Two strange things happened after we returned home from our six-week escape from the annual Chiang Mai burning season. Having driven over 3,000 kilometers, I’d had my fill of vehicular vacationing for a while and although the air still remained shitty almost two months into the burn season, some welcome rainstorms arrived late in April which finally cleared the air for another year. Naturally, there was one last gasp of poison after the burning ban ended and countless Thais celebrated by incinerating everything from garbage to plastics since most of the agriculturally related infernos had already burned themselves out. Ultimately, Thailand is a third world nation and expecting the bulk of its population to magically change a lifetime of environmental ignorance is a pipe dream. Thankfully, it was short-lived and even though May brought in blazing heat, the skies are sunny and AQI levels are finally back to an acceptable level.
As any blogger knows, the most important aspect of blogging is content. Regardless of how great or crappy the words and pictures might be, if you want people to find, follow and enjoy your personal creation, you need to keep posting. Admitting I’m pathetically negligent in other areas of blogging like participating in forums or using the WordPress reader, I’m not a huge fan of the tools most people use to increase their readership. Believing Twitter is directly responsible for the disaster known as the Trump administration, I hate what Facebook’s become and lost many of my friends anyway thanks to political differences. I don’t have an Instagramaccount and other than practical communication apps like Line or Viber, I wouldn’t know Snapchat from Tagged. Unaware of the latest hip viral You Tubevideos, I don’t have patience for interaction with other bloggers nor do I enjoy writing meaningless banter in search of more followers.
Although it’s been over three months living in Chiang Mai, the stark difference between Malaysia’s stubborn indifference and Thailand’s Land of Smiles attitude still haunts us. About a month ago we registered our Thai bank account for automatic monthly direct debits to pay both the electric and water bills. Having read countless horror stories and complaints all over the internet about what happens if you miss a payment, we decided that using direct debit is the only practical way to ease all concerns. Granted it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it does involve a trip to the provincial offices of each municipality but it’s a one time thing and I’m realizing now that some local expats are just downright lazy. As the larger company, the electric company was easier and only required showing our bankbook and a passport. Despite limited English skills, the friendly clerk went out of her way to help because that’s what they do in Thailand. (especially when your wife looks Thai despite being a Canadian of Chinese descent).
The special slot for utility bills
Sure enough, when the little 4 X 4 bill arrived in the special mail slot the following month, it had no due date or bar code so we knew they set it up and a week after that we even received a paper receipt in Thai and English asking us to please make ample funds available for the amount due on a specified date. And the funds came out as expected with none of those pesky fees they charge at 7Eleven where almost everyone pays their bill. So later that first month we repeated the process and drove to the provincial water office hoping to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, they also speak very little English but determined we needed to take a form written in Thai down to our bank, have them fill it out and return back to the office. With little fanfare, a customer service agent at our bank filled it out using perfectly scripted little miniature characters (Thai people have the best handwriting the world). Returning to the water office later that day, we approached a well dressed woman at the information counter, made enough motions for her to understand, and she pointed at an in-box for us to leave the completed form. Figuring that wasn’t so bad, we decided on the quickest way home and went on with our day.
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.
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.
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.
Barely settled back into our simplified life in the developing world, Diane and I looked at the calendar and realized there’s only a few months left until our lease expires. Hoping to qualify for a reasonable visa to live in Thailand other than the infamous 90 day tourist visa, it seemed like early April might be a great time for a quick mini jaunt to Bali. Living in a “beach resort town” that features one of Southeast Asia’s dirtiest and grimiest beaches, we’re also longing for a nice place to soak up the sun, catch up on some books and remind ourselves that heat and humidity beats the frigid Canadian winters and minus twenty degrees anytime. Also thinking we’ll probably not venture south once we move further north, I did a quick search on flights and almost immediately changed my mind thanks once again to Penang’s horribly inconvenient, underutilized and ridiculously small airport. With no direct flights, everything runs through connections in one of KL’s two enormous shiny airports which literally means jacking up the price to over $425.
AirAsiaGo is NOT part of Air Asia
Always more patient than me, Diane decided to check AirAsiaGo.com, a website cleverly disguised as an Air Asia subsidiary that offers bundled packages including airfare, hotel, rental cars and various other services for one price. Normally, I always avoid package deals at all costs on this side of the world because unlike in North America, there’s no such thing as “all-inclusive resorts” like in Cancun or Cabo. Virtually every hotel room comes with free breakfast, free wifi and other amenities that they group together and call a “resort fee” in North America while tacking on $25 a night or more. Besides that, there’s a little thing called “consumer protection laws”that anyone raised in the USA or Canada takes for granted. Quickly learning that you get what you pay for in the developing world, things work quite differently here and if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Initially pricing out five nights using Booking.com or a similar company, we found a highly rated hotel for less than $130 and I love the flexible payment options given to hotels in Asia like “pay later”, “pay at the hotel” or “pay now”. But adding in the airfare jolted the total cost over the top end of our travel budget and after an expensive trip to Canada, I probably should have just given up.
