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.
Two strange things happened after we returned home from our six-week escape from the annual Chiang Mai burning season. Having driven over 3,000 kilometers, I’d had my fill of vehicular vacationing for a while and although the air still remained shitty almost two months into the burn season, some welcome rainstorms arrived late in April which finally cleared the air for another year. Naturally, there was one last gasp of poison after the burning ban ended and countless Thais celebrated by incinerating everything from garbage to plastics since most of the agriculturally related infernos had already burned themselves out. Ultimately, Thailand is a third world nation and expecting the bulk of its population to magically change a lifetime of environmental ignorance is a pipe dream. Thankfully, it was short-lived and even though May brought in blazing heat, the skies are sunny and AQI levels are finally back to an acceptable level.
As any blogger knows, the most important aspect of blogging is content. Regardless of how great or crappy the words and pictures might be, if you want people to find, follow and enjoy your personal creation, you need to keep posting. Admitting I’m pathetically negligent in other areas of blogging like participating in forums or using the WordPress reader, I’m not a huge fan of the tools most people use to increase their readership. Believing Twitter is directly responsible for the disaster known as the Trump administration, I hate what Facebook’s become and lost many of my friends anyway thanks to political differences. I don’t have an Instagramaccount and other than practical communication apps like Line or Viber, I wouldn’t know Snapchat from Tagged. Unaware of the latest hip viral You Tubevideos, I don’t have patience for interaction with other bloggers nor do I enjoy writing meaningless banter in search of more followers.
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.
With Chiang Mai’s beautiful but very short “winter” now behind us, it means temperatures begin climbing, skies get hazy due to inversion layers that occur during the hot and dry season and many expats begin their annual bitchfest known as “The Burning Season” all over social media. For us it means the end of day tripping and a short break before a one week beach vacation at a moderately priced Koh Lantaresort. After that we return home for a week and then hit the road for four weeks for a month-long escape from the bad air. Given Thailand’s low-cost of living, we’re running about $3,500 under our annual fiscal year budget so it’s affordable to overlap monthly rent if we stay away from the more popular Andaman Sea beach destinations where everyone else goes. Searching for a more low-key area still far enough south to escape the haze, we found a three bedroom house for rent on Airbnb at a ridiculously low rate of about $21 USD per day in a sleepy beach community half way between Hua HIn and the gateway town of Chumphon. Planning on driving, we’ll be able to cart more stuff than flying and see a bit of the country as well.
So for now, let’s talk finances. Depending on your situation, some of you may have noticed the one and only positive aspect of the Trump Disaster is a rather fast rise of the stock market. Simply put, Wall Street loves billionaires and while very few of his moron supporters will ever see one penny since they’re mostly financially ignorant, underemployed and too stupid to understand why trickle down economics always fails miserably, those of us in the “sweet spot” (invested properly but not wealthy) are doing well. Finally seeing an enormous albeit very short correction that brought the markets down to earth last week, I thought I’d post a follow-up to my recent financial comments.
Having received an unexpected amount of positive feedback when I briefly touched onasset allocation and diversification, let’s get the disclaimers out-of-the-way. Most importantly, I am not a licensed professional and nothing I say should be taken as a solicitation or endorsement of any financial products. But I did spend 32 years working in various administrative and support roles for some very well-respected financial institutions in New York City and San Francisco. Not intending to make this an economics lesson or online college class, I’ll keep the teaching down and include an educational link when I use financial terminology. With lots of great blogs focusing on how to retire early, not that many focus on what to do once you’re there so I’ll give it a shot. While never wanting to manage anyone else’s money, I’ve been a “self-directed investor” for over 20 years and that’s enough time to analyze all the graphs and after almost three years of early retirement, I can say we’re ahead of the curve so if you don’t mind some boring graphs to make my points, read on. Please also note that since we’re both American citizens, some strategies I discuss only apply to U.S. residents but the concepts are universal and can be applied from almost anywhere.
One of my favorite song lyrics during the dreaded working years was from the Canadian band Loverboy; “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the developing world where many people work six days a week and leisure time is highly coveted. While Northern Thailand offers a cornucopia of beautiful scenic spots for relaxing, hiking and enjoying nature, the local population likes these beautiful spots as much as expats and tourists. Thankfully, Monday mornings change from crappy to glorious when you no longer need to jump out of bed at 4:20 AM to catch a 5:15 commuter train and everyone else’s work day becomes your quiet time. Having so far lived through four months of heavy rain, dreaded heat and humidity and a strange month of dead sky overcast that looked ominously similar to our disastrous experience with Penang’s worst haze in twenty years, the beginning of this year was a glorious month of perfect weather in Chiang Mai.
Typical Thai motorbikers
Looking and feeling more like Canadian summer days, it’s hard to believe the difference and with temperatures moderating to a comfortable range of 16 to 27 Celsius, January presents a perfect opportunity for day tripping. So we always wait for the least crowded weekday and hop in our 2011 grey Nissan Tiida that we bought from ExpatAuto.com for under $10,000 USD. Unwilling to risk our lives with an entire population of motorbike riders that do stupid stunts often worthy of an extreme sports competition, we highly recommend sticking to four wheels, especially if you’re unfamiliar with That traffic laws. Yes, that was sarcasm. The only rules on Thailand’s roads are do whatever’s most convenient (like riding against traffic on major four lane roads to avoid driving an extra half mile to the U-turn), make sure you put the entire family on one motorbike (including infants and don’t bother with helmets) and most importantly, make sure any accidents you cause involve farangs because it’s always their fault in the eyes of the Thai law.
