Tag Archives: monkeys

Reflections; Two Years as Expats

As the time winds down to our last two months in Malaysia, I’m reflecting on the success (or failure) of our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. While it’s time to move on, I wanted to clarify a few things based on some recent comments. First off, I’m not writing a “travel blog”. With thousands of really good travelogues out there, I wouldn’t even try to compete with any of them nor am I trying to tell any of you what hotels, restaurants and attractions to visit. Rather, our blog is for sharing stories about two middle class North Americans that decided to try an overseas early retirement and not stay in the workforce after an unexpected layoff. Calling it an experiment implies uncertainty and neither of us knew if we’d succeed or wind up crawling back home desperate for work. Honestly, if I had my way, I’d either stay in Western Canada without working or live in a sub-tropical or Mediterranean paradise like Turks and Caicos, Hawaii or Monaco.

Asam Laksa – The best of Penang

But unless you’re born with a silver spoon or your family name rhymes with Hump, life isn’t about what you want to do all the time so we chose to push up our original plan a half decade or so by compromising some comforts in exchange for a middle class lifestyle in the developing world. Considering ourselves lucky with timing but smart enough to pay off most of our 15 year mortgage in 7 years thanks to a lot of Saturday nights spent watching free DVD’s from the local library, we always had an emergency plan for a possible mid-career job loss. Although it may not seem like it, we’re actually living that emergency plan (at least financially) and not some digital nomad dream. At the same time, we’re also not struggling to make ends meet in a place where almost everything is two-thirds cheaper than back home. Like most compromises, there’s positives and negatives and I’d rather write my blog as a storyteller. While I strive to be respectful of locals, expats and readers, there’s a lot of things that need a good dose of constructive criticism in Penang. Like our well-educated Malaysian friends of both Malay and Chinese descent, we’d love to see some attitudes and habits change along with the ultra modernization happening all over. Make no mistake; citizens, companies, and businesses that burn garbage every day and turn crystal clear air into stinking health hazards despite federal laws on the books for 45 years explicitly prohibiting this are not representing anything close to “fully developed”. Nevertheless, I’ll focus on some funny and positive aspects.

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Rescue Me

Having wrapped up five really great days in Siem Reap, Diane and I headed out to Phnom Penn to explore one of Southeast Asia’s newest up and coming capital cities. Way out in front of Yangon in terms of development, we saw large-scale residential projects as the bus approached from a northwestern direction. Slated for future construction of suburban communities like Chiang Mai, I’d give it there to five years before the expat community swarms to another developing nation’s capital city and changes its look for better or worse. Becoming relatively popular, a moderate expat community is taking shape and you’ll find lots of trendy restaurants, shops and modest condos stretched in five or six-mile area stretching from the central tourist area near the national museum to the embassies lying fifteen to twenty minutes away by tuk tuk. And of course, the children of Cambodia are the shining stars of the nations’ future.

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Starkly contrasting the modern looking trendy streets, a large block of the city limits is made up of sprawling working class neighborhoods that are every bit as “developing” looking as you’d expect from Southeast Asia. Clearly visible on a trip to The Killing Fields, much of the city remains mired in poverty despite major infrastructure improvements and a surging tourism industry previously limited to archaeological wonders and off-road adventures in the jungle. Without a doubt, the main attraction in the area is one of the saddest experiences you’ll encounter anywhere in Southeast Asia.

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Monkeying Around Penang

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.

paradeAs 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.

