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.
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.
Having learned train travel is a rather reasonable way to save some bucks and meet interesting people along the way, we continued the economical express with an arduous bus trip from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai. Realizing this was a huge mistake a few hours into the trip, I quickly learned the difference between trains and buses. Designed for travelers, trains are reasonably comfortable and offer sleeping quarters for overnight trips. Contrasting that totally, taking the bus in Thailand involves an unbelievably long and uncomfortably numbing experience with Thai people disinterested in talking, helping or sharing much of anything. Perhaps already too relaxed as a non working expat, it turns out there’s now a direct flight from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai that started some time in 2015 that I neglected to learn about. Starting at 990 Baht, it costs only a bit more than the 13 hour and 20 minute marathon on a cramped vehicle filled with locals that probably never hopped a flight in their lives. Unless you’re interested in immersing yourself fully in local culture, learning a language the hard way or have a strange fetish for long bus rides save yourself some hassle and avoid Sombat Tours, the company most people use when travelling long distances by bus in Thailand.
Despite today’s internet usage by the masses, many websites in Thailand contain little English, even after you click on the “ENG” tab, and obtaining pertinent travel information like schedules and prices often proves challenging. Sombat Tours is no exception and you know you’re traveling with the locals when the ticket is written in Thai and they quote the year as 2058. Arranging our transport through the hotel before arriving, we ascertained that they run two overnight trips in a “VIP” bus but we opted for the daytime departure scheduled for 8 AM. Paying no attention to the hypothetical arrival time is the first lesson when once you board what looks to be a luxurious and decent bus, at least from the outside. Unlike many other countries, the large Swedish manufactured bus had no bottom luggage compartment and the attendants standing at the station made no attempt to tell anyone how or where to place your bags. Eventually walking to the bus entrance after seeing a few others do the same, the burly clerk picked up our mid-sized bags that fit perfectly on Train 36 and simply tossed them on two seats like they were garbage. Unwilling to help much, he spoke no English and made no attempt to communicate, simply grunting and muttering Thai words while Diane and I stood there in a state of confusion. Figuring out they leave with your luggage whether you’re on the bus or not, we decided to jump on and the neatly dressed bus employee pointed for us to go upstairs.
Realizing flexibility and open-mindedness is the key to a successful overseas expat adventure, Diane and I began recalling some interesting albeit odd occurrences we experienced in Thailand. Having just learned about new rules on income verification for all MM2H applicants (the Malaysian Social Visit Pass), I recently posted about concerns for American applicants due to strict privacy rules prohibiting disclosure of certain financial information. Deciding to rehash Thailand as a real possibility should the Malaysian government reject our application, we reflected on some sights and sounds that proved interesting.
Although paltry compared to our adventures trekking to a Hill Tribe village or spending the day as an elephant owner, the fish massages scattered throughout the country stand out. Strolling through Bangkok searching for a Thai Massage, a local suggested we head down a side street but instead of a petite Thai masseuse we found several small studios with fish tanks, towels and shopkeepers poised outside waiting for the next tourist. Unfamiliar with this bizarre practice, we figured it couldn’t be any worse than eating bugs for the first time so we pulled out a few Thai Bhat and gave it a shot.
Almost as if they were waiting just for us, several giant Asian elephants approached us from behind and sat down. Differing from other animals, when a two ton domesticated animal sits down next to you and appears to smile, your heart pounds and fascination abounds. Conducting Introductions to each elephant in both Thai and English, the knowledgeable team of mahouts assigned riders to each elephant, probably based on first observations of each visitor’s size and personality. Instructional lessons would follow shortly as we began our day at Patera Elephant Farm, possibly the most educational and enjoyable animal encounter available in Southeast Asia.
Continuing our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation in Thailand, we just finished an amazing overnight excursion to a remote tribal village high in the hills. AfterHanging Out With the Hill People,we expected excitement in the next chapter and the day’s events exceeded all expectations. Conveniently located about an hour from Chiang-Mai, the full day specialized program is tailor-made for those seeking a once in a lifetime opportunity that educates, enriches and provides a meaningful understanding into the special world of elephants.
Strolling through Chiang Mai with no particular destination makes you hungry. Having completed the sweaty but fascinating excursion to the Karen Hill People Village, we searched for another new experience as we strolled the streets of the core. Passing markets filled with interesting meats, veggies, seafood and more chili peppers than a factory, our stomachs craved some authentic food. Appearing out of nowhere from a small alleyway, a frail old woman handed us a brochure for a Thai Cooking School offering daily classes.
possibly the best part of expat life
Honestly, one of the main reasons we’re becoming expats in Southeast Asia is the gastronomical delights offered every day on just about every street corner. Understanding cooking techniques piqued my curiosity and with the school only a few blocks away we strolled over for a look. Lured in by the friendly woman, the half-day cooking class taught us why restaurants outside Thailand simply can’t create “authentic Thai food.