Recalling back to the good ol days when we lived in Canada, both had good jobs and only thought about Thailand when searching for a dinner option, I remember that first beautiful Western Canadian summer. With some of the craziest weather changes anywhere in North America, Calgary often serves up four seasons in one day. Literally. But that last year of western world innocence back in 2001 brought an incredibly beautiful pattern of high pressure, bright sunshine and warm temperatures. Partying like it was 1999, I remember hearing all about snow in summer, sudden changes, hail, wind, floods, black ice, arctic chills and Alberta Clippers like it was yesterday. And despite my awareness of what was to come having left the relative temperate comfort of San Francisco for the crazy Canadian climate, I went into a blissful state of denial and went on enjoying my first fog free warm summer in many years.
Canadian late summer
And then it happened. Almost like Mother Naturewas watching the calendar and laughing at me, Labour Day weekend arrived and reality set in faster than an ignorant tweet from Trump. Dropping almost 30 Celsius degrees overnight, the infamous unofficial end of Canadian summer kicked in with a vengeance. Dropping over four inches of snow on our beautiful garden, summer’s abrupt end came quickly and showed no mercy. And that’s when I knew I’d left California far behind. Sixteen summers later, we landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand just in time for the start of rainy season. Having been incredibly spoiled but bored and unhappy with almost everything besides the great sunsets and abundant sunshine of Penang, at first we welcomed the rain like an old friend. Statistically the wettest and cloudiest time of year, July and August brought long bouts of heavy rain that often went on for three days straight but as newbies taking in the sights and sounds of a new home, it didn’t really phase me. At first, anyway. Apparently dryer than normal for the past few years, most expats on the always cynical and sarcastic Facebook groups welcomed it as a big respite from the burning season despite stories that it wasn’t so bad this past spring.
Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.
As seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.
Normally avoiding Sundays like the plague, being retired means never having to go anywhere when the rest of the population is enjoying their day off. Applying even more in the developing world where six-day work weeks are the norm, Diane and I rarely shop, eat out, visit major attractions or engage in any “working world” weekend morning activities like breakfast at popular eateries. But sometimes time sneaks up on you so the other day we broke tradition after a visit to our local supermarket reminded us of some inevitable merchandising realities in Malaysia. With public holidays occurring at the rate of one per week through the next 17 days, expats who cook a lot should take heed and get to the store while there’s still any supplies. Possessing possibly the world’s worst supply chain, Penang literally gets everything delivered by truck from Kuala Lumpur. Although that’s only a four-hour drive on a modern four lane superhighway, it often feels like living on a remote Pacific island with no airport that gets deliveries via passing cargo ships every three months or so.
This is Chicken Ass with a funny name
Studying supply patterns of everyday products like veggies, pasta sauce and canned tuna leads to a frustrating conclusion that Malaysian store supermarket managers don’t understand anything about merchandising. Every time you find an imported product you like, it’s almost guaranteed to be gone the next time you visit and not replaced for at least a few months. Or not at all if it’s something you really like. Constantly bombarded by mostly foreign expats that buy up all the European, American and Australian products before most island residents even know they’re in the store, if you blink and change aisles, it’s gone. Perpetually stocking items that are already nearing their expiry dates, the other thing they love to do is order products nobody buys and then put them on “promosi” (sale) at ridiculously low prices. While this seems like a good thing, I’d rather not buy something that came out of the factory in 2014 for 2 ringgit (50 cents) because it arrives in Penang just shy of its second anniversary date. Buying fresh food is a different animal altogether with stores sometimes going months between certain cuts of meat or lamb and beef that varies in price from inexpensive to insane.
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.
And just like that, it’s exactly one year since Diane and I stepped off the plane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Looking back, the one word that comes to mind more than anything is “interesting“. Experiencing a totally different lifestyle without the added pressures of raising kids and commuting to work, the year went by faster than we’d imagined and tallying up the totals, we’re almost exactly on budget. Keeping careful financial records of every transaction, withdrawal, credit card charge and foreign exchange transfer, I’d say it’s indeed possible to live a similar lifestyle including moderate travel in Southeast Asia for about 80% of your pre-retirement net salary. Of course, we lived very frugally to get here and my unexpected layoff pushed us into this experiment five years earlier than planned. But with the tumultuous events unfolding back home, there’s no better time to retire in Asia for westerners tired of all the violence, political rhetoric and elitism that’s causing social upheaval not seen since the 1960’s.
Granted Malaysia isn’t the least expensive Southeast Asian nation but it doers have many benefits including an English-speaking population, above average infrastructure and inexpensive but excellent healthcare featuring many physicians and specialists that are U.S. or European Board Certified. While Penang isn’t exactly the most convenient airport for connections around the region, it does have daily non-stop service to Hong Kong allowing for a quick connection back to the homeland as well as direct flights to Bangkok, Ho Chi MInh City and many destinations in China. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, our not so little island has mountains, trails, national parks and serene parks. Despite the unprecedented and ridiculous over-development of million dollar luxury condos designed for wealthy foreign investors, you can still lose yourself in Penang. Spending many days hanging out with friendly monkeys or kicking back on a not so beautiful beach that’s mostly deserted over 40 weeks a year, I don’t miss the chaos of long commutes or the daily dose of intolerance that’s hijacked the homeland. Thanking every reader that’s followed my stories detailing our relatively unexciting life, I’ve written a chronological summary of the first six months in Penang with links to old posts for those looking to catch up or read more.
Before we even knew we slept, morning broke on the Tasmanian horizon and as promised, we hopped out of bed and prepared for the hard but rewarding experience of “trading” at Salamanca Market. Only having arrived the afternoon before, Ann already put us to work peeling 88 pounds of beetroot (simply known as “beets” in the USA and Canada) before dinner. Still tired from touring Melbourne, we wiped the slumber away and brewed a cup of strong coffee in the little one cup plunger Ann supplied us with in the lunchroom.
Thinking I’d have to go to work smelly, I forgot Tasmania is probably further south of the equator than Edmonton is north of it so fortunately the dawn breaks almost two hours earlier than Penang and by 5:15 AM there’s plenty of light to make your way from the small cabin into the bathroom (about 200 feet away) for a quick shower. Incredibly lucky with the weather, we may have picked the best week of the Southern summer and our day at the market was warm and sunny with very little wind. At 6:15 on the dot, Ann emerged from the main house and we all piled into the Market Buggy.
Having completed our first Workaway gig, I’m anxious to share everything with my awesome readers. But we’re back in Melbourne for a few days and today is the last day before lots of rain is on the way so we’re off to another day trip today to see The Great Ocean Road. Please bear with us a few more days and then I promise to get everyone caught up. Making a long story short, the work was fun at times, sometimes tedious and a bit harder than we expected thanks mostly to the gardening aspect and the enormous hill that the property lies on. Our hosts were probably the most generous people you’d ever get doing one of these and kept us happy with world-class dinners every night, free-flowing wine and beer and groceries to make breakfast. The accommodation was about what it looked like: a bit rustic for seasoned hotel people like us but comfortable enough to sleep well after each day’s work. Getting three days off out of ten we managed to visit Port Arthur and Bruny Island which was enough tourism and luckily the changeable weather cooperated with mild days and comfortable nights. All in all, an excellent experience but unlike the 20 somethings, we find traveling tiring and returning to work after two years (8 months for Diane) was certainly harder than the cubicle but also more rewarding.
Cheers for now and please watch for our full posts later this week when we return to Penang