Beach Time – Railay, Thailand

From crazy Bangkok to chill and beautiful Railay on the Andaman Sea. Quite a switch! For months while talking about this globetrotting trip we had envisioned starting off by relaxing on a warm beach somewhere. Well, here we are.

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Railay East, longtails, and limestone karst

The Railay area – which is basically 3 beaches, Railay East and West plus Tonsai – isn’t actually an island but is secluded enough by limestone cliffs and jungle that the only way in and out is by the iconic longtail boats. There were heaps of options in Thailand to fill our decompress-on-a-tropical-beach needs – we picked Railay based on recommendations from others, the desire to see picturesque limestone karst towers, and the fact that the area offers some fun stuff to do (climbing!).

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Catching a longtail from Ao Nang
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Bathtub-warm water!

You think you have a schedule? Try only having power between 5PM-7AM. We are determined to brew coffee/tea since it is provided, but have to start the kettle at 6:49 because they say 7AM but it’s more like 6:55. Anyway, we have survived and have been sufficiently caffeinated to wander up to Mama’s Chicken Shack (our go-to restaurant open 7AM-10PM) and get some Thai pancakes and smoothies. Thai pancakes are a dough that they put on the griddle and then wrap up whatever fruit you want and make it crispy like a quesadilla and then drizzle honey on it. The bananas are the best!

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Thai pancakes at Mama’s Chicken Shack
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While we’re looking at food – grilled white snapper yum!

After settling in at our place at Dream Resort on Tonsai Beach (just next to Railay Beach – cheap bungalow with air-con next to the pool) we decided rock climbing was in order, because it is super-famous here because of the great limestone. We both did a half day of top-roping with a group at Diamond Wall, and then a couple days later, Gregor went with a guide to a different wall (Muay Thai 123) while E baked on the beach. It’s awesome!

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Neither of us had climbed outdoors before and based on everything we’ve heard – along with the actual experience – it might be the best place in the world to give it a go. Those holds you see on climbing walls where you think, “no way is reality going to be that generous and produce a nice smooth handle/shelf/crack/bump like that to hang on”? Well it turns out (as anyone who actually knows much about climbing is already aware, unlike us) the limestone karst of Railay is absolutely overrun with them. Anywhere you walk along under the cliffs you can look up and see dozens of bolted routes and always groups of talented climbers – wiry and tan – attacking them. We had a great time, despite our relatively low strength to weight ratios compared to most folks here (Railay area not recommended for anyone with body image issues!).

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Tonsai beach at high tide

What we had read made it seem like Tonsai and Railay were a boat ride or long trek apart, but I have enjoyed staying in Tonsai. It is less busy, more laid-back and probably slightly cheaper than Railay and it is easy to get to Railay (at least when the tide it down). There are three options for getting from Tonsai to Railay:

  1. The jungle path- this is long, hilly and had a spider bigger than my hand in the middle of the trail.
  2. The “low road” we call it. This is dependent on what the tidal status is. Reaching the beginning of the path from Railay beach varies between walking along the beach to being waist deep and getting bashed around by waves as you hold your bag above you and pray your $2 Bangkok special sandals don’t fall off and you end up slicing your foot on half-eroded limestone rocks while dropping your bag holding your phone and kindle into the ocean. Mostly, I recommend low tide.
  3. The “high road”. About 3x the hill of the “low road” with a little more treacherous path, but still not that big of a deal. This can be done with minimal water contact even at high tide.
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Low tide on Tonsai
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Railay West where you pop out from the low path from Tonsai
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This guy (or girl?) is bigger than a coaster. Photo is ~5.5 inches top to bottom

We had heard from a friend that there was a hike/climb to a lagoon and also a scenic lookout. “You can do it,” our friend said to Gregor. I should mention this friend is a serious climber and was excited to learn that he had a couple percent excess body fat a few months ago that he could lose to climb better. That is like a gymnast doing a backflip and saying “It’s easy, you can do it!” Also, I will add, that two of the people we went climbing with the previous day did not make it to the lagoon. The female German made it part way and almost had a panic attack and would go no farther and the the guy from Georgia said he got to a really steep part with no hand holds and turned around. So E was a little wary about how this was all going to go.

When we arrived at the base of the hike there was much ado from everyone at the bottom about whether they were properly prepared and a woman on her way down in sandals was cursing her husband for not letting her put her hiking shoes in his bag so she had to do the trek in sandals. She recanted, “They would not fit in my little bag and I asked him to bring them, but he said, ‘No, you’ll be fine’. I should not have listened!”

Fortunately we had brought our hiking shoes and scurried up the hill that was equipped with ropes tied to somewhat sturdy-looking things like rocks and trees, though we tended to favor the fun natural handholds the limestone provided. It’s actually not that hard and very interesting, a great scramble on rounded twisty limestone!

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Viewpoint: near beach is Railay East with Railay West on the other side of the palm trees.

So you get to the top and there’s this lookout over all the beach, sweet. It took probably 20 minutes to get to the top. To get to the lagoon, though, you have to go all the way back down to sea level, but on the other side of the hill. This was a wee bit more sketchy than the way up as there were 3 bamboo ladders involved that spelled death with one misstep (but they were double ladders so you know they are safer….) Oh well, onward!

