Tag Archives: edmonton

State of Emergency (The Thai version)

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.

Our pandemic hideout

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.

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It’s (not) a small world, after all

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 Starbucks in 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.

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Shopping spree

As 2017 progresses into its first full week and the temperature here in arctic Edmonton hovers around a seasonal minus twenty Celsius, my body says it’s desperately time to get outta Dodge and get back to the comforts of heat and humidity. Plagued with a three-week head cold, cracked dry skin, sore lips, caked up nose, tired bones and bundled up in double wool socks, vests on top of down coats, warm gloves and a hat, I’m longing for the comforts of shorts and t-shirts again. As much as I love Canada and will always call it my second home, there’s no denying that Canadian prairie winters really suck. Fortunately, when you sell a house in California an don’t need to buy another one, it’s relatively easy to become an overseas expat in a hot nation for about fifteen years.

23 kilogram limit: mostly food

23 kilogram limit: mostly food

Financially speaking, although we spent about six hundred bucks more than our thirty-day budget, we bought a cornucopia of quality brand name products at Boxing Day sale prices that end almost all our shopping needs for a year or two. Including about twelve Nike Dry fit t-shirts, two pairs of name brand hikers good for the jungle, new Ecco and Keens sandals, a new fanny pack and toiletry kit for travel and deodorant that actually works in the humidity, the shopping aspect is worth three flights, two layovers and almost 20 hours of flying time. Also horribly inconvenient for me since I’m legally blind in one eye, there’s only one brand of contact lenses that work well for me in any environment.

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The Great Non-White White North

Filed under the mostly boring topic of returning to North America for the first time, I apologize ahead of time for the cushy little post about what we did on our winter vacation. In keeping with my blog’s slightly edgy but realistic views, I’ll start by pointing out that Americans worried about immigration can chill out because apparently, every immigrant bound for North America has mysteriously landed in Western Canada. In only eighteen months, the whitest place I’ve ever lived in morphed into a multi cultural center of ethnic, religious and racial diversity. Strolling through the streets and malls, we’ve seen literally thousands of non white immigrants blending in just perfectly with Canadians. Mostly dark-skinned Africans, head dressed Muslims from every conceivable nation and Hindus from nations other than India, it seems the like first course of action for the Trudeau administration was to stick it to the Trumpsters by letting tens thousands of immigrants call Canada their home.

Canadian version of Malaysian wildlife

Canadian version of Malaysian wildlife

Being Canada, nobody cares, argues, stares, protests, tweets, spews hatred or otherwise argues. And much to the chagrin of angry white American voters, its obvious after one day visiting that not only are they all peaceful and appreciative to be here, they’re all employed and contributing to the local economy. Where there used to be teenage white kids staffing retail stores and old Indian men sweeping streets and filling custodial jobs, now there are Senegails, Gambians, Bangladeshis, middle easterners and oh, yeah, thousands of Syrians that the Canadian government welcomed with open arms. Demographically speaking, it makes sense because in every developed nation, someone has to do the service jobs and just like American teens, Canadian kids have grown out of mall jobs and now probably earn online income to support their insatiable smartphone habits.

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The lost art of Chinese cooking

Winding up two weeks spent squaring at Diane’s parents house in Edmonton, Alberta, Diane and I anticipated her mom spending two days cooking a specialty item hardly made by anyone under 60 anymore. In the spirit of an Anthony Bourdain episode in Penang where he visited someone who cooked an obsolete dish practically gone from existence due to the time and effort involved, we ate an item known by different names, depending on who does the speaking. Known as Joong in Cantonese, Zoongi in Mandarin and Bahtzang in Taiwanese, it’s basically sticky rice and a host of interesting items wrapped in a green leaf similar to a banana leaf. Understanding the ingredients takes some poking around and I believe the main items are Chinese sausage, peanuts, pork fat, dried split mung beans, dried shrimp , duck eggs and chestnuts.

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Night and Day

Having spent a week in British Columbia and a week in Alberta, I’ve observed how different the two provinces are. Part of the problem with living in Canada is you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Aside from higher taxes in exchange for socialized health care, a GST that raises the price of your Starbucks latte by about 89 cents and the metric system that’s not completely used in consumer products, certain things are strikingly different depending on where you live in this enormous country. In the spirit of the now defunct David Letterman show, here’s my Top 10 List of differences between Alberta and British Columbia.

I shortened it a bit.

