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Penang Portraits & Gallery 21: "Of Tea, Cooks & Mermaids"

Note: We are currently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and will be returning to Penang, Malaysia this February & March 2020. This piece is about our time there in April & May 2018.


We should have known Penang was different months before we arrived.

Vien’s Canadian aunt was doing the grocery shopping in Kochi, India, and her finely-honed Canadian senses detected fellow Canadians in the olive section (or searching for the olive section?). She invited them over for tea at our flat on Marine Drive, and we learned they lived in Penang, the destination of our just-booked-2-weeks-ago flights. They have been travelling and living abroad for over twenty years, including driving the length of South America in an RV - incredible! Penang is their home base now, but they still explore the world tirelessly, in between writing novels and throwing legendary parties. This wonderful couple subsequently helped us find our ocean-side Penang studio flat and welcomed us with open arms into the Penang retiree community.

Penang Sunset
April sunset over Penang from our flat

Wonderfully, this kindness and welcoming spirit was not an outlier. Over our two months in spring 2018 we met dozens of people who were all simply…happy.

We found that moving to Malaysia for retirement seems to self-select for travel lovers. Everyone we spoke with was always just back from or just about to leave on a trip, and several people maintained homes and residencies in other countries – their main home before retiring here. It all sounds quite ‘jet set’, but given the cost of retiring in the US, Canada, UK or Australia, it is quite likely that having two to three homes in two to three countries is still cheaper than one in the more populous areas of Western Europe or North America.

How does everyone do this? Generally, via the MM2H visa (Make Malaysia my 2nd Home, yes, it’s called that). This is a programme that targets anyone over 50 who is able to exchange a hefty deposit in government bonds for a 10-year residency visa. Why would you want to do that? Living costs are low, infrastructure is excellent, property is affordable, quality of life is high and the weather is warm. (If you’re under 50, you can also apply but need to have even more money.)

Separately, we were lucky (pushy?) enough to be accepted into the Equestrian Centre at the Penang Turf Club, which meant that we could ride at a quiet, laid-back stable filled with Australian horses, and ended up making a close Malay friend who owns two of the horses on the yard, and is one of Penang’s top lawyers. And the trend continued, with even more friends at the Turf Club or their lawyer friends or colleagues. We also learned a lot of stories about the city and island, especially useful during the transformational general election that happened when we were there (the first change of governing party since Malaysia's independence in 1957). We also met people in our building, and, in a statistical improbable outcome, are still in touch with all of them.


The brief portraits below are written in eager anticipation of seeing all these kind, memorable people again this coming year, and hoping for further surreal experiences…

In the expat retiree world, we learned how if you’re going to start a laundry business, get brothels as clients: they need a lot of laundry done, often, and few places will work with them. It seems to make you enough money to buy the MM2H visa and retire to Penang.

We discovered that Penang is a common destination for Australians, especially when it comes to retirement. We met one Australian couple who love whisky and making beaded jewellery - she works in palliative care and is an expert on the dying and he is one of Australia's leading financial advisers. We ended up having a profound conversation at a cocktail party about how to emotionally care for yourself when working in the hospice industry, as well as her experiences and thoughts on assisted death.

We were also reminded that New Zealanders are not Australians. We met a Kiwi couple (they are NOT Australian) who sold everything in Brisbane (yes, that is Australia), all of their belongings, their car, their home, and visited Malaysia on a tourist visa in the hope they would like it and eventually decide to apply for MM2H. They did! It was awarded just before we left, and their celebratory shouts likely reached their old Aussie neighbours Down Under.

In the horse and legal world, our riding friend showed us the world of ‘Matchy’ (ensuring one’s horse has coordinating tack and boots), water-phobic mermaids who are also private detectives, flight attendants-cum-sponsored equestrian models-cum-penguin lovers. We met lawyers who love durian and one of them who would have liked to sell tropical fish if he hadn’t had to become a lawyer.

Our friend also let me work with her ex-racehorse Empire: he had originally raced in Singapore and kept winning until he was the relatively ancient age of seven (in the racing world, most don’t make it beyond three years old before they retire). He moved up to Penang to race there, and was one of a hundred horses owned by a Sheikh in an unnamed middle eastern monarchy. One day, the sheikh decided he was done with horse-racing and stopped paying the bills. His trainer contacted him when the money didn’t come through and he informed her of the decision. "Congratulations, you now own 100 racehorses, I'm done with it!" So she had a fire-sale and Empire retired, moving all of 400 metres from the racing barn to the pleasure riding yard.