There’s an old expression that says “Good fences make good neighbors”. Whoever wrote that obviously never lived in a middle class moo baan in Thailand where real doors would be better than fences. Having researched housing options in Chiang Mai for about a half-year before we moved here, we decided that a gated suburban community with amenities like a pool and gym suits us best. Unlike Malaysia that mimics most western style countries with agents specializing in housing needs, Thailand requires some more due diligence. With no regulations, anyone can open up shop on the internet and claim to be an “agent” and many people find rentals by simply driving around and looking for signs. Given the limited number of legitimate agents showing houses, we’re happy and lucky that we found a three bedroom house in a beautiful tree-lined community that hardly anyone knows about. Too bad the architects didn’t understand the words peace, quiet and privacy when they designed an entire housing development devoid of front doors. Using screen doors as the main entrance, the idea works fine for those with an end house on small streets. For the everyone else, I suggest researching the neighbors and not taking the word of your landlord who told us “they’re not usually around”.
Our main entrance is a screen door
Astoundingly similar to our neighborhood in Walnut Creek, California or our first crack at suburbia in a West Calgary, our gated community features modern three and four bedroom houses ranging from moderate sized to large. Coming in at about 1,800 square feet, our corner lot is way in the back on the last street. Other than the occasional airplane noise that subsides by midnight, you’d normally be able to hear a pin drop. Strangely quiet at night, it’s easy to forget it’s a developing nation and most residents are elderly upper class retired Thai people, Chinese nationals that somehow don’t speak a word of Thai orEnglish (more on that later), some working farangs and scores of well to do families whose kids sound more American than Asian. Inclusive in our very reasonable rent of 20,500 Thai Baht, we get unlimited use of an infinity pool and a rather crappy gym (We pay for a better one outside the community). Despite paying 30% less than our old condo in Penang, many fellow expats on the Chiang Mai social media groups think we’re high-class because we own a car and pay triple what they do so they think we’re living the good life. Unfortunately, there’s one real pain in the ass family in the entire community and they live directly across the street.
Late last year, Diane and I took some basic Thai lessons form a private tutor. Unlike an actual classroom environment with anyone resembling a real teacher, we paid 400 Baht per session and sat with three others at a table in a crowded mall once a week for a series of 20 lessons. Providing us with syllabus binders and a small supplemental quiz book, she titled it “Conversational Thai” and each chapter contained some vocabulary in no particular order, a dialog that was anything but conversational in a real life setting and a few sentence examples with basic phrases. Rarely mastered even by long-term expats that spend time and money on real educational endeavors, Thai is a highly untranslatable tonal language and making it worse, the Chiang Mai region has its own rural version of phrases that sophisticated city people wouldn’t understand if their lives depended on it.
While pleasant enough, our teacher’s patience clearly ran thin towards the end due to my overly inquisitive questions about sentence structure, grammar and even cultural questions. Never one for straight forward memorization, learning foreign languages doesn’t t rank high on my list of strengths and I’m terrible at reciting back what was just taught to me. Often trying to keep it light, our group tried joking with the teacher but almost every humorous comment we made was so culturally unknown to her it literally went in one ear and out the other. Concentrating on a chapter about stuff unique to developing nations like ordering gas (as common here as using online shopping services back home) and dozens of phrases for obsolete post office services, I came across a word that translated into “city water”. Assuming this meant “tap water”, we wasted ten minutes looking for synonyms or other English expressions the teacher might understand but in the end, we left it unsolved. Which brings me to the point. Clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a western expat in the developing world is figuring out what to do when stumbling onto the most common piece of advice in every tourism book; “Don’t drink the water”.
Ah, holidays without cold and snow. After a rather dreary and gray November, skies cleared this month, the temperature dropped, the sun shined brightly albeit a tad hazily for so early before “burning season”, and it began to look like a perfect Tropical Christmas Card. For those following along, you’ll recall how much I’ve craved real fresh roasted turkey. Harder to find than a good pastrami on rye or a beef hot dog, turkeys roam wild all over Asia and maybe that’s because nobody ever tried to catch them. Although commercially raised turkeys are available in Chiang Mai, they’re not very good and the quality and can’t hold a candle to North American Butterballs. Having attended a Thanksgiving buffet last month at a friend’s catered event, disappointment abounded when the turkey turned out to be a pre-cooked processed roast similar to deli sandwich meat.
arriving at Thai Cooking School
Although we didn’t move to Asia expecting to eat turkey sandwiches, burgers and pizza, Chiang Mai is a hub of western expat civilization with throngs of farangs from Christian missionaries out of Omaha to digital nomads from Europe, Australia and everywhere in between. Add in the thousands of retirees, millennial dropouts, begpackers and tourists that never leave and you’ve got a sub culture looking to eat everything from burritos to haggis. (I’m not sure where you can find that but it’s probably somewhere). Since arriving six months ago, there’s been a crush of new western food outlets opening all over and many say they serve “authentic”cuisine. Taking some of the fun out of what used to be a town filled with mostly local ethnic Thai food, the largely opinionated Facebook food group people go on and on posting about the greatest new burger in town and then rave about some ribs cooked by Europeans from nations that normally specialize in herring or schnitzel. Granted there is some good western style food here and it literally blows the shit out of Penang’s version but after a while it all seems to blend together. Yearning for the good ol’ days, we put aside the stereotypes associated with cheesy tourist attractions and did the only sensible thing. Looking for a way to further indulge our inner Thai gastronomic urges. we went to a Thai cooking school.
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.