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Our Quiet Time

Where does the time go? Approaching the last few weeks of spring, it’s almost one year since Diane and I stepped off the airplane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Already in full swing, Ramadan began a few weeks earlier this year and coincides with the second week of Malaysian School Holidays. Commemorating the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad according to Islāmic belief, Muslims began fasting for 30 days and although it’s less noticeable in Penang due to the large Chinese population, some of our favorite Nasi Campur and other Malay style food courts won’t serve lunch for a month. Not really understanding why the island seemed so quiet last year, we now know that after school starts next week, it’s the best three weeks of the year for vehicle challenged expats like us. With more room on the buses, we’re not totally clear why it’s so much less crowded but if I had to exist on no water and food from sunrise to sunset in such a hot and humid environment, I’d probably be hospitalized quickly from dehydration so maybe those who observe the fast simply have less energy to travel around.

promo15-ramadanIronically, the word Ramadan derived from the Arabic root ramida, meaning scorching heat and dryness. Knowing I’d make a lousy Muslim since fasting is almost physically impossible for those who engage in cardio training almost daily, Diane and I happily hopped on the empty bus the other day and headed for our favorite food court in Penang. After one year, we find ourselves gravitating mostly to the same food courts and haven’t really found all that many restaurants worth the extra cash. Granted our point of view is probably in the minority because we disagree with Penang’s claim to be Southeast Asia’s best food, but after watching a slew of culinary series’ featuring chefs, restauranteurs and average folks traveling and discovering food all over Southeast Asia, we’re convinced Malaysia’s food is the least interesting of all ASEAN nations. Having said that, there’s a few places we consider above and beyond the others like Chang Sern Enterprises Hawker Center in Palau Tikas. Probably the standard by which all food courts should be judged, this gem is clean as a whistle, has friendly attentive vendors and staff and some of the best local food on the island.

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Read Any Good Books Lately?

As dawn broke on another hot hazy sunshine morning in drought stricken Malaysia yesterday, I threw on my gym shorts quickly and headed down to the condo gym. Attempting to get a decent workout in before the unbearable heat, I’ve forced myself to wake up in the darkness, gulp down some coffee and hit the elliptical machine while it’s still reasonably cool. Now reaching over 115 days with temperatures in the mid 30’s (mid 90’s Fahrenheit), the comfort level remains horrible as Southeast Asia’s hottest winter on record continues, leaving our bodies in a state of perpetual dehydration and dryness. With three hours of relief last week, a rare rain event came rolling through Penang but only lasted an hour or two, leaving the grand rainfall since January 1st in the neighborhood of six hours for over three months. Understanding what it must feel like to a thirsty wild animal in the Serengeti desperate for rainfall, we’ve spent most of our recent days on the sweaty balcony or searching for air-conditioned event worthy of the long walk down to the bus stop.

imageFortunately, Southeast Asia’s best book sale came rolling into town last week for a ten-day run that’s always worth a visit. Billing itself as The Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, the semi-annual event is held in a large hall of Penang Times Square, one of the local malls easily reachable by bus. Always escaping something, last year we attended during the middle of Asia’s worst haze since 1998 and it felt like the entire island was there. Deciding to go on a weekday this time, the crowds were smaller than the Sunday rush but there’s still hundreds of people taking advantage of the bargains and incredible discounts.

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Wild elephants and swimming monkeys

Approaching the last few days of our Planes, Trains and Automobiles Experimental Thailand Trip, we’re both a bit strung out from walking, discovering and traveling. Staying at a  modern apartment in the lower Chang Phueak neighborhood of Chiang Mai, it’s unfortunate the condo only has community Wifi in the common areas and its weak at best so I’ll have to keep this post short until we return. Briefly, using Airbnb was quite economical and met or even surpasses expectations. Spending one week in the suburban enclave known as Hang Deng, we used the yellow songtheaw for venturing anywhere. Chiang Mai uses a system of color coördinated scheduled songtheaws that charge a fixed rate in lieu of buses. At 30 Baht for two passengers, the cost is reasonable enough but sitting in small cramped pickup trucks crushed next to eight other passengers every day isn’t something we’d want to do every day. Sadly, we enjoyed living in the suburbs from a week despite the distance because it’s quiet and still feels rural even with new developments popping up here and there and the strip malls resemble California with Starbucks, gourmet supermarkets and restaurants all within walking distance.

