The Beauty of Railay
When I made the decision to cut my Philippines trip in half to spent more time in Thailand, I vowed that I would use at least some of my new-found days in my most beloved country to go to a new destination. And I knew exactly where I was headed.
Top rope climbers, deep water soloers, BASE jumpers, and other adventurers flock to Railay for the perfect balance of challenging climbs and laid-back rasta bars to unwind in after. For climbing hopefuls, it’s the perfect place to take an affordable intro course and test out basic techniques. While it is part of the mainland, Railay feels like an island in many ways, and can only be reached by boat. As our speedboat rounded the corner away from the unpleasant town of Ao Nang, my heart melted. I couldn’t help myself from taking photo after photo of the same limestone vistas.
We had settled on staying in Tonsai Beach over East or West Railay as we were attracted by the promise of a chilled backpacker vibe. However, I didn’t do much research and was shocked to find that wifi and daytime electricity were practically unheard of on this tiny stretch of sand. While we debated staying on one of the other slightly more upscale beaches instead, I was already charmed by Tonsai and didn’t want to leave for any reason. There was one woman charging 200 baht (around $6) for 24 hours of wifi, which I ended up biting the bullet and buying twice during the week.
In general I found accommodation and food to be of a slightly worse value for money than can be found on Thailand’s east coast. After a few nights in a horrible bungalow that was hot and noisy and felt moments from collapse at all times for 500 baht ($15) a night, we finally splashed out at Dream Valley Resort and paid 1,000 baht ($30) a night for a cute bungalow with an outdoor bathroom, a pool, and a breakfast buffet for two. It was the best value splurge I had in Thailand.
During the day, most of Railay’s visitors can be found scaling its limestone karsts in some fashion. The rest are split between paddleboarding or kayaking between beaches, scuba diving on nearby Koh Phi Phi, or simply relaxing in white sand beach bars.
In the evening, the crowds flock to Railay West to watch the nightly show put on by the sunset and then pass between beaches with relative ease thanks to low tide. The relaxed, rasta-inspired nightlife of Tonsai was one of my favorite things about it and a major reason to stay there over the other beaches, in my opinion. One bar on the nightly crawl along the beach featured the best firedancer I have ever had the privilege to watch — I was mesmerized and came back night after night to watch him spin while backpackers tried out slacklining in the background.
While I normally shun beach-front restaurants for being pricier and less delicious than their backstreet counterparts, in Railay I was drawn to the waterfront with a magnetic pull. For much of the week I could be found simply gazing out to the bay, muttering to myself about natural beauty and eventually whipping myself into a photo-explosion frenzy.
On one particularly ambitious day MM and I decided to rent kayaks and do a proper exploration of the hidden beaches and bays of Railay. Our first stop was the pristine Phra Nang beach, the kind of place that postcards were invented in order to brag about.
Here we found some, ahem, unusual shrines, as well as access to Railay’s hidden blue lagoon. We decided to set off the for the hidden pool while barefoot and on the brink of starvation, thinking it would be a quick scramble over some rocks and something to tick off the list. Nowhere did I recall the warning in Lonely Planet that this was a “strenuous hike with some serious vertigo-inducing parts.”
The resulting views were worth the exertion, but I did come dangerously close to losing my patience with the people clogging up the narrow rope-assisted routes up and down. I try not to pass judgement on people with different levels of tolerance for adventure than I do, but honestly — I will refrain from repeating the thoughts that went through my head at the time and instead blame hunger-induced temporary insanity.
Back on the beach, lunch was via the Thai version of a New York City food truck. Shockingly, prices were incredibly decent and I had the best pineapple fried rice of my trip.
The rest of the day was dedicated to working off those mango sticky rice calories with some serious paddling. It hardly feels like a workout though, when you’ve got surroundings like this.
In the end Railay and its hippie core in Tonsai stole my heart — the week passed all too quickly and I wasn’t ready to leave when the time did come. I loved trying out the new adventures of rock climbing and deep water soloing (posts to come!) but more than anything I enjoyed watching monkeys play in the palm trees above my head, taking a mini-break from constant connectivity, dipping into clear blue waters, and soaking in one of the most beautiful places I’ve been on this Earth.
Have you been to Tonsai in Railay? Did it steal your heart the way it stole mine?
