Tag Archives: Thai food

Road Block

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).

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Settling In; ตอนที่สอง (Part Two)

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 farang Facebook 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.

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Mission Almost Accomplished

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.

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The Real “Whole Foods”

Feeling like an eternity ago, I recently found myself reminiscing back to the long 18 month stretch when I played House Husband and Diane kept working. After the new economy ended my thirty-one year financial services career prematurely, I was in charge of chores while we waited for my 50th birthday, the magical day that made filing our MM2H visa financially reasonable. Deciding to take advantage of my time to get healthier and fit, I changed our diet to include mostly lean protein, veggies and lots of salad. Plotting how to cook healthy in America’s most expensive metropolitan area and continuing to invest for early retirement, I determined it takes multiple trips to all the local supermarkets and while healthy doses of marketing tell us that Whole Foods is “America’s healthiest market“, most middle class Bay Area residents know it as “Whole Paycheck“. Never really understanding why supposedly fresher foods rip away what little disposable income most working people have, living in Southeast Asia quickly teaches expats another example of how reliant America is on free trade.

too "rough" for American consumers

too “rough” for American consumers

Growing almost nothing relative to its population, America is sorely devoid of real fresh foods. Even shopping at weekly “farmers markets” usually means paying a premium for the luxury of living healthier. Importing rice from Thailand, fruits from South America and almost everything else that’s grows from Mexico, the food industry then polishes up everything with artificial colors and chops off “unsightly” things like chicken heads and feet because Americans think it looks primitive. Gaining an understanding that the western way of eating mostly processed foods leads to nothing but obesity and diabetes is one immediate benefit of living in Southeast Asia. “Fresh fruit and veggies” that travel across oceans or rack up frequent flier miles to arrive at the local supermarket are about as fresh as the leftover mystery meat in your freezer. Sadly, we know some European expats that still shop only at our local supermarkets. Charging exorbitant prices to import canned and frozen European processed food, these conglomerates cater to unhealthy consumers and while we obviously get certain sundries at the supermarket, exploring wet markets is high on our shopping list. Having already done the main tourist attractions as working vacationers, our recent trip to Bangkok gave us a chance to explore Thailand’s largest fresh market.

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Home Away From Home

Although the traffic’s gotten even more horrendous and the prices are not like they used to be, my favorite hotel view from any city never changes and the Chao Phraya River looks as beautiful as ever from the 30th floor. Here to escape Hari Raya’s annual crowd surge in Penang, we’re spending eight days hitting the city we first visited in 2009 when my job was secure, the economy was just beginning to tank and our first glance of Thailand made us realize we’d be back here some day. Given the annoyances of posting on an IPad, I’ll hold off on daily stories and post a few pictures of the things we’ve done so far. Radically different from Chiang Mai, we’d still never live here but Bangkok remains an awesome sprawling city with a unique combination of old and new (although the old is fading fast) and even in rainy season, it’s always worth visiting. Since we did all the must-do tourist stuff back in our pathetic three-week American vacation working days, we focused on secondary attractions and started off with a journey down Yaoawrat Road.

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Possibly the biggest and best Chinatown anywhere, we also ventured into a sparsely visited but excellent museum known as The Chinese Heritage Center.

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Sticking to street food, I found an amazing bowl of fish maw soup. As one of the most Asian white boys around, I’m not even sure why I like Chinese food so much but if that’s your thing, Bangkok is the place for you with an enormous Thai Chinese community that enjoys one of the most symbiotic relationships between China and another nation anywhere on the planet.

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Although the rain pounded down for hours the first day we arrived, we booked a trip to Khao Yai National Park and lucked out with a perfectly overcast and comfortable day and the rain held out until the late afternoon. As Thailand’s first national park, it’s a long two  and a half hour day trip from Bangkok but it’s well worth it. Maintaining well signed and beautiful national parks, Thailand does nature very well and I look forward to seeing many more in the future.

Having recently watched lots of travel documentaries featuring cooking in Southeast Asia, we wanted to visit Thailand’s largest wet market to see what it feels like in person and Khlong Toei Market didn’t disappoint. Ten square blocks long and totally off the main tourist track, it’s one of the world’s most amazing markets with so many stalls, vendors and people it’s staggering.

