Birding in Ipoh with John and Connie

With new found friends, John and Connie, I went birding about 2h away from Penang in a town called Ipoh where Connie lives. Compared to birding in Canada, tropical birding is hard but rewarding work. On a typical outing in Canada, I could count on anywhere from 30-125 species. My best day so far in Malaysia was 27 species. A gallery of the pictures from my last trip can be found at http://photos.giraud.com/p1063241653.

Posted in Birding, Photos, Travel | Leave a comment

On being an expat.

I have been trying to think about what I have been feeling as we have settled in to our life here in Malaysia. A year ago I read a book called Planet Boomer as winter was bringing in its chill in Canada.  It was a pie in the sky idea that we had formed many years prior – “what if we retired overseas and explored a different life?”  Planet Boomer was yet another book that fed that dream.  Less than two months later – we decided to execute on that dream – and a year later we find ourselves in SE Asia.

But then what?  After the plans and organisation (greatly detailed in this blog), the MM2H Visa application, the selling and completion of most of our worldly good, the goodbyes – then the hellos and set up of a new life here…what next?

Both of us have lived and worked abroad a number of times, and we have embarked on long journeys of exploration and travel.  We have stories we bring out at dinner parties to entertain that are comical and crazy, where we try to convey that despite differences around the world – a laugh is a laugh and we all want to feel we are needed and loved.

Wanderlust: a very strong & iresistable impulse or desire to travel the world

I was sent this link to a blog and somehow it spoke to me.  The author so clearly lays out many of the feelings I have been unable to put down here myself – and frankly I could not do justice.  So read on – and do get a feel for where my head is at – even if it is in the clouds!  17 Things that Change Forever When You Live Abroad, by Angie Castells

Wander on!

 

Posted in Blogroll, Malaysia, MM2H, Penang, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Case of the Rattling Cases

It’s been about 5 weeks since Sharon and I picked up and moved to Malaysia as some of you may know. It certainly has been an interesting, frustrating but entertaining time.

I’ve been described as a wee bit of techie and in keeping true to that, I purchased 2 huge Pelican cases (dubbed Loch and Ness) to hold my critical computers, NAS, scanner etc. that makes living in a digital world possible and fun. I carefully cut out all the foam, fitted each component and then sealed them all up. The plan was to take them on the plane. Making your life totally digital is a topic for another blog but start now if you’re planning it.

Our routing to Penang took us through JFK first class, then onto GongShow (China, more about that later) business, then finally onto Penang via economy.

My darling wife decided that we would go to the airport a month early to figure out how much excess baggage we would have to pay. We loaded each case up into the back of my dearly departed Audi (sniff) and headed off. The cases were heavy, one around 55lbs, the other around 65lbs. We went to the first class check in for Delta and explained the situation. They weight the 2 bags and said we were looking at around $800 CAD in excess baggage. They said if we got one of the bags down to around 50lbs, it would be just considered an extra bag and would be cheaper. We also checked out the courier companies and they all wanted at least $2,000+ so the plane it was.

I was deathly afraid that the TSA in the US would go through all my computers and damage or destroy them after reading lots of horror stories on the Internet. The recommendation was to buy huge zip ties and cable locks which would deter the lazy TSA types from poking around too much.

On the fateful day of Sep 10, we trundled off to the airport with our 6 large bags and checked in. Luck was in our favour as the excess baggage was now down to $300 CAD. After the weigh in, I secured the bags with 7mm zip ties which are a bitch to get off with anything short of a large pair of side cutters. I was confident that nobody was getting into my goodies. Delta assured us that the bags were all checked through to Penang and gave us all the tags for the luggage including the ones that said we had paid a premium. We then moved the bags to the oversize baggage drop.

Once we go there, the kind folks at the TSA said I had to open Loch and Ness so they could check for bombs, etc., the sort of things that people normally carry in Pelican cases. BTW – they are typically used as expedition cases into the worst places in the world. That meant I had to open the bags that I had smugly secured with the 7mm zip tie. The only tool at hand was a small pair of nail clippers and while it struggled mightily, it and I were not up to the job. After struggling for about 10 minutes trying to get the cases open, the helpful TSA staff offered up a pair of scissors that eventually did the job.

