And so our third year of tropical holidays arrived. About a year ago we prepared for Christmas in the cold Canadian North and hit the malls of Malaysia looking for anything with warmth. Unlike in Thailand where they break out heavy down coats, scarves and gloves during the “annual freeze” where overnight temperatures drop all the way to 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) (shudder), Penang’s version of winter clothes includes mostly miniscule sized Japanese products in stores like Uniqlothat even most Malaysians can’t squeeze into. Picking up a nasty Malaysian flu bug two days before the long journey back home, I quickly regretted my crazy decision since the weather didn’t climb above minus 20 for three weeks. Even our old friends didn’t want to hang out because it was too cold and snowy and I proceeded to infect Diane’s family with an unfamiliar Southeast Asian bug that wouldn’t leave my body until a month after we returned.
Outside a Thai department store
Having learned my lesson about thinking I miss the cold, this year we’re staying here in Chiang Mai where the malls are awash with huge Christmas trees, cars drive around carrying tress and a flood of restaurants and hotels offer holiday dinners and serve everything from ham to local seafood. But let’s talk turkey. As some readers may recall, two years ago we suffered through the worst ecological disaster in Southeast Asian history perpetuated by Indonesia’s annual irresponsible andsenseless illegal agricultural burns. Creating a stench that permeated the air in four countries for over three months, the haze season was the worst on record since they began burning everything to satisfy the west’s insatiable desire for palm oil. Needing to escape, we hit Chiang Mai for a few weeks and enjoyed our first Thanksgiving dinner away from home in a restaurant called Art Cafe. Featuring a real turkey dinner with all the trimmings for about 800 Baht, it wasn’t the best we’ve ever had but it was real turkey which is probably the thing I miss the most living away from North America. Despite a government protectionist policy on foreign turkeys, we still considered doing something like that again and although there’s not nearly as many Thanksgiving dinners as Christmas in Chiang Mai, there’s still a bunch of respectably decent choices. Anything seemed better than last year’s “mock Thanksgiving dinner” cooked by an interesting character and former chef that followed our blog to the letter and literally duplicated everything we did to get our MM2H Visa.
Since arriving in Southeast Asia I’ve often said there’s always something interesting to see every day if you get out and about. Sometimes, you don’t even need to do that. Contrasting our previous lives as homeowners in the highly overpriced suburbs of San Francisco, the other day we saw what Thai homeowners do to combat the effects of overgrowth on their properties. With rainy seasons lasting upwards of four months or longer and downpours unseen by many westerners, it’s no surprise that plants, trees and grass thrive in the tropics. But unlike our previous privileged life in the East Bay hills of suburban San Francisco, people don’t phone an expensive company with professional tree surgeons.
Defining an arborist as “a professional in the practice of arboriculture, which is the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants in dendrology and horticulture”, I’m not sure if Wikipedia has a name for the Thai version. Despite often feeling like we live in a quiet gated community in Southern California, there’s routinely something reminding us we’re worlds away from the old lifestyle. Unlike many comments on social media from disrespectful western expats bitching how Thailand is so third-worldish, we think Thai workers are rather industrious and efficient. Complying with our moo-baan’s strict guidelines requiring homeowners to keep properties neat, our neighbors no doubt followed Thai protocol. Arriving in an old pick up, a guy with a machete showed up, climbed the tree barefoot and hacked away. Supervised by two community representatives, he meticulously hit all the major branches and hacked off large pieces of as they fell to the ground in large piles. Given the late hour of the day, we marveled at how huge chinks of debris somehow wound up neatly piled into black garbage bags before nightfall. And the next day a truck hauled it all away.
Feeling like we’re perfecting the Experimental Overseas Early Retirement a little more each day, Diane and I are now holders of valid retirement visas in two Southeast Asian nations at the ripe old ages of 52 and 46. Despite the guy in Penang that literally followed every word I wrote to secure his MM2H Visa in Malaysia, I’m certainly no genius as shown by this blog which doesn’t even include hashtags, revenue generating advertising or commercialization of any kind. But I did read an article on Marketwatch.com this morning that discusses a new IRA rule allowing Americans with 401k plansto make penalty free early withdrawals at age 55 in cases of “job separation”. (No, you can’t quit at age 54 and then withdraw money the next year and if you roll your plan into an IRA as we did, the rule doesn’t apply). Intentionally designed to catch your eye with a headline, first they discourage this rather foolish act and then explain how most Americans can’t afford to retire at age 55 proving why you should probably get your financial ideas from those with no vested interest in watching others make mistakes.
Our first visitors came from China
Rarely talking about our personal finances because the boss in the relationship insists we keep the specifics private, I’ll share a few tidbits that illustrate how we’re doing after almost two and half years with no employment income. Planning a budget of 40-45K USD annually including rent and travel, Malaysia was an easy place to meet the goal because there’s nothing to do in Penang and we mostly cooked our own meals since we didn’t like the food other than duck rice and inexpensive noodle soups. Spending most of our cash travelling to places like Cambodia, Myanmar, Bali and Australia, we skimped on the non travel months and ate in almost every night. Relying heavily on our “no foreign transaction fee” U.S. dollar credit card, we also took advantage of a plummeting Malaysian Ringgit and saved thousands since almost every business other than food courts takes credit cards in Malaysia with no merchant fees.