We attended a dog agility competition (our good friend and Matchy expert is also the president of the association and invited us along) and watched Whiskey the dog mop up the field. Some of the dogs were less interested in jumping over colourful pipes than in confronting the cows grazing around the field’s perimeters, however.

Dog agility
This beagle was not distracted by the cows
Cute dog
Whiskey the Dog post-win

At the stable, we met the dedicated grooms who watch over their equine charges with love and dedication. Most of them come from northern Indonesia and are gifted horsemen. They also tend to have big families: One of the grooms asked me how many siblings I have. “Two sisters,” I replied. “And how many brothers?” I confirmed I only have two siblings. He was shocked and checked again. “How many siblings do you have then?” I asked. “Sixteen! Four died though, all of old age.” That’s a lot of birthdays to remember…!

As we spent more time in Georgetown, we were told the supposed origins of one of its trendy wine bars. It all started with the question: what do you do if you don’t have any heirs for your billions? Leave them to a unborn child described by your fortune teller. The boy’s birthdate and birth mark was prophesied, and he would be the reincarnated billionaire. When the man died, sometime in the 1960s, an enormous infant hunt began, hunting for the clues laid out in his will. Remarkably, the infant son of the billionaire’s head of security had the correct markings and age, and he inherited the lot. Since then, the child grew into a powerful restauranteur, who remained loyal to Malaysia and his beloved Penang. Hence, a lovely trendy wine bar in the city centre.

We attended a cookery-photography mash-up workup during Ramadam and met a very hungry chef (teaching people to cook during a fast should merit some form of medal), a corporate portrait photographer who has become our go-to photography-talk buddy, and a husband-and-wife writing-photography duo who have since started a publishing house for his photography books. The teacher of the course was a professional food photographer who never takes more than two photos of a set-up before moving on to the next dish and was unconcerned by the Temple Pit Viper dozing in the tree above him and his tripod.

We also had the great pleasure of meeting a Syrian man who moved to Malaysia last year in the hunt for something better. His family remains in Syria, living in a government-controlled area where his brother can continue to excel at the violin and his father can sell medical supplies. He chose to remain in Aleppo over the past six years to finish his degree in Fine Arts: Interior Design, and only had his home bombed twice. He remains a firm friend and is now working in architecture like a total boss.

We met couples in our building, like the pair of perpetual travellers like ourselves, who have been on the road for three years after retiring from a life of corporate business development (previously working themselves up to a directorship from selling massive tractor tires) and, for the other half, doing audio-visual set-ups for the entertainment industry in the US. She wins the most impressive reason for a shoulder injury: heaving oxygen tanks while scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef.

Or the Dutch couple taking six months off from work to travel around south-east Asia, with their travels always a few weeks ahead or behind us destination-wise. We later had a two-day overlap again in Lombok, Indonesia before they headed to Jakarta and we stayed. They then went on to help us during a crucial time when we were caught in the Lombok quake, finding a way to buy us our emergency flights when we had minimal connection, fading batteries and a complete lack of success on our own phones connecting to a mast over the water in the neighboring island of Bali. As a nice twist of fate, right before posting this blog they introduced us to wonderful friends of theirs from the Netherlands who were visiting Phnom Penh - a lovely small world of fellow travel-lusters!


I could wax lyrical for another 1000 words or so about the other dozen or so people we met. However, there’s a gorgeous album of Vien’s Penang photography for you to browse below, which is a better use of your time! I’ll wrap up and simply say:

Penang, for us, stands apart from everywhere else we’ve visited: Penang is all of these people. We can’t wait to return.



Gallery 21: Of Tea, Cooks & Mermaids

Now, for a rather unusual gallery - not of Penang or Malaysia in general, but of a few particular experiences, some referenced above. This is a collection is made up the cooking-photography course mentioned above, our visit to the tea-growing region of Malaysia the Cameron Highlands and....a mermaid photoshoot. The weekend-away in the Cameron Highlands resulted in photographs of flowers, tea plantations and some more friendly people we met on the way.

Just click on the photograph or link below (remember to click the 'Full Screen' icon in the top right once you are viewing the photographs).




And if you need tea to go with browsing V's gallery, head to our very own new tea shop for some delectable loose leaf at...


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