imagePicking us up on time, our second Airbnb hosts drove us from the suburbs to the two-year old gated condo known as D’Vieng. Seemingly out-of-place in a local neighborhood bordering the northwest gates of the Old a city, Chiang Mai is an interesting blend of smaller modern condos right in the middle of Thai working class neighborhoods that produces a strange blend of traditional eateries and Thai culture with modern western style living. Unlike Malaysia, however, issues arise with a weaker economy and less available space so developers build condos with closet sized studios and one bedrooms with kitchens so small you’d never want to spend much time cooking and cramped little one room living space designed to get you out if the house as much as possible. Given the food culture, there’s nothing wrong with that per say but we’re used to suburban houses and 1,777 square feet of condo space so we’re looking forward to returning home to Penang. Serving its purpose, the condo does have modern bathrooms and furnishings, a comfortable bed and a great shower. Our host provides hotel style towels, nine bottles of water, snacks and instant availability should you need her for anything  making the $27 a night price tag more than reasonable.

Apologizing for the chronological lapse, I wanted to go back to our first week in Hua Hin and share two-day very worthwhile day trips. Blessed with national parks and ample forest land, the area south  and east of Hua Hin features some beautiful landscapes, lots of wildlife and excellent hiking opportunities. Having ridden elephants in the past, It surprised us that there’s a national park where the biggest herd of wild elephants in Southeast Asia roam free. Only an hour any from the coastal one, Kui-Buri National Park gives visitors an opportunity to view them up close. Given that they’re wild, there’s no guarantee of seeing them but almost every day they travel nearby the jeep tracks, making their way down to the water hole. Similar to safaris, you hang out in the back of a small truck with a park ranger (and your guide if you opt for private tours like we did) and drive around the area looking for the herd. Although there’s also other large animals, the elephants are the  main attraction and the Rangers keep in radio contact with each other hoping to find them.

Telling us each day is different, about two hours into our excursion at a point when it seemed inevitable we’d not see anything, sure enough they spotted large family of about nine to ten a few hundred yards away from the main jeep track. Using binoculars, at first it was hard to see the but they slowly started coming into view, getting closer as time went on. Luckily, the male must have decided he was thirsty and the highlight of the day was seeing them all cross the road not too far from our group and head down to the water hole. Even without the aid of a real camera I captured them on the IPhone and filmed the video below. Although possibly not as exciting as all the elephant camp options available throughout Thailand, we believe they’re so exploited that’s it’s refreshingly great to view them in their natural environment. Undaunted by captivity, they show normal behaviors not found in captive elephants and though relatively predictable, you never know when you’ll see one or how they feel about being watched. (Ear movements help determine if they’re agitated or content and the rangers told us sometimes visitors have to abandon the hunt and retreat because the elephants are having a bad day. We used a tour operator out if Singapore called BeMyGuest. Relatable and friendly, their tours are mostly private, cover all Southeast Asia, are cheaper than typical stuff advertised on TripAdvisor subsidiary companies and they usually use vendors with high levels of professionalism.

Another good day trip from Hua Hin takes longer and unfortunately we didn’t really see very much but it’s still worthwhile. Kaeng Krachen National Park is Thailand’s largest and lies about ninety minutes inland from the coast. Although there’s hundreds of animal and bird species, spotting them largely depends on the skill of your tour guide and unfortunately the company we used for this trip was mediocre. Avoid Hua Hin Adventure Tours, which is one of the most prominent companies in town and search for a better option. Requesting extra time for hiking and wildlife viewing our guide gave us an option of a jungle trek to spot wildlife or a fire road to see more birds. Having been very lucky in Boreno , Ecuador and Costa Rica, we chose the latter but soon realized you get what you pay for and although the trek was scenic, the guide was not very personable and made little effort to use any expertise to spot wildlife. Seeing an excellent array of spiders and insects, we did come across one animal that ,at have been the last thing I’d expect to see. Sitting by the river, a rather large and rare Asian tortoise was getting some sun and like most tortoises, was indifferent to humans having a look so we snapped some good pictures. Saving the trip from being uneventful, it was odd but interesting nonetheless.

