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.
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, Hawaiior 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.
Naturally, while taking a break from the NHL Playoffs this week, I noticed a blog post from someone raving about the incredibly dry and beautiful weather they’re having in Bali this week. Only a few weeks removed from our short and partially rainy excursion to Southeast Asia’s most westernized beach destination, first this bothered me a bit. But unlike many visitors, one thing we’ve seen countless times are beautiful sunsets. With The Annual haze Event taking an 18 month break from Penang, skies are crystal clear and unlike last year’s El Nino event, the rain brings amazing arrays of cloud formations almost daily. One of the few things I’ll miss once we move to Thailand in July, sunsets aren’t high on our must do list and we mostly went to Bali to eat. And of course to sneak in some quality beach time despite living in a “beach community” that looks more like a stretch of dirty eroded sand with some shanty vendor stalls.
Sunsets in Penang have been quite beautiful lately
Possibly the most interesting fact about Bali from a culinary point of view is the amazingly large amount of pork dishes. As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia should be the last place in the world you’d go for a bacon cheeseburger or a side of baby back ribs smothered in bar-b-q sauce. Bucking the trend, Bali’s population is about 80% Hindu which means Halal food is not the norm and hog heaven takes the place of chicken flavored everything. Oddly, I love pork more than Diane despite her Chinese heritage and choosing where to indulge in lip smacking fall off the bone deliciousness is one of the biggest challenges when you only have five nights. While you can find Indonesian variations of Malaysian style food like Nasi Campur, few western tourists flock to the island to sample local cuisine. And that’s a shame because unlike the very strange Indonesian version of Mee Goreng which is basically western style fried chow mein with some protein instead of Penang’s delicious mix of spicy tomato based sauce with delicious noodles, lime, and squid, Balinese is a unique and tasty style of Indonesian food and you shouldn’t miss it. With so many restaurants, finding what you want is daunting so we mostly searched “10 best xxxx style restaurants in Bali” and came up with some winners.