They made me take everything out and swabbed all the components and checked them. I think they were both disappointed that nothing noxious or illegal was in the bags. I then resealed the bags with the ever present 7mm zip ties (Sharon always carries spares now, I keep thinking I’m going to wake up one day with my arms or legs zip tied) and also the expensive cable locks Sharon had purchased.

We pushed the bags onto the conveyor and I was feeling good about the whole process. Sharon’s parents were with our other 4 bags which we went and deposited making sure to smile for the facial recognition cameras.

We breezed through security and were waiting at the gate having arrived 3h early at 4 AM when the Delta gate opened. We eventually boarded and were in lovely first class pods for the 70-minute flight to JFK. Sharon pulled out the Delta app on her phone and checked on our bags and noticed that two had been pulled off the plane and inspected again. I figured it was Loch and Ness but wasn’t too worried since they were firmly sealed and in my mind TSA proof and I proceed to enjoy first class.

We arrived in JFK, took up residence at the Delta lounge and waited for our next flight which was with China Southern. I’d never flown with them but was pleasantly surprised by how good it was in business class. The only slight drawback was the young man who was serving me didn’t speak very much English but we managed to convey our needs.

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The food and seating was good for the 14h leg to GongShow, really Guangzhou but I can’t pronounce it. The food arrived at a breakneck pace, I had 3 courses stacked up on my tray and the flight attendant was trying to push more food but I told him to slow down. The language barrier got in the way so I reverted to loud American to get my point across repeating slow, slow with increasing volume. It worked, the torrent of food slowed down.

I opted for the Asian fare and it was delicious and well prepared. The final course was ice cream and cheeses. I took the ice cream only to find it was Hagen Daz in a tiny perfect container. When I declined the cheese course the flight attendant bent over and took a bite out of one of the pieces of cheese, perhaps trying to show me it wasn’t bad (all cheese is bad IMHO don’t put things in your mouth that smell like that). That was new to me and I definitely wasn’t interested in it now.

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I read and watched a few movies and managed to get a few hours of sleep as did Sharon. We both woke up in time to land at GongShow. It was dreary and rainy when we landed. The airport is huge, with terminal after terminal. Being business class, we were escorted onto our own private bus and were about to leave for the terminal (no gantries to the terminal for us) when a gentleman came storming onto the bus demanding to be let on. A heated 5-minute conversation ensued and ended with him being forcefully pushed off the bus as he wasn’t in business or first class. We drove around for quite a while and it seemed all we did was go to the back of the terminal via the rest of the airport.

We arrived at the terminal and it was bleak. I realized we were no longer in the first world. The terminal building was really long and completely straight, and it needed a paint job 10 years ago and was full of dubious looking shops and establishments. I had to go to the washroom which was located on the far end of the terminal about 1km away. Sharon and I decided to take a stroll down and look around. About 1/2h later, we came back to our departure area only to discover that our flight was delayed by 1.5h as best we could tell. The airport departure boards weren’t very helpful and generally had little or no English but did have the flight numbers so we used that as a clue.

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Sharon managed to get us into the business class lounge on the backs of our previous tickets. The business lounge shared the same fate as the rest of the airport. Run down and tired looking. The only bright thing about was the 5 ladies at the front desk diligently checking your tickets in case you tried to sneak in and had to be quietly but efficiently dealt with.

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They had free WIFI and so we connected up and started to surf. I then realized the impact of the Great Firewall of China. I subscribe to RSS feeds from a whole bunch of technology, science and news sites and about half of them were not producing anything. Sharon was trying to use Facebook and it didn’t work. It was also brutally slow, something I would learn to live with…

Our flight was further delayed and so we waited it out and ate strange flavours of chips and a weird tasting dessert. Everything else looked pretty dubious and after not sleeping for about 20h, I wasn’t in the mood for challenging food. My system was already expressing its displeasure with my Asian food choices and I didn’t need to add fuel to the liquid fire passing through my system.

