Our study abroad group (seated) with Dr. Paan Jindapon (back row, second from left) and our hosts for “Thailand 101” at Bangkok University.
Hello! My name is Connor Higgins. I’m seated on the far right in the photo above. I’m a rising junior from Athens, Alabama studying economics. I’m one of six students in the UA in Thailand: International Economics program. The program was organized by economics professor Dr. Paan Jindapon, who is originally from Thailand. We just call him Paan. Also joining are Paan’s wife, Namwan, and daughter, Dara. The trip began on May 31 and comprises 14 days in Bangkok, 7 days in Phuket, and 5 days in Chiang Mai. We are taking two classes: Intermediate Microeconomics (EC 308) and International Trade (EC 430). This is the first year for the program to take place.
I’m really excited to share my experience here, because this trip has been absolutely, positively, phenomenal. These past 14 days have been some of the most extraordinary of my life. I’ve had so much fun and have come to adore Bangkok, and although we have two more cities ahead of us on this trip, I’m still very sad to say goodbye to this one.
I really didn’t know what to expect from the trip. This being the first year of the program, there wasn’t anyone to ask what it was going to be like. I wasn’t sure whether this would feel like going to school while just so happening to be on the other side of the world, or more like a tourism exercise that happened to have classes in the mix. And while I don’t want to undersell the “study” aspect of this study abroad program, this experience has definitely fallen more in the latter category. Almost every day of this trip has been packed with activities: sights to see, places to explore, new things to try. I don’t think a second went to waste. What follows here is an abridged account of how we’ve spent these 14 days in Bangkok. And because it would be pretty redundant to say “this was so much fun” over and over, you can safely assume I was having a great time during everything I describe here.
And — oh boy, the abridged version still turned out pretty long. If you don’t want to read all of this, just know that this has been the trip of a lifetime, and if you’re even remotely considering coming on this trip during the next cycle, I cannot recommend it highly enough. And I say that as it’s only halfway done.
Still here? Alright, get comfortable, we’re going to be here a little while.
I’ve plotted all of our destinations on a Google Maps guide. Follow along here!
The total time spent in transit to get here was about 33 hours. I flew with a friend, Dylan, out of Birmingham. We had connections in Houston, Los Angeles, and Tokyo before arriving in Bangkok around 4:30 AM local time. We were the only two on this trip to fly across the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, and while I don’t think it makes much difference, I will say that I really enjoyed the experience of flying on Japanese airline All Nippon Airways. (As much as you can enjoy 15 hours on a plane, anyway).
After we sailed through customs, we found Namwan and Dara waiting for us with welcome gifts, and we hopped in a van to our hotel. I’ll always remember that van ride. The sun was just beginning to rise, and the buildings got taller as we moved into the city. I had never left the United States prior to this, and this sensation of everything — everything! — around me being different was something I had never experienced before. I wouldn’t call it culture shock. Maybe a “culture rush”? Even for the months of buildup, this was the first moment that it actually felt real. “Wow. I’m really here.”
(Also, as an aside, I got my first look at the adrenaline-pumping manner in which everyone drives here. I have never seen anything else like it. The question of “who has the right-of-way?” is usually answered by “whoever has the courage.” The lanes are so dense that the vehicle next to you is usually at arm’s length. Cars zip around and change lanes with a fervor that does not exist in the US. To be a motorist here is to be engaged in a constant game of chicken with everyone else around you. It’s unreal.)
Our hotel, The Montien, is situated in the heart of Bangkok. It’s directly across from the famed Patpong nightlife district, and it’s within walking distance of Chulalongkorn University, the campus where we conducted most of our classes. The hotel itself was also super chic. (Namwan worked in the hospitality industry here for a time, and she maintained some connections that helped us score some very nice hotels.)
