Tag Archives: expats

Readdressing The “DIY” Issue

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.

mm2h logoEnlisting our property agent as a translator, it seems the local officer neglected to verify and attach a photocopy of our MM2H Conditional Approval Letter along 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 DIY method, you still need to put up a security bond that’s covered in Joy-Stay’s package.

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Summertime Blues

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 Ferrenghi often 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.

imageThankfully, 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 Penang so we anticipated an entertaining and fun-filled evening.

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Tough Guys

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.

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The Real “Whole Foods”

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

too “rough” for American consumers

Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh 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.

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149 Years Strong

Happy Canada Day !!!

Having just stepped off the plane as newbies to Asia one day before July 1st, Diane and I didn’t really have much time to take in Canada Day last year. Uniquely different from American Independence Day, I always enjoyed celebrating when we lived in Calgary and love how Canadians appreciate independence differently than their patriotic neighbors to the south. Although there are Canadian expat organizations in Malaysia, the main ones are in KL and since we chose Penang over the big city, we don’t envision raising the red flag with any fellow Canucks this year either. With Canada Day falling during Ramadan this year, the island is especially quiet and so in the interest of all Canadian expats, I’m presenting
three ways to celebrate Canada Day; Penang style

1) Eat Duck Rice

One of Penang’s signature dishes, chicken and duck rice like Canadian bacon cheddar burgers in Alberta. Although there are dozens of shops to choose from, there’s one that stands out above and beyond the rest. Conveniently on the way to our favorite park and the Botanical Gardens, Sin Nam Haut serves up generous portions at strangely low prices. Offering crispy roast pork, honey glazed char siu, chicken and roast duck, the tables are large and roomy, servers come take your order right away and the floors are spotless.

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With several locations, we usually eat in the Tanjung Bungah location near Island Plaza on the way to one of only two worthwhile supermarkets where we buy groceries. Less glitzy than the Pulau Tikas shop shown above, the staff always remembers us and we usually order combination duck, char siu and pork along with four marinated eggs. Also offering one of the island’s tastiest homemade soups, the homemade stock tastes like it’s been cooking for hours and it’s chock full of fall off the bone pieces of chicken, greens and some veggies. Granted the rice in Penang is nothing to write home about but the orange-colored moderately spicy sauce tastes perfect on top and for the price, you can’t beat the value. Coming in at about 25 or 30 ringgit, (about $7 USD) it’s one of our favorite lunch time treats and while you can’t chug a Molson Canadian to wash it down, we drink cold green tea and remember that a similar take away order from Edmonton’s Chinatown runs about $25.

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Long Train Runnin’

Recently, I commented how Anthony Bourdain’s premier episode of Parts Unknown featuring Myanmar was almost obsolete despite being filmed only three years ago. Luckily (or maybe unluckily depending on your viewpoint), there’s still one thing that not only remains stuck in yesteryear but probably isn’t changing anytime soon. Unlike most Southeast Asian trains, traveling by rail anywhere in Myanmar hasn’t advanced much since prisoners of war built the extensive network way back when. Although not recommended for long distance travel, there’s two great three-hour day trip options giving visitors a sense of the real “developing nation” feel. Commuters, merchants and vendors ride Yangon’s only version of urban rail transport as it meanders its way through rather poor looking subdivisions, garbage strewn decaying brick structures passing as train stations and some agricultural districts lining the area near the airport. Further north, we found mostly backpackers on “The Slow Train from Thazi” which offers a long but scenic option for traveling to the Inle Lake area or simply day tripping from Kalaw like we did. Arriving in Yangon first, we enjoyed the first option as part of our second day’s itinerary.

Ynagon's Central Railway Station

Yangon’s Central Railway Station

Dubbed “The Circular Train“, the 24 mile commuter rail line through Yangon’s suburban districts improved a bit since most guide-book descriptions and now features relatively comfortable trains with fans, (slightly) cushioned seats and fans to ease the heat. Slowly dragging its way from the city’s beautifully classic and antiquated central rail station north to the airport and then back again, it’s an opportunity to see the area, meet some locals and best of all, visit the city’s classic Central Railway Station. Taking a taxi from The Merchant Hotel, our first boutique option that came recommended from the proprietor of a not so luxurious lodge in Kin Pun Village, we paid about 3000 Kyat and arrived at the large dirt parking area that houses the grand colonial Central Railway Station. Like most tourist destinations in Yangon, they charge the taxi a fee to drop off passengers despite the low non-metered fares. Relying on Lonely Planet explanations, we made our way up and over the foot bridge to the ticket counter at platform seven.

