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.
And so after a hectic 24 hours of flying to Malaysia, late-night commuting to the hotel and a stressful morning at both the immigration office and our bank, it was time for some fun. Given Kuala Lumpur’s sweltering climate and lack of enjoyable walks, that means doing two things; eating and shopping. While Diane would be fine if she never ate Malaysian food again, I’m a huge fan of sambal chili paste (impossible to find in Thailand), laksa (even harder to find outside Malaysia and Indonesia) and beef rendang (the Southeast Asian Muslim world’s best culinary contribution). Thankfully, Diane’s memory towers over mine and she knew exactly where my favorite place to eat laksa was in the seventeen miles of mazes that make up life in downtown KL.
Regretfully, my stand became a western food place and Malaysia gets my vote for Southeast Asia’s worst version of all western food from burgers to ribs. Determined to eat laksa and nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish and Diane’s only choice for local food), we embarked on a quest but only had to take a few steps through Level UC of the mall named “Avenue K”. Possibly my favorite casual fast food restaurant in all of Malaysia, Ah Cheng Laksaserves one of the most flavorful and complex bowls of soup in Southeast Asia. According to their Facebook page, their origins date back over 56 years and one of the family members brought the unique family recipe to the Klang Vallery in 2004. For me, nothing beats a bowl of Asam Laksa, a sour fish and tamarind based soup. Its perfect combination of flavorful ingredients includes small mackerel of the Rastrelliger genus, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chilies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, Daun kesum (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), and pink bunga kantan, also known as torch ginger. Normally served with thick rice noodles and topped with a thick sweet prawn shrimp paste, it’s spicy, sweet, salty and tastes like a piping hot combination of perfection.
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.
Despite the obvious importance of financial matters in the success of an overseas early retirement experiment like ours, you may have noticed I generally avoid personal finance posts like the plague. First and foremost, while I did work in the financial services industry for 31 years, I’m not a licensed professional therefore I’d be remiss if I doled out advice about your money. But of course, that never stopped anyone in a social media generation where everyone’s an expert and every month or two brings a new Trump Slump where it seems like the sky is falling. Along with a strong coffee, my morning ritual involves perusing the more reliable financial websites to see what happened in the markets while I slept. And like me, you may have woken up to a stressful email like the one below announcing a reduction of your interest rate thanks to a now fully politicized Federal Reserve Bank compliments of President Shitbrain.
Starting 08/06/2019, your Online Savings Account will earn 1.90% Annual Percentage Yield (APY) on all balance tiers.Your APY is more than 20x the national average — so you can rest assured that your money is working hard in your savings.
With financial journalism now mostly reduced to large websites like Marketwatch and Yahoo Finance hiring millenials that scour other people’s blogs for reposted content, it’s tough to weed your way through the sensationalistic nonsense like this guy who claims the next three months are “the edge of a cliff” or this genius who claims “The Fed should have an emergency meeting and slash interest rates 50 basis points“. Without needing Macroeconomics courses, all you need to know is that the last thing a Central Bank should ever do is cut interest rates while unemployment is at a 40 year low. Despite coming from Barron’s, the first guy supposedly called the 2008 Financial Crisis which means we’re supposed to think he’s got a crystal ball. (He doesn’t, and past performance is NEVER an indicator of future results. Just like the disclaimers on TV and radio say.) As for the second guy, he supports the “policies” of the Stable Genius which automatically nullifies anything he says as pure ignorance.
Throughout my 31 years of cubicle life, I’ve always stayed aware, but ignored the fluff and continuously invested through about five “major” financial crisis’ from The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 to the 2008 “Great Recession”. As I pointed out in Eight Percent Of Zero, my most comprehensive post on money matters, retiring early without being wealthy comes down to understanding asset allocation, developing a plan that’s right for you, and sticking with it. Period. Having said that, Orangeman causes almost daily shocks to the world’s financial system so including something about money matters in an expat blog about early retirement seems necessary now.
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.
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.
Feeling much like the Vietnamese street vendor above, basic laziness kicked in when it came time to plan our recent trip to Vietnam. Bucking Experimental Expat tradition, we clamored over the big decision on how to plan the adventure and although Vietnam is both inexpensive and relatively easy to self-plan, we gave in and went with a customized private tour option. As one of the last places on our to-do list in Southeast Asia and knowing our time in the Eastern hemisphere is limited, we couldn’t decide between Hanoi and the north, Danang’s central beach region or the big city insanity of Saigon (nobody here calls it Ho Chi Minh City except the airlines so don’t correct me). So we gave in and let the experts at a German-based company come up with a regional vendor specializing in the area. While certainly not inexpensive, it’s easier than planning individual trips on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Clearly not the best or worst travel decision we’ve made since starting our experimental overseas early retirement, I’m 50/50 on booking a private tour for Southeast Asian destinations. While not quite good enough to endorse, it was very well organized. On paper, anyway. No strangers to private tours, we’ve had a host of professional guides enhance our best vacations with their expertise, great personality, and local knowledge. From rainforest expeditions in Borneo to wildlife viewing in Ecuador’s jungles, we’ve made lasting friendships with our guides and remain Facebook friends with all of them to this day. Usually taking Experimental Expat Destination Vacations where we’d combine bucket list hot spots with a potential future early retirement home, we often paid a premium when the income was still rolling in. And if you have the means, I’d highly recommend not skimping when it comes to specialized trips like our Galapagos Island trip on a luxury catamaran. But alas, things change drastically once you’re living on a fixed income and especially so when you’re potentially looking at a 40-year retirement. So I’ll focus a bit on the pros and cons of our Vietnamese guided tour.
They say getting there is half the fun. Given Thailand’s dubious status as the world’s most dangerous nation to drive, getting there alive seems more like a more reasonable suggestion. In a nation where 22,941 people die on the roads each year, you might call us crazy for logging almost 4,000 kilometers in this year’s annual “smog escape”. But here’s the thing; despite a surge of new vehicles by a population that spends six times their average lifetime savings to buy Honda Accords and triple that for a BMW, long-distance road travel remains relatively unknown to most Thai people. Unlike the USA, a nation obsessed with highways, driving is more about being seen in a shiny new status symbol than getting from point A to point B. And if you’re Thai and lucky enough to get spare time for seeing the country, why on God’s earth would you drive from Chiang Mai to Bangkok when you can simply fly in an hour?
Thankfully, that leaves most of the open road between major destinations empty and available for the farangs. And unlike America, whose crumbling bridges and aging highways lag the entire continent of Asia when it comes to infrastructure, Thailand recently made major improvements to national highways. Having embarked on a God awful bus trip from the south to Chiang Mai that arrived hours late due to a 300 mile stretch of one lane construction switchbacks only four years ago, we had reservations about taking a road trip. But surprisingly, except for the inevitable military junta of burning, wrong way motorbikes barrelling towards you in the shoulder and tin can pickups carrying shit piled up so high it’s comical, the newly paved stretch from Northern Thailand to Bangkok looks similar to Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Deciding that we’d need 47 days to miss the ever increasing stench of poisonous toxic air permeating Northern Thailand every March and April, we planned a trip that started with a drive to Bangkok’s large international airport. Intending to leave the car in the long term lot, travel to Vietnam for two weeks and then traverse from southeast to southwest, we barricaded the house as best we could to protect it from mounds of soot that creep into the dwelling during burn season and hit the road.