About 1/2h before our flight was scheduled to leave, we exited the lounge and returned to the boarding gate. There was a very long line and I was concerned my super gigantic extremely heavy overweight camera bag wasn’t going to find a home. I noticed that all our boarding passes had a priority boarding stamp on them and went and asked the gate agent if we could board ahead of the long line since it appeared to be free for all boarding. She looked at our tickets and confirmed we could board ahead of the mob. We continued to wait and the flight was delayed yet again. Apparently this was too much for one Asian gentleman keen to start his trip to Penang and so he started an extremely loud screaming match with the gate agent in some form of Chinese.

I decided it was an excellent time to go to the washroom again and headed off at a brisk walk to the toilets at the other end of the terminal. I could still hear them going at it about 800m away it was that loud. I was surprised that security didn’t get involved and do something, well Chinese, to shut him up.

Asian toilets, they are worth a whole blog, but I’ll sum up the experience with Ugh. Nasty, smelly, often no toilet paper and men doing things like snorting water and then expressing out their other nostril. The floor is awash with what one hopes is water but I knew it probably was something else. A real treat for all the senses.

I returned, waited around for what seem like an interminable amount of time and then it was time for us to board. We boarded well ahead of the rabble and I managed to shove my camera pack in the overhead taking up most of it. I noticed one gentleman rooting around in my overhead and so I stood and watched him very closely which caused him to move on swiftly. I attributed it to my pasty white colour, 24h body odour and bloodshot, slightly maniacal gleam in my eyes.

About 3h later, we started seeing the lights of Penang and I was really looking forward to collecting our bags and heading to the Eastern & Oriental Hotel for 3d of recovery as we started the great adventure in Malaysia.

Penang Airport is about the same size as a small Caribbean airport. As I recall, it had a couple of luggage carousels and not much else. We cleared customers and immigration, the agents spoke good English and were actually nice.

We then stood around and starting waiting for our bags. One bag, then another appeared. Then nothing. We waited. Nothing. We waiting some more. Nothing. After about 1h, it was clear that our bags were not coming. 2 of our suitcases and Loch and Ness hadn’t arrived. I was fit to be tied and really, really pissed off. We went over to the lost baggage desk just ahead of the other annoyed passengers who were also missing luggage. An elderly looking, beaten down gentleman took the luggage tag numbers and printed out a report on a dot matrix printer with a URL of how to check the status. He said they might come in on the next flight at 5PM tomorrow.

Sharon, bless her heart, had split up our clothes and other sundries so that the 2 bags we did get contained some clothes and toiletries. We had hired a van to move our vast luggage store at considerable expense through the hotel as we knew that all the luggage couldn’t fit in a regular cab. We found them as we exited the secure area holding up neatly printed signs for us.

When they saw 2 pieces of baggage, I could see a bit of confusion in their eyes as they had brought a full on mini-bus that seated twelve and associated luggage. We explained that our bags hadn’t shown up. They took our luggage and after a bit of struggling with the weight, heaved it into the back of the van and off we went.

We checked into the E&O Hotel, a charming colonial establishment that reminded me of the old CP hotels in Canada. We went up to the room and started unpacking.

I had a number of devices that needed to be recharged including my laptop, phone, iPad, etc. as did Sharon. I had a plug adapter (they use English 3-prong square plus that are freaking huge) and a small power bar with me so I went to plug it in. Unlike North America, every outlet has a power switch on it. I turned on the switch and a stream of sparks that would do a Roman Candle proud poured out of the outlet accompanied by a large popping sizzling sound and the room was plunged into total darkness.

I fumbled around in the dark for my phone to use the light to see what was going on and managed to get it on. As the electrical smoke cleared, I noticed Sharon starting at me with her patented “you’re a fucktard look”. She “gently” suggested that I call the front desk and explain the issue and get power and AC restored. Remember this is the tropics. It’s hot and steamy always unless it’s raining and steamy.

I called the front desk and explained, innocently, that all the lights in our room had suddenly gone out. They said they would get an engineer up in a few minutes to see what was going on and fix the problem. I opened the window hoping to get rid of the residual smell of charred electronics. I then realized that I had plugged a 110v surge suppressed power bar into a 240v plug. It had done its job admirably protecting all the plugged in device and appeared to have shorted out a few fuses in the room. It had sacrificed it’s life to save my devices and I respect you for your noble sacrifice power bar.

