Two strange things happened after we returned home from our six-week escape from the annual Chiang Mai burning season. Having driven over 3,000 kilometers, I’d had my fill of vehicular vacationing for a while and although the air still remained shitty almost two months into the burn season, some welcome rainstorms arrived late in April which finally cleared the air for another year. Naturally, there was one last gasp of poison after the burning ban ended and countless Thais celebrated by incinerating everything from garbage to plastics since most of the agriculturally related infernos had already burned themselves out. Ultimately, Thailand is a third world nation and expecting the bulk of its population to magically change a lifetime of environmental ignorance is a pipe dream. Thankfully, it was short-lived and even though May brought in blazing heat, the skies are sunny and AQI levels are finally back to an acceptable level.
As any blogger knows, the most important aspect of blogging is content. Regardless of how great or crappy the words and pictures might be, if you want people to find, follow and enjoy your personal creation, you need to keep posting. Admitting I’m pathetically negligent in other areas of blogging like participating in forums or using the WordPress reader, I’m not a huge fan of the tools most people use to increase their readership. Believing Twitter is directly responsible for the disaster known as the Trump administration, I hate what Facebook’s become and lost many of my friends anyway thanks to political differences. I don’t have an Instagramaccount and other than practical communication apps like Line or Viber, I wouldn’t know Snapchat from Tagged. Unaware of the latest hip viral You Tubevideos, I don’t have patience for interaction with other bloggers nor do I enjoy writing meaningless banter in search of more followers.
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.
So let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Yes, I did actually order that monstrosity that’s quite possibly the biggest cardiac arrest food offering in all of Chiang Mai. No, I didn’t realize it would taste even worse than it looks so I only took a few bites and offered up my review on one of the dozens of Facebook food groups. Regular followers of this blog know I’ve sworn (even promised) not to make this another “foodie blog”. But arriving in Malaysia two years agomeant sampling a cornucopia of new tastes normally unfamiliar to most western pallets so I decided that writing about local food was an important part of our expat experience. With Malaysian favorites like Nasi Lemak, Hokkien Mee and Laksa part of daily life, I figured I’d post the original Dreaded Foodie Post once and never look back.
Fast forwarding two years to our present expat life in Chiang Mai, I found myself wondering how to continue a blog mostly written in storybook fashion in a place known as “The Digital Nomad Capital of Southeast Asia.”Competing with thousands ofgen X bloggers trying to sell people e-books and information seemed pointless and as you may know, monetizing and commercialization are synonyms for workin my book. Keeping the overall theme of two North Americans experimenting with early retirement overseas meant asking my readers how to find a niche to avoid duplicating other blogs.
After reading your comments, the consensus was to write about life in Chiang Mai for married, childless middle age couples that voluntarily chose a place usually reserved for backpackers, drop out of lifers, and complaining retirees that live here because they’re “financially challenged”. Unfortunately, Malaysia’s very unique “season free” climate spoiled us and we didn’t expect four straight months of rain almost every day and night even in rainy season. Mostly describing the weather since July as worse than Seattle in winter but much hotter, our adventures haven’t really panned out yet . Since we’re not big fans of hiking in the rain and can’t afford the gas money associated with driving for the sake of creating stories, I’ve decided to devote a post to the default topic that’s universally appreciated by almost anyone. So today we present theThaiversion of That Dreaded Foodie Post. Keeping with the blog’s theme, this post is a suburbanite expat’s guide to food in Chiang Mai with most places south of the old city and airport. Also including a few choices in the main drags, it’s certainly not all-inclusive and of course all food reviews are subjective so I’ll understand if you patronize one and think I’m way off base. (Disclaimer: a long wordy post with lots of pictures follows so don’t click if you have no patience)
Although it’s been over three months living in Chiang Mai, the stark difference between Malaysia’s stubborn indifference and Thailand’s Land of Smiles attitude still haunts us. About a month ago we registered our Thai bank account for automatic monthly direct debits to pay both the electric and water bills. Having read countless horror stories and complaints all over the internet about what happens if you miss a payment, we decided that using direct debit is the only practical way to ease all concerns. Granted it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it does involve a trip to the provincial offices of each municipality but it’s a one time thing and I’m realizing now that some local expats are just downright lazy. As the larger company, the electric company was easier and only required showing our bankbook and a passport. Despite limited English skills, the friendly clerk went out of her way to help because that’s what they do in Thailand. (especially when your wife looks Thai despite being a Canadian of Chinese descent).
