably for the expats in the new developments), and the mostly unknown Khao Sam Roi Yat National Park.
First off, I want to thank everyone for all the feedback regarding my recent post about expat finances and my subsequent follow up that explained why perhaps finances weren’t something I should include in future posts. Understanding my readers a little better now, most feedback was positive and I learned that many folks regard the financial posts as positive input while they contemplate their own experimental expat early retirement. Others felt the blog should only be about travel adventures and that nobody cares about the world’s current political situation and its effect on expat life or our own personal finances. So here’s my take on where the blog goes from here.
As I’ve alluded to many times, the blog isn’t a travel blog about wanderlust or all how early retirement is all about fulfilling our travel fantasies. With thousands of travel blogs, some good, some bad, I’m not here to compete with those folks. Nor is early retirement just about travel, at least not for people like us that joined the ranks of the non-working with much less than we’d need to be globetrotters. Having been laid off about five years before I would’ve preferred, traveling is an added benefit but needs to be carefully planned and isn’t the main focus of why we chose early retirement. Granted we’ve had some great adventures and those are often what folks want to read about most but every day isn’t vacation nor is retirement always great so I like to also discuss the ironic, comical and often cynical parts that convey a more realistic idea of what you might expect should you take the plunge. Usually receiving comments that I “tell it likeit is”, I think sugar-coated stories of a fantasy retirement are a dime a dozen.
Well, folks, money management class is closed for The Experimental Expats. Like a Nate Silver poll of the 2016 presidential election, it appears I drastically misread my readers and got it horribly wrong. Based on the response from an old post discussing investments and the importance of a diversified portfolio, I mistakenly thought now would be a great time to share some insight about the recent market volatility, our progress after four years retired and why you should ignore all the “sky is falling” stories in the financial press. But based on an almost total lack of interest in the post and virtually no comments or replies, I guess the financial and money management stuff is best left to other bloggers.
Admittedly, I’m a tad disappointed because I put more effort into it than almost any given day in my last job. Thinking it was too long and complicated, I hereby officially anoint my latest post about expat financesa failure and apologize to anyone that was nice enough to give it a read. Using most of the post as background information to explain why our situation is different than many early retirees and what led to our risky decision to forego work, I planned on a follow up to discuss our budget and share some of my rather simple spreadsheets. Ironically, I stumbled onto an article from Business Insider yesterday about8 people who retired early and how the decision changed their money habits.
Naturally, they’re all millennials that found a way to achieve “financial independence” at a ridiculously young age and they don’t really explain anything about how much they have, how they intend to fund the next 50 or 60 years (some have kids) or how they travel the world with a total net worth of nothing. Some are professionals that probably thought real work was too hard. Most write for-profit blogs which means they live day to day and hope the“online income” field will carry them into the latter part of this century. Clearly not my idea of being “retired”, I wish them all well but wouldn’t trade my diversified portfolio and the security that comes with it anytime. So like a fitness class scheduled at a bad time, part two of my financial post is canceled due to lack of interest. But please don’t go away yet; I heard you all loud and clear and will now return to my regularly scheduled programming.
Oops; I did it again. Having finally conquered the horrible new WordPress Editor, I found myself reinvigorated and ready to share stories of our experimental early retirement once again. Launching into a series of recaps of our Great Smoke Season Escape Tour 2019 that included a trip to the powerfully compelling War Remnants Museum in Saigonand a lesson in ruralrice farming with water buffalos, my writing ambition hit full gear. Then a 90-day blast of Saudi Arabian-like sweltering heat came to Northern Thailand. Understanding much of the world now suffers through historically unprecedented heatwaves in the summer months thanks to climate change, I’m not expecting much sympathy.
