So here’s an Only in Thailand story. Busy buying everything from kitchen supplies to bedding while we anxiously await the arrival of our stuff that we shipped form Malaysia, we found ourselves in the one of the city’s excellent shopping malls the other day. Did I mention that malls in Chiang Mai aren’t like Penang? There’s actually people in them all day. And not just one group of people like the Hokkien Chinese of Penang that own all the luxury cars, live in the million dollar condos and have all the money. Despite being statistically lower on the development scale, Thailand somehow manages to act more like California. Consumerism is plainly visible and my favorite local food court at Central Airport Mall teems with Thai people eating deliciously local dishes from duck noodle soup to Khao Soy (spicy Northern Thai soup) pretty much as soon as they open the doors. Unlike Penang, there’s a cornucopia of western stores with brand names all westerners know and sizes that fit. Granted I had to buy an extra-large pair of running shorts which initially made me feel very out of shape but at least the Nike store carries dozens of styles at very affordable prices.
A typical Chiang Mai mega store
Anyway, as we strolled through the floors we came across a book store called B2S. Looking more like Chapters or Barnes & Noble than a Southeast Asian chain, they also have a separate chain called Asiabooks that’s prominently located near the entrance. Ironically, that store features all English language books while they relegate Thai books to the back of the store somewhere. Practicing my Thai numbers with the young English-speaking cashier that firmly understood the need for multi language skills in today’s globalized world, we noticed some computer chairs displayed in the middle of the store that looked comfortable. Having searched already at Baan and Beyond, Home Pro, and a few of the other mega superstores that make life in Thailand often feel like suburban North America with Thai signage, we’d tabled the idea because there were more choices than my brain was ready for at prices from dirt cheap to unreasonable. But the large sale sign read “Ha Ha Ha Ha”(Ha is the number 5 in Thai and the expression “5555” is one of the most common responses on social media from westerners that think it’s hipper than saying “lol”). Doing quick mental math, it seemed like we’d found yet another amazing consumer steal. (On our exploratory tripwe scored a brand new 47 inch Samsung HDTV for on sale for about $325 USD). Coming in at $165 based on the rate we bought our Thai Baht for, Serta (the mattress company) manufactured the leather swivel chair and it felt as nice as a quality mattress.
As the North American long weekend holidays for Independence approached, Diane and I quietly celebrated our two year anniversary of expat life in Southeast Asia.Stepping off the plane on Canada Day in 2015, we embarked on a life far removed from Timbits, quality beer and suburban backyard grilling. Radically different from our one year anniversary, this year we’ve waited patiently as the calendar drags off our last 16 days in Penang. Having completed a successful exploratory trip to Chiang Mai where we opened a bank account and found a suburban house in a quiet and picturesque moo-baan, the goal of these last two weeks was secure a single entry 90 day Non-O visa (done), finish packing (almost done), spend the rest of our sadly depleted Malaysian Ringgit that we bought 12% lower than today’s exchange rate (harder than its seems) and close the book on Chapter One of our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment.
Concerned about writing the blog in the Digital Nomad Capital of Asia where I’d be competing with literally thousands of internet generation smart asses that all think they’re Pulitzer Prize winners, many of you pointed out there’s not an awful lot out there from the suburban middle class early retiree crowd. Initial searches prove you’ve all got a good point so to keep the blog mostly free of food reviews, technology and strategies on living like broke backpackers in lieu of working real jobs, I decided on a theme of Suburban Alternatives in the Chiang Mai region. Given the amazing similarities to North American suburbia from single family houses (mostly for rent) to a cornucopia of mega superstores (five good supermarkets compared to Penang’s one pathetically stocked supermarket with serious refrigeration issues), it seems reasonable I won’t run short on stories. Granted the target audience for my little blog becomes quite different in a place with more blogs than Thai people (almost) and I’ll apologize ahead of time for writing more about primers on how to house hunt for age-appropriate neighborhoods than trendy new clubs to hang out in and forty-seven ways to secure a visa when you’ve decided to spend the prime working years away from your homeland in coffee shops with a laptop while avoiding today’s most hated four letter word (work).
Speaking by text yesterday with a childhood friend I haven’t seen in 16 years, I laughed at his reaction to my Facebook post about inexpensive and efficient healthcare here in Penang. Jokingly asking how much it costs in Southeast Asia for braces, he implied he’d use that as an excuse to come visit and take care of his teenage son’s dental needs. Responding by asking when he’s retiring, he laughed and told me he’ll be working forever because he loves his Silicon Valley tech job. While admirable, I’ll never understand anyone that thinks working until you’re way too old to experience all the great things life has to offer ranks higher than early retirement. In his defense, he’s only 53 and probably has a lot more accomplishments left in his career. Conversely, I spent 31 years in and out of cubicles working as a support specialist for more investment advisers, banks and brokers than I care to remember. Other than learning how to be a self-directed investor able to amass a portfolio big enough for a shot at early retirement after my unexpected layoff, my working years garnered zero in the way of fulfillment or career satisfaction and always served as a means to an end.
