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.
Spending millions of marketing dollars on ways to relax, unwind and spend more quality time with loved ones, corporate America often implies we’d be happier if we only had more free time. As one who’s now spent almost 24 hours of every day with their spouse since our Experimental Early Overseas Retirement, allow me to clarify things. Having been plunged into our situation thanks to my unexpected layoff, one of the first things you’ll learn is too much “quality time” together often leads to bickering. After four years, neither of us has embarked on a new career, pursued higher education, started a business or even had an epitome of “the next great thing”. While that’s not really bothered us because it’s allowed us to travel, cook fresh meals, spend time with friends and stay fit through walking, swimming, and the gym, it inevitably leads to the occasional argument.
While we love being together, our personalities are quite different and this often leads to clashes. For instance, I get irked about stupid shit in developing nations like incompetence in retail supermarket inventory and supply chains. Often asked about what’s different in Asia compared to North America, I respond by talking about bread. Considering how many choices are in North America from 12 grain to dark rye and dozens of artisan varieties, I often get frustrated how hard it is to find a good loaf of bread in Thailand. (Or Malaysia). Before being ripped by the non-North American expat crowd, let me explain something. It’s not that there’s no bread here; Europeans eat lots of bread. And to me it all sucks. Dry, hard and almost always tasteless compared to a delicious ciabatta, fresh hot loaf of San Francisco sourdough or a classic New York Italian hero bread, all the bread in Chiang Mai the expats rave about is about as appetizing to me as a piece of Hardfiskur (with apologies to Icelanders that enjoy dry salted fish).
Yes I know. Sadly neglectful is the best narrative available for my posting habits. And now that Thanksgiving Day is just about here (well, not really here since the Pilgrims never landed on the shores of Phuket), it’s high time to catch up a bit. Hosting our first visitor to Thailand kept us busy for a week and although I planned more activities than my friend did (I’d hoped it would be the other way around), playing tour guide got us out and about and we searched for some good food, went north to the beautiful Queen Sikrit Botanical Gardens and hiked to a waterfall the long way. Remembering what a pain in the ass it is to vacate the spare bedroom when it actually acts as the place where I often sleep, keep all my clothes and even have my own bathroom, the first task was housecleaning. Scrubbing the bathroom to an adequate level for female guests proved sweatier than anticipated but I did receive a thumbs up seal of approval. Leaving it cleaner than when she got there, it reminded me why Diane prefers me staying out of the master bathroom.
Children always make my day in Asia
Unlike Penang and for the first time in our marriage, we live a stone’s throw from the airport. Given our lifestyle discrepancies where I’m asleep by 11 and Diane stays up almost two and a half hours longer, we clearly learned our lesson in Malaysia where getting to the airport ranked up there with root canal surgery and tax audits. Not bothering to ask seven months ago when my friend booked her plane ticket, I shuddered when I saw her 10:40 PM arrival time. Unaware there was any other practical way to Chiang Mai from the west coast of North America, I learned that Korean Air flies a non stop to Seoul from Seattle and allows a quick 50 minute turnaround for their daily four-hour jaunt to our backyard. Given how few Koreans we’ve come across in five months, I’m unclear how they justify that route but it’s almost $800 less than the only other practical option with two non stop flights (Cathy Pacific to Hong Kong and DragonAir to Chiang Mai which departs from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver). With its dirt cheap economy fares and less than stellar reputation, I’d never choose that option but then again we live quite cheaply compared to Seattle residents and in fact, we’re even splurging for Premium Economy next year for our Seven Year Itch trip back to see my neurotic parents in Brooklyn.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to witness a truly grand public spectacle on a scale so big it warrants coverage from The Discovery Channel, BBC and other major media outlets, today is the day to be in Thailand. Sadly, I’m guessing hardly anyone reading this in the USA knows anything about it. Culminating a year-long mourning period, Thailand will cremate the late KingBhumibol Adulyadej tonight at 10 PM local time in a $90 million ceremony that’s been dubbed the largest and most spectacular event of its kind in history. Taking ten months to build, a huge 164 foot high royal pyre and pavilion decorated with nine gilded spires, a great white umbrella, and statues of the king’s favorite pet dogs awaits the coffin where they’ll place the ninth monarch of the Chakri Dynastay . Dating back to 1782, the monarchy of Thailand transformed into a constitutional monarchy in 1932 but unlike the rest of the planet, the late king generated a level of respect and reverence normally long gone from civilized societies.
