Katie and I just wrapped up 19 nights in Hanoi. We visited for the first time almost exactly a year ago, but only for three nights. That previous visit was part of our first trip to Asia and our last vacation ever. At the time, I thought the city was totally crazy but also a lot of fun. It’s a cacophony of sights, sounds, activity, and traffic that’s both entertaining and intimidating. I assumed that a longer stay would allow us to explore at a slower pace, help mitigate some of the sensory overload issues, and be more enjoyable. I was wrong.
A little over six months ago, Katie and I kicked off our nomadic early retirement by taking the long flight from the US to Thailand. That initial visit had us starting in Bangkok and moving south to explore three gorgeous Thai islands. Tourist visa restrictions meant that our visit had to end within 60 days, but the Thai people and their awesome food made a lasting impression. After spending four months traveling through Cambodia and Malaysia, we decided to make a return trip to Thailand. This time we headed north to spend a month in Chiang Mai.
By any measure, 2019 was one remarkable year. We experienced such drastic changes that the beginning of the year almost feels like a whole different lifetime. The top among these changes was retiring from our jobs at the ripe old ages of 41 and 42. Even though we have only been retired for 8 months, it might as well have been a decade ago. It feels like forever since I stepped foot into a fluorescent lit office partitioned into cubicles. Part of the reason for this distance is that we completely uprooted our lives upon retirement. If we had stayed in the same place but just stopped going to work, it may not have felt as drastic. Instead, we not only quit work, we also sold everything we owned and got on a plane bound for Thailand. Lots of other things happened too.
Kuala Lumpur is a cosmopolitan city with a green twist. The downtown area could be mistaken for Chicago or New York at first glance. It’s full of tall buildings, trendy shopping, and plenty of traffic. Yet despite the gigantic skyscrapers of glass and steel, nature still exists here. The sidewalks often pass by huge trees that were here before there was concrete or asphalt surrounding them. The tropical climate means that everything grows fast while frequent rains keep things clean and green. It’s a city that was literally carved out of the middle of the jungle and it shows.
On the surface, Malacca appears to be a great destination for us. Despite not being a large city, there are a lot of things to see and do. The historic downtown area is a UNESCO Heritage Site. It has a lively weekend night market. There are a ton of museums. But it seemed like there was always something a little bit off. Despite staying for a month, we were never able to settle into a local living groove and couldn’t wait to leave.
In the financial world, front-loading means to invest a large sum early instead of spacing it out over time. (Not to be confused with a front-end load, which is a fee charged by some mutual funds that I would never invest in.) For example, I could front-load my IRA contributions by investing the $6000 maximum in January each year as opposed to contributing $500 per month. Or I could front-load my 401k by contributing more than $1583 per month, reaching the $19,000 yearly maximum before the end of December.
We decided to slow our travel speed in Malaysia and our first extended stay was in Penang. The main reason we wanted to stay longer per location is when it came time to leave previous stops, we simply weren’t ready. In this case, staying twice as long didn’t work any better. At the end of our four weeks, we still didn’t want to leave! We had so much fun wandering around Penang while soaking in the art and architecture. We liked our local neighborhood and loved our time in George Town.
Since our travels have no defined end date, it’s not always easy to decide how long to stay in one spot. Being able to take our time and thoroughly explore our destination is one of the best parts of slow travel. It’s a luxury that we rarely experienced during our working years and we don’t want to take it for granted. Conversely, staying too long in any one area means that we could end up bored. After all, not every place has a lot to see or do. One of the easiest solutions to keep things fresh and interesting is to simply change locations. The first few days in a new spot are always exciting. But even for us globetrotters, the actual act of travel is still no fun. So how do we strike the proper balance?
After Siem Reap, Katie and I took the bus to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh where we stayed for 16 days. This was a big change from the laid back smaller town, as Phnom Penh is a large somewhat chaotic city with heavy traffic and a certain grittiness. While rough around the edges, it still has some redeeming qualities. Considering that only a few decades ago the city was practically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh has made some remarkable progress.
Foreign travel is nothing if not a continual learning experience. Travel in Thailand specifically, and Asia in general, is particularly different from Europe or Latin America. While I had been to Asia once before, it was a whirlwind trip of only ten days. Katie and I visited Hong Kong and Vietnam in February as our last official vacation before retiring. Therefore, the following learning experiences are from the perspective of someone who is mostly a novice to Asian travel and a complete newcomer to travel in Thailand. I had a lot to learn.