My Paradise: Budget friendly Railay, Thailand, a thrill a minute

by Kat Nickola
Stripes Guam

Escaping the sting of Korean winter has been a goal of ours each year we have lived here.  It seems quite essential for our sanity to take a vacation in December or January.  

We need to go somewhere we can refresh, somewhere we can relax, somewhere we can be outside without dressing for an expedition. In short, we need to go somewhere WARM!  This winter found us in Thailand again.
   
Thailand is a fun, easy place to travel to and a great first-go at southeast Asia.  But get out of Bangkok, get away from Phuket, and steer clear of Pattaya to truly see what Thailand has to (inexpensively) offer.

Go to Railay!  This small peninsula west of Krabi town on the Andaman coast of Thailand is close enough to Phuket to enjoy the same beautiful beaches and scenery, albeit without that resort-smothered vibe.  

Railay is only accessible by boat, and most people come via a small bustling port town called Ao Nang, which lies just outside of Krabi.  Take the bus or taxi from the Krabi airport to Ao Nang and you will find a gaggle of young Thai's snoozing and waiting along the beach in their longtail boats ready to haul visitors around the headlands to Railay.  The trip is less than 20 minutes and the views of giant cliffs falling into the sea will excite you for the rest of the vacation.  Railay is a destination for all; you will find families, retirees, young people, those on budgets and those ready to splurge. My family falls into the budget category.

We are also an avid rock climbing group.  Our children have been out in the woods at the base of cliffs since birth (and before, for that matter), so Railay was a perfect fit for our vacation.  It is one of the premier southeast Asian rock climbing destinations.  There are hundreds of climbs - mostly bolted sport routes and a huge number of multipitch for those familiar with the lingo - to keep everyone busy for weeks. There are numerous businesses who can rent all the equipment you need, sell you the guide book, or take you out if you're new to the sport.  

We only had five days to hang around, so our focus was something new: deep water soloing.  This means rock climbing over water without the backup (read: safety) of a harness or ropes. Make a mistake? Simply jump or crash into the water below. Sounds awesome, right?  We booked a trip through one of the numerous outfits offering just such an outing; this can be done at your leisure once you arrive.

Our day out begin by hopping into another longtail boat from the mangrove (east) side of the peninsula.  Both our children loved riding in the boat as it bounced at full throttle along the choppy sea.  They hung out the sides and squealed as the spray completely drenched them.  Our first stop was one of the two islands off the coast of Railay.  In this spot, when the tide is low you can walk along the sand bar between two tiny islands.  There were lots of people here on beach-hopping excursions, so we wandered for a bit and my son pitched a fit about his life preserver before we quickly moved on.

Not a great start, but it improved dramatically within minutes.  Our boat driver tooled us around the side of the island and scanned the water before dropping anchor and pointing to the snorkel stuff.  That was our sign to get in!

Let me explain that it was just my family and a Thai-speaking boat driver on this trip.  Typically, the excursions need six people signed up to run. Though we waited an extra day, there were no joiners on our trip.  So, not wanting to lose the income, our non-English-speaking boat man offered to still go but without an English-speaking guide.  Same trip, just the boat man to take us around and point.  Well, this sounded better to us; almost a private tour.  And, hey, we have kids who wouldn't be listening to the history or geography or cultural information anyway ... though they should.

So, my husband dug the snorkel gear out of the box and we each got prepped. My three-year-old son was the first to jump in the water.  He was finally appreciating the value of his life vest.  Our six-year-old daughter was next.   It was incredible to watch her truly grasp the snorkeling concept on this trip, and to be able to swim around and point at all the amazingly colorful fish, huge sea urchins  and cool bits of coral.  Our boy mostly went up and down the boat ladder to jump in, and tossed apple bits to get the fish swarming around us.

Thoroughly snorkeled out, we returned to the boat for a ride around the back of the second island.  There it was!  The cliff we've been waiting for.  My husband went first - diving into the deep water, swimming to the base of the cliff and climbing the ratty access rope ladder.  One spot was like rock climbing inside a cave, another spot was out on the face, and a third spot was like climbing a giant stalactite.  These cliffs were huge!  The kids cheered when my husband jumped in, and my daughter joined him in the water. She attempted the rope ladder and jumped off it; a good success for a kiddo.

