Where the hell does the time go? Literally feeling like we just did this yesterday, once again empty folded boxes are sitting in our humble abode. Unlike the attachment one gets with home ownership, however, there’s no love lost on leaving our ninth floor condo and moving on to greener pastures. (Thailand is in fact actually greener). Now understanding what they meant in all the blogs, websites and articles that discuss why expats feel culture shock when they return to the homeland, we learned that moving, like almost everything in Asia, is a totally different experience. Having moved an entire three bedroom house from San Francisco to Calgary, back down to San Diego and then up to Walnut Creek, California, you’d think it would be routine but unlike in North America, the key word in Asia for almost anything is minimalism so if you’re contemplating such a move, you’ll need to adjust your thinking.
Goodbye old faithful used boxes.
First off, you’ll need to erase the memories of a Uhaul store and its fancy array of custom sized boxes from wardrobe to specialized art and five different sizes of square from small to extra-large. Hardly anyone in Asia owns 2500 square foot custom-built homes with three car garages, a large yard and room for a shed, pool and some specialized fruit trees. Therefore, we learned quickly that no matter who you call or how much you pay, the choices are standard box and large box. Alas, there’s no industry devoted to boxes, moving and packing either so if you’re thinking you’ll just buy new boxes, good luck with that. Stranger than as anything to us was the notion that hiring a “logistics” (moving) company in Asia means you’ll get empty boxes, packing material and tape delivered to your door by courier as soon as you put down a deposit.
Hoping we’d escape my worst nightmare, I guess I was kidding myself thinking we’d make it until the end of our lease before it began. Continuing Penang’s destruction of the last town without massive development, the pile driving began a few days ago. Like clockwork at 8:45 AM, the ugly space they destroyed right past the new high-rise towers next door comes alive with the most unfathomable and disturbing sound that grates on me like chalk on a blackboard. Proving both the property agents, condo managers and landlord were absolutely full of shit when they rented us this condo 20 months ago, their claim that there’s no further construction planned in the once quiet town of Batu Ferrenghiwas as accurate as a tweet from Donald Trump. While we’ve already decided to get out of here, I’m not sure how I can endure four more months of ear shattering noise for nine hours a day for six days a week.
But we did take the first step towards liberation from construction hell by taking a quick 48 hour jaunt to the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur. Recently visiting Jim, Penang’s resident expert on getting all kinds of visas from the local Thai Consulate, he told us we’d need an affidavit stating that our assets exceed 800,000 Thai Baht, the minimum requirement for a retirement visa. Unlike Malaysia’s one step long-term MM2H Visa, Thailand is a never ending revolving door of reporting, applications for extensions and sometime visa runs. Depending on who you are and what you’re in Thailand for, there’s more choices than the supermarket. Also totally opposite from Malaysia, there’s no government website properly explaining requirements and rules for Thai visas and they literally change constantly so we opted for a series of conversations with people who’ve lived there awhile or moved from Penang to help us understand the proper way to get out of our overdeveloped nightmare. Continue reading →
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.
Unlike Trump’s Draconian States of America, not all things from yesteryear are negative. Here in Southeast Asia, sometimes things are strangely backwards but work better than you’d ever expect. Case in point; Early and mid January brought an unseasonably large amount of rain with large thunder claps and impressively beautiful lightning strikes. Normally not caring about swimming in the rain, western culture teaches us all to leave the pool during lightning strikes although I’ve never heard of someone actually being struck by lightning by not adhering the warning. Anyway, during one particular loud thunderstorm, I had our favorite Bay Area radio station playing on IHeartRadio. Utilizing our very shitty internet signal, bluetooth and a Sony soundbar, the radio suddenly stopped. Unfazed since the internet signal in Batu Ferrenghi works as well as AT&T Worldnet Dialup Service circa 1999, I waited a minute since it sometimes just pauses and eventually got up to do one of our sixteen daily reboots.
Noticing a blank screen on the soundbar, my first thought was a loose connection. Having dusted the entire TV console and stand earlier, I’m famous for dislodging cords, wires, outlets and various other things that give our telecommunications expert (Diane) fits. Not seeing anything obvious, I tried unplugging things and changing the batteries in the remote but the power remained off. Having exhausted my technical skills, I patiently waited until Diane finished showering and decided to pretend nothing happened. Not wild about always being blamed for anything that’s wrong with all things electrical, I figured I’d let her turn on the TV later that night and then mention the power loss incident. Deciding to approach it delicately, I mentioned the loud thunderstorm and worked it into the conversation as a defensive mechanism that might explain a possible power surge. Naturally, we only have one surge protector and it guards our ancient computer with the obsolete Windows Vista Operating System, so it’s feasible that a lightning strike that hit the building might have somehow jolted the TV.