But it took us long enough to acclimate to 30 degrees Celsius and anything much higher than that is too hot for my comfort zone. And despite the declaration of an “official end” of the hot season according to the geniuses at the Thai Meteorological Division, almost no rain fell in Chiang Mai for three months, drought conditions prevailed and temperatures hovered in the mid to upper 30s every day. That’s over 100 for my Metrically challenged readers. Happily, the rain fell for two straight days now and at 30, (86 Farhenheit), the temperature’s almost Arctic-like by Thai standards. And then I noticed that on top of making the world’s worst business decision with the block editor, the folks at WordPress also increased my annual subscription by no longer including the domain name as part of my not so “premium” subscription. Full disclosure; I’ve spent most of the last month planning a 20th anniversary trip to Italy and having learned my lesson in Vietnam about getting lazy and using the guided tour option, I decided it’s both fun and rewarding planning everything yourself the old fashioned way. So once again, please pardon the interruption between posts.
Having shared a harsh and powerful inconvenient truth about TheVietnam War as told from a non-American point of view, I realize my last post may have been a bit much for some readers. Describing the horrific exhibits in the Saigon’sWar Remnants Museum, I called it the best, hardest to look at and most important museum in Southeast Asia. And it doesn’t end there. Experiencing a slightly easier historical account of The Vietnam War (known as The American War of Aggression to the Vietnamese government), we also visited the Cu-Chi Tunnels. Another must-see while visiting Vietnam, they’re an immense network of connecting underground tunnels used by North Vietnamese fighters as hiding spots as during combat. Also serving as communication lines, supply routes, hospitals and even living quarters, the tunnels helped keep the Vietnamese resistance going strong despite American efforts to destroy them.
But while the tunnels warrant an entire post to themselves, I thought it best to lighten up the mood a bit since it appears entirely possible that the Orange Ignoramusmay lead the USA into another unnecessary war of aggressionagainst a nuclear-armed foe (Iran, in case you’re not paying attention). So let’s jump ahead and talk about a highly enjoyable activity available to Northern Vietnam visitors. About two hours away from the chaos of Hanoi in Hai Duong Province. you’ll find fertile rice fields in a picturesque village called Ngoc Hoa. One of Vietnam’s newest tourism draws, farm vacations give visitors a chance to become a Vietnamese rice farmer for a day. Doing everything from planting the seeds to plowing the fields, you don traditional clothing, get barefoot in the mud and literally hop on the back of a water buffalo. While full day and overnight trips include fishing, hiking and a full day of farming, Diane and I got the short version thanks to our laziness. Easily accessible on the internet with an English website, Vietnam Farm Homestay invites visitors to “experience country life”. But as you may recall, we chose a fully guided tour for our two-week jaunt through Vietnam and like our debacle with unprofessional guides in Saigon, we had some bumps along the way on this half-day trip also.
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).
OK, so it’s not really a miracle or a White Christmas. (More on the miracle part shortly). But it is so cold in Chiang Mai today that I hit the spare bedroom where the winter clothing box sits like a prisoner in solitary confinement. Unlike last year when my crazy decision to spend Christmas in Canadawith Diane’s family meant spending the entire four weeks hunkered down inside to avoid the frigid temperatures, sanity prevailed this year and we stayed in the tropics. But someone forgot to tell the weather gods. Anxiously awaiting this “cool season” they all promised us would arrive, November brought thirty days of gray on gray and torrid humidity. Then December arrived and magically gave us a few days of comfortably livable almost sub-tropical like days. And then it quickly went back to hot, humid and hazy. Rumors of an early “burning season”began popping up as the sun remained visibly absent and the air outside reminded me of that ever-present stink of Malaysians burning everything from garbage to plastic (despite their insistence that they don’t do that because it’s supposedly illegal).
Lowest reading since arriving in Asia
And then out of nowhere, we got an early Christmas present. Shifting winds brought a wave of high pressure down from China, skies brightened into a brilliant cloud free sky with nothing but sunshine and it got cool again. But it didn’t stop with cool. Like an ignorant tweet from Trump, it kept coming and coming until it got downright chilly. And that turned into downright cold. Forcing us to close every window in the house, crank the shower heater up to 80% and break out the sweatpants and socks, last night was colder than Walnut Creek, California where we used to live. (I checked). Clocking in at an astoundingly low 9 Degrees Celsius, (48 Fahrenheit), we both woke up cold and slept with the blanket pulled all the way up. Never one to complain about cool spells in the tropics, breaking through the single digits when you’ve lived with daily high temperatures of 30 Celsius or more for two years proved quite interesting. Always thinking our living room wall thermometer doesn’t really work because it’s been permanently fixed on 30 and we never use the air con except to sleep, it jumped an amazing 8 degrees last night and now it looks like any typically beautiful Canadian summer day.