The special slot for utility bills
Sure enough, when the little 4 X 4 bill arrived in the special mail slot the following month, it had no due date or bar code so we knew they set it up and a week after that we even received a paper receipt in Thai and English asking us to please make ample funds available for the amount due on a specified date. And the funds came out as expected with none of those pesky fees they charge at 7Eleven where almost everyone pays their bill. So later that first month we repeated the process and drove to the provincial water office hoping to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, they also speak very little English but determined we needed to take a form written in Thai down to our bank, have them fill it out and return back to the office. With little fanfare, a customer service agent at our bank filled it out using perfectly scripted little miniature characters (Thai people have the best handwriting the world). Returning to the water office later that day, we approached a well dressed woman at the information counter, made enough motions for her to understand, and she pointed at an in-box for us to leave the completed form. Figuring that wasn’t so bad, we decided on the quickest way home and went on with our day.
Solidifying my belief that the internet is a very strange place, the other night I was laying in bed playing Words with Friends when I got an interesting email. Almost deleting it as spam, I read curiously before deciding if I should click the attached link. Although everyone should probably use a VPN while using your PC or devices, the dangers magnify tenfold in Thailand where there’s a high incidence of internet fraud, identity theft and a world of malicious intruders waiting to jump into your hard drive’s memory every time you click. Anyway, the seemingly questionable text read as follows:
My name is Anuj Agarwal. I’m the Founder of Feedspot.
I would like to personally congratulate you as your blog Experimental Expats has been selected by our panelist as one of the Top 100 Expat Blogson the web.
I personally give you a high-five and want to thank you for your contribution to this world. This is the most comprehensive list of Top 100 Expat Blogs on the internet and I’m honored to have you as part of this!
Relatively new to blogging, I knew nothing about Wordpress or anything involving technology for that matter back when I started the blog. After being unceremoniously laid off in 2013, I spent over three months self tutoring before I made my first post. During my first year I did the typical younger generation things like replying to every comment, searching similar blogs and utilizing other social networking tools while attempting to build a following. Feeling somewhat satisfied for creating an expat blog people seemed to like before ever having stepped foot out of my homeland, I received a Liebster Award which is given to new bloggers with small followings by other bloggers.
Playing along with the award’s acceptance requirements, I spent a week finding other blogs, nominated the blogger and created a chain letter that gets passed to other award recipients. Eventually tiring of duplicating my old job by spending all day in front of a computer, I soon began concentrating more on content and less on socializing. Frankly, I hate Twitter and refuse to tweet, have no Instagram account, would never use Snapchat and I’m sadly oblivious to whatever new apps the twenty something digital nomads of Chiang Mai are using. And the only reason I even have a Facebook page for the blog is so my even less technically inclined friends back home can follow us because many of them hate blogs or think the “click here to follow” link is too much work.
Here’s the thing. Often spending Malaysian mornings crafting blog posts about the latest Southeast Asian place we visited or complaining about burning garbage smoke wafting in our condo, there was plenty of time to focus on writing. But that’s the thing with Chiang Mai. Between endless eating opportunities, a small but friendly expat community and interesting places to visit for day trips, I’m simply not finding time to focus on the blog as much as I’d like. By the time my brain gets a chance to remember any anecdotal stories good enough for a post, we’ve moved onto something else. And with all the great food, serious workouts at the local gym become inherently necessary to avoid packing on the pounds. Despite the rain that’s come down in buckets for upwards of 24 straight hours almost regularly since our arrival, there’s always something to see or do and after two months, it’s sometimes hard to get past wasting two years of valuable early retirement time in Penang.
Harissa ribs – entry number three
Having spent Saturday night enjoying a group eating event featuring flame grilled ribs seasoned four different ways at a place called The Flying Pig, we’re both tired and feel like sitting around our comfy three bedroom house with the “High-So”neighbors (who are totally oblivious and indifferent to farang residents). But in today’s world, that means playing with the phone on social media which ultimately leads to a new notification from one of countless Facebookgroups focused on food, cultural events or weekend hiking options. Sadly, although we’ve taken some day trips to the rice fields and surrounding mountains, our nasal passages and throats haven’t yet adapted to a normal active lifestyle in the rainy and humid season so we’ve decided to table the weekend hiking group options until cool season.
