Photo: Looking over West Railay.

Introduction

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A climber ascends a final ledge, summiting to see brilliant beaches stretching beneath vertical limestone massifs as longtail boats and isles dot the Andaman Sea in three directions. Not an island, nor a beach town, the Railay peninsula is one of the most breathtaking spots in Thailand.


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Reaching from the coast of Krabi province like a hitchhiker’s thumb, Railay feels more like an island than part of the mainland due to a half-ring of impenetrable cliffs denying overland access. Unless you’re some sort of spider person, you will arrive by sea. Some of the cliffs rise to hundreds of metres and many are rigged with rock climbing routes. A bunch of climbing outfits offer assistance, education and gear, keeping up Railay’s status as a key waypoint for climbers in Southeast Asia.

The setting can be close to sublime. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

The setting can be close to sublime. Photo: David Luekens

Between the gnarly cliffs stretch four beaches that any lucky human could hope to visit once in their lives. They draw families, honeymooners, hippies and sand snobs from the world over and host around 25 places to stay, ranging from high-end luxury villas right on down to the humblest bamboo shacks.

Backpacking climbers set the tone for Railay’s tourism situation in the 1980s and ‘90s and while they remain in full force, the peninsula went through a phase of serious development starting in the 2000s. Much of the flat isthmus between beaches now contains tightly packed resorts made up of multi-floor concrete room blocks. If you can look past the cement walls, low-hanging wires and scavenging macaques, Railay can be enjoyable for strolling and it did look cleaner in May 2018 than on our previous visits.

The more sedate East Railay. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

The more sedate East Railay. Photo: David Luekens

Existing in a recently threatened isolation of reggae vibes, limited electricity and climbing enthusiasm, Tonsai is Railay’s awkward-yet-artistic-hippie-climbing beach of backpacking lore. This alternate universe of Thailand can only be reached by boat, a low-tide wade or a jungle trail.

Railay is popular with North Americans to an extent we’ve not seen anywhere else in Thailand. Other Anglophones also visit in scores along with Europeans, Indians, Chinese, Thais and many others. Some loud nightlife and bars draped in weed smoke draw young travellers to certain spots, but families and older seclusion seekers also have their places. Some stay for extended periods while many come on day trips from nearby Ao Nang and Krabi town.

Have a float. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

Have a float. Photo: David Luekens

Long-term residents are mainly tourism workers, climbing instructors and small business owners from Krabi province and elsewhere in southern Thailand. Others come from Bangkok, Burma and the West. Plenty of lovely folks live on Railay, but the freewheeling atmosphere also attracts some sexual predators and other shady characters. Keep your guard up in the bars and on the dark inland footpaths at night.

Giving back
Railay is on the radar for Trash Hero, a non-profit that started cleaning up Ko Lipe in 2011 and has since blossomed into a global organisation. Consider joining other volunteers for a few hours to clear trash from Railay’s shores; they meet every Monday at noon at The Last Bar on Railay East.




Orientation
Also known as Laem Phra Nang, the Railay peninsula is centrally located in Thailand’s Andaman region. Its shores put you within hopping distance of Krabi town, Ao Nang, Haad Noppharat Thara, Ko Phi Phi, Phuket, Ko Jum, Ko Lanta and Ko Yao Noi, among other islands and mainland beaches.

Evening lightshow. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

Evening lightshow. Photo: David Luekens

Those arriving from Krabi town and Ao Nammao disembark at a floating pier off Railay East. Those arriving from Ao Nang arrive on Railay West, Haad Phra Nang or Tonsai—passengers’ choice. Railay has no vehicles apart from the golf carts and tuk tuks used by some resorts, but it’s easy to walk around.

A walkway running alongside Railay Bay Resort connects Railay East to Railay West, a distance of only 400 metres. Another walkway cuts inland next to Avatar Resort on Railay East and leads uphill to a crossroads: a left cuts to Railay West via the “Walking Street” food and shopping strip, while a right runs past Phra Nang Nai Cave before heading uphill to Phutawan Resort and the forest path to Tonsai.

Phra Nang can be pretty. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

Phra Nang can be pretty. Photo: David Luekens

The seaside walkway rimming Railay East stretches for more than a kilometre to the northeast, ending at the secluded Great View Resort and a hidden south-facing beach beyond that. 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 before emerging at the Phra Nang cave shrine and some of the most dazzling seaside cliffs we’ve ever seen.

Ao Tonsai stretches just beyond Railay West’s western headland, but there’s no easy way in. You have five options: Go by kayak; pay 300 baht for a longtail boat; climb a steep trail over the headland; wade or swim around the headland (not too difficult at low tide); or take the 1.5-kilometre hike and enter the back way through the jungle. We usually opt for the jungle walk.

Railay parking lot. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

Railay parking lot. Photo: David Luekens

To find the jungle trail to Tonsai, walk past Phutawan Resort and look for the sign pointing right as you enter the now-defunct Garden Cabana Bungalows. After turning right on to the trail, almost immediately you’ll need to turn left down an easy-to-miss trail, which branches through a field of grass (the wider trail running straight ends just up the hill at some derelict bungalows). Once on the trail there’s a mildly steep climb followed by a pleasant stroll through the forest before you arrive at the first of the bungalow joints.

Mu Koh Phi Phi – Hat Noppharat National Park covers parts of Railay, but, at time of writing, visitors were not being charged the entrance fee.

When to go
High season runs from November to April but most of Railay stays active and open all year. Quite expensive in high season and verging on outrageous at peak times in late December and January, room rates fall drastically during low season from May through October. In these slower months you’ll often luck out with a few days of sunny weather along with a few more having at least some rain. The sea off Railay does get rough in low season, when boat tours are not generally safe. Prepare for savage mosquitos all year round.

Taking an artistic approach to an ugly wall on Tonsai. Photo taken in or around Railay Beach, Thailand by David Luekens.

Taking an artistic approach to an ugly wall on Tonsai. Photo: David Luekens

Money, internet, electricity
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. The cell signal is strong throughout most of Railay, though it weakens as you head into the jungle behind Tonsai. WiFi is widely available. While most of Railay now has 24-hour electricity, all but two of the places to stay in Tonsai still switch on generators from around 18:00 to 23:00 only.

Emergency: Medical
Railay has four small medical clinics. For more serious issues, expect a trip to hospital in Krabi town. Bangkok International Clinic: Walking Street near Railay West; T: (080) 120 0039
Railay Internatonal Clinic: Just east of Anyavee Resort on Railay East; T: (075) 818 319; (098) 067 7601
SOS Railay Clinic: Inland on the walkway next to Railay Bay Resort; T: (098) 010 9993; (084) 378 3057
Tonsai Clinic: At Mountain View Resort, Tonsai; T: (095) 687 6175

Emergency: Police
We’ve never noticed any police presence on Railay at all. Ao Nang police oversee it, boating over when necessary. If you need assistance, call them, the local tourist police and/or the Krabi town police. Rangers at the national park base at Phra Nang Nai Cave may also be able to help. Ao Nang Police: T: (075) 639 163
Ao Nang Tourist Police: T: (075) 637 208
Krabi Town Police: T: (075) 611 222

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