Having read countless articles about people more successful than me choosing early retirement to attempt other personal goals, I set out with good intentions when we started our early retirement exactly two years ago this week. Unlike many others, exploring my inner skill set isn’t so easy. Uninterested in starting a business (the most common reason cited), I can’t see working 100 times harder than I did in the office and risking any capital when we have no income. Possibly the world’s least handy person, all things related to building, crafting or creating things are out and learning other languages sounds about as fun as a root canal. Highly fond of wildlife, we both talk about volunteer projects involving animals and our American friend (a working expat) who engages in 20 different things even gave us an opportunity to work with monkeys for a week. But we’d just returned from a three-week trip to Myanmar and the job demanded too much of an immediate commitment of our own money and resources so we tabled that retirement goal for now.
Which leaves me with the blog. Starting 2 1/2 years ago and not knowing anything about WordPress, the number of followers isn’t what I’d hoped nor is the level of interaction but having just passed 100,000 page views and now averaging over 100 per day, my no-nonsense blend of sarcastic realism obviously appeals to someone. Fascinated that over 38,000 people in 168 different nations spent some time reading my commentaries, this is probably as good as it gets for me when it comes to utilizing modern technology. So I’ve decided to accept this milestone as a my first small accomplishment since retiring and although writing comes easy and I enjoy sharing stories, I guess it’s a skill and it may wind up being my best and only creative endeavor. Pondering what to write to commemorate the event, I decided share five of My Own Personal Favorites that haven’t received as much traffic as The Reader’s Favorites. Thank you to everyone that’s ever spent some time supporting me.
Oh, hello there. Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything and no, we didn’t fall off the face of Batu Ferrenghi although I have been counting down the number of days left until we leave Malaysia and move to Thailand. (It’s 94). Having now learned what we’ll need to get non-tourist visas to Thailand and making enough new contacts to get an appointment at a Thai bank, we’ve been focusing our attention on the most important event of spring. No, not Songkran; the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Understanding many readers outside North America and northern Europe might be unfamiliar with the annual eight week ritual that sees 16 teams competing for the greatest professional sports trophy in the world, let me clarify. Canadians (and a small select group of awesome Americans) love hockey more than almost anything (except maybe beer). Easily the hardest championship to win, it takes four grueling “best of seven” rounds before players earn the right hoist the 34.5 pound cup overhead and crazed fans like us get, well, nothing really, other than bragging rights to rival fans.
Thanks to the internet and a little help from the earth’s curvature, all the playoff games start for us between 7 AM and 10:30 AM making almost every morning a breakfast time ritual for the next eight weeks. Alas, even we need a break from hockey sometimes and it’s my birthday this month so we decided on a short trip to Bali during the last week of the National Hockey League’s regular season. Wishing not to spend too much money, we decided on a five night package deal at a boutique beach resort in the relatively hip but not overtly loud town of Legian. Some readers may recall the problem we ran into when we first booked the deal. Realizing most things that seem too good to be true usually are, they offered the seemingly ridiculous hotel price of $116 a night during a unique Balinese holiday called Nyepi. Celebrating Hindu New Year unlike anywhere else on the planet, it’s known as “The day of silence”which means guests are not allowed to leave the resort and all work ceases for an entire day. Unwilling to waste precious time, we rebooked the dates, paid an exorbitant sum to Air Asia for change fees and went one week later. Naturally, there was yet another religious holiday called Galungan and it fell right smack on the day we slated for island exploration.
Fundamentally, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Except when you live in Malaysia where situations get stuck in limbo until you force an ending. About a year ago, Diane and I visited the offices of JPJ, an acronym for the Malaysian Road Transport Division which is their equivalent of The Department of Motor Vehicles. Hoping to take advantage of a benefit given to MM2H holders, we wanted to get Malaysian drivers’ licenses despite the fact that we’ve had no vehicle since arriving almost two years ago. Being an ASEANmember state, residents can drive legally in Thailand with a Malaysian license and since we thought an eventual move was in the cards, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Instead, it turned into one of those developing nation bureaucratic nightmares you hear about and try to avoid at all costs. Mostly skirting any instances of endless hours in government offices (which we’ll quickly make up for when we move to Thailand), our streak ended and proved that the chances of successfully convincing a Malaysian to bend any rules even when t’s their mistake are zero to none.