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Pickled Pigs Feet

Whoever said living at home with the in-laws is no fun obviously wasn’t married to an Asian whose father cooked for a living. Having now been in Edmonton for a week, Diane and I have reaped the benefits of living with parents that don’t mind house squatters. Enjoying the amenities, we’ve made some great progress towards getting settled and organized in Malaysia next month, albeit with a one month phone contract that provides hotspot access in this very unconnected internet-free home. With summer approaching, every day feels like two days with the light leaking through the window at about 4:45 AM and darkness setting in somewhere near midnight. Adjusting to “sleeping in” (anything past 6 for me) is difficult for someone used to a routine (what Diane calls “being anal”) but I’m trying to change my habits and prepare for a place where life only begins after sundown due to torrid heat and humidity.

imageReceiving excellent news the other day, we’re happy to report that our MM2H application has officially been bypassed for “selection of banking verification” a tedious process recently implemented by the Ministry that basically amounts to a triple check of information already provided in the application package. According to our agent, we can expect the approval letter to come through sometime around early August (it would normally be late July but that falls during a period of high holidays and we’re still getting used to the very un-American concept of business and industry shutting down for an entire week). Clearing the way for an early arrival to Penang  with expectations of an approval letter about a month later, we’ve decided to keep our plane reservations as-is and search for housing on a three-month tourist entry while the visa makes its way through the ministry’s red tape.

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Alberta Beef: almost worth the 9 month winter

Not long after we arrived in Edmonton, Diane’s father cooked steak for dinner. But Alberta beef is not just regular steak. Known worldwide for having some of the finest beef available, you know you’ve left the USA as soon as you take your first bite. While not readily available throughout North America mostly due to U.S.government protectionist policies and a huge beef industry lobby in Washington, Alberta is the premier place for beef lovers. Enjoyable in any form, even fast food burgers taste better when they use superior meat as the primary ingredient. Unsure if Malaysian beef tastes anything like this, Diane and I never object when her Dad feels like doing the cooking.

Ironically, Edmonton also has some of the best dim sum I’ve ever had and we always look forward to it. Coming from a metropolitan area with millions of Asians, it frustrated me not having one real Chinese restaurant for weekend dim sum anywhere less than a 60 minute drive away. Turning all Asian food into some sort of fake combination of Americanized slop with lots of corn starch and sugary sauces and calling it “fusion”, our old home town charged way too much money and removed all aspects of anything recognizable as authentic ethnic food. Expecting Malaysian Chinese to be delicious but probably quite different from North American style, we’ll enjoy the greasy deliciousness.

Over the weekend we went to watch my niece play in a soccer tournament that was here in Edmonton. Diane’s sister lives in Calgary, a three hour drive south and that’s also where we lived for six years when I was an American expat living in Canada. Not understanding anything at all about parental responsibilities, I watched from the sidelines along with various other moms and dads, cheering the occasional good play and yelled along with everyone else when they scored two goals. Entertaining enough, I can’t honesty say I’d rather be ten to fifteen years away from retirement because of child raising duties instead of heading off to Southeast Asia to live in a few weeks.

After the game we all went to a “Shanghai style” restaurant but it tasted more like canned food thrown together with some low quality meats and seafood that was probably caught about a year ago. Famous for dumplings, we ordered some and waited about 15 minutes for what appeared to look like the real thing but also tasted like they’d been prepared by a Latino kitchen staff member from any California casual restaurant. With no real taste, I lowered my expectations and the rest of the meal proved to be equally crappy. Fortunately, when you’re in Canada you use “Monopoly money” which always goes faster than when you’re actually playing the game but looks nice and takes the edge off how much everything costs in places with socialized healthcare. (Psychologically, anyway).


So far the weather has been changeable as it always in western Canada but it’s generally a nice time of year to spend some time. Having contacted our agent about the status of our visa, she has now somehow changed the expected time until approval from 12 to 15 weeks which means there’s almost no way we can wait it out here in Canada even with free rent at the Hotel Relative. Trying not to waste an immense amount of money we still think it makes sense to simply fly to Malaysia and at least attempt to familiarize ourselves with the country even if we can’t get a bank account or a place to live (Our banker said we can open an account with passports despite not having the MM2H approval yet but our agent seems to have her own set of mysterious rules that I’m having trouble understanding or verifying).

imageToday, however, is one of those mornings where you appreciate Canadian living with bright blue sunny skies and a perfect temperature hovering around 16 (Celsius of course). Adapting to 17 hours of daylight is often interesting  and when it’s nice out, it feels like two days combined in one when the sun comes up at 5 AM and the darkness doesn’t set in until almost midnight. Taking advantage while we can, I’d planned a trip to Elk Island National Park since the Yahoo weather icon showed the most sun today. Thirty five minutes from Edmonton, the park features herds of bison roaming free and always makes for some fun pictures. Naturally, when I returned from my morning walk and made Diane her morning pot of coffee, the skies changed to overcast and the wind started whipping. Utilizing Plan B , we took the eight minute drive to Whitemud Nature Reserve which feels more like the country than the city and took a 90 minute hike.

