When I made the decision to cut my Philippines trip in half to spent more time in Thailand, I vowed that I would use at least some of my new-found days in my most beloved country to go to a new destination. And I knew exactly where I was headed. I had long been lured by stories of Railay, a tucked away collection of limestone crags and turquoise water bays facing Thailand’s Andaman coast. Not only is this area hailed as Thailand’s most naturally beautiful, it’s also home to the country’s fanatic rock climbing community.
Top rope climbers, deep water soloers, BASE jumpers, and other adventurers flock to Railay for the perfect balance of challenging climbs and laid-back rasta bars to unwind in after. For climbing hopefuls, it’s the perfect place to take an affordable intro course and test out basic techniques. While it is part of the mainland, Railay feels like an island in many ways, and can only be reached by boat. As our speedboat rounded the corner away from the unpleasant town of Ao Nang, my heart melted. I couldn’t help myself from taking photo after photo of the same limestone vistas.
We had settled on staying in Tonsai Beach over East or West Railay as we were attracted by the promise of a chilled backpacker vibe. However, I didn’t do much research and was shocked to find that wifi and daytime electricity were practically unheard of on this tiny stretch of sand. While we debated staying on one of the other slightly more upscale beaches instead, I was already charmed by Tonsai and didn’t want to leave for any reason. There was one woman charging 200 baht (around $6) for 24 hours of wifi, which I ended up biting the bullet and buying twice during the week.
In general I found accommodation and food to be of a slightly worse value for money than can be found on Thailand’s east coast. After a few nights in a horrible bungalow that was hot and noisy and felt moments from collapse at all times for 500 baht ($15) a night, we finally splashed out at and paid 1,000 baht ($30) a night for a cute bungalow with an outdoor bathroom, a pool, and a breakfast buffet for two. It was the best value splurge I had in Thailand.
During the day, most of Railay’s visitors can be found scaling its limestone karsts in some fashion. The rest are split between paddleboarding or kayaking between beaches, scuba diving on nearby Koh Phi Phi, or simply relaxing in white sand beach bars.
In the evening, the crowds flock to Railay West to watch the nightly show put on by the sunset and then pass between beaches with relative ease thanks to low tide. The relaxed, rasta-inspired nightlife of Tonsai was one of my favorite things about it and a major reason to stay there over the other beaches, in my opinion. One bar on the nightly crawl along the beach featured the best firedancer I have ever had the privilege to watch — I was mesmerized and came back night after night to watch him spin while backpackers tried out slacklining in the background.
While I normally shun beach-front restaurants for being pricier and less delicious than their backstreet counterparts, in Railay I was drawn to the waterfront with a magnetic pull. For much of the week I could be found simply gazing out to the bay, muttering to myself about natural beauty and eventually whipping myself into a photo-explosion frenzy.
On one particularly ambitious day MM and I decided to rent kayaks and do a proper exploration of the hidden beaches and bays of Railay. Our first stop was the pristine Phra Nang beach, the kind of place that postcards were invented in order to brag about.
Here we found some, ahem, unusual shrines, as well as access to Railay’s hidden blue lagoon. We decided to set off the for the hidden pool while barefoot and on the brink of starvation, thinking it would be a quick scramble over some rocks and something to tick off the list. Nowhere did I recall the warning in Lonely Planet that this was a “strenuous hike with some serious vertigo-inducing parts.”
The resulting views were worth the exertion, but I did come dangerously close to losing my patience with the people clogging up the narrow rope-assisted routes up and down. I try not to pass judgement on people with different levels of tolerance for adventure than I do, but honestly — I will refrain from repeating the thoughts that went through my head at the time and instead blame hunger-induced temporary insanity.
Back on the beach, lunch was via the Thai version of a New York City food truck. Shockingly, prices were incredibly decent and I had the best pineapple fried rice of my trip.
The rest of the day was dedicated to working off those mango sticky rice calories with some serious paddling. It hardly feels like a workout though, when you’ve got surroundings like this.
In the end Railay and its hippie core in Tonsai stole my heart — the week passed all too quickly and I wasn’t ready to leave when the time did come. I loved trying out the new adventures of rock climbing and deep water soloing (posts to come!) but more than anything I enjoyed watching monkeys play in the palm trees above my head, taking a mini-break from constant connectivity, dipping into clear blue waters, and soaking in one of the most beautiful places I’ve been on this Earth.
Have you been to Tonsai in Railay? Did it steal your heart the way it stole mine?