Coming to a close, if someone asked me to summarize our first year as retired expats in Asia in one phrase I’d have to choose “always interesting”.
In retrospect, eighteen months of correspondence with our MM2H agent helped make our transition to expat life in another part of the world relatively simple and painless. Knowing we’ll probably wind up in Thailand after our lease expires in July, 2017, we’d still recommend Malaysia to anyone with ample financial means for its above average infrastructure (by Southeast Asian standards), lack of language barriers (everyone knows and speaks English) and relatively disaster proof geography (outside the earthquake and typhoon belts).
Despite the statistically strong economy, the Malaysian Ringgit remains at near record low levels versus the USD and British Pound but is unlikely to cause problems for expats (barring any more financial scandals or unexpected calamities to emerging markets). One of the only major disadvantages is a banking system that forces people to the money changer for foreign currency. Having exchanged way too many US Dollars for ringgit at a lowly rate of 3.7613, (it hovers at 4.25 to 4.35 for the last few months) we failed to realize the ramifications of a plummeting currency and kept less than $100 USD on hand which leaves us hosed when we need to buy foreign currency with the ringgit. But other than that, becoming an expat in Malaysia was easier than expected.
Seeming longer than four days, our first stint as tour guides in our newly discovered expat haven came to an end as we texted our favorite Uber driver and sent Jamie on her way back to the airport. (Here in Penang, there’s no Uber drivers way out by us so we use a personalized driver that usually comes or sends a friend and then we request the Uber ride when they’re in range. LIke most things in Malaysia, drivers go out of their way to accommodate.) Having a visitor so soon after arriving turned out to be fun because it felt like we rediscovered the island all over agin. Because Malaysia is such an easy place to become an expat in terms of adjusting we almost felt complacent already and they haven’t even stamped our MM2H visa. Fresh off a few days in Thailand, Jamie immediately felt the difference between the neighboring nations and really appreciated the unobtrusiveness of Penang’s laid back island environment. Spending some time in Bangkok and Phuket, she liked the beaches but hated the “in your face” attitude of Thailand and was ready for some relaxation and immersion.
Unfortunately, peace and quiet wasn’t part of my itinerary and I planned to use her time her as an excuse to do some things we’ve meant to do anyway. Hiking to Monkey Beach was high on my priority list so we hopped on the 101 bus, headed the other way and got off ten minutes away at the end of the line. Never attempting to use this blog as ether a “travel” or “foodie” blog, I wouldn’t attempt to describe things in a TripAdvisor review format. Instead, I’ll just write about experiencing a relatively simple jungle trek for two middle-aged fit people and a Pilates trainer. Hint: Jungle hiking is harder than typical North American hikes including high elevation day trips, which we’ve done many times when we lived an hour away from the Canadian Rockies. Recommending you start on a partly sunny day that doesn’t have any immediately threatening storm clouds, mother nature was on our side with some overcast popping out between the beautiful views. Last time we visited Malaysia’s smallest National Park, there were only four registered hikers all day but on this particular Friday morning, there were already a dozen or so hikers that chose to hit the trails including two Americans. (Hikers must register at the information desk and you’ll need to know your passport number.) Stopping for a quick pee, we headed out on the trail about an hour later than I would’ve preferred but her flight didn’t arrive until the evening before so we didn’t get much sleep because we had to hit Kafe Long Beach after she checked in.
Realizing the expat experience isn’t complete until you immerse yourself into the local shopping scene away from the tourists, Diane and I made our first trip to the night market in Tanjung Bungah. Already regularly frequenting the morning market weekly for eggs and fruit, someone told us they run a night market on Tuesdays so we checked it out. More extensive and crowded, the local wet market is one place where expats really learn to immerse with the local community and our experience was no different. Lacking tourists due to its ideal location in between the island’s major attractions, we arrived early and found it was already crowded by 7 PM. Unlike the morning market, there’s lots of merchandise and an endless chain of food stands that stretched around two corners and featured food items we hadn’t yet seen and some we never heard of.
Jumping right in, we immediately purchased a pork bun and rounded the corner where the food jumped out at us. Approaching a stand serving a beverage called Lo Han Kuo, I decided I had to try some just because it looked like iced tea and would seemingly be refreshing on a hot evening. Attempting to ask about it proved fruitless because as I’ve mentioned, Hokkien Chinese is completely foreign to Diane and although they often talk to her in Chinese, she can’t understand one word. Still friendly but not as patient as hawkers in touristy areas, the vendor mouthed something about cough and we determined it meant “an herbal remedy for sore throats”. Tasting slightly sweet, there was a fruit in the bottom that looked like a small plum but I couldn’t really name it. Satisfied, we moved on and didn’t realize how many food vendors were at night markets, including almost every type of Malaysian, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, Chinese and even some strange-looking version of Western food. (I have yet to taste anything from the “western food” stands, figuring McDonalds, KFC and Dominos Pizza can fill my craving when that time arrives).