The engineer arrived and asked what had happened. I said that I had plugged something in and then the lights went off. I explained that I had a plug adapter and that this had never happened before (well it hadn’t). Satisfied, he proceeded to climb onto a chair to access an electrical panel on top of dresser and reset the breakers and we were back to the land of the light.

We crashed asleep around 10PM and were starkly awoken around 3AM by a tropical shower and lightening storm the likes of which you don’t get in Canada very often. The rain was pouring down in sheets against the glass and what sounded like exceeding close lightening and thunder flashed, peeled and rumbled. You could hear the air being ionized by the lightening bolts. Being a techie weather guy I found this fascinating but was also dead tired so tried to go back to sleep without much success. Sharon, who sleeps anywhere at any time, just passed back out.

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I used the Internet and was relieved to find out it wasn’t censored but didn’t appear to much faster than dial-up. I was used to 80mbps Internet at home but it was free so I wasn’t complaining. Much. I tried to access the URL the gentleman at the airport had given us but found, with consternation, that it didn’t work worth crap telling me China Southern wasn’t a member airline and call the number on the ticket. I didn’t have a working cell phone and don’t make calls from hotel phones unless somebody is or will die.
We woke up the next morning, had a wonderful shower and headed for breakfast via the main desk. We explained about our luggage and we gave them all the particulars. They explained that today was a national holiday and so getting hold of the man at the airport (surely they had more than 1????) would be difficult but they would look into it.

They asked when they could deliver the luggage should it arrive and I said anytime. He cocked an eyebrow and asked if I was sure. Clearly he knew something but wasn’t going to share so I asked what possible time it could arrive. He said that the flight usually got in around 5PM, took several hours to unload and then the luggage had to be transported to the hotel and it often arrived close to midnight or the early hours of the morning. I revised the delivery time to before 10 PM since I was still tired and hoping for a good night’s sleep.
Sharon was bright eyed and bushy-tailed having gotten more sleep that I did. We went into the breakfast buffet, were escorted to a table and ordered a couple of cappuccinos. We then proceed to do the tour of the buffet.

Hotels and Penang have an interesting challenge when it comes to breakfast and buffets in general. There are 3 primary cultures here, the Malay, Chinese and Indian and all have different breakfast habits. Throw into the mix Japanese, Arabs, North Americans, English – do you feed this melange of races?

The breakfast buffet was enormous. It had everything and I mean everything. Salads, sushi, weird really fishy smelling dishes, fresh pasta station, egg station, all kinds of smoked meats, fruits, yogurts, at least 4 different types of porridge, grilled meats, dried fruits, cereals, stews, vegetarian dishes and chicken bacon. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

Recall the part about chicken bacon. Muslim country, enough said.

I was so jet lagged that I don’t remember much of what we did the first day. I think we walked around a bit and met some people that Sharon had met on the various expat sites on the Internet.

We went back to the hotel later in the day and still no luggage. I was having visions of a TSA or baggage handler playing video games or enjoying my music collection. We were woken again by another monsoon storm at about the same time, I could see this getting annoying in a hurry.

Next morning, we woke up and checked with the front desk, still no luggage but it wasn’t a holiday so they felt progress could be made. We waded in the buffet to fortify ourselves for another day in Penang. We went back up to the room and the phone rang, it was the front desk saying that our luggage had arrived. I was giddy with joy and asked them to bring it up.

2 very small gentlemen and a very large luggage cart later, Loch and Ness were back in my possession minus the cable locks. The zip ties were still intact though so I figure that the TSA tried to get into them but didn’t have the right tools and gave up.

I cut off the zip ties and examined the contents. Everything looked to be in order. The cable lock had been sawn through with some blunt object based on the damage and there were TSA inspected cards in the both bags. I figured since the zip ties were still on, they had just pried the cases open a bit enough to put a probe into them.

Roll forward a few weeks and we move into our new placed at Springtide. For various reasons, I hadn’t setup either the NAS or desktop stored in Loch and Ness and so eagerly took them out of their protective foam. I did the NAS first.

