Unlike the Thai, who spend countless sums of money on skin care products seeking eternal youth, I’ve never wanted to be young again. While I enjoyed my early adulthood, I’m thankful I was born before the age of online instant gratification, fake news, and modern-day right-wing propaganda. Despite my public school education in the debt-ridden 1970s when New York City was a cesspool of a city, we all still learned basic tenets of civics, history and current affairs; all of which are gone in this moron generation of Trump tweets and ignorance. Taught that America stands for freedom, democracy and all that’s good in the world, most of us grew up with a basic sense of patriotism. All of us understood there are three branches of the US government, knew what the first amendment was and believed our history teachers who taught us that we fought wars to spread democracy and fight evils like communism and fascism.
As we get older and perhaps more disheartened at a once mighty world leader sporting an ignoramus holding the nuclear codes, it’s easy enough to look back and yearn for “the good old days”. But unless you live in an overseas cave, expat life teaches you almost immediately that not everything they told you was true. In fact, sometimes it’s utter bullshit. Aside from obvious lessons like living in Malaysia and discovering that most Muslims could give a shit less about Americans and certainly don’t“hate us for our freedoms”, there’s a plethora of historical truths to unearth that I’d never know by staying in the homeland. As someone who loves learning and believes education shouldn’t stop when your work career ends, I’m always looking for travel experiences that fascinate but also drive home the message that history matters. While countless media stories explain why running the nation like a reality TV show is killing America’s future, nothing drives home a message like an in your face display of actual reality. And that’s why I’ll go on record as saying that Vietnam’s War Remnants Museumin Ho Chi Minh City is the most historically important museum in Southeast Asia.
Getting there is half the fun. Unless you live in Penang which means getting to Cambodia is a pain in the ass. Anyone that’s visited KLIA, Kuala Lumpur’s luxuriously beautiful main airport gets an impressive first glimpse of Malaysia. Quite fond of first impressions, the government liked the airport so much they built a carbon copy. Known as KLIA2, this shiny new and totally unnecessary behemoth is a five-minute shuttle bus away and looks as modern and clean as any other large Asian hub. Unfortunately, many of us non-working retirees live in Penang. Although you’d never know it, the nation’s second biggest population center and main tourist draw is only a short 45 minute flight away but its pathetically dilapidated dinky airport looks more like an airstrip in the rainforest when compared to its big brothers.
Hasn’t changed much since this picture
Sporting a few fast food joints, an ATM or two and a newsstand, Penang International Airportdesperately needs a multi million dollar overhaul, a new terminal or two and about ten more airlines willing to fly there. Offering non stop service to only a few destinations like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and recently Yangon, living in Penang makes getting to Cambodia a long, tedious and expensive proposition but proved worthwhile despite the government’s obvious ploy to woo everyone to its shiny capital city. Unsure why they neglect Southeast Asia’s most popular foodie destination so badly, Diane and I explored every possible option from flying to KL and connecting (impossible on the same day) to a train/bus combination (even worse) and concluded the only practical way was a four and a half hour bus ride from Penang to KL on the brand new KTM Express Train, a 65 kilometer Uber ride to the ridiculously distant airport, an overnight stay at the airport’s one and only lodging option, and an early morning flight to Siem Reap.
Welcoming our first long Memorial Day Weekend in a nation where it’s just Monday. Diane and I wish everyone in the USA a happy unofficial start to summer. Since we have no bar-b-q grill and even if we did it would probably blow off our balcony due to fierce winds, I improvised our celebration dinner last night and made Tom Yum Prawns. Immensely popular in Penang, Malaysia’s version of the ubiquitous Thai dish is known as Tom Yam and is usually spicier but lacking all the intense flavor of real Thai food. Easily obtainable as a variety of sauces and pastes, Tom Yum sauce is found in every store, wet market and supermarket so making the sauce from scratch seemed silly. But we did take advantage of our local wet market and use all locally sourced ingredients including pineapple, peppers, onions, tomatoes and of course, prawns. Still getting used to buying prawns with the head on, I’ve experimented with ways to remove the unsightly parts but decided it’s probably easier to give in and just cook them with the shell. Yes, this is fine but of course they teach North Americans that the rest of earth is primitive and inferior so you’d never find shells, heads or claws in Costco.
