So it's taken me a little longer than I thought it would to update this, but know that I am still alive and really enjoying traveling through Thailand. I am currently on Ko Phi Phi, an island off the West coast of Thailand near Phuket, but more on here later.
I started my latest exploits by taking a 9 hour speed boat down the Mekong River between Laos and Myanmar (Burma for you older folks) from Jinghong, China, to Chiang Saen, Thailand.
The next morning, I took a bus to Chiang Mai, a very touristy (but still great) town in Northern Thailand. I spent a few days there exploring the mountains, temples, as well as taking an overnight hiking trip in which we rafted and rode elephants.
It was a great time and so far, still my favorite place in Thailand. After a few days in Chiang Mai, I took a bus a few hours South to Sukhothai, the old capital of Thailand that has lots of old ruins from its former glory days.
I spent a day touring the ruins, and that night took a night train to Bangkok.
Bangkok is a big, crazy city, but coming from China I'm used to big and crazy. I spent a couple of days exploring the city, including the Royal Palace (one of the most impressive buildings I've ever seen), a few more temples, etc.
After exploring Bangkok for a couple of days, I woke early the next morning and left on a bus South to Chumpon, and then took a speedboat Southeast for a couple of hours to Ko Tao, east of the mainland, in the Gulf of Thailand.
I then spent the next three days getting certified to be a scuba diver (just an "open water" diver for now - up to 18 meters deep).
Ko Tao is THE PLACE to get certified in Thailand, and in my class were two German siblings and an Austrian guy. Our instructor was also German, so while the classes were in English every once in a while one would break in German and they would start talking. I've realized that although I could still catch some stuff, now my Chinese is WAY better than my German as I've forgotten a lot of what I had known... I don't know if that's a good or a bad thing.
After getting certified, I spent another day relaxing on Ko Tao and then that night took a night boat (probably the roughest boat ride I've ever taken. A drink cooler (the standup kind with a glass door) that was on the second level of the boat almost fell over board, but instead slammed into a girl sitting between it and the railing. Needless to say. they had to rope the cooler down and that was the end of the beverage service for the trip!
After arriving in Surat Thani early the next morning, I took a bus two hours to Krabi, then a 40 minute tuk tuk ride to the beach, then a 10 minute long tail boat ride to my next destination - Railay Beach. This is a series of four beaches that are only accessible by boat, and it was beautiful, and, since it's supposed to be the rainy season, things were cheap(er) and lots of places were actually closed for the season... Luckily, since I've gotten to the "rainy" side of Thailand, I haven't had any rain; knock on wood.
I spent a day and a half exploring Railay, and then took a boat about 1 1/2 hours to here, Ko Phi Phi, which is about halfway between Railay and Phuket. Ko Phi Phi is really beautiful, but VERY developed. (Sorry - no pictures of here yet). Even though this place was totally wiped out by the Tsunami, it's been built back up quickly, and still shows no signs of stopping. Evidently, it became really popular after the movie "The Beach" came out as it was filmed here. Tomorrow morning I'm headed out for two "fun dives" to test out my newly-earned certification. Supposedly the sea life is even better here than in Ko Tao and hopefully I'll see some sharks (they've been around the past few days - so hopefully they still are tomorrow). Then, in the afternoon I catch the boat to Phuket for my last two days in Thailand before heading to Indonesia.
So far, traveling in Thailand is so easy compared to China. EVERYONE speaks English (of course, this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but coming from China, where no one speaks English, it's still crazy to me that clerks in minimarts, or a taxi driver, or a train station attendant, or random people on the street, know how to speak English). Also, all menus are in English, there's tons of Western food around, and no one is spitting or peeing in the streets. It's kind of like already being back in the US!