And so after a hectic 24 hours of flying to Malaysia, late-night commuting to the hotel and a stressful morning at both the immigration office and our bank, it was time for some fun. Given Kuala Lumpur’s sweltering climate and lack of enjoyable walks, that means doing two things; eating and shopping. While Diane would be fine if she never ate Malaysian food again, I’m a huge fan of sambal chili paste (impossible to find in Thailand), laksa (even harder to find outside Malaysia and Indonesia) and beef rendang (the Southeast Asian Muslim world’s best culinary contribution). Thankfully, Diane’s memory towers over mine and she knew exactly where my favorite place to eat laksa was in the seventeen miles of mazes that make up life in downtown KL.
Regretfully, my stand became a western food place and Malaysia gets my vote for Southeast Asia’s worst version of all western food from burgers to ribs. Determined to eat laksa and nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national dish and Diane’s only choice for local food), we embarked on a quest but only had to take a few steps through Level UC of the mall named “Avenue K”. Possibly my favorite casual fast food restaurant in all of Malaysia, Ah Cheng Laksaserves one of the most flavorful and complex bowls of soup in Southeast Asia. According to their Facebook page, their origins date back over 56 years and one of the family members brought the unique family recipe to the Klang Vallery in 2004. For me, nothing beats a bowl of Asam Laksa, a sour fish and tamarind based soup. Its perfect combination of flavorful ingredients includes small mackerel of the Rastrelliger genus, and finely sliced vegetables including cucumber, onions, red chilies, pineapple, lettuce, common mint, Daun kesum (Vietnamese mint or laksa mint), and pink bunga kantan, also known as torch ginger. Normally served with thick rice noodles and topped with a thick sweet prawn shrimp paste, it’s spicy, sweet, salty and tastes like a piping hot combination of perfection.
And so we arrived at Chiang Mai International Airport, checked our documents at the counter and went right through security without checking any bags. Having never flown in Asia without the hassle of waiting for checked bags, it felt strangely liberating but also like we’d forgotten something. Taking a three-day jaunt to Kuala Lumpur to officially terminate our participation in the MM2H Retirement Program, we took the only daily non-stop flight on Air Asia and touched down around 9:30 PM. Given the detail-oriented nature of our agent who insisted on being in constant touch by text and the late flight, we knew we’d better take care of data services ahead of time rather than rely on our shitty old Malaysian carrier.
Hitting the mall earlier, we visited the AIS store (our Thai cell carrier) and despite their limited English skills, they sold us a data-only plan in Malaysia with 2 Gb of data for 7 days at a ridiculously low cost of 300 Bhat (about $9.25 USD). All we had to do was click the roaming button on arrival and sure enough, when we attempted to use our old Malaysian carrier’s app, the phone number and our profile were long gone. Because I had a new passport, my agent said I could enter on a 90-day tourist status but it might be better to show them the old passport with the laminated MM2H visa instead. Hoping it wouldn’t confuse them, I walked to the counter, explained I had a new passport and without saying anything, the stern stone-faced Malaysian customs agent walked out of the booth and disappeared. Having just read a story about an American family that was detained for 14 days in Malaysia due to a snafu at the Malaysian/Thai border, this unnerved me a bit and Diane watched carefully where he went while I stood at the counter. Apparently never having come across that situation before, he spoke with a supervisor for about ten minutes and finally returned. Gruffly telling me I needed to leave Malaysia within 30 days, he stamped the passport, wrote my status as “special” with a note to visit Putrajaya (where the Immigration Ministry is) and sent me on my way.
First off, I want to thank everyone for all the feedback regarding my recent post about expat finances and my subsequent follow up that explained why perhaps finances weren’t something I should include in future posts. Understanding my readers a little better now, most feedback was positive and I learned that many folks regard the financial posts as positive input while they contemplate their own experimental expat early retirement. Others felt the blog should only be about travel adventures and that nobody cares about the world’s current political situation and its effect on expat life or our own personal finances. So here’s my take on where the blog goes from here.
As I’ve alluded to many times, the blog isn’t a travel blog about wanderlust or all how early retirement is all about fulfilling our travel fantasies. With thousands of travel blogs, some good, some bad, I’m not here to compete with those folks. Nor is early retirement just about travel, at least not for people like us that joined the ranks of the non-working with much less than we’d need to be globetrotters. Having been laid off about five years before I would’ve preferred, traveling is an added benefit but needs to be carefully planned and isn’t the main focus of why we chose early retirement. Granted we’ve had some great adventures and those are often what folks want to read about most but every day isn’t vacation nor is retirement always great so I like to also discuss the ironic, comical and often cynical parts that convey a more realistic idea of what you might expect should you take the plunge. Usually receiving comments that I “tell it likeit is”, I think sugar-coated stories of a fantasy retirement are a dime a dozen.