As I was pulling it out, I heard rattling like a screw was loose in the case. As I set it down, it was clear that there was more than 1 screw loose. I opened up the unit and started taking the drives out and realized that the unit had been opened, all the drives had been removed and taken off the drive caddies (holders) and then reattached with a single screw and the rest of the screws thrown back in the case. There are 4 drives each secured by 4 screws. I shock the case and out rattled 12 screws. With trembling fingers, I reattached the drives to the caddies, sled them carefully into the unit and powered it on expecting the worst. I was really, really furious that the TSA had taken the unit apart and not taken the time to put it back together properly.

I was really pleasantly surprised when the unit powered up correctly with a loud beep and I was able to connect to it. That left the desktop and I feared that if they had done the same thing, it could mean a dead desktop.

I pulled the desktop out of the case and, sure enough, I could hear rattling and thunking inside the case. Looking through the plastic window on the side, I could see that the video card was loose and just flopping around in the cage. I opened the case and confirmed that the video card wasn’t in its slot and the retaining screw was somewhere in the case. The card weighs about 2lbs and I hadn’t been that gentle moving the cases over the proceeding weeks thinking everything was secured and firmly protected.

I also noticed that the drive cage that held 2 6TB drives was sliding around and on closer examination could see that the cage was bent. It looked like they had tried to wrench the cage out to get to the drives but had been unsuccessful and so settled for bending the cage and also the case frame. I felt sick to my stomach. I calmed down a bit and took out each component and inspected it. I reattached the drives back into the drive cage properly after straightening out the case and the frame as best as I could with a multi-tool. I shook the case out and out popped a plastic portion of a connector which I couldn’t place. I carefully scrutinized the case and found that the memory was sitting at a funny angle and one of the retaining parts was broken off. I reseated all the memory, put the video card back in and turn on the power.

The computer wouldn’t boot giving a fateful beep, beep sound. My monitors hadn’t arrived so I actually couldn’t see anything that was going on with the computer. I thought about this for a while and realized I could use one of the TVs as a monitor via the HDMI connection. I grabbed a 55-inch TV and hooked up the computer to it, connected a keyboard and mouse and retried the power.

I was flabbergasted and delighted to see that it actually went through the boot process and started up. Everything was working and I took a huge sigh of relief. Sharon was also really happy because crabby, miserable Jacques is not fun to be with especially when we are living in a new place.

I was so incensed for a while that I hoped that Donald Trump would win the US election so the American and their TSA could get what they deserved. A few days later, I went back to my normal stance that nobody should suffer Donald Trump, even the Americans.

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Finding a home in Penang, Malaysia – real estate is about trust

When making the decision to come to Penang, Malaysia on our MM2H Visa – it was important for us to understand what type of house was available and where we wanted to live. Travelling half way around the world with little knowledge of where we were landing – the phrase “location, location, location” could not be more important. Many folks are looking for a “how to” – so here is our process.

1. Do your research (from abroad)

There are great property sites all over the world. I used PropertyGuru and iProperty and also jumped around to find other places.  This gave me an idea of condos and prices as a start.  They also included information about certain buildings (we were looking for a condo), and their various amenities.  Also listed were real estate agents…more on that later.

This first step is to really determine what you are looking for and where you want to live.

A word of caution.  You will see properties on sites that you fall in love with.  You will contact the agent to inquire.  They will tell you they have the property.  You will land here with the expectation to see the property and discover it was “just rented last week”.  Many photos (especially the good ones) are not that agents property or were never recently available.  Be aware of the come on – and be prepared to walk away from an agent who is misleading.

2.  Join Internations.org – an expat website with people on the ground in your chosen location.  Full disclosure – aside from being a member – I have no skin in the game with this group. I joined (it’s free) and started to virtually “meet” people who were more than willing to answer questions.  There are also ongoing threads that you can read through to get an idea of what is happening in the locale you want to be in.

Through Internations, I happened upon a woman who was contributing on the boards.  She did not mention she was Real Estate Agent (or property negotiator), but she simply contributed.  I reached out to her, and she answered a few questions.  Then I checked out her LinkedIn profile and realised what she did for a living and we chatted about it.  She did not solicit me and I respected that.

I was also able to get an idea from the Internations folks as to which buildings had the best internet connections – a very important feature for us.  That immediately narrowed down our search.

3.  Be clear on what you want and need

  • Sea view, mountain, city
  • Amenities like gyms or pools
  • close to schools
  • on the bus line
  • number of bedrooms
  • furnished or not
  • budget

All these will be factors in your decision and will also assist the agents in helping you find what you need.  Be aware that traffic in the region can be a challenge – and determine how far you want to be from amenities.

