Yes I know. Sadly neglectful is the best narrative available for my posting habits. And now that Thanksgiving Day is just about here (well, not really here since the Pilgrims never landed on the shores of Phuket), it’s high time to catch up a bit. Hosting our first visitor to Thailand kept us busy for a week and although I planned more activities than my friend did (I’d hoped it would be the other way around), playing tour guide got us out and about and we searched for some good food, went north to the beautiful Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens and hiked to a waterfall the long way. Remembering what a pain in the ass it is to vacate the spare bedroom when it actually acts as the place where I often sleep, keep all my clothes and even have my own bathroom, the first task was housecleaning. Scrubbing the bathroom to an adequate level for female guests proved sweatier than anticipated but I did receive a thumbs up seal of approval. Leaving it cleaner than when she got there, it reminded me why Diane prefers me staying out of the master bathroom.
Children always make my day in Asia
Unlike Penang and for the first time in our marriage, we live a stone’s throw from the airport. Given our lifestyle discrepancies where I’m asleep by 11 and Diane stays up almost two and a half hours longer, we clearly learned our lesson in Malaysia where getting to the airport ranked up there with root canal surgery and tax audits. Not bothering to ask seven months ago when my friend booked her plane ticket, I shuddered when I saw her 10:40 PM arrival time. Unaware there was any other practical way to Chiang Mai from the west coast of North America, I learned that Korean Air flies a non stop to Seoul from Seattle and allows a quick 50 minute turnaround for their daily four-hour jaunt to our backyard. Given how few Koreans we’ve come across in five months, I’m unclear how they justify that route but it’s almost $800 less than the only other practical option with two non stop flights (Cathy Pacific to Hong Kong and DragonAir to Chiang Mai which departs from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver). With its dirt cheap economy fares and less than stellar reputation, I’d never choose that option but then again we live quite cheaply compared to Seattle residents and in fact, we’re even splurging for Premium Economy next year for our Seven Year Itch trip back to see my neurotic parents in Brooklyn.
Where the hell does the time go? Literally feeling like we just did this yesterday, once again empty folded boxes are sitting in our humble abode. Unlike the attachment one gets with home ownership, however, there’s no love lost on leaving our ninth floor condo and moving on to greener pastures. (Thailand is in fact actually greener). Now understanding what they meant in all the blogs, websites and articles that discuss why expats feel culture shock when they return to the homeland, we learned that moving, like almost everything in Asia, is a totally different experience. Having moved an entire three bedroom house from San Francisco to Calgary, back down to San Diego and then up to Walnut Creek, California, you’d think it would be routine but unlike in North America, the key word in Asia for almost anything is minimalism so if you’re contemplating such a move, you’ll need to adjust your thinking.
Goodbye old faithful used boxes.
First off, you’ll need to erase the memories of a Uhaul store and its fancy array of custom sized boxes from wardrobe to specialized art and five different sizes of square from small to extra-large. Hardly anyone in Asia owns 2500 square foot custom-built homes with three car garages, a large yard and room for a shed, pool and some specialized fruit trees. Therefore, we learned quickly that no matter who you call or how much you pay, the choices are standard box and large box. Alas, there’s no industry devoted to boxes, moving and packing either so if you’re thinking you’ll just buy new boxes, good luck with that. Stranger than as anything to us was the notion that hiring a “logistics” (moving) company in Asia means you’ll get empty boxes, packing material and tape delivered to your door by courier as soon as you put down a deposit.
Naturally, while taking a break from the NHL Playoffs this week, I noticed a blog post from someone raving about the incredibly dry and beautiful weather they’re having in Bali this week. Only a few weeks removed from our short and partially rainy excursion to Southeast Asia’s most westernized beach destination, first this bothered me a bit. But unlike many visitors, one thing we’ve seen countless times are beautiful sunsets. With The Annual haze Event taking an 18 month break from Penang, skies are crystal clear and unlike last year’s El Nino event, the rain brings amazing arrays of cloud formations almost daily. One of the few things I’ll miss once we move to Thailand in July, sunsets aren’t high on our must do list and we mostly went to Bali to eat. And of course to sneak in some quality beach time despite living in a “beach community” that looks more like a stretch of dirty eroded sand with some shanty vendor stalls.
