Well, that’s a fair enough question. What the hell ever happened to The Experimental Expats? Realizing it’s been almost a year since sharing anything other than Facebook rants and complaints about Trumpland USA with a few non American friends, I’ve decided to come back and answer that question. But first, my middle age rant about technology and how much I hate it. Having spent a large part of my scathingly longHouse Husband Days learning how to create, fashion and keep a WordPress blog updated, wouldn’t you know those bastards had the audacity to create an updated editor? Shuddering, panicking and almost running back into the unusually brutal Northern Thailand heat (more on that later), I decided to give “Block Editing” a shot. After discovering a fluke in my site that the Happiness Engineers first denied, then admitted needed to be turned over to the developers, I spent two days self tutoring so here I am again and to any millennials who think my posting is old and archaic for lack of fancy code, Jetpack shit or anything else besides actual words; Too Bad.
Feeling like we fell into a mode of real complacency after our trip back to North America, the hiatus felt necessary. Realistically, our lives as middle-aged early retirees living overseas aren’t great fodder for a digital world with two-minute attention spans. We don’t have “second careers”, haven’t gone back to school, opened a business or learned a new language (OK, we speak “nit noy“ Thai). Not yet finding “the next great thing”, we don’t even have Instagram accounts. Living here in Chiang Mai among the worlds’ biggest group of obnoxious expats anywhere on social media and the “digital gonads” who know everything about every topic, it seemed reasonable to take a long blog vacation until something worth writing about came along. Realizing that time is here now, I’ll share three significant things relevant to our little blog. I’ll cover one of the three issues in this post and come back to the other two later.
Thailand’s Immigration Department made significant changes to the rules for extending visas based on retirement.
The “burning season” which is a long period in the dry season that local farmers across Northern Thailand burn their fields has now turned into an environmental disaster so serious it requires more than the 47 days we escaped this year to avoid inhaling seriously dangerous particulates.
As a result of the above two issues, we’ve decided five years in Southeast Asia will be enough and we’re leaving Thailand for greener pastures in Mexico next summer.
So now that we’re back from our long North American jaunt where we pigged out like there was no tomorrow, let’s address the foodie thing from an expat’s point of view. Promising I’d try to avoid mindlessly posting uninhibited pictures of everyone’s favorite internet topic (food), I wrestled on how to highlight all the great things we ate and still stay on topic. Noticing that Skip the Dishes is the latest craze in Canada and the USA, it seems that today’s lazy millennial generation need not even step foot outside, never mind picking up a kitchen utensil to cook anything. With everything from McDonalds to gourmet five course dinners available at the touch of a smart phone, it’s no different here in Asia with one big exception. Often compromising taste, quality and style, eating “western style food” in Southeast Asia means tempering one’s expectations.
New York: Food heaven
Avoiding a third version of That Dreaded Foodie Post, I thought I’d combine a gastronomical recap of our trip with a look at the differences between Asian and North American versions of foods that many westerners grew up with. Sharing experiences of my reunion with foods I know and love by matching them up side by side with their Thai counterparts, think of this post as a comparative food primer for wannabe expats. Believing that exploring local foods is one the best things about experiencing another culture, we avoided reading about an ongoing “best burger in Chiang Mai” debate on Facebook’s Chiang Mai Eatsgroup and tried to delve first hand into “real Thai food”. And although we kind of knew this, it’s worth reiterating that almost everything you think is authentic anything usually lands somewhere far removed from what’s enjoyed by most locals. With abundant European expats here in Chiang Mai, western food often gravitates towards a very non-North Americanized style so let’s dive right in and call this a Cautionary Food Tale for North Americans pondering a move to Thailand. Focusing on Italian food first, I’ll make this a multi part post.
Wondering why retired people with no job waiting for them back home would experience jet leg, let me go on record and dispel a myth. Despite not having any schedule other than deciding what and when to eat, sleep and leave the house, our body’s natural rhythm known as “the body clock”doesn’t care nor understand you were laid off almost five years agoand chose an experimental overseas early retirement. Having returned from our excruciatingly long North American jaunt that totaled just over 34 hours and landed us in our living room just under two full days after leaving, I learned that losing an entire day due to time differences and trans-continental flights catches up to you no matter how much you sleep on the planes. Attempting a return to my rather “anal”routine, it took until the third morning until I finally felt rested. Which leads me into my segment on our choice to spend almost a thousand extra bucks for “premium economy”. Throughout this post, I’ll include pictures showing what you get for your extra money on Cathay Pacific Airlines.
The Cathay Pacific Premium Economy seat
Having returned to Chiang Mai during the off-peak months when the rainy season blues are in full swing, I noticed my first post after a two month layoffgarnered little fanfare compared to my historical numbers despite having somehow picked up dozens of new followers even without posting any new content. Realizing I’m not the interactive type, this doesn’t surprise me but I’d like to at least feel like somebody besides me gives a crap (or even enjoys) my style of slightly off beat cynical yet realistically optimistic expat tales, so instead of spending all the gloomy days in the coffee shop playing Words with Friendsand pretending to practice speaking Thai, I’ll put off the morning walks on non-workout days and focus on getting more content out there. Thankfully, I did go to a gym once in both Edmonton and Calgary which is ambitious for a “vacation” so hitting the weights again was easier than returning from our recent springtime escape from the Chiang Mai Burning Season.