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Big City Changes

Revisiting a travelogue featuring the place we’ve just visited is a ritual in our household and any episode of an Anthony Bourdain show takes top priority. Ironically, they shot the premier episode of his highly successful CNN series “Parts Unknown” in Myanmar only three short years ago. Comfortably back in the confines of what now appears to us as our highly developed home territory of Malaysia, we grabbed some tortilla chips and sat down on the couch to see how much we’d recognize. Unlike most other nations, almost every topic mentioned is almost totally obsolete since the original air date. Focusing mainly on the authoritative regime that’s kept the people of Myanmar fearful of speaking with foreigners, the show injects way too many shots of government atrocities, riots in the streets and historic photos of the old Burmese colony under British rule.

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Children become new best friends quickly in Myanmar

Catching only a few glances of anything recognizable, it seems Yangon singlehandedly transformed itself from a place where locals went from cautiously optimistic to overly enthusiastic. Currently very different from the not so busy looking streets they showed, it’s like they sugar-coated the episode for fear of political repercussion and the vibrancy exhibited today reflects one of the world’s fastest transformations from a repressed fearful society to an open-minded and quickly developing nation. Possibly the strangest sound bite was his testament to the nation’s lack of modern communications:

“Internet? Forget it. Downloading something? Nope. 3G? Not happening.”

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

The busiest line in the postal building is the telecom company

In only three short years, not only did they wire the nation top to bottom but they successfully transformed the citizens into one the world’s highest users of smartphones per capita. With 80 million people, this is no small feat and proves how eager people are to quickly embrace change that represents progress. Seeing monks spend more time texting than meditating is commonplace in many Buddhist nations and the days of wine making are as far removed as the stately colonial buildings now mostly relegated to dilapidated eyesores. Having razed six square blocks of downtown to make way for an enormous office and shopping complex now under construction furthers the argument to visit soon before the great transition wipes away all signs of the past 60 years. Although we didn’t frequent the many tea shops, Bourdain spent time with some journalists reminiscing about jail sentences and harped on the tea shop being the focal point of society where people exchanged ideas and read any available newspapers. Far fetched for a new internet generation, only those older than us read print media and Google maps makes it easy to explore the heart of Yangon.

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Shedding the “Burmese” Legacy

Let’s set the record straight. The people of Myanmar are not “Burmese”. Despite what the current issue of Air Asia’s inflight magazine tells you, the world’s newest democracy goes by the name “The Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. Standing out larger than anything, the wonderful people will likely be your fondest memory of your trip. Diane and I discovered the younger generation’s keen sense of nationalism and pride while trekking through the hills of Shan State (Suffering would actually be a better word but we’ll post more about that later). Rather disappointed with our guide’s poor English-speaking skills, we trudged through the mountain terrain passing only the occasional water buffalo and some funny looking humped cows, Searching for some conversation about the environment, local people or anything to make us forget how poorly the company communicated a need for appropriate footwear, we asked a question about Burmese food.

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

The local well in the village we stayed at on our trek

Coming to life as if we’d committed the ultimate tourism faux pas, he immediately corrected us in broken English and launched into a tirade about how the term “Burmese” represents colonialism and western colonization. Correcting us quickly but unable to explain why the world still mostly refers to their food and people as “Burmese”, his interpretation clearly illustrates a new nationalism and heartfelt sense of pride that shouts “Myanmar people” although he wasn’t sure how to coin a new phrase for the food (We suggested “Myanmarish” or ‘Myanmarian“). Traveling around the country gave us a renewed appreciation of how privileged most of us are. Taking for granted things like paved roads, blackout free electricity and modernized waste disposal systems, Myanmar is a “developing nation” in the truest sense of the expression and makes Malaysia’s infrastructure look like Utopia. But unlike sub Saharan Africa’s corrupt governments or South America’s never ending citizen uprisings, Myanmar functions beautifully and already jumped the development scale tenfold in the last few years, making it the greatest Southeast Asian destination for those seeking safety, a slightly rugged environment and enough hospitality to make anyone feel welcome.

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Great Tourism; Bad Journalism

As we approach the last night of our three-week stay in beautiful Myanmar, we’d like to offer a heartfelt thank you to the wonderful Myanmar people who graciously made our stay so wonderful . We very much appreciated their  “Warmly Welcome” slogan posted all over the country and the people of Myanmar should be recognized as the industry standard all over Southeast Asia for how to properly treat visitors and foreigners.

imageHaving said that, an interesting thing happened after my last post. In my 18 months of blogging nobody’s ever felt so insulted by my comments to go as far as slandering me in the online media. Acting obnoxiously high and mighty, this person decided how readers should decipher my words in a way similar to many American media outlets that often inject “news stories” with loaded innuendo that tells their audience how to interpret what they hear instead of deciding for themselves. Regular readers know I often inject my stories with personal opinions and occasionally sarcasm which I think sets my blog apart from travel posts  filled with “we did this: we went there”. Sometimes readers agree, sometimes not.

