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Railay Beach

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In a nutshell

Lounge on one of Thailand's most magnificent beaches and pay respects to the local goddess. Explore the caves, climb the rocks, journey to a hidden lagoon or kayak away an afternoon. Railay is the stuff that travel daydreams are made of.

Cut off from the rest of the mainland by a string of dramatic limestone cliffs, Railay Beach (alternately spelled 'Rai Leh') is among the most spectacular beach destinations in Thailand.

It has however been quickly and not always thoughtfully developed -- expect no shortage of ugly concrete walls, noisy construction sites and bland cookie-cutter resorts that seem to stretch for miles. Like nearby Ko Phi Phi, Railay's development could have been so much better. Still, there's no denying the natural beauty of Railay's beaches, sheltered by cliffs where rock climbers navigate the crevices and locals offer prayers at cave shrines dedicated to the area's very own mythical goddess -- Mae Nang.

Railay has no local community apart from those who perform some type of tourist-related work, so don't expect an "authentic" cultural experience. The overall dynamic is a bit strange really; partying gap year backpackers, flirtatious local longtail drivers, extreme sports enthusiasts, jaded Thai receptionists, national park officials, package Asian tour groups, grass-smoking hippies, chubby beer-guzzling day trippers, super rich holiday makers and poor Burmese labourers all rub shoulders on the paths of Railay.

While the powdery white sand beaches attract boat loads of travellers, Railay is perhaps best known as one of the world's greatet rock-climbing destinations. Over 700 routes are bolted to dozens of sheer rock faces, often with commanding views of the surrounding ocean. For the adventurous, one of the most popular activities in is deep-water soloing, which combines solo rock-climbing and base jumping into pristine blue sea.

Apart from beach-lounging and rock-climbing, other activities include cave exploration, trekking to viewpoints and a hidden lagoon, beach volleyball, yoga, kayaking, snorkelling and stupidly entering a Thai boxing ring for the first time after downing more beers than you can count. Also in the vein of "you're going to regret it later", a few tattoo shops are found on Railay East.

Many choose to visit Railay's beaches as a day trip, returning to the greater food choices and cheaper accommodation of Ao Nang or Krabi town after the sun goes down. On the other hand, backpackers who are into rock-climbing and reggae often vanish into the budget bungalows and 'out there' atmosphere of Tonsai Bay for months at a time. On Railay proper, visitors can choose between a super top-end resort, mostly uninspiring high end to midrange digs and a few cheap bungalow joints. Due to its difficulty to reach, the peninsula feels more like an island and has the marked up prices to match.

East Railay Bay is the most developed area on the peninsula. Skirted by a concrete walkway, most of the beach consists of mangroves, or what's left of them, and swimming is only possible at high tide though most don't bother as the better beaches aren't too far away. The bay is sheltered on either side by beautiful cliffs. It's lovely at high tide when longtail boats bob amid the mangroves, but becomes a veritable mud pit when the receded water leaves a smelly, squishy, litter-strewn flat at low tide. East Railay is home to the widest selection of budget to midrange accommodation, restaurants and Railay's only real nightlife.

Phra Nang Bay is one of the most visually stunning beaches in Thailand. Fine white sand and aquamarine water are flanked on either side by towering cliffs with rock formations that look like a giant's fingers reaching into the sea. The beach's southern end is home to Phra Nang Cave and its colourful shrine piled high with phalluses left by couples seeking the resident goddess' help with child conception. A single top-end resort offers beachfront on Phra Nang, so unless you're ready to shell out many thousands of baht per night, you'll need to access the beach via the public walkway from Railay East.

West Railay Bay also boasts fine sand and is the largest and most popular beach in the area. It's occupied by four upscale resorts, a few restaurants and around eight million longtail boats with mostly un-muffled engines that detract from what should be a serene paradise. Railay West tends to fill up with day trippers from Ao Nang, but after dark it quiets to a whisper. A handful of restaurants dish out very pricey food and drinks on the "walking street" that connects Railway West to Railay East.

