Railay's Fantastic Beaches
Railay is a peninsula made up of four beaches, each separated from its neighbour by huge cliffs. Although not an island, access is by boat only, and there are no motor vehicles.
Whilst Railay is southeast Asia's premier rock climbing destination, it is far from being a destination that only climbers will enjoy. Home to two of southeast Asia's finest beaches, it is also a great place to do nothing much except soak up the rays and the peaceful atmosphere, admire the scenery and maybe puzzle at the ant-sized antics of the climbers battling up the rock-faces. If you are one of those for whom relaxation is aided by watching other people do energetic things, Railay is the place for you.
Railay is less easily accessible than most other Thai beach destinations. To get there requires a taxi from Krabi airport, followed by a boat ride, followed by a walk along the beach to your resort - not the easiest of journeys. This, plus the fact that many visitors want to stay on an island and not on a peninsula, have meant that Railay hasn't seen quite the same vast numbers of tourists as other Thai destinations, so has been kept relatively pristine: for example, there are no buildings above palm tree height. Railay has thus been fortunate enough to have been somewhat overlooked by the mainstream tourist industry: the usually excellent as well as readable Insight Guide to Thailand, for example, completely neglects to mention the place.
Railay is home to the swish Rayavadee Resort. There may be more high-brow establishments is southeast Asia, but surely none can beat Rayavadee's location, with direct access to three beaches: Phra Nang, West Railay and East Railay. This is the only place on Railay which offers 5-star comforts and cuisine.
The Railay West beach resorts serve great Thai food in a fabulous setting. The only true gourmet restaurants on Railay are at the Rayavadee, which protects its guests' privacy by making the whole establishment, including the eateries, off-limits to non-residents. If you book by telephone in advance you may get a table, but don't arrive too under-dressed, or you won't be allowed in.
Phra Nang is arguably the finest beach in Thailand, if not southeast Asia. Boracay beach in the Philippines used to hold this title, but has now been, except at the exclusive north end, sadly spoiled by over-population. A broad strip of white sand with massive cliffs framing each end of the beach, Phra Nang has just enough facilities: roast chicken and salad lunches cooked on the beach, massage ladies and people inconspicuously selling cold drinks. It still thankfully lacks all the things that spoil a beach: pollution, traffic, noise, over-enthusiastic hawkers, jet-skis and lager louts. The only resort on the beach is the exclusive and unobtrusive Rayavadee, but you don't have to stay there to enjoy the place. You can reach Phra Nang on foot from anywhere on Railay or by longtail boat from Ao Nang: just bring a beach towel and a book, and you won't have to move untill it's time to leave. There is a seven-metre high rock from which you can safely cliff-jump into the sea - but only do so at high tide, unless you fancy feeding the fishes.
If you are really lucky you might even get a free lunch there, as this writer did recently:
I went up to the longtail boat selling food and drink and ordered some lunch. The cook handed me my food and then, ignoring the money I was proferring, jumped to the back of the boat, started up the engine and roared off. Reassured by my companion that there was nothing wrong with my after-shave and that my speedos weren't too brief, we puzzled for a moment over why my money wasn't worth bothering with, untill the answer roared up - a police launch sped into the bay and chased the food hawkers away.
There are pretty much always some rock-climbing guides 'bouldering' on the rock-faces at the southern end of the beach. Bouldering is a rope-free variation of rock-climbing, where the climber climbs up a couple of metres and then traverses the rock-face, relying on the sand underneath to cushion any falls. The athleticism of some of these guides is a sight worth seeing - some of them they have climbed these routes an infinity of times and have perfected the graceful power-yoga moves necessary to execute the necessary contortions. The most popular bouldering route is called 'Money Maker', as often Western visitors will approach the guides on this route and book courses. If the sight of the climbers falling off the surrounding cliffs onto the sand makes you feel like some exercise, then maybe wander across to Phra Nang cave and admire or envy all the huge red-tipped phalluses there. If you feel like stretching your legs, then maybe take the short stroll to West Railay beach, from where you can take a longtail boat back to Ao Nang. There are more pristine beaches in Thailand (Koh Hong, Koh Yao Noi, Koh Jum and Koh Lao Liang spring to mind), but none that so perfectly balance natural beauty with exactly the right level of facilities.
Whereas Phra Nang beach has a quiet, cosy feel, West Railay beach is more majestic. A long, broad strip of white sand framed at each end by huge cliffs, West Railay has more activities going on than does Phra Nang. On most days in high season there are games of football and beach volleyball, in which visitors are welcome to join in. The Railay Bay Resort is blessed with an unbeatable location at the beach's southern end and is a great place to stay, if you can put up with the notoriously slow restaurant service. Just collapse onto a deck-chair by the beach-side pool for one of the best views in southeast Asia: to the left rock-climbers battle the magnificent Thaiwand Wall and to the right the bay stretches away past Tonsai to the massive Sleeping Indian cliffs, so named because that is exactly what they resemble, at night. The kilometre-long Sleeping Indian is lying on his back, with his hands folded across his midriff, his feet sticking up and a feather sticking out of his headdress - it's an uncanny resemblance.
The place to catch the sunset is at Coco's very comfortable bar, right in the middle of the beach. This, the only bar on West Railay, is always a quiet one and has to be a candidate for being southeast Asia's best beach bar. After sunset West Railay beach starts to empty and by midnight is usually almost completely deserted, except for the occasional party of illicit skinny-dippers, enjoying a dip au naturel at the northern end of the beach, where there are no resorts and so no people around. If single and joining in such an expedition then it's a good idea to check that you are not going for a swim with an even number of people, as the group may turn out to consist of you and some couples, who will make you feel really silly once they hit the water and start cuddling. Midnight swims, au naturel or otherwise, are sensational on dark nights, when the brilliant-blue bioluminescence in the water lights up disturbed water like a neon Christmas tree. To best appreciate this amazing phenomenon, bring a pair of swimming goggles along and swim underwater for a while: the bioluminescence will wreath your body in a million tiny blue lights, in surely the loveliest clothes you've ever worn.
Mangrove-lined East Railay beach is where you will find the budget accommodation and the nightlife, which is lively and wholesome, due to the absence of any girly bars. Well worth a visit is the Diamond Cave, a deep grotto lined with stalactites that sparkle so much that they look like they're covered in diamonds. If you have a guitar, maybe take advantage of the fantastic acoustics for a strum and sing-song with some friends - don't forget to take some candles to create a really otherworldly atmosphere for your concert. During the daytime East Railay can not compare in beauty with either West Railay or Phra Nang, but at night the mangroves look very pretty and the huge lit-up rock-faces lend the scene a spectacular back-drop.
Ton Sai beach houses southeast Asia's densest population of rock-climbers. If you don't climb then you won't enjoy staying here, as the climbers never talk about anything except climbing and many of them look down their noses at non-climbers. The density of the budget accommodation here has led to the same sanitary problems as are found on the central Phi Phi and Lipe beaches. Many Ton Sai residents stay for months at a time and most of them at some stage in their visit get food-poisoning, which can be serious, with hospital evacuations not unknown. Visitors who want to walk over to Tonsai from West Railay in order to watch the climbers for an hour or two are advised to do it on a full stomach, in order to avoid the need to patronize the Ton Sai restaurants. A short visit to Ton Sai is highly recommended, as it is a unique opportunity to watch, up-close, the antics of some of the world's best rock climbers, whose gravity-defying gymnastics are simply amazing. Don't be surprised, if when sitting at the Freedom Bar watching the climbers, a climber abseils into the chair next to you and orders a beer.
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