I can say what your parents are thinking but wouldn’t dare write because it would be so Mommish-Daddish embarrassing.
Not wearing a flotation vest/life-preserver. Really?
This is not a joke.
You say it yourself that this was “serious” paddling.
I always tell people that the motto in Thailand is “Safety Seventh!” 🙂 Unfortunately superfluous things like helmets for motorcycles and life jackets for ocean paddling aren’t always available here. Luckily in this case the waters were warm, shallow and calm and I’m a strong swimmer!
Such a joy! I have to go back to Thailand and especially to Railay…
Me too! Unfortunately I never seem to check anywhere off my list, so it just gets longer and longer…
Ha! Life-preservers? Lots of places dont have helmets to rent with a motor bike. Not a western country folks!
Looks like it would be SO hard to leave! Really diggin the sunset pic too!
When I no longer find the joy in watching a beautiful sunset, I will know its time to pack it in and go home 🙂
Ummmm that shrine is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!! Also love the food “trucks”… Railay looks so cute!
Supposedly the shrine has something to do with ensuring a good catch for the local fisherman… I do know that is ensures a good photo opp for tourists!
Love this! I didn’t get a chance to go over to Tonsai but thanks to your post, on my next trip back I will! 🙂
You should! It’s definitely a special little place with it’s own heartbeat and vibe that is different from the other Railay beaches.
Wow wow wow this has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth (weird shrine and all!)!!!!!!!
I hope you can make it there someday Andi… I’d love to see you photograph it!
I love Railey. My favorite beach in the world is Ao Nang beach in West Railey. Have never seen anything more beautiful than that one!
I just breezed through Ao Nang en route to Tonsai but to me it seemed really built up! Or maybe I just knew I couldn’t stay there as I’d be far too tempted by a daily McFlurry 🙂
This is such a beautiful place! I’m planning to travel to Thailand next year (your blog may or may not have to do with that 😉 ) and there are already so many places I want to visit that I barely even know anymore how to fit it all in… I suppose I just have to visit again and again! 😉
Yay! So glad to hear you are heading to Thailand. What a special place! And don’t worry about fitting it all in… once you’ve been to Thailand once it’s almost impossible to make it your last x
Wow, that looks like one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. Your photos are brilliant, but I agree, what a wierd shrine!
Thanks Helen! And ha, yeah, there are a few shrines around Asia that are along those lines!
Wow, you keep puching Thailand up my list. Railay looks truly beautiful!
I think it’s time for the Thailand Tourism board to start paying me! 🙂 I hope you make it there soon Breanna!
Wow! Thailands beauty never ceases to amaze me.
I know how you feel Stephen! It’s an insanely naturally blessed country.
I love that even in countries you have spent a lot of time in, there is always something new to discover. This looks like a gem! Beautiful photos, my god you are glowing!!
Thanks Sarah! For me Thailand still has SO many things to discover. I tend to return to my same favorite spots over and over so that means there is always plenty of new things to see! By the way, I never saw the “Only Thirty Two” post you said you were writing… did I miss it? I was looking forward to it!
Ha! That was a joke… a bad one perhaps 🙂 You never know though…
HAHAHA clearly my humor-meter is broken because I was looking very fervently for it! Oh, the things that are lost in text form 🙂
Holy gorgeous! Your previous posts had already convinced me to get to Thailand stat, but these pics put me over the edge! Love them all! Moving Thailand up on my travel bucket list.
Woo hoo! That’s what I like to hear 🙂 Come one, come all to Thailand…
We considered spending a few days in Railay, but ended up nixing those plans in favor of spending a few more days on Koh Lanta. Tony said he had no interest in trying rock climbing, so I thought there seemed little reason to head to Railay as Lanta is just a stone’s throw away and otherwise seems to offer the same attractions! I really do wish that lodging were cheaper in this part of Thailand though… we managed to get a decent bungalow for 750THB per night, but that was only after some major haggling and there were plenty of gross ones we had to weed out first!
Yeah, I was shocked by the relative value of accommodation here too! At first we were paying 500 baht per night for a DUMP and I was thrilled to double that and have a lovely place with free breakfast. Crazy how perspective shifts so quickly… normally I wouldn’t pay more than 300!