At the end of that drama we were treated to a great lagoon, which is tidal and it was high tide, so it was quite beautiful. We had ourselves a little swim and hoofed it back.

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Railay isn’t a perfect paradise. It’s tempting to romanticize these writeups and tell everyone just how flawless your experience was, but hey, it’s a real world out here and we should pay attention to it. For one, it’s not the cleanest – the beach and surrounding ocean water has a fair bit of garbage, and more is piled up back in the corners behind the buildings if you look close enough. The locals who actually have lodging in Railay are staying in really run down shacks and have to use the same public restrooms that drunken partiers make a mess of. But many locals who work here live elsewhere and commute in by boat. It’s too bad that a combination of careless tourists and indifferent locals (not all of either group by any means, but enough) leads to polluting such a pretty place, but that seems to be human nature.

Then there’s some other downsides which will basically sound whiny but might as well throw them in for anyone who’s thinking about coming here – it’s more expensive than the city (duh. but still pretty cheap), most of the beaches aren’t swimmable at low tide, and there isn’t much snorkeling nearby. There, finished!

There are cats everywhere on Tonsai! Cats and kittens of all colors. There are so many cats they have a sign about cats encouraging you to “make an emotional connection today!” There is also a sign about food poisoning. I reproduce them below:

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One of many. This one wouldn’t stop following Elaine

Fortunately we had more experience with cats than with food poisoning. We also saw a few 1m-long monitor lizards and plenty of monkeys, including one interesting experience where we were surrounded by a pack (herd? Family? Ah, a troop, just looked it up) of at least 50 of all ages heading up the beach. They couldn’t have cared less that we were there.

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Our last night at Tonsai was one to remember. We forgot our camera and phones, but it made for a more relaxing sunset for us, not trying to film everything that was happening, and there was a lot. With a cold Chang beer on a cushion overlooking the beach we were surrounded by climbers trying to stick one more route for the day, hanging upside down and being close to finishing but falling dramatically on the last move towards the sand as their belayer got swept off the ground leaving both climber and belayer hanging in the process. This is not an unusual thing with climbing, but it is always somewhat surprising when you see someone fall.

The delicious pink and purple sunset against the tall limestone cliffs was just too perfect and photographs would not have done it justice, anyway. The whole scene was so pink even the sand was glowing.

Just before sunset we heard a pop/whoosh and looked overhead to see a basejumper had pulled his chute and was sailing on down to land on the beach in front of us. Because we had seen this already this morning, we were able to look up quickly and catch the whole process of his friend’s jump- jumping off the cliff and pretty quickly pulling the chute and gliding on down. Exhilarating even from the ground! Fire-dancers were practicing their craft, but without fire while we were there. Probably a good thing as I saw several incidents that would have ended poorly for them.

Our Railay jaunt was closed out with one last breakfast at Mama’s and a longtail ride back to paved civilization – we are staying tonight in nearby Krabi and heading next to Chiang Mai up north.

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Not recolored! This sunset was cloudy enough to make the whole sky+beach glow pink.

Specifics: we stayed at Dream Valley Resort which was fine. Just bear in mind if you’re staying in Tonsai that basically nothing is down on the beach – a developer recently walled off nearly all of the beachfront property and everything is pushed back a couple hundred yards. If you’re hungry at Tonsai, or want a smoothie, Mama’s Chicken Shack is the place to go, any time of day – good food and very friendly. We climbed with Railay Rock Climbing Shop and they were great. Just down the road from them are a couple decent chicken kebab places. Krabi is a fun place to stay a night on your way in and/or out of this area.

The Trip Begins: Bangkok!

The first post on Elaine and Gregor’s year(ish?) of globetrotting!

Several months ago we 20170424_190854 (1)made the decision to leave our comfy life and solid jobs in the Bay Area behind and spend some time experiencing the wider world. That of course was a whole involved decision process which we might write up later, but for now it’s enough to say that we’re jobless, homeless, and on the other side of the world! And so far it’s pretty great.

So we’re traveling for a year, and hoping to hit a lot of locations – starting in Southeast Asia, getting to Nepal and maybe India, Japan, South Africa, Argentina and Chile… just to name a few. How the hell do you pack for a year through different climates with no itinerary? Can’t say we know, but we gave it a shot. After some deliberation we both decided to use carry-on size bags. For a while we were planning on using our backpacking bags (75L – big!), so we would have space and comfort for any overnight trekking we might do along the way. Many recommendations later, we changed our minds. We’ll probably be dealing with buses, short flights, and cramped cafes much more often than outfitting for overnight hikes, and having bags we can keep close at hand seems like a good idea. Hopefully a good decision that we don’t regret it on occasions where we are actually backpacking!

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Neither of us had large enough carry-on pack, so we bought new ones. G got a Tortuga Outbreaker and E got an Ebags Mother Lode for half of what G paid. Both are 45L. G likes to think his will win out in the long run for durability, comfort, and protecting stuff (it’s pretty water-resistant, unlike Elaine’s) but so far she’s happy with hers. We’ll see!