Tonsai Bay is at once off-the-beaten track and a popular destination for the right crowd -- it's really one of the most unusual beach destinations in Thailand. For one thing, the world-class climbing opportunities are the main draw for most and the decent beach is an after thought. For another, it requires an effort to get here here, and once you're here it takes an effort to leave. The crowd is young, but unlike Ko Phi Phi with its party beach of the same name, the vibe is mellow. Visitors tend to kick back communally and sip a few beers rather than pound buckets and dance the night away. But there's more to it than that. Let's put it this way: two popular bars are called Chill Out and Stoners. Pictures of Bob Marley abound. What, do we gotta spell it out for you? Only the three priciest places to stay offer 24-hour electricity and Tonsai has no shortage of dirt cheap bungalows.

The four bays are connected by concrete walkways and hiking trails. A footpath leads straight from Sunrise Tropical Resort on Railay East to Railay Bay Resort on Railay West. The walk takes a leisurely ten minutes.

The seaside walkway along Railay East stretches fairly far to the northeast, leading to two of the more interesting (and isolated) resorts on the peninsula -- Railay Garden View and Railay Great View.

Phra Nang Beach is reached by a walkway that starts from the southwestern tip of Railay East and takes you past caves and often troupes of monkeys. About half way down this walkway, a steep trail shoots sharply uphill and leads to a viewpoint after around 20 minutes, depending on how fast of a climber you are. From here, another steep trail leads down to a lagoon surrounded by cliffs after another 20 minutes or so.

Take the concrete walkway that begins next to Bhu Nga Thani Resort on Railay East and you'll reach a crossroads. Go left (west) and you'll come out at "walking street" on Railay West. Go right (northeast) and you'll pass Phra Nang Nai Cave and a handful of isolated bungalow joints. Keep right along the trail that begins in front of Railay Cabana Resort and you'll reach Tonsai Bay after a relatively rugged 30 minute hike through the forest. Tonsai can also be reached by longtail boat from Railay West, or by skirting the rocks along the coast at low tide, but beware this route is a tad treacherous in places.

There are no hospitals or medical clinics on Railay -- any medical issues will require a boat ride to Krabi town. There is however a pharmacy on Railay East. We did not see any sort of police presence at Railay whatsoever. If you need police assistance, head to the visitor centre at the far southern tip of Railay East, where the walkway to Phra Nang Beach begins, and/or call the tourist police hotline directly at 1155.

Railay has two ATMs, one at the convenience store next to Viewpoint Resort on Railay East and the other at "walking street" on Railay West. There are no ATMs at Tonsai.

WiFi is available at most resorts and Bamboo Bar on Railay East. Internet stations can be found at several resorts, including Diamond Cave on Railay East and Dream Valley at Tonsai. WiFi is limited at Tonsai due to lack of electricity for most of the day.

Related reading

2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
An extra day in Krabi
Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
Check Railay Beach hotel rates on Agoda. Best price guarantee!

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Our recommendations

More information

For the budget traveller, Railay is a somewhat tricky destination. Aside from one rather crummy bungalow spot on Railay East, most of the cheap digs are found on Tonsai, but its hippie-ish atmosphere isn't for everyone. A handful of decent cheapish bungalows are pushed to the far end of Railay East, though staying at these will also require a walk to the best beaches.

If you were considering splashing out for a midrange place to stay at some point during your trip, Railay West is a good place to do it. We'd be inclined to rent a private beach house at Railei Beach Club, though a villa at any of the neighbouring resorts should do the trick. No matter where you stay, be sure to check out Phra Nang beach -- it's one of the most stunning in the world.

Unless you're here for a rockclimbing holiday, Railay is arguably better approached as a day trip from Krabi town or Ao Nang, especially if you're on a tight budget. One or two days is enough to lounge on all of Railay's beaches, explore its caves, do some kayaking and kick back in a beach bar. For an extended beach getaway, we feel Ko Lanta or one of the less travelled local islands are better options. With that said, Railay is well worth at least a day.

Text and/or map last updated on 20th February, 2014.

Last reviewed by:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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