I will just never grow tired of any of your beach pictures.
Aw, thanks Kristen! I’ll never grow tired of taking them 🙂
Those are amazing views! I hope you could also visit Coron, Palawan in the Philippines… 🙂
One of these days I’ll return to the Philippines and Palawan will definitely be on my list!
Okay, I seriously need to stop reading your blogs about Thailand…only because YOU KEEP ADDING MORE PLACES I WANT TO GO!!!
I’d heard about Railay before but your pictures have pretty much cinched it. I need to go, I’ve only rock climbed at the indoor gym here (and once in Panama)so to do it in those surroundings would be amazing.
Hope to run across you on the road one of these days, and thanks for the travel inspiration!
That’s what I’m here for! Definitely head to Tonsai… you won’t be disappointed!
I am in utter awe, Alex. This place is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and I wish I was there in this instant. So much so that I can feel it with all of my senses: hearing the ocean breezes and monkey cries, smelling the humid air, feeling the sun’s warmth on my skin, tasting the exotic flavors of the food and drink, and of course seeing those beautiful vistas.
Thank you for taking me away for a moment of peace and joy.
Thank you Jen, for this lovely comment! You are a great writer… I went back there myself reading this!
I really wish to explore this beautiful place one day for sure. But Right now all i have to say that you have describe the place in such a beautiful way that i feel myself mesmerized and started dreaming like i am at this place right now…! Thank you So much!
I’m really interested in heading to the Krabi province for rock climbing, kayaking, deep water soloing and visiting ko phi phi. We were thinking of using Ao Nang as a base until we read your second paragraph! Would you advise Ton Sai to be just as good of a base for these activities? Is Ao Nang too bad to stay in?
P.s You’re blog is a huge inspiration to me as an aspiring traveler!Keep up the good work!
Hi Melissa, first of all thanks so much for the kind words! Personally Ao Nang isn’t my idea of a beach vacation… fast food restaurants, traffic, and lots of crowds. Don’t get me wrong, I love all those things… but I like them in the cities 🙂 To me, Ton Sai was the perfect Thai beach escape. If it’s a bit too remote for you, Railay East or West might be the perfect compromise! Hope that helps and good luck!
Is it possible to do Ko Tao and Railay in the same trip or do you think that would be too much traveling?
Hey Ashley, that totally depends on how long you have! How many days is your trip?
18 days 🙂 – The Mister and our friends will be doing the 3 day diving course in Ko Tao…but then we are pretty flexible. How much time do you think we need in Ko Tao? Sorry for so many questions!
With 18 days you definitely have time to check out both! I would vote you spend a week in each and a few days in Bangkok. Enjoy!
One final question, do you know the best way to get to Railay from Ko Tao?
There’s no real painless way, however you don’t have to put any planning into it. Just head to one of the many travel agencies on Koh Tao and they will book you all the way through! Good luck x
You’ve inspired me !!! I’m planning to visit Railay in decemeber after the full moon party.
Do you reckon I should book accomodation or just go on a mission and find it on the day?
Awesome blogs, would never have found some of this stuff 🙂
That is high season so perhaps have a look around online beforehand but if you don’t find anything great I’d guess you’ll find it on the ground. I recommend Ton Sai beach. Enjoy!
I really love those pictures. I loved Thailand and I have plans to return, maybe next time….
There is ALWAYS a reason to go back to Thailand 🙂 There are still dozens of islands I haven’t seen. Need to get back there again myself!
These pictures are really great!:) I have been in Thailand with my parents 3 years ago (I was 12 years old). It was such a great experience. Several family members were concerned to go to a country like that with a kid but I am really grateful that my parents visit those countries with me because most of them are really beautiful. I definitely want to go back there again.
Sounds like a very intrepid family 🙂 Glad you enjoyed your trip to Thailand, and I hope you don’t have to wait too long before your return!
I like Krabi province very much. I’ve been also visited Railay Beach. But for me Phra Nang and Koh Poda are more preferred. Thanks for your report. I’ve been remembered my trip in Thailand!
I’ll have to check out Phra Nang and Koh Poda next time I’m in Thailand, Alex! Thanks for the tips!