We spent awhile exploring the city on foot and people-watching as the city came to life that morning. Once the rest of our crew arrived, Paan decided to drop us in one of the largest malls on earth (CentralWorld) for a few hours, where we had our first Thai meal together, before he brought us back at 4:00 that afternoon, where Dylan and I promptly drew our blackout curtains and called time on our nearly 48-hour day.
We spent all day with an excellent tour guide (pictured in the black shirt), who took us around The Grand Palace, an extraordinary collection of structures that historically served as the epicenter of the Thai monarchy. Our guide drew our attention to all the minute and intricate details, and he provided a wealth of historical nuggets to help us understand what we were looking at. His background was in archaeology, which made him a great resource at these historical sites. For a reprieve from the heat, he led us to an eccentric cafe adorned with antiques, where we had a great conversation about the overlap of Thai and American culture.
Lunch that day was right on the river, and as is typical at many restaurants here, no one really orders their own personal meal. Instead, our table ordered several different dishes that everyone could share. Thai food is, incidentally, a global treasure, and one of the main reasons Thailand interested me as a destination in the first place. It has absolutely lived up to my expectations. I’m now a tom yum soup enthusiast.
Paan and Namwan have also been really great about explaining what dishes we were looking at, where they’re popular, how this region’s variant differs from that region’s variant, how much spice to expect, and so on. Their insight substantially enriches everything about this trip.
Later, we toured Chinatown, where we waded through an endless sea of markets, walked between buildings propped up by monkey bars, and received our fortunes through a Siam si ritual. (Things are looking good for my legal travails!) Our last stop of the day was a rooftop spot where we beheld some really cool views of the city over fruity beverages.
We left Bangkok proper to go out to Bangkok University (which is a bit of a misnomer, but nevertheless). We were greeted by students and staff and commenced “Thailand 101,” our one-day crash course on Thai culture. Among other things, the day included a cooking class, where (with much help) we prepared papaya salad and thapthim krop, and a dance class for which we donned traditional Thai outfits. One of our dances depicted the classic we’ve-all-been-there scenario of attempting to grab fruit from a tree, only to be overcome by a colony of ants and descend into abject panic.
Back in the city, we ferried over to ICONSIAM, Thailand’s tallest building housing another breathtaking mall. It was absolutely huge, its architecture was incredible, everything about it was extravagant and over-the-top, and there was even a makeshift floating market on the lowest level. But the detail that stands out to me was the two-floor car dealership — located within the mall — which included a swirly slide as an alternative to stairs. Everything was just Like That here.
And the views — the views!
Having done some light exploration of Patpong in the preceding evenings, we spent all of this evening wandering around, which somehow led us to a crude late-night Muay Thai boxing match, crossing another item off our must-see list. Our night concluded at a rooftop spot called Heaven. (Mainly for the views of the city, but also because it was fun to say “we’re going to Heaven.”)
We had our first classes! Due to a Thai holiday for which Chulalongkorn University was closed, our classroom for the day was a modest meeting room in a nearby condo complex. No whiteboard here, so Paan conducted class through a notebook he had oriented toward us (pictured below in the center of the table). Namwan brought us some fruits to sample during our down time. I recommend mangosteen and semi-ripe green mango.
Later that afternoon, we rode out to Asiatique, a sort of boardwalk bazaar lined with shops, restaurants, and (for some reason) Disney-themed attractions. We spent a good deal of time talking with a cashmere dealer, who somehow convinced our friend Henry to buy a rug on impulse.
We happened to run across a massage parlor offering fish pedicures. You might have seen these before, it’s where you soak your feet in an aquarium full of fish that eat the dead skin off your legs and feet. Henry gave it a shot, and though I had no plans to try it myself, one of the workers pushed me (literally, physically, pushed me) back to the shoe-removal area, and since I was just the slightest bit curious, I caved.
I cannot even begin to describe how strange the sensation was. I don’t think I stopped nervous-laughing for ten minutes. It feels tingly, almost like your foot is asleep. But it’s not asleep. Those are fish. And they are moving around. Because they are fish. With their little tiny mouths on your skin. It’s one of the weirdest things I have ever experienced, and my demeanor the whole time reflected that.