4.  Temporary Housing is as important as permanent

Let’s face it.  You are in a new place, you don’t know anyone, you have come off long flights and staying in a hotel is frankly too expensive long term.  What to do?

We initially started out up island in Batu Ferringhi thinking it was more relaxed and remote.  We rented an Airbnb in the area while we were looking for places to stay.  We soon discovered that there was plenty of traffic and noise (especially on weekends and holidays), it was far from grocery stores and conveniences, and the clincher was that it was difficult to get a taxi from the area.  When we were able to get one – the cost was incrementally higher.  Given that we do not currently have a car (and are not sure we will get one) we decided it was not for us.

For a number of reasons (including an Airbnb that was nothing like the pictures) we moved.  We then spent two weeks in Straits Quay renting a serviced apartment from Siang at Home-Suites  He was an outstanding host and ensured we were well looked after.  The apartment is located inside a larger mall area (think Queens Quay in Toronto) and that meant any groceries or restaurants were right there.  There was also the added bonus of a lovely boardwalk and the ability to head out and go to other places because Uber, Grab (Malaysian version) and traditional taxis were there in minutes.

As a result – we really got a good feeling of where we preferred to stay without the long term commitment.  Sure we had to move our stuff and it was a bit of a hassle, but in the long run it was worth it.

5.  Choosing your Property Agent

Based on some help of people we “met” virtually and a bit of research, we discovered that most people engage multiple agents to look for properties and take them out.  This struck us as odd, since in North America you are typically with only one agent.  However, we soon discovered the following:

  • there is no MLS or database that shows all the properties available to everyone
  • properties are based on trust relationships and on networking
    • good agents with good reputations will tell other good agents about their properties
    • bad agents will be shut out by good agents
    • some agents will work cooperatively – others won’t
    • multiple agents will get you into different properties – then again – you may be shown the same thing twice

You will hear that there are thousands of vacancies in Penang.  This is true.  However, just because a place is vacant does not mean that the owner wants to rent.  Many simply don’t need to rent their properties, and finding the “right” tenant is of great importance.

We had three agents working for us.  Our preferred agent ended up being Allison Siew and Dominic Ong from KLTC International Realty.  While the other two agents we engaged were enthusiastic, we just found Allison and Dominic to be better connected.  They were also upfront about their fees.

6.  Understanding Property Fees

Theoretically in Malaysia, the landlord is supposed to pay the fee on the rental and the agents split that fee.  However in Penang, the trend is a bit different.  You can try and fight it or negotiate it.  We decided that we would pay the agents to ensure that they were working for us and that our needs were their priority.  Some will argue that agents are taking advantage of expats because we don’t know better.  Some are able to negotiate lower or no rates.  I leave that decision up to you.  Typical fees are as follows:

  •  one month commission (one month rent) for  2 years rental agreement
  • half month commission for one year rental agreement
  • Subsequently, if the tenancy agreement is renewed, then there’s a half month charge for renewal of the tenancy agreement (I am not keen on this one as that puts you in perpetuity with an agent – and by this time you should have a relationship with your landlord – however, if the agent works to negotiate something on your behalf or builds another tenancy agreement with the stamp fee – I can see this making sense)
  • Stamp duty (this is a fee charged by the government that is paid based on a sliding scale of the rental amount)
  • Tenancy fees (this is typically a deposit for electricity, water, sewer)

This is an important thing to understand and budget for because your initial outlay is going to be quite a bit.

As an example of what your fees might be:

RM 8,000 Rent

  • Two months rent due on signing (note this is the security deposit – NOT first and last months rent) – RM 16,000
  • First months rent also due – RM 8,000
  • Tenancy Fees deposit – RM 4,000
  • Stamp duty – RM 856
  • Property agent commission for two year rental – RM 8,000

In simple terms, be prepared for some significant cash outlay.

7.  Viewing Properties

We were clear on our needs, but had to make adjustments as we saw buildings and amenities.  The key is to keep an open mind and know this is not “back home”.