My wife and I are planning our first anniv trip to Thailand. I was planning on skipping Railay and heading to Koh Lanta. Your pics are abosulutely stunning and might have just convinced me to do Railay at all costs!! 🙂
Congratulations on your first anniversary, Kedar! Thailand will be the perfect place to celebrate!
Those cliffs are otherworldly! I guess this is where James Cameron must have gotten his inspiration for the floating mountains in Avatar!:)
I wouldn’t be surprised — I hear he got a lot of his inspiration from scuba diving!
Railay looks like a gorgeous place! Just came back from Bali (and KL)! Loved the pristine and lesser explored beaches of Bali.
Want to plan a trip to Railay next. Can we take a train from Bangkok to the nearest destination and then maybe ferry it to Railay? Will start researching soon but any tips you could offer would be great! Also, we are looking at budget accommodation…any particular place in mind?
Hey there! I believe you can take the train from Bangkok to Krabi but I’m not 100% sure… if not, you can definitely take the bus. From Krabi you can easily get to Railay via bus/boat. I stayed at Dream Valley Resort in Tonsai and LOVED IT! Happy travels, and hope that helps!
Hey, me and my other half are thinking of railay this year, how many days would you recommend staying there? and is it best to say on tonsai rather than ao nang- any accommodation recommendations ? 🙂 x
Hey Gemma, I definitely prefer the vibe of Tonsai to overdeveloped Ao Nang — and I highly recommend the hotel I wrote about in this post. How long depends on how much of a beach bum you are and how much rock climbing you’re interested in. I was there for five days, I believe, and I definitely never got bored. Enjoy!
This is my first time visiting your site. Love the layout and the format of the comments!
Railay is a special place, spent a week there & there’s really nothing like it. Part of what makes Railay so special is the difficulty in arriving. As you know, you can only get there via boat (usually long tail boat). I heard that the authorities are considering adding a road from Krabi which would make the destination more accessible but probably too crowded!
Awesome post, can’t wait to start digging around your blog & reading more 🙂
I definitely hope they hold off on the road… I love Railay the way it is! Welcome to Wanderland Paz and thanks for the lovely comment 🙂
Lovely photos! I was hoping you could help me make a last minute decision between islands. Ko Tao or Tonsai in January? I had originally crossed Railay off the list because I heard it had become really touristy and overcrowded, but your experience of tonsai sounds perfect. Ko Tao interested me for obvious reasons, but also because I will already be in Ko samui and its a short ferry ride from there. For Tonsai I will have to book more flights and do a little more planning, but it could be worth it if it is uniquely different from the eastern islands. I will be with my boyfriend. We both love the outdoors and adventure. Want the beauty of island nature, but not the seedy or westernized scene. We are hoping for cheap but clean bungalows, but will also spend about $60/nght if its worth the extra luxury. Thank you so much!
Hey Maria, honestly you can’t lose! Koh Tao is more about diving and nightlife, and Tonsai is more about rock climbing and scenery (though they have some nice nightlife there too!). Tonsai is definitely a bit less developed if that’s what you are looking for (if you are hoping to avoid seediness and Westernization, you might not love Koh Samui.) It’s really a personal choice, but the good news is you can’t go wrong! Hope that helps!
Is finding accommodation on Tonsai difficult in Jan and Feb? Or in Thailand in general? I’m planning on going to Thailand for 2 weeks in either Jan or Feb 2016 (honeymoon!) and hoping to do the traditional Bangkok-Chiang Mai-Railay/Koh Lanta. Are there any places we should book accommodation way in advance? Thanks!
If you’re going for a two week honeymoon, I’d say why not go ahead and book it all ahead of time? Unless you’re hoping to have a lot of flexibility to change those plans, if you already know your route and your time constraints, I’d just go for it 🙂 In Tonsai specifically there is limited accommodation — in the cities you’d never be left without a room.
I have seen so many people in the past year or so saying they’re disappointed by how touristy Railay has become, but I loved it when I visited last year. I hope it doesn’t change too much, but it’ll always be stunning. Phranang Beach is probably my favourite in Thailand (though we did arrive in the morning when it wasn’t crowded at all so that may have been a bonus). I loved the walk between Railay West and Phranang as well! 🙂
I’d love to go back to see how it has changed. My week on Tonsai was one of my favorites in Thailand!