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.
Recalling days gone by, I once visited Vancouver in mid November with an old roommate. Thinking we’d visit some indoor attractions since it was off-season, we brought umbrellas and I remember it rained almost the entire four days. Years later, Diane and I discussed possible places we might want to live besides the Bay Area and I learned she hates the dreary long rainy winters of the Pacific Northwest even more than me. Immediately ruling out places with gray skies, cool fog and continuous precipitation, we eventually wound up spending six years in Alberta. Aside from the obvious advantage of having family nearby, it turns out Alberta is the sunniest province in Canada and Calgary enjoys over 300 days of sunshine per year despite the little inconveniences like snowstorms interrupting the beginning of gardening season in May.
Having never lived in the tropics before, we’d visited places like Ecuador and Costa Rica at the end of rainy season and spent many expeditions drenched to the core. Realizing the trade-off between lots of rain but no snow, weather was one factor playing into our initial decision to live in Penang. Blessed with a strange meteorological phenomenon, Malaysia somehow defies conventional wisdom that states everywhere with tropical climate experiences wet and dry seasons. So for two years we had some rainstorms here and there but in Penang, skies almost always cleared within an hour and if it rains overnight it rarely sticks around. We also can’t recall more than about two days of continuous rain which makes a retired North American overseas expat quite spoiled. And bored since it’s dry but there’s not much to do without transportation when you live far from the main tourist drag and air-conditioned malls. Understanding Thailand has three distinctive seasons and we chose to arrive at the start of what’s normally the wettest time of year, it’s no surprise that it’s raining. But unlike the past few years, this summer is producing deluges and floods all over the nation not seen in many years (according to people we’ve asked, anyway).
So here’s an Only in Thailand story. Busy buying everything from kitchen supplies to bedding while we anxiously await the arrival of our stuff that we shipped form Malaysia, we found ourselves in the one of the city’s excellent shopping malls the other day. Did I mention that malls in Chiang Mai aren’t like Penang? There’s actually people in them all day. And not just one group of people like the Hokkien Chinese of Penang that own all the luxury cars, live in the million dollar condos and have all the money. Despite being statistically lower on the development scale, Thailand somehow manages to act more like California. Consumerism is plainly visible and my favorite local food court at Central Airport Mall teems with Thai people eating deliciously local dishes from duck noodle soup to Khao Soy (spicy Northern Thai soup) pretty much as soon as they open the doors. Unlike Penang, there’s a cornucopia of western stores with brand names all westerners know and sizes that fit. Granted I had to buy an extra-large pair of running shorts which initially made me feel very out of shape but at least the Nike store carries dozens of styles at very affordable prices.
A typical Chiang Mai mega store
Anyway, as we strolled through the floors we came across a book store called B2S. Looking more like Chapters or Barnes & Noble than a Southeast Asian chain, they also have a separate chain called Asiabooks that’s prominently located near the entrance. Ironically, that store features all English language books while they relegate Thai books to the back of the store somewhere. Practicing my Thai numbers with the young English-speaking cashier that firmly understood the need for multi language skills in today’s globalized world, we noticed some computer chairs displayed in the middle of the store that looked comfortable. Having searched already at Baan and Beyond, Home Pro, and a few of the other mega superstores that make life in Thailand often feel like suburban North America with Thai signage, we’d tabled the idea because there were more choices than my brain was ready for at prices from dirt cheap to unreasonable. But the large sale sign read “Ha Ha Ha Ha”(Ha is the number 5 in Thai and the expression “5555” is one of the most common responses on social media from westerners that think it’s hipper than saying “lol”). Doing quick mental math, it seemed like we’d found yet another amazing consumer steal. (On our exploratory tripwe scored a brand new 47 inch Samsung HDTV for on sale for about $325 USD). Coming in at $165 based on the rate we bought our Thai Baht for, Serta (the mattress company) manufactured the leather swivel chair and it felt as nice as a quality mattress.
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).