“No base jumping off the cliff” reads a small sign along the path from Railay East to Haad Pha Nang. If it weren’t for that, you could easily miss the steep trail head leading up to a breathtaking viewpoint and hidden lagoon amid the cliffs that rise towards the tip of the Railay peninsula. Those who suffer from acrophobia or a general lack of balance should give this one a pass.
Coloured by chalky brick-red clay and smoothed by the many feet that have ascended it, the “trail” — “wall” perhaps more accurate — begins by cutting upwards at around 70 degrees: steep enough for many to say, “yeah, I don’t think so.” Though I’m not a rock climber, I found it manageable thanks to the many notches and ropes. My upward refrain: “This isn’t so bad.”
After the initial steep incline, the terrain leveled into a normal hiking trail. A sea breeze rustled the tropical growth. A side trail soon cut left before emerging at the crest of a sheer cliff that puts you high above Railay East. From here you can see almost the entire peninsula, including Ao Tonsai beyond the cliff that marks the end of Railay West. Feeling prematurely proud of my amateur climbing abilities, I took a few minutes to soak it in.
I then took a shortcut that, according to a sign, would drop me at Sa Phra Nang Lagoon after a mere 20 metres. Instead it led me into thick jungle brush and, having left my machete back in the bungalow, I was forced to turn back towards the main trail. After finding it, I enjoyed a leisurely stroll alongside limestone crags, tall reaching palms and the snaking roots of massive dectarocarp trees.
A fellow hiker told me that the lagoon wasn’t far, just down another “little wall.” “Oh yeah, it’s easy,” he exclaimed with the confidence of a seasoned climber. “But I’m not, like, a mountain climber,” I responded. “Good luck then,” and he was gone with a shrug.
Wearily I climbed down a few boulders, reaching a point where I could actually see the lagoon through a slit between two cliffs. From there, all that separated me from it was a roughly five-metre-high, 90-degree drop. Hanging on tight, I dangled my foot down and probed for something solid. It felt slippery. My thigh muscles stiffened. Oh yes, I freaked out.
“Good job,” a young woman in a bikini top shouted as I stumbled back up the hill. “No I don’t deserve it, too steep, I didn’t make it,” I responded as she laughed before beginning her graceful (and successful) descent. “If I were 10 years younger, I’d be swimming in that lagoon right now.” Maybe so, but as the old saying goes, better safe than sorry.
In the end, it took me a good half-hour to make it back down that first steep part and safely on to level ground. It was easier on the way up. By the time I sat down in the pavilion that stands across from the trail head, I had slightly pulled a muscle in my thigh, my shirt was drenched in sweat and my clothes were painted red from all of the clay. Enjoy that photo of the viewpoint, dear readers, because it’s the only one you’re going to get from this correspondent.
In all seriousness, the climb should not be attempted when it’s raining. I (stupidly) did it in flip flops, but bare feet or, better yet, climbing shoes would have been a lot smarter. Big chunky running or tennis shoes can actually work against you when it’s necessary to notch your feet into the rocky ridges. And don’t forget the no base jumping rule!