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Obviously not as interesting as large bison, we still enjoyed the serenity and did see beaver dams (but no beavers),  chipmunks, squirrels, warblers and some chickadees. A small snake made his way past me but I was too slow to snap a photo on my small crappy phone.  Needing to use all our Starbucks card credits that Diane believes will be useless in Asia, we headed to the mall and I noticed a new strange-looking sculpture. Hoping to document as much Canadiana as possible on the blog before heading to Asia, I also noticed a sign you find all over Canada but nowhere in America telling you where you meet should there be an emergency.  Since there are no oceans or earthquakes in Alberta, I’m not sure what type of incident they expect but hopefully it’s nothing major. (There was once a destructive tornado in Edmonton  caught everyone off guard).

Hopefully we’ll hear back from our relationship manager at HSBC shortly about the banking before MM2H approval issue and then we’ll decide where to squat for the rest of June.  Thinking we need one last trip to real mountains, we may head to Waterton Lakes, an International Park shared by both Canada and the USA. Known as Glacier National Park on the much more heavily visited American side, it’s a fabulous uncrowned park with beautiful trails and lakes.

imageDiane’s friend said she can dispose of our vehicle with the check engine light that never goes off so we may wind up driving back to Vancouver as it’s cheaper than flying. North American air travel is slowly becoming for the élite only with fees from everything to choosing your seat online to an extra fifty bucks for having the audacity to contact a real human being for customer service.  Entering June, we still don’t feel like Experimental Expats yet but we are enjoying our time in western Canada. Appreciating all the views and new followers, we once again thank anyone who takes the time to follow our journey.

Cheers from Edmonton, Alberta; home of the once proud hockey team that featured Wayne Gretzky but hasn’t been to the playoffs in eight years.

We love all comments and questions on Alberta beef and anything else Canadian.

The Ethnic Advantage

Haggling is not my thing. Come to think of it, almost all white people I know are not very good at this very important skill. Usually unable to bargain the way people in markets around the world do every day, North Americans get accustomed to paying “sale” prices only when TV and media tell them there’s a sale.  Knowing how important negotiating prices is when  travelling throughout Southeast Asia, I was initially concerned but realized we have an undue advantage that I call “The Ethnic Advantage”. As any white guy married to an Asian will attest, marrying an Asian woman comes with certain benefits not available to Caucasian couples. Almost everything you can buy in Asia comes with a “foreigners price” and a “local price” . Being armed with an Asian wife often means getting prices somewhere in the middle even without haggling.

imageUnexpectedly, a perfect example of the ethnic advantage arose right here in South Surrey, British Columbia at a local cellular store. Needing accessibility to a wi-fi connection while staying at Diane’s parents old-fashioned and Internet-less home, we shopped around for a “no contract” plan that we can cancel after one month. Using  our friend’s old IPhone, we learned of a plan with Bell, one of Canada’s leading cell providers, that allows unlimited Canada wide calling and texting and 10 Mb of data for only $65 per month in exchange for using a Saskatchewan phone number. Satisfying our data needs as well as having an emergency phone while making the 900 mile drive across the province, we went into the local store and explained our situation to a middle-aged Chinese employee. Already having an advantage over the obnoxious kids that work at American cell kiosks and usually have knowledge of absolutely nothing, we expected we’d get what we need with the Chinese guy.

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Hearty or Crazy? Birds that stay in the cold

Diane and I love birds. Making no attempt to disguise ourselves as amateur ornithologists or even casual bird people, we simply enjoy watching them and we’re often fascinated by their intelligence, perseverance and beauty. Because they’re found almost everywhere from rural farmlands to urban parks, almost anybody can enjoy them by simply stopping to look, listen and learn. Keeping a promise to two of our followers whose devote their blogs to the beauty of birds, Diane and I braved the -25 Celsius frigid cold in both Edmonton and Calgary on our recent holiday jaunt to Canada and searched for photographic opportunities of birds crazy enough to withstand Alberta winters.

Braving the cold in search of birds

braving the cold in search of birds

Not surprisingly, only a few species developed characteristics hearty enough to allow year round residency in places north of the 49th parallel and we limited all pictures except the featured image to Diane’s camera so please don’t expect a National Geographic photo spread.
Understanding nature has a plan for everything, we used to feel sorry for the poor little creatures until and wondered how they do it until we realized they’re well suited for the challenge and might even enjoy owning the skies for six months. Unsure why we never simply Googled why the birds don’t freeze, we’ve included a few facts for the curious to help clarify their tolerance.

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