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).
So now that we’re back from our long North American jaunt where we pigged out like there was no tomorrow, let’s address the foodie thing from an expat’s point of view. Promising I’d try to avoid mindlessly posting uninhibited pictures of everyone’s favorite internet topic (food), I wrestled on how to highlight all the great things we ate and still stay on topic. Noticing that Skip the Dishes is the latest craze in Canada and the USA, it seems that today’s lazy millennial generation need not even step foot outside, never mind picking up a kitchen utensil to cook anything. With everything from McDonalds to gourmet five course dinners available at the touch of a smart phone, it’s no different here in Asia with one big exception. Often compromising taste, quality and style, eating “western style food” in Southeast Asia means tempering one’s expectations.
New York: Food heaven
Avoiding a third version of That Dreaded Foodie Post, I thought I’d combine a gastronomical recap of our trip with a look at the differences between Asian and North American versions of foods that many westerners grew up with. Sharing experiences of my reunion with foods I know and love by matching them up side by side with their Thai counterparts, think of this post as a comparative food primer for wannabe expats. Believing that exploring local foods is one the best things about experiencing another culture, we avoided reading about an ongoing “best burger in Chiang Mai” debate on Facebook’s Chiang Mai Eatsgroup and tried to delve first hand into “real Thai food”. And although we kind of knew this, it’s worth reiterating that almost everything you think is authentic anything usually lands somewhere far removed from what’s enjoyed by most locals. With abundant European expats here in Chiang Mai, western food often gravitates towards a very non-North Americanized style so let’s dive right in and call this a Cautionary Food Tale for North Americans pondering a move to Thailand. Focusing on Italian food first, I’ll make this a multi part post.
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)
Since arriving in Southeast Asia I’ve often said there’s always something interesting to see every day if you get out and about. Sometimes, you don’t even need to do that. Contrasting our previous lives as homeowners in the highly overpriced suburbs of San Francisco, the other day we saw what Thai homeowners do to combat the effects of overgrowth on their properties. With rainy seasons lasting upwards of four months or longer and downpours unseen by many westerners, it’s no surprise that plants, trees and grass thrive in the tropics. But unlike our previous privileged life in the East Bay hills of suburban San Francisco, people don’t phone an expensive company with professional tree surgeons.
Defining an arborist as “a professional in the practice of arboriculture, which is the cultivation, management, and study of individual trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants in dendrology and horticulture”, I’m not sure if Wikipedia has a name for the Thai version. Despite often feeling like we live in a quiet gated community in Southern California, there’s routinely something reminding us we’re worlds away from the old lifestyle. Unlike many comments on social media from disrespectful western expats bitching how Thailand is so third-worldish, we think Thai workers are rather industrious and efficient. Complying with our moo-baan’s strict guidelines requiring homeowners to keep properties neat, our neighbors no doubt followed Thai protocol. Arriving in an old pick up, a guy with a machete showed up, climbed the tree barefoot and hacked away. Supervised by two community representatives, he meticulously hit all the major branches and hacked off large pieces of as they fell to the ground in large piles. Given the late hour of the day, we marveled at how huge chinks of debris somehow wound up neatly piled into black garbage bags before nightfall. And the next day a truck hauled it all away.
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).
Already fifteen days into Chapter Two of our Experimental Overseas Early retirement, it’s hard to know where to start writing. Immensely different from Penang in a hundred different ways, we’ve been very busy getting set up in our new two-story house which involves about fifteen more steps than Malaysia. Possibly the world’s most tedious nation when it comes to getting established with life’s little necessities like utilities, phone service, buying a car and of course, figuring out exactly what the immigration folks need, we’re about half way through. Exhausting and tiring, we almost forgot what a pain in the ass moving is and waiting 40 days for your stuff to arrive means deciding how much cash to spend on household goods and unlike Penang, there’s no bus service which adds pressure to the car buying process because the clock’s ticking on the weekly rental car.
Our “new” 2011 Nissan Tiida
Thankfully, we found a suitable used car from the only really reliable source (by western standards) in Chiang Mai. Despite having almost every western convenience from superstores to gated suburbs and everything in between, Chiang Mai is sadly devoid of used car dealers. Unclear why a used car market never evolved in a place with so many foreigners and an extensive and well signed road network, we panicked when even the farangFacebook groups couldn’t offer much advice other than buying from a private source. Since that generally means an expat desperate to dump their car quickly because they need to leave the country before their visa expires, we shunned that idea given Thailand’s obsession with rules, procedures and fines for inadvertent violators. Luckily, there’s almost always a westerner that fills the gap when there’s a service expats need that nobody’s done yet and Expat Auto Chiang Mai is that company. Offering a complete bumper to bumper warranty and extensive servicing of all their vehicles, the biggest problem is often buying the right car before someone beats you to it. Choosing a 2011 Nissan Tiida (mostly because it was the only thing in our budget that wasn’t a Malaysian built car), we picked it up last night and began readjusting to the world of motor vehicles. Bye, Uber, Grab and Rapid Penang.
Sawasdee Krab from Chiang Mai, Thailand. Four days into our Exploratory Trip to Thailand it looks like we’ve got a beautiful place to live. Having given notice to our landlord in Penang, we worked out a very favorable and amicable deal whereby she agreed to use our two month security deposit in lieu of us paying rent through the date we’ll vacate so we bought plane tickets and headed to Chiang Mai for 15 days in search of a place to live. Also needing to open a bank account, we lucked out by finding a friend on a Facebook group willing to introduce us to his banker. Thailand’s always changing rules sometimes means navigating an endless web of complications and although Plans A and B both failed, we’re glad to report we opened a bank account despite not yet having a visa.
Since it’s quite difficult to navigate posts using an IPad, especially when the battery is almost dead and it constantly freezes despite the Apple Genius in Canada claiming that’s not possible, I wanted to check in and let everyone know what we’re doing. Given the amount of traffic I’m still getting even without having posted awhile, we also what to stress that as of July 7th, we will no longer be living in Malaysia. Given the blog’s focus on two North Americans choosing an overseas early retirement due to an unexpected layoff, I’ll be shifting the focus from Malaysia, the MM2H Visa and Penang to our life in Northern Thailand. Understanding there’s literally thousands of blogs on Chiang Mai, I’ll continue trying to tell stories rather than writing “we did this, we did that”. And many of you accustomed to my usual brand of sarcastic cynicism may be surprised because so far, Thailand is about a million times better than Penang.