Setting them apart from the professional media, personal blogs are just that; one person’s opinion. Nobody deserves to be singled out and unfairly targeted by someone who disagrees strongly with a post. Taking advantage of their obviously uninteresting job writing stories about Yangon and environs, the article I’ve cited below is a seriously unprofessional attempt to undermine my observations and either bully me into apologizing or make someone feel good about themselves. Even the proprietor of my work exchange encouraged us to “stay away from smelly downtown”. Denying it’s in need of a drastic upgrade and cleanup is simply irresponsible writing but that has nothing to do with the people or my fascination with the vibrant and lively city life.

Interestingly, most people who commented on this person’s attack understood that I very much respected and loved the people of Myanmar for their warmth, graciousness and good-natured personalities. Naturally, the writer conveniently forgot to include all the good things. Because I mentioned the garbage and poverty that’s an unfortunate reality of Myanmar, this person decided to dictate their morality on me by publishing what amounts to a childish flame. Disappointed that they have nothing better to do, I offer no apologies for not sugar-coating a post about a developing nation. Sadly, Myanmar ranks 148 out of 190 on the quality of life scale but as evidenced from my words, it’s easy to forget this thanks to the people. Nowhere did I insult or belittle anyone or “glorify poverty”. In fact , I praised almost everything about the country despite its problems. Descriptions of dilapidated buildings and garbage don’t constitute “egregious insults” as one of this person’s fans gracefully put it.

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Flame wars are not my thing and I’m one person trying to enjoy my early retirement so if you believe slandering someone because you disagree with something they write is acceptable, click the link below and join the party. Or maybe you think the Internet is a big place and if someone doesn’t like the opinions, they can read something else. Ironically, I received triple the hits and a bunch of new followers from this person’s unfair and unprofessional post, proving once again that negativity sells. Just look at the Republican presidential nominee. Either way, we loved our trip and maybe I should feel honored that my writing is so good someone felt compelled to try to ruin my blog’s reputation (as if a small blog with 300 followers carries a reputation worth ruining). Once we return I’ve got lots of great stories and pictures from one of the world’s most fascinating countries so I hope you keep reading and understand that offending people is Trump’s job, not mine.

Here’s the slanderous link if you feel compelled to read it.

http://yangon.coconuts.co/2016/05/04/mostly-horribly-old-and-overcrowded-yangon-travel-blog-pretty-devastating

Cheers from Yangon and thanks to those that appreciate my insights. As I said before, Myanmar is a fascinating contrast of old and new that’s just been handed a golden opportunity for a bright future. Beautiful, interesting and worth your visit, we hope to return again once they’ve had a chance to mature financially and economically.

Comments are always welcome including negative ones but disrespecting my opinion by inciting others to interpret my viewpoints as negative stinks like the Trump campaign so please don’t do it. 

Southeast Asia’s Last End of Innocence

Completing our second of three weeks here in Myanmar, it’s been a fascinating trip so far and tomorrow we head up north to the mountainous Shan State for some scenic beauty. Although the 3G SIM cards available at the airport on arrival offer astoundingly great coverage in places that look like so shabby they make Malaysia look like Paris, the wifi is not very good so I wanted to post some pictures of our first few days in Yangon before heading out. Differentiating Myanmar from other developing nations in Africa, central and South America, it’s people are awesome. Genuinely warm, amazingly generous and extremely proud, there’s no begging despite widespread poverty and a lot of sub standard living conditions. Blessed with beautiful features like long flowing hair, beautifully perfect white teeth, great complexions and smiles that steal you heart, the Burmese deserve better than what they’ve had and hopefully the new democratically elected government will bring the dilapidated infrastructure into the 21st century.

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Unable to support the ridiculously fast growth rate that’s inundated the nation in the last few years, the power grid is a joke and the electricity goes off about every two hours no matter where you are in the country. (As I wrote this post, the power went off. Each time, someone in manually starts the hotel’s generator and this requires 24/7 staff. Don’t take elevators in Myanmar). Supporting the economy with diesel-powered generators, every hotel, gas station, and business has them and people act like it’s totally normal. Neighborhoods in Yangon vary from downright shanty where every structure is one of those weathered filthy looking buildings to moderately upscale but nothing close to other Southeast Asian nations with only a few five star hotels (that’s changing g fast).

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