Where did all the time go? Like almost everyone on Planet Earth for the last 14 months, I ask that question often but even more so every time I get an email informing me that someone read one of my posts despite an 18 month lapse of current content. Surprisingly, it seems people still find, view, and even inquire about our pre-pandemic overseas expat experiences. Realizing another annual subscription fee awaits like a wild animal stalking its prey, I decided that wasting more money for the privilege of retaining a dormant domain name is counterproductive. Having built a small but relatively loyal readership over five years, it’s high time I resume our chronological journey through an experimental overseas early retirement. (Spoiler alert; we’re back in Canada so the overseas segment is now Part One of Who Knows).
Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten my block editor basics and Grammarly refuses to work unless I use some ridiculous backdoor method of logging in so please excuse any sloppiness. Pondering how and where to start given the amount of disruption and pain to countless souls across the globe, I felt like nobody needs yet another story of how I spent my pandemic year. But for what it’s worth, we did experience a classic “Only in Thailand” experience and were somehow able to hide out through the peak of the chaos in a small beach town in the only province that still allowed beachcombing (minus the water sports). Retrospectively, it made a difficult time quite easy, albeit a bit repetitive in a tropical beach kind of way. So first let’s catch up on my last post back in the last presidency when we’d returned from Malaysia for the last time after cashing in our MM2H Fixed Deposits.
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).
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”.
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.
Although it’s been over three months living in Chiang Mai, the stark difference between Malaysia’s stubborn indifference and Thailand’s Land of Smiles attitude still haunts us. About a month ago we registered our Thai bank account for automatic monthly direct debits to pay both the electric and water bills. Having read countless horror stories and complaints all over the internet about what happens if you miss a payment, we decided that using direct debit is the only practical way to ease all concerns. Granted it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it does involve a trip to the provincial offices of each municipality but it’s a one time thing and I’m realizing now that some local expats are just downright lazy. As the larger company, the electric company was easier and only required showing our bankbook and a passport. Despite limited English skills, the friendly clerk went out of her way to help because that’s what they do in Thailand. (especially when your wife looks Thai despite being a Canadian of Chinese descent).
The special slot for utility bills
Sure enough, when the little 4 X 4 bill arrived in the special mail slot the following month, it had no due date or bar code so we knew they set it up and a week after that we even received a paper receipt in Thai and English asking us to please make ample funds available for the amount due on a specified date. And the funds came out as expected with none of those pesky fees they charge at 7Eleven where almost everyone pays their bill. So later that first month we repeated the process and drove to the provincial water office hoping to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, they also speak very little English but determined we needed to take a form written in Thai down to our bank, have them fill it out and return back to the office. With little fanfare, a customer service agent at our bank filled it out using perfectly scripted little miniature characters (Thai people have the best handwriting the world). Returning to the water office later that day, we approached a well dressed woman at the information counter, made enough motions for her to understand, and she pointed at an in-box for us to leave the completed form. Figuring that wasn’t so bad, we decided on the quickest way home and went on with our day.
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.
Unlike Trump’s Draconian States of America, not all things from yesteryear are negative. Here in Southeast Asia, sometimes things are strangely backwards but work better than you’d ever expect. Case in point; Early and mid January brought an unseasonably large amount of rain with large thunder claps and impressively beautiful lightning strikes. Normally not caring about swimming in the rain, western culture teaches us all to leave the pool during lightning strikes although I’ve never heard of someone actually being struck by lightning by not adhering the warning. Anyway, during one particular loud thunderstorm, I had our favorite Bay Area radio station playing on IHeartRadio. Utilizing our very shitty internet signal, bluetooth and a Sony soundbar, the radio suddenly stopped. Unfazed since the internet signal in Batu Ferrenghi works as well as AT&T Worldnet Dialup Service circa 1999, I waited a minute since it sometimes just pauses and eventually got up to do one of our sixteen daily reboots.