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Perhaps realizing how often people come away disappointed due to limited wildlife viewings, many day trips offer an interesting side trip with the lunch spot. Nearby a local dam outside the park is  small island where throngs of long tail macquaces live. Probably having fun somebody once took a small boat to the island but discovered the monkeys were too aggressive and virtually attacked people when they knew food was nearby. Deciding to experiment, they began throwing bananas into the water a few feet offshore and eventually the monkeys began diving into the water and dog paddling out to get the fruit. Unusual behavior for animals that normal.y can’t swim, they became conditioned to the sound of approaching small motor boats and all come running out of the hills when they hear one coming. Knowing there’s food on the way, they begin jumping in the water and swimming  lose to the boats. Clearly an odd site, it’s turned into a local tourist attraction and although I’m unclear if it’s ethical or just teasing them for human enjoyment, it was quite interesting and made the day trip worthwhile.

We headed out Ina  small boat after lunch and since there were no others around, they came running and started diving into the water even before we began hurling bananas at them. After the food runs out some of them come close and climb on the back of the boat if you come close to shore. Even though we monkeys all the time in Penang this was something unexpected.

Being the pampering part of our experimental trip for future residency, we stayed at a hotel called The Villas at Anantasila. Far from the main drag, the hotel makes up for it with five-star service akin to a Shangri La Resort and really goes the extra mile. Through efficient email communication they agreed to pick us up at the train station and since it was so early they even gave us a temporary room while we enjoyed the beach after the long train trip. Every staff member knew us by name and treated us better than many places with a huge price tag. Unfortunately, there’s always something going on in “developing countries” that’s utterly ridiculous and During our stay they were building a pier right next to the beach.

Normally no big deal elsewhere, in Thailand this means three construction cranes constantly pounding  and removing concrete until well after midnight five straight nights. Clearly disturbing and potentially damaging for the hotels business, the manager personally asked us how he could make it right and told us he’s complained to them many times but Thailand’s government simply doesn’t care about business owners or anything for that matter and he claims to be powerless . Crediting us one night’s room charge, the gesture was great and it’s a shame it ruined our sleep and one or two days of peaceful beach serenity because the hotel is simply beautiful with an invite pool and a give star restaurant. Endorsing this hotel is not a problem but wait a few months until the government starts another project with no regard for anything or anybody.

imageAs our three-week trip to Thailand comes to an end it feels good to go “home” to our large condo with the view even if the food is not remotely as good a Thailand. Learning the pros and cons of both Thailand and Malaysia, there’s no perfect place in the developing world or everyone would be there. Very satisfied with Chiang Mai, we both think we’d like to live here after our lease expires in 2017 but like everything else there are compromises. Unwilling to live in closet sized condos we’d have to search for a house and probably give in and buy a scooter. Meanwhile it’s back to Batu Ferrenghi for our “normal” expat life in Penang. With the new year almost here, our next adventure is only give weeks away and will certainly be totally different since Australia can’t be compared to Southeast Asia in any meaningful way. Once returning to the comfort a PC, I’ll post kid about Chiang Mai and our first “vacation” as Experimental Expats.

Cheers from Chiang Mai.

If you’ve lived in Chiang Mai, please share your house hunt experience 

 

Monkey Business

No, we didn’t fall off the face of the earth. It’s been a long week back here in the big city and yes, we did accomplish our mission. We are now officially MM2H Holders and are free to come and go in and out of Malaysia for the next ten years, although we will have to renew the pass in six years since my passport expires in 2021. Shelling out lots of cash, they ask you to pay an annual fee up front for as many years as you want up to ten but most people only pay until their passports expire since you have to return anyway at that point. But more on that later. Once we return back to Penang, I will post about our entire trip. For now, however, I have to share something that’s basically made the entire process worth it. No, it’s not some new career or volunteer job that fulfilled our dreams. It’s spending some unexpected quality time with the world’s tamest silver leafed monkeys.

