Four to choose from
Published/Last edited or updated: 25th October, 2018
Railay’s four beaches are not made equal. In fact, one of them can hardly be called a beach at all. Another is more known for rock climbing and cheap bungalows than sun baking and swimming. The remaining two are gorgeous but host only mid- to top-range accommodation. The good news is that all of them can be enjoyed over a couple of days on Railay.
Haad Phra Nang
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, we can’t argue with the many “best beaches in Thailand” lists that have placed Haad Phra Nang at or near the top. Climbers hang on to gnarly cliffs with long limestone fingers in shades of ice blue and burnt orange at either end of this 600-metre-long beach. The southerly outlook includes a nearby karst islet, Ko Rang Nok, standing like a guard tower—at low tide you can wade out to it for a view back across the beach.
Security guards from the super-lux Rayavadee Resort suspiciously watch the beach goers, creating a vibe that we find a bit strange (non-guests are forbidden from entering resort grounds unless patronising one of the restaurants). This resort owns all of the beachfront land, and it’s the only place to stay with direct access to the sand.
In fact, Rayavadee’s owners tried to cut off all public, overland access to Haad Phra Nang when they were constructing the resort in the early 2000s, relenting only after sustained protests surrounded a sister hotel in Bangkok. The demonstrations coincided with a series of misfortunes that many locals believed to be the work of the local goddess: Phra Nang. Her spirit is thought to rest in a cave filled with phallic symbols at the southern corner of the beach. Be careful not to rouse her.
At the eastern end of the beach near the cave, a public footpath runs inland and takes you past more of the wildly shaped rocks on the way to Railay East. On the way you’ll often spot monkeys that you’d think were celebrities given the crowds of tourists they draw. Many visitors also come on day trips by boat from Ao Nang and elsewhere, and the fine khaki sand does get crowded in high season. The beach’s western end usually offers more tranquility.
Haad Railay West
Sheltered by dramatic cliffs that draw their share of climbers, this wide half-kilometre-long crescent of nearly white sand is sometimes referred to simply as Railay Beach. We swear that the huge tower of limestone at the beach’s southern end looks like a wise old elephant—a Ganesha image perhaps—when the late-day shadows hit it just right. Sunsets from Railay West, which is our favourite beach on the peninsula, can be dreamy.
From the beach you can clearly see Ko Poda and Ko Gai plus Laem Hang Nak on the mainland and Ko Yao Yai on clear days. While some will lament the noisy engines on the many boats found here, the colourful longtails do add to the scenery. Providing access to Tonsai and Ao Nang, all boats are confined to a central area with large roped-off stretches of sea allowing for safe swimming on either side. Even at low tide you’ll not have to wade far offshore to find a depth suitable for the backstroke.
Food and accommodation are notably pricey on Railay West and many visitors choose to walk here from the less expensive rooms found on Railay East. This stroll might take you down Walking Street, a small but worthwhile dining and drinking strip that extends inland from the centre of Haad Railay West. At low tide you can skirt the northern headland to reach Tonsai.
The beautiful beach houses of Railei Beach Club take up half of the beachfront land, while midrange to high-end resorts fill in the other half.
Haad Railay East
Thanks to its lacklustre beach, Railay East is by far the most developed area on the peninsula. Sound backwards? Think about it: large upscale resorts gobbled up the better beaches long ago, leaving only the land here to be filled in by a varied selection of tightly packed resorts in more recent years. For this reason, many visitors stay on Railay East and walk to the better beaches each day.
Only a narrow slice of tan sand at the far southern corner of Railay East could really be called a beach at all, unless you include the separate east-facing beach that’s hidden beyond Railay East’s northern headland and only accessible by boat or a wander through the secluded Great View Resort. Along the rest of this one kilometre of coastline you’ll find a concrete footpath studded with resorts and restaurants overlooking the mangroves. At the centre stretches a floating pier servicing longtail boats from Ao Nammao and Krabi town.
Railay East can be quite pretty despite the lack of lounge-worthy sand, especially when the tide comes right up to the shore. Low tide reveals a squishy expanse of mud flats extending for hundreds of metres, but you always get the atmospheric mangroves along with the cliffs and a southerly outlook to the mountains of Ko Jum and Ko Lanta in the distance.
While the western to central portions of Railay East are backed by only midrange to luxury resorts like Sunrise Tropical, head east to find a pair of decent budget spots: Rapala Rockwood and Garden View. The eastern end also hosts the loudest nightlife on Railay at The Last Bar and others.
This small bay stretches just north of Railay West but the steep headland makes it more difficult to reach than Railay’s other beaches. This isolation contributed to it becoming a legendary enclave of climbers and hippies, a scene that remains entrenched along the bay’s only lane, which turns into a jungle trail leading back to Railay proper. Electricity comes only from generators and while a couple of resorts now offer 24-hour power, Tonsai remains a rustic destination.
The beach itself takes second fiddle to the immense vertical cliffs that surround it. While the half-kilometre of light tan sand is scenic thanks to the cliffs and an outlook to Ko Poda and Ko Phi Phi beyond, low-tide shallows and quite a few rocks make swimming tough. Most who stay here come for the scene and dirt-cheap rates at bungalow joints like Chill Out and Tiew Khao.
The bay got weirder in 2015 (yeah, we didn't think that was possible either) when a landowner built an imposing concrete wall around almost all of the beachfront land, limiting beach access to the lone lane that dumps you at the northern end of the beach. Back then we were told that an upscale resort would eventually fill in the walled-off terrain. No new buildings had arrived when we last visited in mid 2018, but locals told us that plans for the resort are going forward and we saw construction equipment in use.
Many of Tonsai’s small business owners and long-staying backpackers channeled their anger over this new development into creativity by covering the wall in murals, poetry and humour. It ranges from sloppily spray-painted phrases like “Throw your ego over the wall” to detailed paintings. First appearing in mid 2015, a single tag with the words “Concrete Jungle” sparked this avalanche of creativity. A year and a half later, artwork covered the wall.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.