Well, folks, money management class is closed for The Experimental Expats. Like a Nate Silver poll of the 2016 presidential election, it appears I drastically misread my readers and got it horribly wrong. Based on the response from an old post discussing investments and the importance of a diversified portfolio, I mistakenly thought now would be a great time to share some insight about the recent market volatility, our progress after four years retired and why you should ignore all the “sky is falling” stories in the financial press. But based on an almost total lack of interest in the post and virtually no comments or replies, I guess the financial and money management stuff is best left to other bloggers.
Admittedly, I’m a tad disappointed because I put more effort into it than almost any given day in my last job. Thinking it was too long and complicated, I hereby officially anoint my latest post about expat financesa failure and apologize to anyone that was nice enough to give it a read. Using most of the post as background information to explain why our situation is different than many early retirees and what led to our risky decision to forego work, I planned on a follow up to discuss our budget and share some of my rather simple spreadsheets. Ironically, I stumbled onto an article from Business Insider yesterday about8 people who retired early and how the decision changed their money habits.
Naturally, they’re all millennials that found a way to achieve “financial independence” at a ridiculously young age and they don’t really explain anything about how much they have, how they intend to fund the next 50 or 60 years (some have kids) or how they travel the world with a total net worth of nothing. Some are professionals that probably thought real work was too hard. Most write for-profit blogs which means they live day to day and hope the“online income” field will carry them into the latter part of this century. Clearly not my idea of being “retired”, I wish them all well but wouldn’t trade my diversified portfolio and the security that comes with it anytime. So like a fitness class scheduled at a bad time, part two of my financial post is canceled due to lack of interest. But please don’t go away yet; I heard you all loud and clear and will now return to my regularly scheduled programming.
Oops; I did it again. Having finally conquered the horrible new WordPress Editor, I found myself reinvigorated and ready to share stories of our experimental early retirement once again. Launching into a series of recaps of our Great Smoke Season Escape Tour 2019 that included a trip to the powerfully compelling War Remnants Museum in Saigonand a lesson in ruralrice farming with water buffalos, my writing ambition hit full gear. Then a 90-day blast of Saudi Arabian-like sweltering heat came to Northern Thailand. Understanding much of the world now suffers through historically unprecedented heatwaves in the summer months thanks to climate change, I’m not expecting much sympathy.
But it took us long enough to acclimate to 30 degrees Celsius and anything much higher than that is too hot for my comfort zone. And despite the declaration of an “official end” of the hot season according to the geniuses at the Thai Meteorological Division, almost no rain fell in Chiang Mai for three months, drought conditions prevailed and temperatures hovered in the mid to upper 30s every day. That’s over 100 for my Metrically challenged readers. Happily, the rain fell for two straight days now and at 30, (86 Farhenheit), the temperature’s almost Arctic-like by Thai standards. And then I noticed that on top of making the world’s worst business decision with the block editor, the folks at WordPress also increased my annual subscription by no longer including the domain name as part of my not so “premium” subscription. Full disclosure; I’ve spent most of the last month planning a 20th anniversary trip to Italy and having learned my lesson in Vietnam about getting lazy and using the guided tour option, I decided it’s both fun and rewarding planning everything yourself the old fashioned way. So once again, please pardon the interruption between posts.
OK, so it’s not really a miracle or a White Christmas. (More on the miracle part shortly). But it is so cold in Chiang Mai today that I hit the spare bedroom where the winter clothing box sits like a prisoner in solitary confinement. Unlike last year when my crazy decision to spend Christmas in Canadawith Diane’s family meant spending the entire four weeks hunkered down inside to avoid the frigid temperatures, sanity prevailed this year and we stayed in the tropics. But someone forgot to tell the weather gods. Anxiously awaiting this “cool season” they all promised us would arrive, November brought thirty days of gray on gray and torrid humidity. Then December arrived and magically gave us a few days of comfortably livable almost sub-tropical like days. And then it quickly went back to hot, humid and hazy. Rumors of an early “burning season”began popping up as the sun remained visibly absent and the air outside reminded me of that ever-present stink of Malaysians burning everything from garbage to plastic (despite their insistence that they don’t do that because it’s supposedly illegal).
Lowest reading since arriving in Asia
And then out of nowhere, we got an early Christmas present. Shifting winds brought a wave of high pressure down from China, skies brightened into a brilliant cloud free sky with nothing but sunshine and it got cool again. But it didn’t stop with cool. Like an ignorant tweet from Trump, it kept coming and coming until it got downright chilly. And that turned into downright cold. Forcing us to close every window in the house, crank the shower heater up to 80% and break out the sweatpants and socks, last night was colder than Walnut Creek, California where we used to live. (I checked). Clocking in at an astoundingly low 9 Degrees Celsius, (48 Fahrenheit), we both woke up cold and slept with the blanket pulled all the way up. Never one to complain about cool spells in the tropics, breaking through the single digits when you’ve lived with daily high temperatures of 30 Celsius or more for two years proved quite interesting. Always thinking our living room wall thermometer doesn’t really work because it’s been permanently fixed on 30 and we never use the air con except to sleep, it jumped an amazing 8 degrees last night and now it looks like any typically beautiful Canadian summer day.
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).