It was my sons' turn next, so I got in with him and he was proud of his ascent up one ladder rung.  Mostly, the kids jumped in and out of the water and had fun in the boat encouraging us to climb higher.  That's the thing...higher is scary.  I'm so accustomed to climbing with gear that going UP is always the goal.  But here, when UP also means a huge DOWN and a splash, I mostly stuck to the 'lower' climbing.  This still meant a good 30 foot drop into the water, which is exhilarating in itself.  Both kids cheered "you can do it" from the boat each time we were ready to drop.  I'm glad they did!  My husband and I got our fill of climbing and ear popping falls. So, water-logged, we moved on.

The final stop on our adventure day was another, all but deserted, beach on the other side of our cliff island.  With Railay in view and a cool rock island just off shore, it was a great spot to end the day with some fried rice and sand castle building.  Oh, and draining sinuses.

For those less inclined to go up or jump off cliffs, Railay still has much to offer.  The main peninsula has an expansive soft west-side beach, while the east-side is a 'boardwalk' village of sorts along a mangrove coast.  At the south end of this area is an access trail that skirts the base of a huge cliff and ends up along much-sheltered southern beach.  Gorgeous!  This beach is awesome with shade available, a beautiful sunset view, a phallic shrine and a crazy cave you can swim into.  The trail to the beach is like walking along an inside-out cave.  Our kids spent a long afternoon simply enjoying the trail and all the neat hiding spots within the alcoves.  There were monkeys to watch and attempt to feed.  There were nifty little holes that only a kid could wiggle through, and then there was the beach at the end. For further exploration, there is a trail that goes virtually straight up the hill and leads to a lagoon high up on the cliff top.

Beyond the primary west-side Railay beach, just around a rocky headland, is the Tonsai beach.  This place is like a ville of its own.  Visualize lots of young people on a gap year letting life take the lead: girls with dreadlocks, guys playing on slacklines, bars with tire swings, etc.  This is where we stayed our first evening as it was close to easily accessible rock climbing. The sand on this beach is very rough, however, which was not pleasant for the kids as it wouldn't hold a castle.  They ended up making nests instead.

Still, the water was pleasant enough for a swim.  There was also ample free entertainment in the form of people watching, trying our hand at the slackline, and even a few base jumpers landing on the beach.  In the evening the local bars had some fire twirling shows and a muay-thai boxing display. The whole place had a very bohemian vibe to it which we enjoyed quite a lot until bed time.  The party simply never stopped.  We barely slept in our tiny super-super cheap thatch hut with cold water and limited electric.

This prompted a morning exploration walk along the beach and around the headland to Railay west.  The rest is easy to predict; we found a better (less cheap) bungalow in Railay proper and enjoyed the soft beach, exploring caves, and swimming much more.  One other highlight, however, was our hike back to Tonsai for our stuff.  The tide had come in so we could no longer walk around the headland.  Our alternative was a trek  through the jungle around and over the mountain.  It was a great little hike through a serious jungle of giant trees and leaves, past a monkey troop, and into the little village of Tonsai.  My husband, ever the pack-mule, did it twice to transport our luggage and then retrieve the kids and I from our afternoon nap.

In all, there are not a lot of hotels in Railay, which is nice and keeps the crowds low. There are a handful of very upscale resorts ($150+) along the beach of Railay west and the mangrove of Railay east.  There are numerous mid to low ($40-70)  range places within Railay; this is where we ended up staying as it was a good central location.  Finally, you can find super cheap (seriously, $8) huts like the one we stayed in the first night along Tonsai beach and the little village behind.  I use the word village very openly here as neither Tonsai nor Railay is truly a village; both are mere collections of hotels with a few open-front shops, restaurants, and slim-pickings convenience stores all scattered very randomly around the peninsula.  There are ATM's available.

Railay truly has something for everyone, unless you want to stay indoors. You will walk everywhere in your bare feet or flip flops as there are no roads, no cars,  and very little pavement, but it is all pleasantly compact.

You will have fun relaxing on the beach, or feel like the first person to discover a cave.  You can test your skills at rock climbing, snorkeling, and even  SCUBA excursions. Finally, I would be remiss (and my daughter much disappointed) if I did not mention that you will enjoy the friendly company of the local half-stray cat population who are always ready for a good petting or a piece of your grilled chicken.
 

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