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.
A few months ago I wrote about our experience at the JPJ, Malaysia’s equivalent to The Department of Motor Vehicles and Licensing. With the expiration dates of our U.S. driver’s licences fast approaching, Diane and I thought we’d take advantage of a rather generous rule allowing conversion of foreign licences for MM2H holders. (Expats on work visas are often disappointed because they’re usually denied). Unfortunately, bilateral agreements only allow certain passport holders an “automatic” conversion and both Canada and the USA are not on that list. So a few months ago we visited the local JPJ office on Penang Island and discovered that conversions must now be processed at another office on the mainland. Arriving just after 10, the process seemed easy enough but after not hearing anything 45 days later, we searched the website and found a rejection letter printed in Malay that was never mailed.
Enlisting our property agent as a translator, it seems the local officer neglected to verify and attach a photocopy of our MM2H Conditional Approval Letteralong with the application. As vehicular challenged expats, we put off the trudge of two bus rides and a ferry crossing and having successfully renewed both state license by mail, gave up on the idea. But we have some friends that just got their MM2H approved and were going there anyway to convert their licences so we took advantage of their generous offer and tagged along. Many readers ask us why they should or shouldn’t use an agent when applying for an MM2H visa. Always responding that it’s a personal choice, we used Joy-Stay, the country’s best agent by any standards. For us, our agent’s professionalism combined with her expertise and great relationship with the ministry assured a hassle free experience that made up for the few hundred dollars extra. Her fee comes with a money back guarantee that you’ll be approved and she won’t even accept clients unless she’s confident she can get them approved. Besides, If you choose a DIYmethod, you still need to put up a security bond that’s covered in Joy-Stay’s package.
Almost unanimously, the most frequent question posed by most of our Facebook friends and blog readers is “How’s the weather in Malaysia?” Always responding “Hot and Humid”, the next thing they want to know is “How do you get used to the heat?”. Generally speaking, you don’t. Those born and raised in Canada or other cold weather climates never really feel comfortable walking around with piles of sweat beads dripping down their faces. Frequently turning down my offer of afternoon walks around our town, Diane often chooses the afternoon balcony breeze while I endure the blazing heat. Remembering my childhood summer days in Brooklyn, an August afternoon stroll around Batu Ferrenghioften beckons memories of the “Triple H Days” (hazy, hot and humid). Unfortunately, I’m the antsy type and unless I’m sick, there’s nothing worse to me than sitting in the condo from the minute I wake up until the moment I go to sleep.
Thankfully, Malaysia gets a handful of days in any given year that defy the norm. Occasionally blessed with a crystal clear blue sky accompanied by lower humidity (by tropical standards), the other day we enjoyed startlingly low 58% humidity and a sky similar to the most beautiful western Canadian summer days. Granted the temperature still hovered near 90 and the “real feel” was higher but when you’re used to sweating every day, any small reprieve is always appreciated. Usually empty even on weekends, the beautiful skies brought out throngs of sunbathers to our condo pool and I even opted to lay in the sun. Coincidentally, the day coincided with the opening of the annual month-long Georgetown Festival and after basking in the sunshine like normal westerners on a glorious mid summer day, we headed off to the festival’s first event, The Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow. Making its second appearance in Penang, the 2015 version was surprisingly funny and they held it at the beautiful Performing Arts Center of Penangso we anticipated an entertaining and fun-filled evening.
While sweating away in the gym yesterday I was listening to Sheryl Crow on my Spotify playlist when “Leaving Las Vegas” came on. There’s a line in the song that goes“Used to be I could I could go up to Barstow for the night; Find some crossroad trucker to demonstrate his might”. Having recently attended our first live Muay Thai match in Bangkok, it struck me that maybe the line “crossroad trucker” would be more realistic by substituting “Little Thai guy”. Thailand’s national sport is a martial arts version of kick boxing unlike any traditional boxing match you’d see in western culture. Needing to be seen live to be appreciated, we considered attending a match in Chiang Mai but the general consensus on most internet circles was that it’s scripted for tourists and Bangkok is the only place to see the real thing. Too busy with major tourist attractions to attend a match way back on our first trip to Thailand, we made sure not to miss it this time around.
Based on the idea that hand to hand combat substitutes for weapons, Muay Thai was a mandatory part of Thai military training during the long period when they were mortal enemies with neighboring kingdoms in Cambodia and Burma. During World War II, westerners got their first look at the sport and dubbed it “Siam Boxing” as soldiers would practice their sport while Europeans and Americans looked on curiously. After the war, they added formal rules including five round matches and time limits. Unique to Southeast Asia, many Muay Thai fighters spend years practicing and start training as young as age six. Using the sport’s paltry payouts to support their families. prizes of only 4000 Baht ($150 USD) are common and their careers are usually short because this sport ain’t for the weak. Lacerations, concussions and heavy bruising are common and when seen up close, it’s obvious what a toll the sport takes on the body. Becoming popular around the world, Muay Thai is now practiced in many countries and professional martial arts fighters agree that it’s an essential part of learning how to be a skilled fighter. And best of all, it’s exciting to watch.
Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.
too “rough” for American consumers
Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of realfresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.