Sunsets in Penang have been quite beautiful lately
Possibly the most interesting fact about Bali from a culinary point of view is the amazingly large amount of pork dishes. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia should be the last place in the world you’d go for a bacon cheeseburger or a side of baby back ribs smothered in bar-b-q sauce. Bucking the trend, Bali’s population is about 80% Hindu which means Halal food is not the norm and hog heaven takes the place of chicken flavored everything. Oddly, I love pork more than Diane despite her Chinese heritage and choosing where to indulge in lip smacking fall off the bone deliciousness is one of the biggest challenges when you only have five nights. While you can find Indonesian variations of Malaysian style food like Nasi Campur, few western tourists flock to the island to sample local cuisine. And that’s a shame because unlike the very strange Indonesian version of Mee Goreng which is basically western style fried chow mein with some protein instead of Penang’s delicious mix of spicy tomato based sauce with delicious noodles, lime, and squid, Balinese is a unique and tasty style of Indonesian food and you shouldn’t miss it. With so many restaurants, finding what you want is daunting so we mostly searched “10 best xxxx style restaurants in Bali” and came up with some winners.
Although there’s no specific wet and dry season in Malaysia, late January through mid April is generally considered the hottest and driest time of year. For me, suffering through the lazy days of tropical winter usually means limiting outside activities to short afternoon walks looking for monkeys in our boring town and Diane avoids the outside entirely until late afternoon when it’s time for some swimming in the pool. Planning our chores and shopping around our favorite hockey team’s schedule, we’ll stay in on game days and enjoy watching live NHL hockey that starts the following morning between 8 and 11 AM, depending on what time zone the game is from. Yesterday being no exception, we cranked up the internet stream and enjoyed the cool morning breeze from our ninth floor multi balcony condo that faces both the town and the sea. Unfortunately, unlike last year’s El Nino event that produced blazing hot sunshine for an unbearable five months, this year’s pattern features unusually strong wind that forces us to close the windows by mid afternoon.
Contrasting the disastrous 2015 haze season that created world headlines due to its severity and environmental impact, the past year produced absolutely no haze anywhere in Penang. Partially due to heavier rains, skies remained crystal clear late last summer and fall which improved air quality immensely. The picture on the right shows how beautiful the sunsets have been this winter. Normally, this would be great news for everyone and the Indonesian government even imposed real fines on several offending companies responsible for the annual event known as “haze season”. But with the rain disappearing until spring and the wind whipping strongly every day, living in Penang means an almost daily interruption of beautiful clear blue skies due to an unhealthy stench caused by somebody burning something. So sure enough, halfway through yesterday’s game, our condo filled with an unbearable stink of plastics, food and all the other shit they burn here despite having laws on the books for 45 years that specifically prohibit open burns. Solidifying our decision to leave Penang in favor of Thailand, the real fun begins now and we’ve been engaged in researching everything about visas, banking and housing all over again aswe plan on heading to Chiang Maiby early summer.
Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Pennto explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.
Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.
Undeniably beautiful, the Temples of Angkor Wat are easily the main reason to visit Cambodia. As the world’s largest religious monument, it’s every bit as amazing as you’ve heard and all the accolades, reviews and compliments are not exaggerated. Even if temples, culture and history aren’t your thing, you’d be crazy to visit Cambodia without devoting at least a full day to this incredible architectural wonder. With thousands of great informational sources and countless travel blogs devoted to the area, attempting to describe either a complete detailed description of what to see or a travelogue explaining the fascinating historical significance of the area is best left for the experts. Instead, I’ll describe our second day trip of three in Siem Reap. Featuring the “must-see” temples, and mostly mimicking the “short-circuit” that’s a suggested itinerary for those with limited time or minimal patience, it started out before daybreak with a visit to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat.
Having read the entire chapter on Angkor Wat and environs in Lonely Planet, trust me when I say it’s best to find a qualified guide and customize your day trips according to personal interests and time allotted. With a cornucopia of options from walking to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day, the best strategy is visiting places when everyone is somewhere else. Not always the easiest task given the millions of visitors that flock there all year, I’d recommend avoiding peak season (mid November through March) but also not choosing monsoon months unless you enjoy sightseeing in a torrential downpour. Finding a guide is easy but reserving ahead of your stay makes sense given how many of them are dying for your business. Ours came highly recommended from one of our friends in Penang and since he runs his own business, a website made it easy to break down all the options and customize three guided day trips according to our interests. Hotels specialize in take-away breakfasts for sunrise trips to Angkor Wat so you won’t go hungry. Possibly the only time you’ll ever see a picture of Diane awake before the sunrise, our second day began at the ungodly hour of 4:30 AM.
