Located on the mainland yet inaccessible by road; Railay and Tonsai are two jaw-dropping bays surrounded by limestone cliffs on all sides. There’s a really magical atmosphere, with no cars, no motorbikes and no worries! Bob Marley plays on repeat in many bars, Christmas decorations still hang even though it’s July and dreadlocked dudes hang out enjoying the laid-back vibe.
With jutting rocks and crags, naturally, the area is a haven for rock climbers, who flock from all over the world to one of the best rock climbing sites in Thailand, if not the whole world. Even if you’re a beginner, the rock climbing courses here are awesome and a must-do for any adventurous traveller to Railay. You don’t have to climb high before you’re rewarding with stunning views of surrounding area…
Places to Stay
West Railay is the posh side of Rai Leh, where most holiday goers locate themselves. Unless you’ve got a big budget, forget it.
East Railay has affordable accommodation for the backpacker. There are bungalow style huts from about 200 baht the further you walk down the track. One of the cheapest spots on Railay is Rapala with basic wooden bungalows.
Ton Sai is the least developed side of the beach with dirt tracks through the forest leading to cheap accommodation and laid-back bars. It has a cool, chilled out feel which attracts a lot of backpackers and rock climbers. Cheap Pad Thai, sticky rice, mango and coconut milk, why would you want to stay anywhere else? Tonsai definitely has the cheapest selection of bungalows in the area, so be sure to wander around to find a deal that suits you.
TIP: There are no cash machines on the Ton Sai side, and even though it’s only 20-minute walk away, when the tide comes in or it goes dark, you’ll wish you’d brought enough cash!
Things to Do
Rock Climbing: Rock climbing junkies are in danger of an overdose in Railay and neighbouring Ton Sai. Without doubt, this has got to be one of the most stunning settings to climb in the world, and you don’t have to be Spiderman to scale the karsts, beginners can take to the rock with any number of excellent rock climbing schools in the area. Check out some of the excellent value for money courses here…
You can do a beginners course for either half a day or a full day where you will learn how to belay a partner, rock climb and abseil. The more hard-core amongst you can try the three-day climbing course where you learn to lead climb. This involves learning how to climb as you take the rope up yourself, tying yourself in for safety as you ascend. This means that, as long as you are confident, you can climb without a school, and only need to find climbing buddies to go out for the day with.
More experienced climbers will find no problem in finding people to climb within the bars of Ton Sai. Whatever level you’re at or whatever course you decide to do, it’s great fun and the views at the top of the turquoise waters and surrounding cliffs are out of this world. For an exhilarating, action-packed day, there’s nothing like it! When you feel the pumping in your arms as you desperately try to cling onto that stalactite and the adrenalin rush as you stretch for the last time to reach the top, you’ll be addicted. (Half day climbing lesson – 1,000-1,500 THB / Full Day – 1,800-2,500 THB.
Deep Water Soloing: Rock climbing without the safety of a rope. What are you crazy? Don’t worry, we’re not suicidal lunatics. This is a new type of sport where you climb the rock face straight from the ocean, so that if you lose your grip when ascending, you will not fall to your death but plunge into the deep water below. You can climb as high as 20 metres this way. If you are unfamiliar with the area and new to climbing it’s best to go out with one of the rock climbing companies who take groups out on a long boat from Rai Leh or Ton Sai to the perfect spots. They know where the best places are to climb in terms of the water being deep enough if you fall in, as you don’t want to be hitting rocks instead of the water. However, experienced deep water soloists, need nothing more than a kayak and a pair of climbing shoes, (some don’t even take these!) and they’re away. This is free climbing like no other.