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 Starbucksin 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.
Every Canadian’s biggest complaint about life in The Great White North is always the weather. Even the lucky ones in Vancouver think they have it rough. Often referred to as Road Construction season, summers are short and often chilly or rainy and the other nine months a year are cold. And snowy. Deserting the frigid homeland for as long as half the year or however many days the tax man says is OK, Canadians coined the term “snowbirding”. Defined as “A North American term for a person who moves from the higher latitudes and colder climates of Canada and migrates southward in winter to warmer locales such as Florida, Arizona, Mexico and The Caribbean”, it’s every Canadian’s winter dream.
Chiang Mai; the sun is slightly visible in early March
Conversely, there’s no snow in the tropics which is one primary reason most early retirees consider places like Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, no matter how much the developed world tries to salvage our planet through recycling, elimination of plastics and modern garbage disposal, anyone living in places like Thailand knows it’s pointless because this entire side of the world sits in a perennial blanket of air pollution and smog. Compounded by uneducated citizens that routinely burn everything from garbage to overgrown fauna and governments more concerned with public image than protecting its citizens, Thailand has almost no meaningful environmental regulations. Add in greedy corporate assholes that illegally clear-cut and burn thousands of acres in countries that support the palm oil industry and the occasional El Nino that suppresses normal rainfall and you get a Great Environmental Disaster like the 2015 mess that blanketed five countries in a poisonous stenchfor three months straight.
With Chiang Mai’s beautiful but very short “winter” now behind us, it means temperatures begin climbing, skies get hazy due to inversion layers that occur during the hot and dry season and many expats begin their annual bitchfest known as “The Burning Season” all over social media. For us it means the end of day tripping and a short break before a one week beach vacation at a moderately priced Koh Lantaresort. After that we return home for a week and then hit the road for four weeks for a month-long escape from the bad air. Given Thailand’s low-cost of living, we’re running about $3,500 under our annual fiscal year budget so it’s affordable to overlap monthly rent if we stay away from the more popular Andaman Sea beach destinations where everyone else goes. Searching for a more low-key area still far enough south to escape the haze, we found a three bedroom house for rent on Airbnb at a ridiculously low rate of about $21 USD per day in a sleepy beach community half way between Hua HIn and the gateway town of Chumphon. Planning on driving, we’ll be able to cart more stuff than flying and see a bit of the country as well.
So for now, let’s talk finances. Depending on your situation, some of you may have noticed the one and only positive aspect of the Trump Disaster is a rather fast rise of the stock market. Simply put, Wall Street loves billionaires and while very few of his moron supporters will ever see one penny since they’re mostly financially ignorant, underemployed and too stupid to understand why trickle down economics always fails miserably, those of us in the “sweet spot” (invested properly but not wealthy) are doing well. Finally seeing an enormous albeit very short correction that brought the markets down to earth last week, I thought I’d post a follow-up to my recent financial comments.
Having received an unexpected amount of positive feedback when I briefly touched onasset allocation and diversification, let’s get the disclaimers out-of-the-way. Most importantly, I am not a licensed professional and nothing I say should be taken as a solicitation or endorsement of any financial products. But I did spend 32 years working in various administrative and support roles for some very well-respected financial institutions in New York City and San Francisco. Not intending to make this an economics lesson or online college class, I’ll keep the teaching down and include an educational link when I use financial terminology. With lots of great blogs focusing on how to retire early, not that many focus on what to do once you’re there so I’ll give it a shot. While never wanting to manage anyone else’s money, I’ve been a “self-directed investor” for over 20 years and that’s enough time to analyze all the graphs and after almost three years of early retirement, I can say we’re ahead of the curve so if you don’t mind some boring graphs to make my points, read on. Please also note that since we’re both American citizens, some strategies I discuss only apply to U.S. residents but the concepts are universal and can be applied from almost anywhere.
One of my favorite song lyrics during the dreaded working years was from the Canadian band Loverboy; “Everybody’s working for the weekend”. Unfortunately, this is even more true in the developing world where many people work six days a week and leisure time is highly coveted. While Northern Thailand offers a cornucopia of beautiful scenic spots for relaxing, hiking and enjoying nature, the local population likes these beautiful spots as much as expats and tourists. Thankfully, Monday mornings change from crappy to glorious when you no longer need to jump out of bed at 4:20 AM to catch a 5:15 commuter train and everyone else’s work day becomes your quiet time. Having so far lived through four months of heavy rain, dreaded heat and humidity and a strange month of dead sky overcast that looked ominously similar to our disastrous experience with Penang’s worst haze in twenty years, the beginning of this year was a glorious month of perfect weather in Chiang Mai.