Recapping the story, Malaysia allows “automatic conversions” of foreign drivers licenses to certain countries including the U.K. and Hong Kong. Not long after we arrived, our neighbors, who are fellow MM2H holders and ex residents of Hong Kong, brought their current foreign license to the local office, paid a fee and were in and out in about an hour. Unfortunately, The United States and Canada fall into a different class deemed “non automatic” conversions that need applications and approvals from the head office in Putrajaya, the government’s administrative district. While only a minor extra step for expats living in Kuala Lumpur or the surrounding Kluang Valley, expats that choose quieter environments like Penang need to either spend time and money making multiple trips to the capital or apply at a local state office. Complicating things, there’s a special requirement for American citizens that involves a trip to the U.S. Embassy in KL. Requiring “verification” of your foreign driver’s license, they’ve decided that a local JPJofficer can certify a Canadian or Bangladeshi license, but only an affidavit with a pretty stamp and seal from suffices for Americans. Nowhere to be found on their website, we knew about this rule because our agent at Joy-Stay(Malaysia’s best MM2H agent) told us before we left North America so when we visited KL in July 2015 to complete our MM2H paperwork, we also made a trip to the Embassy. Charging $50 for a citizen notary service, they have a standard form created for this but in theory it’s stupid because a U.S Federal agency can’t legally verify any document issued by a state.
Hoping we’d escape my worst nightmare, I guess I was kidding myself thinking we’d make it until the end of our lease before it began. Continuing Penang’s destruction of the last town without massive development, the pile driving began a few days ago. Like clockwork at 8:45 AM, the ugly space they destroyed right past the new high-rise towers next door comes alive with the most unfathomable and disturbing sound that grates on me like chalk on a blackboard. Proving both the property agents, condo managers and landlord were absolutely full of shit when they rented us this condo 20 months ago, their claim that there’s no further construction planned in the once quiet town of Batu Ferrenghiwas as accurate as a tweet from Donald Trump. While we’ve already decided to get out of here, I’m not sure how I can endure four more months of ear shattering noise for nine hours a day for six days a week.
But we did take the first step towards liberation from construction hell by taking a quick 48 hour jaunt to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Recently visiting Jim, Penang’s resident expert on getting all kinds of visas from the local Thai Consulate, he told us we’d need an affidavit stating that our assets exceed 800,000 Thai Baht, the minimum requirement for a retirement visa. Unlike Malaysia’s one step long-term MM2H Visa, Thailand is a never ending revolving door of reporting, applications for extensions and sometime visa runs. Depending on who you are and what you’re in Thailand for, there’s more choices than the supermarket. Also totally opposite from Malaysia, there’s no government website properly explaining requirements and rules for Thai visas and they literally change constantly so we opted for a series of conversations with people who’ve lived there awhile or moved from Penang to help us understand the proper way to get out of our overdeveloped nightmare. Continue reading →
One of my favorite song lyrics comes from Semisonic’s 1999 hit, Closing Time: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”. Borrowing that line is the best way to describe why it’s time for us to leave Penang and move on. A few days ago, my good friend Cimeron published a post titled Cost of Living in Penang on her excellent blog Oh MY Expat Life.An eternal optimist, she always sees the glass half full although she’s certain not blind to her surroundings and often refers to some of the less than attractive features of life in Penang quite bluntly. Understanding everyone’s different, we admire and respect each other’s views but recognize that sometimes two couples see the same things in a different light. Readers familiar with my blog know we’ve decided to leave Penang once our lease expires and move to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Given recent developments in The Draconian States of America under the “leadership” of an unqualified tyrant that’s quickly changing the world’s largest superpower into a racially pure isolationist state, I’ve received lots of page views from potentialMM2H applicants. Short for Malaysia My Second Home, it’s technically a long-term social visit pass but with unlimited multiple entries for ten years, it’s easily Asia’s best retirement visa.
Concerned that something’s specifically wrong with Malaysia, I’ve also had questions about why we’re leaving. In a nutshell, there’s a host of reasons why we’ve worn out the attraction. Unlike working expats who often enjoy large high-rise condos at the company’s expense, we’re not on a stipend. Paying our rent with Malaysian Ringgit that we incorrectly bought way too much of at a rate that’s now 23% lower versus the US dollar, we’ve lost precious savings by fixing our rent at $850 USD per month (3,200 MYR) which is now about $720. But money’s only one reason. As a native Canadian, Diane knew the heat and humidity might be too much but wetrudged through the first year and did as much as practical given our limited transportation options. Opting for life far in the island’s touristy beach communityin exchange for a quieter atmosphere and lower rent, it’s become tedious having to leave town by bus and return via Uber every time we need supplies or groceries or want to visit the culturally rich Heritage area of GeorgeTown. Having visited the other side of the island with neighbors willing to drive us, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing an environment totally different from our old life in North America but it’s just not somewhere we want to stay long-term.