The Grand Palace
Although obviously a somber event, living in Thailand allows expats a fascinating view of a culture steeped with tradition and a reverence unlike anywhere else on earth. Despite modern infrastructure, a thriving modern capital city and an economy boasting one of the lowest unemployment rates anywhere on the planet, the event is so important to Thai people, the nation is literally shut down today except for airports and hospitals. Also known as Rama IX, the late king was the world’s largest reigning royal and easily the most loved in modern times. Remembering how much coverage followed the death of Princess Diana, I’ve always marveled at the personal relationship Thai people have with the king. As the head of state, the king helped shape the nation through political coups, economic hardships and unlike the tabloid like fascination people have with The Queen of England and the British monarchy, the late king effected genuine change for the Thai people with thousands of unique village based community development programs that highlight various self-sustaining missions from reforestation to agricultural production.
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.
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).
Glancing at the Yahoo business headlines today, I came across an article about annoyed Starbucks employeescomplaining about heavy workloads, excessive demands being made on them, increases in drive through orders and a host of other issues. Obviously, the head honchos in the boardroom are sadly unaware of how things work outside the United States. Returning from a local diagnostic center halfway between Gurney Plazaand Georgetown that screened my blood for cholesterol and glucose, we decided to stop in at a well furnished Starbucks for a french press. ironically, it’s in the lobby of Penang’s largest hospital and my prior experience visiting the Starbucks in Diane’s old employer’s lobby (a large San Francisco hospital) made me think twice about stopping. Constantly crowded, waiting twenty minutes for a grande latte wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. But alas, this is Malaysia.
Sharply contrasting the retail world we left two years ago, Starbucks in Penang cracks me up. Not even opening until 8 AM or later, Malaysians are not morning people, have no interest in a morning jolt of caffeine and would just as soon spend their mornings doing whatever it is they do instead of waiting on long lines, spending exorbitant sums of money on overpriced western products and then hanging out all morning long. Choosing just about any seat you want, a mid morning visit is an almost surreal experience where bored-shitless employees are so happy to see a customer, they’ll even give you the eight cup French press even though you ordered the smaller one (and paid the lower price). Unclear why or how the company wants to invest in a market where employees sleep on the job while their American counterparts slave away, it’s one of Malaysia’s fun quirks that we’re sucking up before making the next move to Thailand in a few weeks.
Speaking by text yesterday with a childhood friend I haven’t seen in 16 years, I laughed at his reaction to my Facebook post about inexpensive and efficient healthcare here in Penang. Jokingly asking how much it costs in Southeast Asia for braces, he implied he’d use that as an excuse to come visit and take care of his teenage son’s dental needs. Responding by asking when he’s retiring, he laughed and told me he’ll be working forever because he loves his Silicon Valley tech job. While admirable, I’ll never understand anyone that thinks working until you’re way too old to experience all the great things life has to offer ranks higher than early retirement. In his defense, he’s only 53 and probably has a lot more accomplishments left in his career. Conversely, I spent 31 years in and out of cubicles working as a support specialist for more investment advisers, banks and brokers than I care to remember. Other than learning how to be a self-directed investor able to amass a portfolio big enough for a shot at early retirement after my unexpected layoff, my working years garnered zero in the way of fulfillment or career satisfaction and always served as a means to an end.
Having read countless articles about people more successful than me choosing early retirement to attempt other personal goals, I set out with good intentions when we started our early retirement exactly two years ago this week. Unlike many others, exploring my inner skill set isn’t so easy. Uninterested in starting a business (the most common reason cited), I can’t see working 100 times harder than I did in the office and risking any capital when we have no income. Possibly the world’s least handy person, all things related to building, crafting or creating things are out and learning other languages sounds about as fun as a root canal. Highly fond of wildlife, we both talk about volunteer projects involving animals and our American friend (a working expat) who engages in 20 different things even gave us an opportunity to work with monkeys for a week. But we’d just returned from a three-week trip to Myanmar and the job demanded too much of an immediate commitment of our own money and resources so we tabled that retirement goal for now.
Which leaves me with the blog. Starting 2 1/2 years ago and not knowing anything about WordPress, the number of followers isn’t what I’d hoped nor is the level of interaction but having just passed 100,000 page views and now averaging over 100 per day, my no-nonsense blend of sarcastic realism obviously appeals to someone. Fascinated that over 38,000 people in 168 different nations spent some time reading my commentaries, this is probably as good as it gets for me when it comes to utilizing modern technology. So I’ve decided to accept this milestone as a my first small accomplishment since retiring and although writing comes easy and I enjoy sharing stories, I guess it’s a skill and it may wind up being my best and only creative endeavor. Pondering what to write to commemorate the event, I decided share five of My Own Personal Favorites that haven’t received as much traffic as The Reader’s Favorites. Thank you to everyone that’s ever spent some time supporting me.