Noticing a blank screen on the soundbar, my first thought was a loose connection. Having dusted the entire TV console and stand earlier, I’m famous for dislodging cords, wires, outlets and various other things that give our telecommunications expert (Diane) fits. Not seeing anything obvious, I tried unplugging things and changing the batteries in the remote but the power remained off. Having exhausted my technical skills, I patiently waited until Diane finished showering and decided to pretend nothing happened. Not wild about always being blamed for anything that’s wrong with all things electrical, I figured I’d let her turn on the TV later that night and then mention the power loss incident. Deciding to approach it delicately, I mentioned the loud thunderstorm and worked it into the conversation as a defensive mechanism that might explain a possible power surge. Naturally, we only have one surge protector and it guards our ancient computer with the obsolete Windows Vista Operating System, so it’s feasible that a lightning strike that hit the building might have somehow jolted the TV.
Here’s the thing about living in the developing world; there’s always something interesting and different. Settling back into our relatively mundane lives in Penang after four cold grueling weeks in Edmonton’s frigid climate, my body recovered from all its aches, pains, ailments, dryness and perpetual coldness after a day or two. Unfortunately, reverse climate change wasn’t much better as I struggled to do even a twenty-minute workout in the gym. With limited exercise opportunities over our winter holiday, I anxiously returned to my regular routines and quickly discovered that early retirement doesn’t necessarily mean your body wants to pretend its ten years younger. Remembering that exercising in a tropical humid climate is quite taxing, I pushed through the pain but paid the price with a six-day severe sore throat that’s turned into yet another head cold, no doubt caused by excessive dehydration. Learning that 55 degree Celsius changes and my body don’t like each other, I guarantee the next trip to North America will be during summer.
Anyway, that’s not the interesting part. Lounging at the pool one day, we looked up at the unit two floors below us and noticed an enormous swarm of bees that apparently decided to build their nest on the side of the building just above the bedroom window. Seemingly a strange place to nest, it’s probable that Penang’s never ending ongoing construction disrupted or destroyed their original habitat and for some reason the queen bee landed on the building. Living only nine floors up, we often get some bees in the living room while watching evening TV because they’re attracted to the light. Normally not aggressive, they usually die in the house after we close the windows and get swept up the next morning. But with their nest on the condo wall only two floors below, dozens began hovering inside that evening so we closed the window and told the building manager. Continue reading →
Apologizing ahead of time for how happy I look in the cover picture, let me go on record by saying I’m not a big drinker. But once in a while you need to let loose and every so often it’s nice to enjoy a night out with good beer and great friends. Unfortunately, Malaysia might be the worst choice in Southeast Asia for finding a good beer. Aside from the fact that Muslim nations levy very high sin taxes on alcohol, the local beer is Tiger and it’s about as basic as beer gets. Drinking Tiger is akin to kissing your sister and provides absolutely no reason to spend any hard-earned ringgit for the sake of having a beer. Aside from Tiger, the other readily available options are Carlsberg and Heineken, usually in cans. Unsure how Carlsberg cornered the market as the official European beer of Asia, you find it almost everywhere despite its poor quality and tastelessness. With due respect to those raised on inferior beer, canned European alcoholic beverages served in tropical nations makes about as much sense as a typically over-staffed Malaysian restaurant where they all stand around doing nothing.
Always luke warm to begin with, why anyone would pay upwards of 20 ringgit ($5 USD or more) for a can of rotgut beer is beyond me. Nothing beats cold Canadian beer or a nice North American microbrew and anything less than that isn’t worth the calories. (Allowing for one exception to the rule, I do enjoy Chang with dinner but only in Thailand. Often less than a dollar, it tastes better than most Asian beer and makes a perfect complement to real Thai food). But since we live in Malaysia, I’ve grown accustomed to placing beer in the list of “things I miss most from home”. So imagine my surprise when we discovered the Gusto’s Cafe Annual Fall Harvestfeaturing fresh, cold American microbrew from San Diego based Coronado Brewing Company. Imported locally by a five-year resident expat that’s been bringing real beer to Kuala Lumpur for a while, he’s managed to get whatever permissions people need to qualify as an importer and supply Penang with a viable option to crappy canned beer.
Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.
As seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.