(The shopkeeper noticed and seated us right in the front, on full display for passersby. Some strangers stopped and took videos of us. I imagine we were good for business.)
When we returned to the parking lot to depart, we found our van was blocked in by some cars parallel parked behind us. But Paan assured us that this was actually no problem. As is common in crowded parking lots here, those cars had all been deliberately left in neutral. All we have to do is push them out of the way. So that’s exactly what we did. We managed to create a gap just large enough for the van to back into and then pull out of.
What a country.
Our day began at JJ Market, the largest weekend market in the world. It certainly looked the part. We wandered around for hours and probably didn’t even cover half of it. I think everyone bought something here. For my part, I love clothes with poorly translated English phrases, so I walked out with a hat that inexplicably reads “BEAUTIFUL SELF COLLINEAR.” But there was just so, so much to explore, and we only barely scratched the surface. Others of us left with clothes, sunglasses, jewelry, decorative elephants, you name it.
I should probably also mention that everything is very inexpensive here. 1 Thai Baht is worth about 3.5 cents, so 100 Baht is about $3.50. After conversions, you can usually get street food for less than $3, you can get an Uber (or, rather, the local equivalent, called Grab) for about $5, you can find shirts and shoes and hats in $5 territory, you can get a massage for about $10, or you can get the best Pad Thai you’ve ever had from a certain street vendor in Patpong for $2.30. Of course, prices always depend on the vendor, but it’s very easy to spend very little and still have a great time. You could probably have an entire night out for about the price of a single meal in the US.
We had our second class after that, and later went to a laundromat to take care of the surprising volume of clothes we had gone through so far. We stopped at a nearby street vendor for roti, a Thai dessert similar to a pancake or a crepe, which might end up my favorite dessert of the entire trip.
In what will undoubtedly be imprinted as a highlight of the trip for me, we rode about 2 hours outside of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, where we began at the historical River Khwae bridge. We took a train ride across the bridge and into a beautiful mountainous landscape (for those of us awake to see it). We disembarked at “The Death Railway,” where we very carefully walked the tracks to get yet more beautiful views of the water.
After another great lunch full of regional staples, we took off for the Sai Yok Noi waterfall. And man, what a great place that was. I’m a sucker for a waterfall. It was just perfect. And, to quote my personal journal entry from the day:
“It was made infinitely better when it actually did start raining [for the first time on the trip], coming a small summer downpour for maybe 10 or 15 minutes, which genuinely made me feel like a kid again. Just swimming about. Exploring little caves. Watching the water drip-drip-drip from the ceiling. All with my buddies I met less than a week ago yet have already hit it off with. And just slipping and sliding on the rocks, crab walking for traction, maybe falling flat once or twice. And then sitting down, air drying, chatting a little, and watching the sky get a little bluer, looking back up at that waterfall, looking around at the carefree locals having the time of their lives just as we were havings ours, and I don’t know, I just found something about that moment so very beautiful.”
Well, hopefully that wasn’t too sappy. It’s sincere. Our day concluded at a nearby jewelry market and with dinner at a Korean barbecue spot, where I think we embarrassed ourselves a little while futzing with the stove and all the ingredients. Food was great though, as usual.
We had our first class at Chulalongkorn University! The whiteboard alone made it a nice upgrade. From this day forward, we had a pretty steady 8:30-11:30 schedule in place for classes, excluding off-days.
This is not a RateMyProfessors review, but I will take the opportunity here to say that Paan has been great as a teacher during this trip. Cramming 6 credit hours of material into 4 weeks is a tough ask under the best of circumstances, and he’s having to do it in the middle of an already-packed trip. And while he does move quickly through the material out of necessity, he always makes sure that we’re following along, and is always willing to back up a step if something’s not clicking for us. With only six of us, classes feel almost more like a study session than the university class experience I’m used to, and that’s a very good thing. Paan’s expectations from us have always been more than reasonable, so while the classes do occupy some of our time and focus here, they haven’t added any stress, which I was admittedly a little worried about going in.