Arriving at Penang’s rather small and incredibly antiquated international airport, first time visitors to the island might be shocked by the lack of modern sprawl, especially if the plane came from Kuala Lumpur. Unlike the capital city’s luxurious and modern terminals, the first word that comes to mind might be underwhelming as you approach the poorly lit baggage carousels that lack modern digital signage. Stepping outside to the undersized and overcrowded parking area won’t change many viewpoints but after hopping in a taxi and travelling a bit, that’s where the old Penang ends. Unless your plane arrives before 7 AM or after 9 PM, expect to sit in a bumper to bumper mess of expressway-free chaos (albeit calm compared to other Southeast Asian cities) for about an hour (assuming your destination is Georgetown). Wondering why Penang hasn’t attempted multi-lane highways for its heavy traffic volumes, visitors and tourists may have traveled on large limited access freeways that connect the small nation but mysteriously end when you cross one of the bridges connecting the island to the mainland. At first, you might think Penang is still relatively undeveloped compared to the big city but reality sets in quickly as soon as the first monstrosity condo construction site appears. Welcome to the Penang, Land of the Highly Overdeveloped.
The project closest to our condo
Taking advantage of countless Western investment dollars that flowed into all the emerging markets after The Great Recession, Penang embarked on a quest to build dozens of multi story luxury buildings that rival any other large city in Southeast Asia. Drastically unprepared for a surge in new residents, infrastructure sorely lacks and with no expressways, bypass roads or light rail, Penang followed the path of Calgary, Alberta during the George W Bush years when oil and gas boomed. Exhibiting the mantra “build it and they will come“, Malaysia appears ready to accept a rash of wealthy home seekers. Taking a back seat to multinational developers, nobody really worries too much about new roads, better transit and improved services. Unfortunately for Penang, there’s one little problem. Although it’s growing fast and considered the best middle class economy in the ASEAN, per capita income in Malaysia clocks in somewhere around $12,000 USD per year. With minimum price tags of over two million ringgit for almost every new luxury condo (about $500K USD), it doesn’t take a financially savvy investment adviser to figure out what percent of the nation’s population can afford these new condos. Clearly designing an entire island of luxury for foreign investors with no intention of living on the island, Penang in 2016 looks like the U.S housing market about a year before it all came crashing down but without any “no down payment adjustable mortgages“.
Still sounding strange, it’s good to be back “home” in Penang after three weeks of being Experimental Tourists. Utilizing the train and bus as non-wealthy expats with no current income should, it felt great to brave the airport crowds and fly back home. Remembering the rest of planet earth somehow manages airport security without paranoid TSA agents screening, delaying, racially profiling and otherwise simply making a trip to the airport a three-hour pain in the ass, we breezed through Chiang Mai’s airport after a passport check or two and flew back to Malaysia via Kuala Lumpur. Unfortunately, reality kicked in quickly when it took almost 90 minutes for the Uber guy to negotiate the bumper to bumper parking lot that is Penang Island on a weekend. (Weekdays are only slightly better and that’s if you avoid factory shift change hours). Note to self: Although Chiang Mai has its share of traffic, it flows better than Penang’s locally populated areas even at peak times. Score one point on the “pro” side of moving to Thailand after our lease expires.
Thoroughly enjoying the comforts of our mattress topper and personalized soft pillows (shipped from home) and our “rarely found in Asia” king size bed, we settled back into life after a successful, fun and eye-opening trip to Thailand. Changing enormously since our last visit as tourists six years ago, Chiang Mai’s growth rate surprised us a bit and we’re told Bangkok people had enough chaos and have begun moving up in drones. Now supporting two enormously large weekend night markets besides the original one at AnusamMarket and covering a span of almost 3 kilometers each, they added the name “walking streets” and it literally takes hours to cover all the merchants. Unlike other places, (such as all Chinese tourist markets that sell only crap), Chiang Mai’s markets have so much interesting stuff we never get bored and patronized both markets two weekends in a row.