Hello again! I’m Connor Higgins (second from left above), and this is my last entry on UA in Thailand: International Economics. If you haven’t seen my first two entries, I recommend that you check them out to see what all we’ve done up to this point on our trip. We spent our first 14 days in Bangkok, then 7 days in Phuket, and we’ve just wrapped up our final leg of the journey with 5 days in Chiang Mai.
I will say that I wasn’t sure what to expect from Chiang Mai. Our other two destinations fit into neat boxes: Bangkok is the big city, Phuket is the island paradise. Aside from its more mountainous geography, Chiang Mai didn’t seem to have a strong identifier to reach for.
As I would soon learn, it’s home to a distinct cultural environment, some tremendous regional dishes, and some of the most beautiful mountain views I’ve ever beheld. It made for a really great time, and a really pleasant way to close the book on our trip here. I still can’t believe it’s over.
Follow along with my Google Maps guide here!
Getting to Chiang Mai was a longer ordeal, because all flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai have layovers in Bangkok. But again, Paan had our domestic travel sorted well in advance, so everything went smoothly. Upon arrival, we were met by Henry’s family. We all received very nice flower necklaces and a very warm welcome to Chiang Mai. We arrived at our hotel thereafter, the Shangri La, which had the largest rooms yet and a waterslide for the swimming pool. Good stuff.
The most notable part of the day was the evening we spent at the Anusarn Market, a huge night market and outdoor food court that was about a five minute walk from our hotel. The market just went on and on and on, it was practically its own little city, and even across all the nights we came here, I still don’t think we came close to covering everything. We all ate good, and we got to listen to the really entertaining buskers on the stage. One of them even performed Lemon Tree by Fool’s Garden, which struck me as a delightfully unusual song to randomly hear in a foreign country.
We spent today at Chiang Mai University, easily one of my favorite destinations of the trip. While we were in Bangkok, our classes were in a corner of an already spread-out campus, so we didn’t get to see much of Chulalongkorn University. Chiang Mai University, though, is much denser and much more bustling, and it was awesome to see. The number of scooters and motorcycles we saw genuinely stunned me.
We spent a couple of hours conducting our usual class, as we wrapped up most of what we had left for International Trade. Afterward, we broke for lunch in a food court I would give anything to replicate in Tuscaloosa, and we spent the rest of our time with Dr. Nisit Panthamit, an associate professor of economics and the director of CMU’s Center for ASEAN Studies. He gave us the definitive crash course on Asian geopolitics and regional trade, with stellar analyses of the human rights situation in Thailand’s neighboring Myanmar and the efficacy of China’s authoritarian economic climate. He took our questions the entire time and really breathed life into a subject that most of us were hitherto largely unfamiliar with. I even started poking around Wikipedia in bed that evening to read more about some of these subjects.
Later that evening, we returned to the night market and explored more shops and vendors. There were a bunch of really cool art shops around, which brought me very close to making some very poor financial decisions.
We spent the first part of our day on top of a mountain called Doi Suthep. Getting up there made for one of the craziest drives I’ve ever been on. These are steep, curvy, one-lane, mountainous roads, with no roadside barriers and little, if any, shoulder to speak of. If there’s a car coming your way, you both squeeze onto the edges of the road and pray not to hear a scrape (or feel an oncoming tumble down the side of the mountain). Nevertheless, we made it.
Upon arrival, we found a really stunning temple, full of all sorts of intricate golden structures statues, and shrines. It was incredible, and just beyond the temple, there were some fantastic mountaintop views of the city. We even spotted our hotel way off in the distance.
Next, we made our way to the neighboring mountain, Doi Pui, home to villages of the Hmong ethnic group. These were some of the absolute most beautiful sights of the trip. There was this hillside green space we walked through that was brilliantly landscaped (I think it literally stopped me in my tracks when I first laid eyes on it) and we got some of the coolest views of the mountains themselves on a balcony beside a church.
We made our way to perhaps the absolute best restaurant of the entire trip, which is extraordinarily high praise. There was precisely one item on this restaurant’s menu: khao soi, a dish consisting of crispy noodles, boiled noodles, and beef, all in a curry-esque broth. That broth is what makes it. We all agreed that it was one of the best flavors we’d ever tried. And, to boot, our waiter so graciously provided “free kimchi, free air, and free views.”
We later made our way to the Huai Kaeo Waterfall, probably the most visually impressive of the trip’s three waterfalls, before convening for dinner at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center. The dinner was in the khan tok format historically associated with northern Thailand. Khan tok is the name of the small, round pedestal upon which the community dishes sit. And, as is common for this type of meal, we were seated on the floor to eat it.
