Towering above the Andaman Sea, a rock climber muscles her way up one of the impenetrable limestone cliffs that cut Railay off from the rest of Krabi province. At sunset, the exhilarated climbers descend to lounge alongside top-end luxury travellers and scruffy backpackers on brilliant beaches. Not an island, nor a beach town, the Railay peninsula is one of a kind.
Also spelt Rai Leh, this breathtaking mainland destination can only be reached by boat, making it feel like you’re actually on an island. Rimmed by four beaches, including one — Haad Phra Nang — that often appears on “best beaches in the world” lists, it’s a prime place to soak up scenes of emerald water lapping onto powdery sand framed by karst cliffs.
Railay is perhaps best known as one of the world’s great rock-climbing destinations, with over 700 routes bolted to dozens of cliffs pegged with crags and caves. Several climbing schools operate on the peninsula, though in 2016 a new national park chief instituted strict guidelines for overseeing climbing on the peninsula. He also banned deep water soloing (DWS), a hugely popular activity that entails free-climbing a cliff and then plummeting back down into the sea.
While there’s a lot to love about Railay, it’s also one among many of Thailand’s natural gems that have been hastily developed and irresponsibly managed. Your first impression might be one of concrete walls, low-hanging wires and macaques picking through garbage. Though it’s partly overseen by the Hat Noppharat Thara – Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park, Railay is not exactly pristine.
Trash management is an obvious problem, with neither authorities nor business owners taking responsibility for tidying up many of the public walkways. Of course, the tourists are also partly to blame. Help keep the problem at bay by using the water refilling station next to Bang Bang Bar along the inland walkway near Railay East, and otherwise by tossing your trash where it belongs.
Other pitfalls include occasional tap water shortages, salty tap water and, worst of all, food poisoning. We suffered the latter on one fateful visit, and it appears that we weren’t alone: an online browse reveals an alarmingly high number of stories about holidays spent staring at bathroom walls. Several restaurants are implicated, hinting at a broad sanitation issue. Apart from dining at high-end resorts that presumably use purified water in the kitchen, appealing to the local goddess for belly protection might be your best hope.
The four beaches all have a distinctive vibe and accommodation scene, with no budget options available on Railay West or Haad Phra Nang. While most visitors tend to stay put on the peninsula, those in the mood for some island hopping can take a day trip to the splendid offshore islands of Ko Poda and Ko Hong, among others. Leave as early as possible to avoid the hordes from Ao Nang.
The local community consists mainly of resort workers and rock-climbing instructors, resulting in a rather strange dynamic. Partying gap-year Americans; flirtatious Krabi boatmen; extreme sports enthusiasts; national park officials; package Chinese tour groups; grass-smoking hippies; chubby Euro day trippers; super-rich holidaymakers; low-wage Burmese labourers and middle-class Thais who make it a point to visit Phra Nang, the local fertility goddess — all of them rub shoulders on Railay.
High season in this part of Thailand runs from November to April. Expect spiked accommodation rates during peak season from mid December through mid February, and especially around the Christmas/New Year holidays. Though most resorts stay open with reduced rates in the rainy season from May to October, many restaurants close, boats run less frequently and storms blow through on the regular. If the sea is rough, think twice about that boat trip.
Two small medical clinics are found on Railay: one on the cross-peninsula path that runs alongside Railay Bay Resort, and another next to Anyavee Resort on Railay East. There’s also a pharmacy on Railay East. Any serious medical issue will require a boat ride to Krabi town.
We didn’t notice any police presence on Railay, but the national park officials should be able to help if problems arise. The main park information centre is located where the walkway to Haad Phra Nang begins at the far southern end of Railay East, and a smaller visitor centre is found at the entrance to Phra Nang Nai Cave along the inland lane.
ATMs are located at Viewpoint Resort and Princess Resort on Railay East; along the cross-peninsula lane next to Railay Bay Resort; and on Walking Street near Railay West, where you’ll also find a currency exchange booth. Internet cafes are available at Railay Village Resort on Railay West and Dream Valley Resort in Ao Tonsai, among other places. The cell signal is strong throughout most of Railay, though it weakens as you head into the jungle behind Tonsai.
A walkway running alongside Railay Bay Resort connects Railay East to Railay West. Alternately, take a third walkway that cuts inland to the immediate right of Avatar Resort on Railay East. When you reach the crossroads, a left will take you to Railay West via “Walking Street,” while a right cuts past Phra Nang Nai Cave before heading uphill to Puthawan and Cabana resorts, and finally to the forest path to Ao Tonsai. The seaside walkway along Railay East stretches fairly far to the northeast, leading to the isolated Garden View and Great View resorts.
Unless you’re staying at the lavish Rayavadee Resort, Haad Phra Nang can only be reached by land via a walkway that starts from the southwestern corner of Railay East and winds beneath caves and troupes of monkeys who will snatch your water bottle or camera if you’re not careful. About halfway along this walkway, a steep trail shoots uphill to a viewpoint and lagoon.
Of the three ways to reach Ao Tonsai, the easiest is to pay 50 baht per person for a longtail boat from Railay West. From here you could also paddle a kayak beyond the northwestern headland, or try to wade it at low tide.
If you feel like playing king of the mountain on the way to Tonsai, look for a log leaned up against a large rock at the base of the headland at the northern end of Railay West, and climb upwards. Though rugged throughout, the trail levels up top before cutting steeply down and dropping you at the southern corner of Ao Tonsai. From here you’ll need to wade — or swim at high tide — around the side of a large boulder before reaching the main Tonsai beach. Though it took us only around 15 minutes, this trail is quite steep in places and a slip could be tragic. Don’t attempt it barefoot, after dark, or while under the influence.
For the long and scenic way, take the inland walkway that cuts past Puthawan Resort and hang a right onto the narrow dirt trail that begins adjacent to Cabana Garden’s reception area. After only 30 steps or so, take the first trail on the left — you’ve missed it if you reach a defunct hillside bungalow joint (there are no signs to Tonsai). The pleasant hike takes you up through dense jungle and, after around 20 minutes, down into the backside of Ao Tonsai.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 10th October, 2016.