(And, as travel directors, Paan and Namwan always have everything under control, always take good care of us, and have yet to lead us wrong on any recommendation. Everything has gone so smoothly that it feels like they’ve run this trip a dozen times before. A trip like this would absolutely not be possible without them. They’re the best.)
Our next stop was a Muay Thai boxing class! Three very patient instructors strapped on our boxing gloves and guided us through the drills: punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, all of the above. We’re all total beginners, but the instructors were super supportive, and they occasionally humored us by pantomiming getting knocked over by our blows. It was a great time, and also deceptively physically demanding — we all walked away sweaty and exhausted.
That evening, Dylan rolled the dice by getting his hair cut at a random barber shop we ran across. Later, we convened the whole crew for another night at Heaven.
I think this was the slowest day we had in Bangkok, and we all needed it to rest up after the first week of the trip. Nothing was planned after class in the morning, but Paan did give us an assignment to work on, so that evening, a few of us convened in the hotel’s lobby, ordered some tea, and chipped away at some microeconomics. I actually really enjoyed this time, mainly because I really enjoy being around this group of people.
We ate dinner at a Burger King.
After class in the morning and lunch at the food court, we all put on our dress shirts and ties to meet with John Breidenstine (far right below), the Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs and ASEAN Regional Senior Commercial Officer at the United States embassy in Bangkok.
Mr. Bridenstine works to promote American exports in Thailand, and we had the excellent opportunity to sit with him for an hour and pick his brain about international business, the US’s international brand, and life as an expat. He is a wealth of knowledge and a very welcoming personality, and we all learned a great deal from that conversation. I’ve never really considered a career in the foreign service, but that meeting really had me thinking about it.
(Incidentally, I forgot to bring a tie with me on the trip. I got the tie I’m wearing in the photo for about $7 at a menswear store in the mall, a few hours before the meeting. And now I have a Thai tie. One of life’s little victories.)
Later, we went to a karaoke spot, where a Burmese man was belting out a charming Burmese tune at the next table. After he finished, he came over to us and wholeheartedly encouraged us to throw on some American music.
I’m happy to report that they were big fans of Dixieland Delight.
We had some people from Chulalongkorn join us for class today, and after Paan finished his lecture for the day, he turned it over to a researcher who delivered a presentation about the political and economic state of Thailand. It offered an interesting explanation for the wealth inequality apparent in Bangkok, and drew our attention to prospects for change now that Thailand has elected a progressive prime minister (though he would later be unable to actually form a government — it’s complicated).
That evening, Paan took us to Khaosan Road, a vibrant hub for nightlife and night markets. A couple of our guys tried scorpion. After some initial exploration and more street-vendor Pad Thai, a couple of us ended up in the audience for a saxophone performance.
No class today, instead we met back up with our tour guide from Day 2 for an excursion to Ayutthaya, the historical capital of the land upon which Thailand sits. Much of the architecture you see dates back over 500 years, some even to the 1300s. Even in the ruinous state they were in (the result of wartime destruction), they were still magnificent sights to behold, and again our tour guide offered tidbits and small details that we would have never picked up on by ourselves. His archaeology chops were especially apparent and enlightening here. You can tell so much by the shapes of the windows alone.
It was definitely a hot day, though, so our tour guide made sure to break up the day with a swanky little dessert café, a great lunch spot (where I had my life changed once more, this time by Gaeng Som soup), and a museum full of ancient treasures and artifacts from the Ayutthaya Kingdom. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much gold in my life.
Back in the city, we spent our evening at Siam Square mall, another gigantic marvel of consumerism.