Our dinner was accompanied by a show, a series of traditional dances, performed in traditional apparel, accompanied by live music on traditional instruments (one of them, which I believe to be the khlui, I especially enjoyed).
We began the day at a coffee farm in the Mae Taeng district. We got to walk around and learn about coffee-growing and the regional agriculture in general. We all got to try a raw coffee bean, which is edible, and which has a surprising sweetness to it.
We got to explore more of the surrounding area atop another mountain. It took us through a small village, where some of earth’s sweetest dogs roam freely, and where you get some more excellent views of the mountains.
The views continued at the aptly named Jungle View Coffee, situated within this village. It is a bona fide farm-to-table coffee operation. We had seen where the beans grew, and this shopkeeper roasted and prepared all of the coffee herself. I love coffee, and it was really special to get to try a cup that genuinely fresh. The mountain views and the ambient cats were the cherry on top.
The day continued with a tour of a coffee factory, which was interesting. The factory prides itself on being zero-waste, and I was really fascinated by all of the creative uses they came up with for the byproducts of coffee production.
After another standout lunch of braised pork leg and pork knuckle, we toured the Wat Tham Chiang Dao, a sprawling network of caves. We had tour guides carrying old-timey lanterns lead us through literal holes in the wall to explore the depths of these caves. It was really cool, just try not to think too hard about what it’d be like to get lost in there. Or what would happen if those bats woke up.
In the evening, we checked out the Wua Lai Walking Street, a straight kilometer of street vendors. It was a really cool place, with a really cool music store, but unfortunately, the cup in my left hand in the below photo would spell my demise over the ensuing hours that evening. Word of advice: stay away from street vendor squid.
We began our day with a farewell meal at the hotel’s dim sum restaurant. We talked through some of our favorite moments of the trip, reflected on the experience as a whole, and mentally prepared ourselves to say goodbye in 24 hours’ time.
But before we get to that point, we’re going on rollercoasters. We rode out to the Pong Yaeng Jungle Coaster, a sort of mountainside amusement park with a cool little rollercoaster. I also encountered a kitten there that I seriously considered trying to take home with me.
Our next stop was the Rao Dok Lom Nhao community garden in the Mae Rim district. It feels so redundant to say “great views” again, but seriously, these were great views. In addition to the mountains in the distance, there were flower beds all up and down the hillside. And after walking around a little more, purchasing some new clothes, and petting some more dogs, we ended up at a different lookout point that may take the cake as my favorite in Chiang Mai. It was gorgeous, just absolutely gorgeous, and the clouds on this particular day seriously enhanced the view. This picture of our group facing the mountains is also probably my favorite of the trip.
We ate a hotpot style meal nearby, and our balcony seating gave us more great views to enjoy. We finished in just enough time to beat the sudden downpour that came on.
For our final stop of the trip, we visited the Tha Phae Walking Street, which was easily the vastest night market of the entire trip. It just kept going and going and going. Every time I would think I had reached the end, I’d be wrong. I walked in one direction the entire time and still didn’t get there.
My night concluded at a nearby jazz spot called Red Jazz. I love live music, and I especially love a good saxophone performance. I had read somewhere that Chiang Mai was known for its jazz scene, and I had been plotting to check it out the entire time we were there. For various reasons, it hadn’t happened. One place I wanted to visit had closed, rain precluded anything the following night, and the night after that included my unfortunate encounter with street vendor squid. So when Paan sent me a text to let me know he had found this place right next to the walking street, I was all there.
It was perfect. Everything about that place was perfect. The band was great, the atmosphere was great, and even the subtle drizzle was great. One of the vocalists did an excellent Louie Armstrong impression in his performance of What a Wonderful World. And that sax — man, that sax! I loved it. Loved, loved, loved it. It was the perfect way to conclude the trip. It gave me a sensation I can only describe as a physically warm heart. After over an hour of nonstop performing, they closed with The Drifters’ Save the Last Dance for Me. Maybe my emotions were just running high with the end of the trip in sight, but the sensation I had listening to that performance was one of the purest joys I’ve experienced in a long time.
From my journal: “The whole vibe of this day, especially at the jazz club and immediately after, was just full of that Soaking Up The Moment joy. Just this sensation of ‘it’s not getting any better than this for a long while, which is all the more reason to take it all in while you still can.’ I love this trip, everyone on it, and I genuinely wouldn’t change a thing about it in retrospect.“
Before I send this off, here are a few miscellaneous notes that didn’t fit anywhere else:
- We got incredibly lucky with the weather. Across 27 days, it only rained a very small handful of times, and it never interfered with our plans in any way. The vast majority of our days were picturesque and sunny. Strangely, the weather app on my phone predicted an unbroken kick of rainy weather for the entire time we were there. No clue where it got that data from.