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Taking notes while watching those TV shows, we splurged at Samboon, one of Bangkok’s busiest and most amazing seafood restaurants where we ordered curry duck, mantis prawns and oysters in stir fry sauce

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And last night we ventured out to the new boxing stadium for some live Muay Thai. Lumpinee Stadium is a new and very modern comfortable arena up there with any western stadium and although the ringside seats where they make foreigners sit are not cheap, the excitement and noise level is highly contagious. Watching the Thais using the cheaper balcony seats to engage in never ending rounds of strange betting by screaming and waving fingers, you understand quickly why they don’t let foreigner’s sit up there. But you also get to take pictures with the winner of each round making for a very enjoyable evening.

With three more days to go until we return, I’ll cut it off here because it’s time to hit the breakfast buffet before throngs of never ending visitors overwhelm the way too small restaurant of the Chatrium Riverside Hotel. Today we plan on visiting the Bank of Thailand Museum, another little known gem that becomes a pain in the ass to reserve except on Saturdays when they let people walk in without advance notice. After that it’s a revisit of Khao San Road to see how the backpacker neighborhood’s changed into a trendy version of Asian SoHo (or so says the guidebooks anyway). Please check back next week when I’ll detail each day with in-depth and post lots of great pictures.

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Cheers from cloudy and wet Bangkok.

Train 36: The Overnight Express to Thailand

Realizing you’re never too to learn something new, Diane and I hopped on the ferry in Penang and headed to the Butterworth train station to experience a slower but more economical way to get from point A to point B. Having read countless travel essays and narratives speaking about an author’s love affair with train travel, we were anxious to see what makes it so great. Stereotyping train passengers as younger generation hippies and strange characters living on shoestring budgets, the waiting room in Butterworth seemed like a far cry from my ridiculous hypothesis of the train crowd with some Chinese families, a few backpackers of all ages and various other normal looking folks (no Malaysians were heading to Thailand, however which I find curious. Although right next door, the two countries are as a different as Christianity and Islam). Accustomed to perfect on-time service provided by KTM, Malaysia’s national train service, it surprised me when the train didn’t pull in until twelve minutes before the scheduled 2 PM departure but sure enough it lurched forward exactly on time before anyone had even settled into their seats. Keeping the rather surprisingly Malaysian efficiency record in tact (at least when it comes to trains), the two car Thai National Railway they call Train 36 sent us on our way. Headed for Hua Hin, four hours closer than Bangkok, the scheduled arrival time was 6:30 AM which usually means somewhere between 7 and whenever it gets there.

imageAlmost too conveniently, travel from Penang to Bangkok is affordable, comfortable enough and provided daily in a collaboration between the Malaysian and Thai national rail systems. Often benefitting those who have no Thai Bhat on hand, they even let you buy the ticket up to 30 days in advance and pay in Malaysian ringgit at the little dinky KTM office on the jetty in Penang. Amazingly priced at 105 ringgit for a one way ticket (about $22 USD), we saved a few bucks since we had no Thai Bhat and Malaysian banks send you to the local Indian money changer when you need foreign currency. Much less luxurious than the Malaysian KTM express trains that travel between Penang and Kuala Lumpur, there’s only a second class sleeper option when you leave from Penang. Starting with two small Korean made trains manufactured in 1996, they add a dining car and some first class trains after the border crossing at Padang Bassar. Sporting the Purple and yellow Thai colors, the trains have 24 double seat berths that face each other and convert into lower and upper sleeping compartments. Following the advice of others, we paid a few ringgit more for the lower berths and I’ll admit that’s probably the smart option unless you’re incredibly cash strapped.

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15 Tasty Thai Treats

Almost 23 hours after stepping on Cathay Pacific Flight 102 at 12:30 AM in San Francisco, Diane and I stepped out of our hotel in Bangkok, breathed in the torrid tropical humid air and stepped on the Chao Prya Express Boat. Famished, tired, jet-lagged and excited, Thailand was our first visit to Southeast Asia and part of our annual Expat Destination Research Vacation. Like Anthony Bourdain, I also believe a perfect bowl of noodle soup is the world’s most perfect food. Seeking an unknown destination and any available delicious bowl of perfection close to the hotel, we traveled two stops and hopped off the boat.

 We exited the boat here

We exited the boat here

Although Penang, Malaysia is our intended retirement destination in about six months, Thailand has always been a close second and our “Plan B”. Awesome experiences awaited us on the trip including a village homestay with a hill tribe, an elephant rehab farm adventure and strange signage. Acclimatizing our stomachs to spicy food every day seemed important when considering a move to neighboring Malaysia so we tasted and photographed.  Bon Appetit !! Continue reading