No class today either. Instead, we spent our morning at the Maeklong Railway market, an outdoor market located right along a railroad (and I do mean right along). Pann and Namwan made sure we’d be there when the train itself came through, and even with my back pressed against the wall of a building, I still felt like I could reach in and grab the caps off the passing passengers’ heads. It was unreal, clearance would be measured in inches. The markets that comprise this marketplace (such as the one on the right in the photo above) all had to be retracted and put away for the train to come through. You’ve gotta wonder how they let this whole concept get so out of hand.
Our next stop was the floating markets! Everyone will tell you it’s a must-do tourist stop in Bangkok, and I’ll join their ranks. The floating markets are a series of shops operated from small buildings along a waterway, as well as other vendors in small boats. Your group is seated in a boat that cruises along this waterway. If something catches your eye, you direct the boat driver to pull over. You then have the shopkeeper pull your item off the shelf, you haggle with them on the price (a necessary skill for dealing with any vendor here), and if you’re successful, you float away with new Stuff. It’s a really novel experience, enjoyable for the boat ride alone, which also passes through residential districts and more remote stretches of water. You get to see some cool reptiles in the mix.
Later, we returned to our karaoke spot, where our crew alternated performances with a different Burmese performer. He could actually sing, and we enjoyed his sets as actual live musical performances, not just as karaoke. Then, of course, there’s us. Our selections included Wagon Wheel, Give Me One Reason, and Just the Two of Us, the lattermost I performed in duet with our friend Sam (far left) to close out the night.
Classes resumed this morning following our two-day hiatus, and we were joined by a Chulalongkorn student studying game theory as Paan’s lecture covered some fundamentals of the subject. We also celebrated Henry’s birthday.
In the afternoon, it was another wear-a-tie affair. We went to the Conrad hotel, a hotel so intensely opulent that it made our super nice Montien hotel look like a Hampton Inn by comparison. We met with the hotel’s director of research and development (second from left above), who was able to offer commentary on the hospitality industry in a major city as well as some wisdom for our lives and careers. He took us on a tour of the hotel, at certain points welcoming us into employee quarters to emphasize his commitment to employee wellbeing. Never have more heads in one room simultaneously turned than when our crew entered the employee cafeteria.
That evening, to celebrate Henry’s birthday, we set out for Khaosan Road once more, which made for a lot of fun now that we knew our way around.
Our final full day in Bangkok was actually a rather understated one. We had our final class at Chulalongkorn in the morning, and later hopped on a ferry to spend our afternoon touring Siri Sala (pictured left below), a wonderfully luxurious riverfront villa that I will absolutely book for myself once those scratch-offs start working out for me.
Our last stop in Bangkok was the Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen temple, the very temple Paan spent time at during his brief tenure as a monk, and its accompanying 226 foot tall statue of the Buddha.
I spent the rest of the day spent packing and writing most of this up. Facing an early departure to the airport the next morning, we decided against a last hurrah and chose instead to get some rest. We’ll need it for Phuket.
And that’s it! That’s how we spent our 14 nights (and days) in Bangkok!
If it looks like a lot, that’s because it absolutely was. Paan and Namwan kept us super busy, but it was all so very enjoyable, and these are memories I’ll cherish for as long as I have them. I know we’ll have a great time in Phuket and Chiang Mai, but there’s something special about Bangkok that I’ll really miss. The city has a great energy about it, and everyone we met was so wonderfully nice. I really hope I’ll be back one day.
Just as important to all of this are the people I’ve come to know during this trip. I lucked out to have these five by my side. Sightseeing and food tasting are great for the senses, but doing it all alongside new friends is great for the heart. I think that’s one of the greatest upsides of doing a program like this.
Alright, I’m done typing now. I’ll be back here soon to give my account of Phuket, and once again later for Chiang Mai. In the meantime, you can listen to a song I heard somewhere around Bangkok and really enjoyed.
Roll tide. See you soon.