Its hard not to fall in love with Cambodia. From its warm and wonderful people to the fascinating history dating back over a thousand years, the nation is transitioning quickly but retains so much of its culture and hospitality, it’s every bit as great as you’ve heard and then some. Apologizing for not writing during our trip, we shortened this excursion to ten days so unlike our jaunts to Myanmar, Australia and Thailand, I found myself occupied almost every minute. With no easy way to get there from Penang, we’re hanging out in Starbucks in KL Sentral, the main transportation hub in Kuala Lumpur after a two-hour flight from Phnom Penh for a three-hour layover. We’ll then hop on the new high-speed express train to Butterworth and four hours later we’ll be back in Penang.
Although mighty inconvenient for Penang dwellers trying to get to Cambodia , the new high-speed train from Butterworth to Kuala Lumpur is very reliable. Seating is a bit cramped but the trains are new and the bathrooms are cleaner than almost anywhere in Malaysia. (The sore spot of Malaysia, toilets are disgustingly dirty, never have toilet paper or soap and we’ve now visited yet another developing nation further down the development scale whose cleanliness puts Malaysia to shame). The trains leave on time, they’re well staffed and best of all, the air conditioning is a bit warmer than the sixteen degree Celsius madness we experienced our first train trip last year. Taking the opportunity to write a quick post, here’s some pictures from each area we visited. I’ll write much more detail of each experience once we get home. Writing on my IPad sucks and OS10 is proving to be a piece of shit filled with flukes for my old pad so please bear with me.
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.
After three relatively easy but frustrating trips to JPJ,Malaysia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, I’m happy to report one of us has a shiny new Malaysian driver’s licence. Unfortunately, all I got was a walk to the little room where I argued my latest rejection letter to the senior officer and another walk to Counter Six. For those unfamiliar, this all started six months ago when we decided to take advantage of Malaysia’s program allowing conversion of foreign driver’s licenses for MM2H participants. As I explained in an earlier post, there’s a host of nations with bilateral agreements that are eligible for an “automatic conversion” but the United States, Canada and the UK are not on that list. Instead, we fall under “Appendix B” which are nations whose citizens need to apply at a local JPJ office and wait for the government headquarters in Putrajaya to return an approval.
Hypothetically simple, Americans need a valid current driver’s license (more on that shortly), a special letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur “certifying” your driver’s license as valid (even though regulations prevent a Federal agency from verifying anything issued at the state level), an application (it’s in Malay so you’ll need Google translator or a help from a local), the MM2H Conditional Letter of Approval and some cash for a fee. Thinking we were lucky to have a good agent that told us about the embassy letter, it turns out nobody at the local JPJ office knew about the rule requiring an officer to certify the Conditional Letter of Approval. Being Malaysia, that rule is nowhere to be found on the government website explaining conversion procedures nor did we see it on any expat forum like ExpatGo or InterNations. So the first trip in February was a waste of time resulting in two rejection letters.
Usually marking anniversaries with celebratory posts, I’ll start this post by stating that today is exactly one year since Diane and I handed over our passports and received our MM2H stamps. Arriving only six weeks earlier, everything went according to plan and despite never having visited Penang, we established ourselves quickly. Before receiving our approval notifications and traveling back to Kuala Lumpur for the last steps, we secured a lease, bought new phones, established service and set up all relevant utilities like electric and internet. Since that time, I’ve written many posts about our expat experiences other than travel and they’ve usually been well received. Given I’m not part of today’s young generation deriving a paycheck from “online income“, I’ve tried to write fairly entertaining stories with my own slightly sarcastic but relatively realistic slant. But noticing a decline in the number of likes despite an increase in readership, it appears I’m beating a dead horse and my post the other day about our first negative infrastructure experience took dubious honors as my first post with no likes two days after writing it.
Out with friends
Having written about topics like establishing ourselves in a foreign nation, learning about the local cuisine, taking off the beaten path day trips and living through the annual haze season, I’ve shared a bit of expat life as seen through the eyes of two average middle class people (one American and one Canadian) that chose an experimental early retirement over daily cubicle life after an unexpected layoff. Also including detailed stories about the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H), I’ve received lots of comments and emails thanking me for providing valuable information about Southeast Asia’s best retirement program. Retiring at a rather awkward age, it’s not always thrilling, often financially challenging and sometimes downright unexciting. Unable to always churn out really exciting content, I’d be lying if I said each day is filled with a new adventure so perhaps the blog’s almost run its course. The pictures on this post feature scenes from our life in Penang and part of the blog was to illustrate all parts of expat life, not just the best days.