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.
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!).
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!
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!
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!).
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:
- The jungle path- this is long, hilly and had a spider bigger than my hand in the middle of the trail.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.