We flew Norwegian out of Boston through Oslo. Best parts: exit row seats on both legs for no extra cost (dunno why, except that we got the tickets several months ago); mom’s blueberry muffin; and the lower cabin altitude of the 787 – really makes a difference! Stepping off our second leg of 11 hrs neither of us felt that typical long-haul mind and body exhaustion.

Bangkok has the population of New York City – about 8 million people. Take NYC and turn it upside down and shake it and leave everything where it lands and that is Bangkok. Now try to get somewhere! But, I don’t think Bangkok is quite as nuts as people have led me to believe. I would describe the traffic as “challenging”, but not completely unreasonable. It seems as if you just know a few rules (for instance, that motorcycles don’t have to follow any rules) then driving isn’t bad. At least nobody is on their cellphones – those folks were naturally selected out a while ago, I think. 

We seem to be quickly adjusting to this thing that Studio_20170423_093617is Bangkok. First day after getting off our flight at 6am we were kindof unsure. New-culture overload combined with jetlag and annoying tuk-tuk drivers everywhere… hmm, not sure what we think about this place. Second day was 10 miles of walking around the city and overheating, but we saw some great stuff, were more relaxed, and stayed awake to chill out with some beers (Chang and Leo – taste exactly the same – so go with Chang for the extra 0.2%). Third day the jetlag is gone, we’ve figured out how to get around and eat what we want, and hey, we’re still melting in the heat but who isn’t and this is pretty great!

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Day 2 we went to see the big golden Buddha. It was big, it was gold. How big? 5.5 tons if that means anything to you. Apparently it was covered in plaster for a long time to hide it from whomever was invading Thailand at the time and when moving the thing they dropped it and found out it was solid gold. After seeing how they move goods around in Thailand, it is not especially surprising it was dropped.

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There are many many stands of what we assume are either offerings for Buddha or food for Monks. We are not sure which. There are many altars in which people leave food, Fanta or flowers (maybe Buddha has a thing for stuff starting with the letter “F”). The Fanta is always the red kind. I think it’s strawberry. The food that they sell at all these -we will call them altar 7-11s– is 1-3 eggs, which we think are hard-boiled, some mystery beige sludge, and a generous piece of undercooked bacon, all served on a very holy styrofoam tray. Thus completes my current knowledge of Buddhism.

We were concerned by recent reports of Bangkok’s government cracking down and “cleaning up” the famous street food scene that was a big part of our interest in spending time in the city. Fortunately, we had little issue filling our bellies with delicious and weird stuff as we walked around for a few days (except for Monday, when most vendors are off for street cleaning). Soups with dark savory broths, various mystery meats-on-a-stick, amazing fried anything, and rice and noodle dishes abound. Next to Sao Ching Cha we found a market/festival packed with locals and snacked our way through while listening to live performances; in a Chinatown market we found the best spring rolls ever and a bowl of Chinese rice noodle rolls topped with crispy dried fish bits that was low-grade nuclear on the spice level (I kind of asked for it, it was awesome, and yeah I paid for it later).

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How much can you cram into a Chinatown market back alley?

Bizarre smells abound when walking around Bangkok. Many of them I can’t identify, even when I see the source. They’re a mixture of sweet and fermented, spicy and fruity, fishy and herbal. It’s an experience in itself just to breathe here anywhere close to a market, cluster of street vendors, or in a back alley along people’s homes.

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Day 3 brought us to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and the Grand Palace. Crazy place! The level of splendor rivals the Vatican, and while it’s not as large, I have to say I’m equally impressed. Intensely detailed paintings, ornate sculptures, and glittering gold everywhere. At the center of it all sits the Emerald Buddha, who would not permit us to take his picture, but who looks quite smashing in his golden robes (one of 3 different getups he has for different seasons).

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Our experience was given an extra dimension because the Thais are in a year of mourning for their recent king, and great numbers of them (tens of thousands daily) are visiting the Palace area to pay their respects. To us this meant joining a throng of black-clad mourners to squeeze through security into the palace complex, where they were all shuffled into a separate queue and whisked away into areas closed to us foreigners. Outside the palace walls, free food and water stands sponsored by Thai companies (including Chang and Singha) kept the crowds nourished in the heat.

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Mourners streaming out of the Grand Palace complex

That’s it for now – next post should hopefully feature some gorgeous beach images, as we’re heading south tomorrow to the coast!

Specifics: we stayed at Lamphu House Bangkok which was great for us because it was cheap and simple and also close to busy Khaosan without being noisy. If we revisit Bangkok we’ll stay somewhere close to the rail system so we can use it and see some other areas, but where we were was good for seeing most of the temple sights and street food frenzy. Just avoid the tuk-tuks entirely here and take cabs (have them use the meter, it’s always cheaper so just walk away and find another one in ten seconds if they don’t agree before you get in). If a “local” who is a “student” or something similar starts chatting you up  with seemingly helpful suggestions as you’re walking down the street, it’s a scam. We encountered (and avoided) this and later ran into other folks who were driven away to the back end of town and basically forced to buy a crappy suit.