Well this sure ain’t Malaysia. Making a brief two-day stop in Hong Kong just because we wanted some real Chinese food, Diane and I hopped on the Air Canada flight to Vancouver a few days ago and braved the twelve-hour insanity known as flying into yesterday. Unfortunately, the rain in Penang stopped long enough for another stretch of bright sunshine just before we departed that left my dehydrated and over-exerted body with a slight cold. Sadly, flying makes dehydration even worse and it turned into laryngitis as we collected our bags in Hong Kong. Not exactly known for its blue skies and perfect climate, Hong Kong defied expectations with three incredible days of bright sunshine and 23 Celsius degree perfection. Accompanied by Diane’s sister-in-law who just happened to be visiting her parents, we embarked on a one day tour, ate some delicious seafood and hoped for the best with my cold as we waited patiently at the Air Canada gate. And that’s when we possibly broke the Guinness Record for the biggest climate drop in human history from between flights.
Ah, real coffee again
Having left Penang on a 30 degree morning (86 Farhenheit) only a few days earlier, we arrived at Vancouver International Airport too late to make our connection to Calgary thanks to delays on both ends of the Air Canada flight. Well slept but still tired, we cleared the new and improved kiosk based customs, collected our bags, and headed upstairs to an endless line with about one-third of the frustrated 350 passengers that also needed re-ticketing. Usually opting for Cathay Pacific when flying a transcontinental route, some greedy CEOs decided to change economy ticket pricing to a three-tier system like Air Asia and other discount airlines. Charging upwards of $500 to “upgrade” your fare class to one that allows seat selection, choosing the reasonably priced cheapest fare means sitting twelve hours on whatever shitty middle seat in the back of the plane they assign you and not bringing any checked luggage without paying a fee. Yeah, that makes sense on a 6,000 mile trip. So we chose Air Canada despite their strange departure time from both sides of the Pacific because you can pick your seat and connect to Calgary on the same itinerary. But even one minor delay of an hour leaves them struggling so badly on the other side that it’s worth making sure there’s several flights after the one you’ve chosen in case of lengthy delays. They sent those traveling further east than Alberta to hotels for the night with a whopping ten-dollar food stipend that might buy a donut and coffee and they re-booked us on a later flight to Calgary.
Visiting Cambodia for the first time, Diane and I spent some time researching what to do in the immediate area besides touring the overwhelmingly beautiful temples. As one of the most touristy areas in all Southeast Asia, Siem Reap has something for almost everyone and wildlife is no exception. Although a multitude of off the beaten path excursions involving rafting, hiking and wildlife treks permeate much of the remote Northeastern corner of the country, we chose the relative ease and comfort of the main drag this time around. Fortunately, there’s enjoyable, educational and beautiful scenery as well as some great wildlife viewing that’s easily doable as day trips not far from Angkor Wat. Always eager for birding opportunities, we decided to visit the Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary and combine it with a day trip through the famous flooded forests of Tonle Sap, a seasonally inundated freshwater lake that’s Southeast Asia’s largest.
On the way to the flooded forest
Venturing out at around 8:30 AM our guide picked us up in the comfort of his air-conditioned Honda and we headed out-of-town. With countless options for touring the area, we prefer private personalized guides when possible but living as early retirees on a fixed income makes this a bit harder. In our working days we generally used most of our vacation time on combination trips that offered both amazing wildlife opportunities and a chance to explore the local expat community in some of the world’s most popular retirement zones. Lucky enough to visit places like The Galapagos Islands while staying at beautiful eco-lodges in places like The Ecuadorian Amazon or Borneo’s Danum Valley,we’ve entered a new stage of life where money doesn’t come easily so now we choose less expensive guides.
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.
Deciding not work anymore sounds great to many people, especially when you’re fifteen years away from the “standard” retirement age. But as the saying goes “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”. Never before in modern economic times has it been riskier to end your income stream and that weighs on me every day. Having been extremely lucky twice, Diane and I bought and sold two houses in totally different markets and came out ahead in both cases. Allowing us to put a large down payment on our California house at a time when nobody was buying, we sold our Canadian house four months before the market peaked and then negotiated a purchase price one year later well below asking price in 2008 when sellers were desperate. Amazingly, after a 30% decline in our home’s value, Bay Area home prices rebounded quickly allowing us to sell last year at a 12.5% premium over asking price. Fast forward 14 months and here we are living mostly from that sale for as many years as it lasts.
But all good things come to an end and although timing is everything in life, sometimes life throws you a curveball when you’re expecting a slider. With North American interest rates at all time lows and not expected to rebound to anything meaningful in my lifetime thanks to 40 years of horrible government policies worldwide, it’s been comforting seeing our MM2H Fixed Deposit accruing interest at 3.3% annually. For those unfamiliar with the program, the ministry requires participants of the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H) to place a fixed deposit of 150,000 Ringgit in a Malaysian bank and maintain it while on the program. Most banks issue two separate deposits of 100,000 and 50,000 each with one year maturities and interest can be either paid as a cash dividend to a local checking account or reinvested as part of the principal. Unfortunately, the ministry prefers (decrees, actually) that fixed deposits must be set up with twelve month maturities and renewed at prevailing interest rates. Unexpectedly, Bank Negara (Malaysia’s central bank) recently cut nominal interest rates despite never ending claims about having the strongest economy in Southeast Asia and the move adversely affects interest starved citizens of western nations.