And so our third year of tropical holidays arrived. About a year ago we prepared for Christmas in the cold Canadian North and hit the malls of Malaysia looking for anything with warmth. Unlike in Thailand where they break out heavy down coats, scarves and gloves during the “annual freeze” where overnight temperatures drop all the way to 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) (shudder), Penang’s version of winter clothes includes mostly miniscule sized Japanese products in stores like Uniqlothat even most Malaysians can’t squeeze into. Picking up a nasty Malaysian flu bug two days before the long journey back home, I quickly regretted my crazy decision since the weather didn’t climb above minus 20 for three weeks. Even our old friends didn’t want to hang out because it was too cold and snowy and I proceeded to infect Diane’s family with an unfamiliar Southeast Asian bug that wouldn’t leave my body until a month after we returned.
Outside a Thai department store
Having learned my lesson about thinking I miss the cold, this year we’re staying here in Chiang Mai where the malls are awash with huge Christmas trees, cars drive around carrying tress and a flood of restaurants and hotels offer holiday dinners and serve everything from ham to local seafood. But let’s talk turkey. As some readers may recall, two years ago we suffered through the worst ecological disaster in Southeast Asian history perpetuated by Indonesia’s annual irresponsible andsenseless illegal agricultural burns. Creating a stench that permeated the air in four countries for over three months, the haze season was the worst on record since they began burning everything to satisfy the west’s insatiable desire for palm oil. Needing to escape, we hit Chiang Mai for a few weeks and enjoyed our first Thanksgiving dinner away from home in a restaurant called Art Cafe. Featuring a real turkey dinner with all the trimmings for about 800 Baht, it wasn’t the best we’ve ever had but it was real turkey which is probably the thing I miss the most living away from North America. Despite a government protectionist policy on foreign turkeys, we still considered doing something like that again and although there’s not nearly as many Thanksgiving dinners as Christmas in Chiang Mai, there’s still a bunch of respectably decent choices. Anything seemed better than last year’s “mock Thanksgiving dinner” cooked by an interesting character and former chef that followed our blog to the letter and literally duplicated everything we did to get our MM2H Visa.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to witness a truly grand public spectacle on a scale so big it warrants coverage from The Discovery Channel, BBC and other major media outlets, today is the day to be in Thailand. Sadly, I’m guessing hardly anyone reading this in the USA knows anything about it. Culminating a year-long mourning period, Thailand will cremate the late KingBhumibol Adulyadej tonight at 10 PM local time in a $90 million ceremony that’s been dubbed the largest and most spectacular event of its kind in history. Taking ten months to build, a huge 164 foot high royal pyre and pavilion decorated with nine gilded spires, a great white umbrella, and statues of the king’s favorite pet dogs awaits the coffin where they’ll place the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynastay . Dating back to 1782, the monarchy of Thailand transformed into a constitutional monarchy in 1932 but unlike the rest of the planet, the late king generated a level of respect and reverence normally long gone from civilized societies.
The Grand Palace
Although obviously a somber event, living in Thailand allows expats a fascinating view of a culture steeped with tradition and a reverence unlike anywhere else on earth. Despite modern infrastructure, a thriving modern capital city and an economy boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates anywhere on the planet, the event is so important to Thai people, the nation is literally shut down today except for airports and hospitals. Also known as Rama IX, the late king was the world’s largest reigning royal and easily the most loved in modern times. Remembering how much coverage followed the death of Princess Diana, I’ve always marveled at the personal relationship Thai people have with the king. As the head of state, the king helped shape the nation through political coups, economic hardships and unlike the tabloid like fascination people have with The Queen of England and the British monarchy, the late king effected genuine change for the Thai people with thousands of unique village based community development programs that highlight various self-sustaining missions from reforestation to agricultural production.