Snorkeling and star gazing: There are lots of snorkelling trips that you can do from Krabi but whatever you do make sure you don’t miss the night snorkelling, it’s something else. I agree, snorkelling in the dark seems like crazy talk but that was before I’d heard of the tiny little creatures called phosphorous plankton. I took a half day trip from Hat Rai Leh and after a pleasant day on the boat with snorkelling stops at various inlets, we stopped for an evening meal of Thai Green Curry, cooked by the guides on Chicken Island as the sun was setting. Once the sun has set you take to the sea for the last time to see this beautiful natural phenomenon. In the water, you feel like you are swimming amidst the stars. The plankton responds to movement in the water which makes it glow in the dark, so that every time you move your body the water twinkles with tiny dots all around you. It really is a magical experience.
Kayaking: Taking to the sea on a kayak for two and exploring the coastline of Railay can be a wonderful day out. Some of the limestone karsts have sea caves which you can delve into and have a look around. Just make sure you don’t bang your head on the low, rocky ceilings. If you’re feeling energetic you can also paddle out to the undeveloped island of Ko Poda, a circular island surrounded almost completely with beautiful white sandy beaches straight out of a Thailand travel brochure. It’ll take you about an hour to get there if you give it some effort. (Or half an hour on a long boat if you’re feeling lazy.) A kayak for the day will set you back 600 baht half day, 1000 baht full day. They can be rented from the resorts on the West side of Rai Leh.
Beach Football: You could be in Brazil as dusk settles in Hat Rai Leh, as a giant football match takes place on the beach. Linger round West Rai Leh beach at about 6pm with a football shirt on and a smile on your face and no doubt you’ll get invited to play in the match with the locals. As the sun sets on the beach it’ll be hard to keep focused on the game as the surrounding scenery is breathtaking.
Hiking to the Lagoon: From West Rai Leh Beach follow the signs on the left hand side to the viewpoint of Rai Leh and Ton Sai. The climb takes about 25 minutes and is a bit tricky to be tackled in flip flops. Once at the viewpoint you descend into the jungle for another 25 minutes along a bit of a dodgy path that has ropes at the side to help. But the struggle is well worth it as the turquoise lagoon is stunningly beautiful. If you like, from here you can carry on to explore Phra Nang beach on the other side.
The Penis Cave (We’re not joking): No I don’t mean that Hat Rai Leh has turned into a nudist beach recently. I don’t think that would be acceptable in Thailand! But there is a rather strange place close by where you can look at a lot of men’s parts of many different shapes, sizes, colours and lengths. Ooh er. The unusual sculptures are housed in ‘Phra Nang’ or ‘Princess cave’ on the way to Phr Nang Beach, about 25 minutes walk from Rai Leh. The phalluses are said to be offerings by local fisherman to the Princess ‘Phra Nang’ who drowned in this area, from which the cave and the beach gets its name.
Chilling out: Once you’ve had your fill of the activities on offer, your body’s aching from rock climbing and your skins gone crinkly from snorkelling, it’s time to grab a beer and relax. With the Rastafarian fuelled atmosphere, Rai Leh and Ton Sai are a great place to sit back and chill for a few days. As the fire throwers get started and the moon lights up the surrounding rocks, guaranteed you’ll find it hard to leave this place. The only thing that might force you to leave is when you’re fed up with ‘The best of Bob Marley’ album which seems to have been played on repeat since 1964.
Railay is a peninsula that can only be reached by boat. You will need to get the bus to Krabi Town (7 hours from Bangkok) then catch a long boat from Krabi mainland which takes 30 minutes and the views are spectacular on approach.
Where to go next?
- Koh Lanta: Less than a two hour boat ride away, Koh Lanta is a large island that has beautiful beaches, diving opportunities, yoga and lots more for the backpacker, as well as a laid-back local vibe on the mangrove-clad east coast.
- Koh Phi Phi: Perhaps the most popular island for backpackers in Thailand, this place has become a party hotspot, with boat trips and snorkeling trips to the famous Maya Bay.
- Krabi: This is the name of the area which encompasses Railay, Tonsai, Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang and the Krabi mainland. Read an overview of the Krabi region here.