Switching topics, one of the most common questions I receive by email is whether or not to use an agent for those thinking of filing an MM2H application. Asia’s best visa program, the Malaysia My Second Home Program has over 20,000 successful applicants and allows unlimited entry into Malaysia for ten years, renewable indefinitely. Although it’s not permanent residency, it’s a lot easier than visa runs every three to twelve months in Thailand and it’s more comprehensive than other less developed Southeast Asian nations and cheaper than places like Singapore. The answer depends on each applicant’s circumstances including nationality, ease of meeting financial requirements and whether applying in Malaysia or from overseas. Generally speaking, unless you’re very familiar with Malay customs and language, I recommend using an agent for overseas applicants simply for peace of mind. Spending moths piecing together paperwork and spending cash on an overnight courier service only to find out you missed something seems pointless to me.
Being overzealous often requires flexibility as Diane and I learned once again in Myanmar. Having experienced our first work exchange program in Tasmania, Australia only a few months earlier, you’d think I would have learned my lesson since we left that assignment one week earlier than planned mostly because it was harder than we expected. Well, harder than I expected, anyway. Not really Diane’s idea, the work exchange concept seemed like a decent way to spend some extra time in various nations we wanted to see anyway without incurring huge financial burdens. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the chance to learn about and take part in running a small business, the programs work better for younger generation backpacker types with limited financial means who are willing to work harder than middle class early retirees like us. Always learning the hard way, I went ahead anyway and planned our Myanmar itinerary around a 10 day stay at what appeared to be a reasonably nice lodge right in Kinpun Village, gateway to The Golden Rock, one of the top five attractions in Myanmar.
Planning on taking the bus back to Yangon before flying up to Kalawand Inle Lake, plans quickly changed when we arrived and discovered the lodge wasn’t exactly what the proprietor described. Although on a beautiful and large piece of property, the new proprietors (who live offsite in Yangon) either ran low on funds or decided that two stars were enough for a village that serves no real purpose other than a quick stopover for those not keen on 18 hour day trips. Upon arrival, the local manager told us there were no other guests due to low season and showed us to a closet sized room with dirty walls, an air conditioner the size of a hand-held fan, a mattress that wasn’t really suitable for sleeping and absolutely nothing else except a bar of soap and what passed for a shower.
The bar and restaurant: they had about two things available from the large menu
The “luxurious” deluxe room
Looks nice but needed lots more work inside
Strange device that somehow shuts the power when the power grid is over loaded
Realizing the accommodation was unacceptable and the daytime heat was scorching, we asked the English-speaking lodge manager what type of work we’d be doing since they already had a staff of eight and she told us “not much”. With little else to do other than visit Golden Rock and mingle with villagers (which turned out to be a highlight of the trip), spending ten days in the blazing heat with regular power outages and a manager unwilling to use the generator unless they had three paying guests didn’t seem like fun so we simply paid a reduced rate for three nights in the “deluxe room”. Naturally, the wifi didn’t work after the first day which made Googling other options difficult. Fortunately, Yangon was only four hours away by bus and the Hotel Accordwas comfortable and inexpensive so we spent an extra four days in the big city and Googled away. Located only another 80 kilometers east of Golden Rock, Mawlamyine is Myanmar’s third largest city and not very popular with tourists, especially in the hot season. Once the first capital of British Burma, it’s the setting of George Orwell’s famous 1936 memoir Shooting an Elephant and probably most well-known to Brits by the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay. Not exactly on most tourist’s radar, it seemed perfect.
Completing our second of three weeks here in Myanmar, it’s been a fascinating trip so far and tomorrow we head up north to the mountainous Shan State for some scenic beauty. Although the 3G SIM cards available at the airport on arrival offer astoundingly great coverage in places that look like so shabby they make Malaysia look like Paris, the wifi is not very good so I wanted to post some pictures of our first few days in Yangon before heading out. Differentiating Myanmar from other developing nations in Africa, central and South America, it’s people are awesome. Genuinely warm, amazingly generous and extremely proud, there’s no begging despite widespread poverty and a lot of sub standard living conditions. Blessed with beautiful features like long flowing hair, beautifully perfect white teeth, great complexions and smiles that steal you heart, the Burmese deserve better than what they’ve had and hopefully the new democratically elected government will bring the dilapidated infrastructure into the 21st century.
Unable to support the ridiculously fast growth rate that’s inundated the nation in the last few years, the power grid is a joke and the electricity goes off about every two hours no matter where you are in the country. (As I wrote this post, the power went off. Each time, someone in manually starts the hotel’s generator and this requires 24/7 staff. Don’t take elevators in Myanmar). Supporting the economy with diesel-powered generators, every hotel, gas station, and business has them and people act like it’s totally normal. Neighborhoods in Yangon vary from downright shanty where every structure is one of those weathered filthy looking buildings to moderately upscale but nothing close to other Southeast Asian nations with only a few five star hotels (that’s changing g fast).