Typical Thai motorbikers
Looking and feeling more like Canadian summer days, it’s hard to believe the difference and with temperatures moderating to a comfortable range of 16 to 27 Celsius, January presents a perfect opportunity for day tripping. So we always wait for the least crowded weekday and hop in our 2011 grey Nissan Tiida that we bought from ExpatAuto.com for under $10,000 USD. Unwilling to risk our lives with an entire population of motorbike riders that do stupid stunts often worthy of an extreme sports competition, we highly recommend sticking to four wheels, especially if you’re unfamiliar with That traffic laws. Yes, that was sarcasm. The only rules on Thailand’s roads are do whatever’s most convenient (like riding against traffic on major four lane roads to avoid driving an extra half mile to the U-turn), make sure you put the entire family on one motorbike (including infants and don’t bother with helmets) and most importantly, make sure any accidents you cause involve farangs because it’s always their fault in the eyes of the Thai law.
There’s an old expression that says “Good fences make good neighbors”. Whoever wrote that obviously never lived in a middle class moo baan in Thailand where real doors would be better than fences. Having researched housing options in Chiang Mai for about a half-year before we moved here, we decided that a gated suburban community with amenities like a pool and gym suits us best. Unlike Malaysia that mimics most western style countries with agents specializing in housing needs, Thailand requires some more due diligence. With no regulations, anyone can open up shop on the internet and claim to be an “agent” and many people find rentals by simply driving around and looking for signs. Given the limited number of legitimate agents showing houses, we’re happy and lucky that we found a three bedroom house in a beautiful tree-lined community that hardly anyone knows about. Too bad the architects didn’t understand the words peace, quiet and privacy when they designed an entire housing development devoid of front doors. Using screen doors as the main entrance, the idea works fine for those with an end house on small streets. For the everyone else, I suggest researching the neighbors and not taking the word of your landlord who told us “they’re not usually around”.
Our main entrance is a screen door
Astoundingly similar to our neighborhood in Walnut Creek, California or our first crack at suburbia in a West Calgary, our gated community features modern three and four bedroom houses ranging from moderate sized to large. Coming in at about 1,800 square feet, our corner lot is way in the back on the last street. Other than the occasional airplane noise that subsides by midnight, you’d normally be able to hear a pin drop. Strangely quiet at night, it’s easy to forget it’s a developing nation and most residents are elderly upper class retired Thai people, Chinese nationals that somehow don’t speak a word of Thai orEnglish (more on that later), some working farangs and scores of well to do families whose kids sound more American than Asian. Inclusive in our very reasonable rent of 20,500 Thai Baht, we get unlimited use of an infinity pool and a rather crappy gym (We pay for a better one outside the community). Despite paying 30% less than our old condo in Penang, many fellow expats on the Chiang Mai social media groups think we’re high-class because we own a car and pay triple what they do so they think we’re living the good life. Unfortunately, there’s one real pain in the ass family in the entire community and they live directly across the street.
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”.
Ah, holidays without cold and snow. After a rather dreary and gray November, skies cleared this month, the temperature dropped, the sun shined brightly albeit a tad hazily for so early before “burning season”, and it began to look like a perfect Tropical Christmas Card. For those following along, you’ll recall how much I’ve craved real fresh roasted turkey. Harder to find than a good pastrami on rye or a beef hot dog, turkeys roam wild all over Asia and maybe that’s because nobody ever tried to catch them. Although commercially raised turkeys are available in Chiang Mai, they’re not very good and the quality and can’t hold a candle to North American Butterballs. Having attended a Thanksgiving buffet last month at a friend’s catered event, disappointment abounded when the turkey turned out to be a pre-cooked processed roast similar to deli sandwich meat.
arriving at Thai Cooking School
Although we didn’t move to Asia expecting to eat turkey sandwiches, burgers and pizza, Chiang Mai is a hub of western expat civilization with throngs of farangs from Christian missionaries out of Omaha to digital nomads from Europe, Australia and everywhere in between. Add in the thousands of retirees, millennial dropouts, begpackers and tourists that never leave and you’ve got a sub culture looking to eat everything from burritos to haggis. (I’m not sure where you can find that but it’s probably somewhere). Since arriving six months ago, there’s been a crush of new western food outlets opening all over and many say they serve “authentic”cuisine. Taking some of the fun out of what used to be a town filled with mostly local ethnic Thai food, the largely opinionated Facebook food group people go on and on posting about the greatest new burger in town and then rave about some ribs cooked by Europeans from nations that normally specialize in herring or schnitzel. Granted there is some good western style food here and it literally blows the shit out of Penang’s version but after a while it all seems to blend together. Yearning for the good ol’ days, we put aside the stereotypes associated with cheesy tourist attractions and did the only sensible thing. Looking for a way to further indulge our inner Thai gastronomic urges. we went to a Thai cooking school.