As the North American long weekend holidays for Independence approached, Diane and I quietly celebrated our two year anniversary of expat life in Southeast Asia.Stepping off the plane on Canada Day in 2015, we embarked on a life far removed from Timbits, quality beer and suburban backyard grilling. Radically different from our one year anniversary, this year we’ve waited patiently as the calendar drags off our last 16 days in Penang. Having completed a successful exploratory trip to Chiang Mai where we opened a bank account and found a suburban house in a quiet and picturesque moo-baan, the goal of these last two weeks was secure a single entry 90 day Non-O visa (done), finish packing (almost done), spend the rest of our sadly depleted Malaysian Ringgit that we bought 12% lower than today’s exchange rate (harder than its seems) and close the book on Chapter One of our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment.
Concerned about writing the blog in the Digital Nomad Capital of Asia where I’d be competing with literally thousands of internet generation smart asses that all think they’re Pulitzer Prize winners, many of you pointed out there’s not an awful lot out there from the suburban middle class early retiree crowd. Initial searches prove you’ve all got a good point so to keep the blog mostly free of food reviews, technology and strategies on living like broke backpackers in lieu of working real jobs, I decided on a theme of Suburban Alternatives in the Chiang Mai region. Given the amazing similarities to North American suburbia from single family houses (mostly for rent) to a cornucopia of mega superstores (five good supermarkets compared to Penang’s one pathetically stocked supermarket with serious refrigeration issues), it seems reasonable I won’t run short on stories. Granted the target audience for my little blog becomes quite different in a place with more blogs than Thai people (almost) and I’ll apologize ahead of time for writing more about primers on how to house hunt for age-appropriate neighborhoods than trendy new clubs to hang out in and forty-seven ways to secure a visa when you’ve decided to spend the prime working years away from your homeland in coffee shops with a laptop while avoiding today’s most hated four letter word (work).
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.
Oh, hello there. Yes, I know it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything and no, we didn’t fall off the face of Batu Ferrenghi although I have been counting down the number of days left until we leave Malaysia and move to Thailand. (It’s 94). Having now learned what we’ll need to get non-tourist visas to Thailand and making enough new contacts to get an appointment at a Thai bank, we’ve been focusing our attention on the most important event of spring. No, not Songkran; the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Understanding many readers outside North America and northern Europe might be unfamiliar with the annual eight week ritual that sees 16 teams competing for the greatest professional sports trophy in the world, let me clarify. Canadians (and a small select group of awesome Americans) love hockey more than almost anything (except maybe beer). Easily the hardest championship to win, it takes four grueling “best of seven” rounds before players earn the right hoist the 34.5 pound cup overhead and crazed fans like us get, well, nothing really, other than bragging rights to rival fans.
Thanks to the internet and a little help from the earth’s curvature, all the playoff games start for us between 7 AM and 10:30 AM making almost every morning a breakfast time ritual for the next eight weeks. Alas, even we need a break from hockey sometimes and it’s my birthday this month so we decided on a short trip to Bali during the last week of the National Hockey League’s regular season. Wishing not to spend too much money, we decided on a five night package deal at a boutique beach resort in the relatively hip but not overtly loud town of Legian. Some readers may recall the problem we ran into when we first booked the deal. Realizing most things that seem too good to be true usually are, they offered the seemingly ridiculous hotel price of $116 a night during a unique Balinese holiday called Nyepi. Celebrating Hindu New Year unlike anywhere else on the planet, it’s known as “The day of silence”which means guests are not allowed to leave the resort and all work ceases for an entire day. Unwilling to waste precious time, we rebooked the dates, paid an exorbitant sum to Air Asia for change fees and went one week later. Naturally, there was yet another religious holiday called Galungan and it fell right smack on the day we slated for island exploration.
One of my favorite song lyrics comes from Semisonic’s 1999 hit, Closing Time: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end”. Borrowing that line is the best way to describe why it’s time for us to leave Penang and move on. A few days ago, my good friend Cimeron published a post titled Cost of Living in Penang on her excellent blog Oh MY Expat Life.An eternal optimist, she always sees the glass half full although she’s certain not blind to her surroundings and often refers to some of the less than attractive features of life in Penang quite bluntly. Understanding everyone’s different, we admire and respect each other’s views but recognize that sometimes two couples see the same things in a different light. Readers familiar with my blog know we’ve decided to leave Penang once our lease expires and move to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Given recent developments in The Draconian States of America under the “leadership” of an unqualified tyrant that’s quickly changing the world’s largest superpower into a racially pure isolationist state, I’ve received lots of page views from potentialMM2H applicants. Short for Malaysia My Second Home, it’s technically a long-term social visit pass but with unlimited multiple entries for ten years, it’s easily Asia’s best retirement visa.
Concerned that something’s specifically wrong with Malaysia, I’ve also had questions about why we’re leaving. In a nutshell, there’s a host of reasons why we’ve worn out the attraction. Unlike working expats who often enjoy large high-rise condos at the company’s expense, we’re not on a stipend. Paying our rent with Malaysian Ringgit that we incorrectly bought way too much of at a rate that’s now 23% lower versus the US dollar, we’ve lost precious savings by fixing our rent at $850 USD per month (3,200 MYR) which is now about $720. But money’s only one reason. As a native Canadian, Diane knew the heat and humidity might be too much but wetrudged through the first year and did as much as practical given our limited transportation options. Opting for life far in the island’s touristy beach communityin exchange for a quieter atmosphere and lower rent, it’s become tedious having to leave town by bus and return via Uber every time we need supplies or groceries or want to visit the culturally rich Heritage area of GeorgeTown. Having visited the other side of the island with neighbors willing to drive us, we thoroughly enjoyed seeing an environment totally different from our old life in North America but it’s just not somewhere we want to stay long-term.