We saw empty caverns, overcrowded furniture and stuff just not to our taste.  We kept an ongoing log in Microsoft OneNote of the good, bad and ugly.  It allowed us to review the properties at the end of the evening and begin eliminating buildings all together.  It also meant that when other agents wanted to show us something we could tell them we already saw it – or we don’t like the building.  We sometimes took photos but always asked permission to do so (typically of places we really liked so we could remember them).

We were also candid and direct with the agents about what we liked and disliked.  We ruled out places because of size and cost to air condition, narrow balconies, too many kids, too close to the international schools, poor gym equipment, bad views, bad furniture, weird layouts etc.  This is a very subjective area, but do ensure that you and your partner are on the same page.

8.  Be prepared to be disappointed

We found a place we loved.  We put in an offer after discussions with our agent.  We were denied.  Why?  We were told that the landlord decided to continue to use it as a holiday home and have pulled it off the market.  The reality is that our offer was too low and no one wanted to lose face negotiating back or counter offering.  It happens.  Just keep looking.

9.  Write a profile

We wanted the landlords (and their agents) to know us.  We provided profiles of who we were, our professional lives, our interests etc.  And we wrote it to the cultural values of the landlord.  Did it work?  We think so.  Certainly on the apartment we lost – the agent on the other side then felt that we were great tenants and agreed to show us another one that had never been rented before.  She seemed to go the extra step to bring us into the building and find a way to make it work.

10.  The Paperwork

It takes longer than you think, and no one seems to mind.  Being someone who was diligent about contracts and paperwork in my professional life, this freaked me out.  I could not believe that we had transferred money to the trust account, signed the initial tenancy agreement and the night before move in still did not have the final documents in hand.  In fact, 7 days after move in we still don’t.  Both parties have signed and the paperwork is now off to the government waiting for it’s stamp.

This part can be nerve wracking.  Should I move in?  Should I cancel my temporary accommodation or make alternative arrangements?  What do I do about deliveries?  Is this really happening or will the landlord pull out at the last minute?

It is a challenge.  But remember, this is a culture built on trust.  That is when having a good agent can reassure you, tell you what is going on, and allow you to vent your frustrations and allay your fears.

11.  The Last Word

  • Find a property agent (or two or three you like) and ensure they negotiate on your behalf
  • Be clear on your needs with your partner and your agents
  • Do some research ahead of time (websites, floor plans,buildings) so you can narrow the search
  • Get good temporary accommodation so you are comfortable
  • Make good notes of your viewings so you can eliminate quickly
  • Negotiate (within reason)
    • On this note we have heard that 20 per cent is possible, but found that was not entirely realistic

Above all – enjoy the process.  You decided to try this adventure warts and all – so embrace the differences, have a sense of humour and understand that it is not the same as back home!

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It’s the little things you notice

  • no towel bars
  • counter top heights are either for Peter Dinklage or Ian Whyte (GoT reference)
  • beds are so hard I suspect they are coconut shells
  • there are no top sheets – fitted and duvet – but you have to go out and find a top sheet
  • pillows are high
  • no point wearing nice shoes as my friend Ellen says – you just have to take them off before you enter
  • even had to take shoes off to go to the second floor of a large shop
  • lines on the road are just decoration
  • signalling is optional
  • napkins are a box of tissues – if you get any – or you have to pay for them
  • toilet paper in public washrooms is scarce – bring your own
  • BYOB in restaurants just about anywhere
  • never ask “which dish is not spicy – no chilli” – because their version of spicy is very different for this wimpy girls version
  • you will always be asked “Where are you from” – always
  • dinner arrives when it arrives, not in any particular order, and not always at the same time (I suspect that is why family style makes the most sense)
  • laundry shops are called “Doby” which has me in the mind of a house elf franchise
  • when you get into a cab – you will be asked if you “had breakfast/lunch/dinner” – because food here is sacrosanct
  • you eat much slower with chopsticks
  • everyone has “got a guy” – and those connections will save you
  • language barriers are easily overcome with a smile and a laugh – and your miming skills will improve greatly
  • grocery shopping is an outing of discovery
  • banking takes much longer than you expect
  • appointments only tell people that you are coming – but it is first come first served when you get there
  • negotiating is a competitive sport – and you can do it well and respectfully
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