Before you judge me, let me run the disclaimers. Obviously, I’m fully aware that these monkeys belong in the wild foraging for their own food instead of hanging out on people’s shoulders eating bananas that tourists feed them from vendors that make their living selling huge burlap sacks of monkey treats for only 10 ringgit. But I love monkeys so much I could spend weeks with them and never be bored. Intending to volunteer helping animals at various wildlife shelters throughout Southeast Asia, Diane and I will spend time doing things besides being dumb tourists. But this caught me so off guard I had to treat it for what it was; an incredibly enjoyable and heartwarming half hour with monkeys so friendly and interesting, it’s amazing more people don’t know about this area so close to the big city.

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Knowing we’re not in Kuala Lumpur very often, we decided to spend six days even though we only needed a few hours on two days to complete the MM2H visa. Possibly the world’s coolest premier banker, our new friend and relationship manager at our bank agreed to spend some time with us on Saturday to show us the KL Tower and eat some Nasi Kandar where the real (overweight) Malaysian Indians hang out. Having completed the visa on Thursday, we searched for a day trip that didn’t involve visiting ethnic neighborhoods, mosques or walking tours since we walk more than 99% of the population. About an hour outside of KL is Kuala Selangor, a charming seaside town with a unique attraction. One of the few places in the world where firefly colonies are visible, it seemed like an interesting few hours and leaves late in the day since you can only see the fireflies at night.

Touted as a “nature park”‘ there’s a small reserve where the guide books and internet reviews say it’s possible to view birds and “sometimes monkeys if you’re lucky”. Not really making much ado about monkeys, our guide picked us up and told us we’d be making a stop at a lighthouse where the straits are so narrow you can almost see Indonesia. Apparently someone told the monkeys that it’s easier to hang out in the trees near the parking lot and simply wait for the bus loads of tourists to arrive. Named Bukit Malawati, the area is a beautiful spot with an old lighthouse on the top that overlooks the Straits of Malacca.  Featuring some canons that nobody seems to know anything about, the guide was trying to convince our group to leave the parking lot and walk up the hill to experience the view. Totally ignoring her, Diane and I spent our half hour with  sack of bananas and some incredibly awesome “wild animals”.

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Known as “silvered leaf monkeys”, they’re actually Silvry Lutungs, a medium-sized monkey living in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Technically langurs, you’ve probably seen them in zoos described as “Francois Langurs”. But even working at the zoo wouldn’t get you as up close and involved with hundreds of them. Big and small, even mothers carrying little babies will enthusiastically eat from your hands and they’re more than happy to jump on your shoulder and eat their bananas while you explore their little fingers, pet them and just get to know the  like they’re your own personal pets. Unusually non smelly, they don’t poop on you and have the most adorably human eyes. Like dogs, they all have individual personalities and some are more dominant but only with the other monkeys.

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So please forgive me for going ga-ga over something as ridiculous as monkeys that learned how to eat well by simply acting less aggressive than others. Maybe I’m being childish or even irresponsible by feeding wild animals that belong in the trees but they’re not threatened, endangered or any worse off since nobody feeds them dumb shit like potato chips. For us, it was the absolute best anormal experience so far in Malaysia, albeit slightly unethical.

imageOh yes, we did see the fireflies but it’s too hard to take pictures that look like much so instead I’ll just show you the view from our dinner stop. Scenic and reminding me of Borneo, the downside is a horribly disgusting environmental situation that includes garbage everywhere and toilets that literally flush into the murky river. Malaysia has a long way to go despite KL looking like a big city in any G8. Anyway, apologies to the animal rights activists and anyone else offended by feeding monkeys that shouldn’t be this tame but our blog is about our own personal experiences as expats so that’s what we write about. Promising posts detailing the test of our trip including the semantics of MM2H, we’re off to eat some incredible food unavailable in Penang. Perhaps the best part, we love the food but wouldn’t ever have chosen KL or any big city because we’d windup chubby like so many Malaysians living here already are. Ah, progress and its downfalls.

Cheers from the beautiful Traders Hotel in KLCC.