- I had been told to expect Thailand to be pretty hot. And it was warm, don’t get me wrong, but never really to the point of discomfort, especially since we were taking regular breaks. Air conditioning is also standard across the country. As soon as I got back home, I was reminded of how much worse the heat could have been. The suffocating humidity of an Alabama summer day is much worse than anything we went through in Thailand.
- I might have mentioned this before, but the locals in Thailand were generally very welcoming, very helpful, very patient with us, and overall upbeat, affable, fun people to be around (even if the vendors do sometimes drive hard bargains). We even made friends with some of the street vendors, peddlers, hotel staff, and waiters that we would encounter during our time in Bangkok. And who could forget our karaoke partners?
- There are so, so, so many 7-Elevens in this country. It boggles the mind. They’re everywhere. Sometimes multiple on the same block. There’s simply no parallel for that kind of ubiquity in the US. It’s astounding.
We flew back to Bangkok the next morning. We had all left a bag behind in Bangkok, so we rode back to retrieve those and shuffle our luggage a little bit. Namwan’s mom also made us lunch.
Before long, we were back at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. The end was in sight, it was just a matter of time ticking off the clock. We all exchanged our goodbyes, and Dylan and I boarded our plane to Tokyo at about 9:30 that evening.
And that was it.
From my journal, written on the flight home:
“I can’t believe it’s really over. Just like that. One second you’re here, the next second you’re on a plane to Tokyo. One second you’re listening to jazz music at a Chiang Mai jazz club, the next second you’re giving Paan and Namwan and everyone else hugs goodbye at the airport. It really was a bittersweet day. Bitter for having to leave a country that I’ve truly come to love, and that’s not an overstatement. This place is so so awesome and the energy here simply cannot be matched by anything in the United States. Honestly, if anything, I feel a little deflated about returning to the US at all. But more than anything I’m going to miss these people. […] If you remove anyone from this trip, the experience radically changes. We had a really great mix of people and personalities and I honestly think we hit it off.
There are always going to be things I look back on here and wish I had done. Feeling a little silly for not getting a Thai massage, I probably should have bought more stuff, that sort of thing. But I can honestly, genuinely say that I think I made the most of my time here. I laughed every day, I was surrounded by some of the best people, people who made it so much harder to say goodbye. It’s so easy for me to imagine a trip that didn’t have any of this, where the personalities don’t connect and everyone floats through in coexistence. I’m so glad we had something more than that. How Lucky Am I To Have An Experience That Makes Saying Goodbye So Hard.
And it is hard. I sat still on the plane, just staring at the seat in front of me for a little while, just because I couldn’t believe it was really over. It was the inverse of the “wow, I can’t believe I’m really here” feeling at the beginning of the trip — just a solemn reckoning with the reality that I won’t be back here for a very, very long while, that I have to return to the US, that I have to go back to life as usual. But for all of this bitter, the day did have a lot of sweet. Those hugs goodbye, the general sentiment of everyone not wanting it to be over, it was all so nice and so affirming that this really was as good for everyone else as it was for me. I don’t think it really set in with me *just* how much I was enjoying everything until I had to leave it behind.
But today I did my best to cherish the final moments, the final roadside glimpses of Bangkok (as I stared out the window in silence for a very long ride, Dylan and Sam asleep by my side), the return to [the building with our luggage], the lunch from Namwan’s mom, all these last little moments with these people. The last few laughs sitting around the airport, poking through the bookstore, reliving these past 26 days. And these days may be behind me, the moments may be over now, but I made some wonderful memories. I’ll treasure them for as long as I have them. And what’s really striking is that in all of these memories — in all of these moments and flashbacks that I replay in my mind — the clearest detail I see are the smiles on all of our faces.“
Anyway, that’s been my retrospective on UA in Thailand: International Economics. In case I haven’t made it abundantly clear, this experience is amazing. I could not have possibly asked for three cooler destinations, two better travel guides, or five more wonderful compatriots. If you’re considering this trip during the next cycle, I give it my highest possible endorsement. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed reading through my retrospective (or, probably more accurately, looking through all the pictures).
I do seriously intend to return here one day. It’s carved out a special place in my heart. But for now, it’s right back to Tuscaloosa. Roll tide to that.