Tonsai and Railay, a Climber’s Paradise

One of the gems of southern Thailand is the tiny peninsula of Railay in Krabi province. It had been recommended to us by my brother and after I did a quick Google image search, I knew we absolutely had to go there. A combination of pristine beaches and amazing rock climbing makes for the perfect place for a relaxing getaway. But first, we had to get there.

Railay is cut off from the mainland by its imposing limestone cliffs. To get to the beaches, you have to take a short longtail boat ride from nearby Ao Nang. We excitedly waded out to the boat with the other passengers, climbed aboard, and oohed and aahed at the sheer cliffs lush with vegetation that we passed as we approached our destination.

In fact, we weren’t going to stay on Railay beach proper. The peninsula actually contains four beaches. Railay East and West, Phra Nang, and Tonsai. Railay West is full of upscale resorts and a ‘typical’ beach; not really our thing.  The east side is more down to earth, with cheaper bungalows located in the hills overlooking the bay. There isn’t much beach to speak of, as it’s mostly choked with mangroves.

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Phra Nang is billed as one of the most beautiful in the world, with soft sand, blue water, and flanked on both ends by huge rock towers. But there is only one resort, and it’s mega-pricey.

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Our choice, the climbers’ choice, was the tinier Tonsai beach. With the cheapest bungalow accommodations (still expensive), street food, and a chill, laid back atmosphere, it was exactly where we wanted to be. As our longtail beached, we knew we were in the right place when we saw a huge, overhanging rock wall to our right, packed with climbers.

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We made our way off the beach, working our way through the busy food stalls, selling everything from fruit shakes to pancakes to fried chicken, and headed off in search of a bungalow to call our own.

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It turn s out we were lucky to arrive early, as almost every place was booked solid, but we eventually got the last room in a relaxed place (Jungle Hut) at the end of the main drag (actually the only drag. Tonsai is a one street ‘town’, shaped in a D heading back from the beach on each side into the palm tree jungle behind).

After settling in, we decided to go exploring. One of our main priorities was to do some climbing, and we didn’t bring any of our gear, so our first stop was Basecamp Tonsai to book a guided trip. In addition to top rope and lead climbing courses, they offered Deep Water Solo trips. Basically, they take you out on a boat to one of the many small outlying islands, and you climb unroped on the limestone cliffs. When you top out, or can’t hang on, you just jump into the water below. Well, this sounded amazing, and a truly rare experience, so we signed up for the next day. More on this in a future post.

After taking care of that, we thought it would be nice to go over to the other beaches and see what they had to offer. Tonsai is cut off by its surrounding cliffs and hills though, so we had to make a bit of a scramble over the headland in order to arrive at Railay West.

I have to say, it was less built up than I expected, and the beach much less packed. If we hadn’t already had plans to head to Phra Nang, we could have happily stayed and spent the afternoon lounging here.

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As it was, we headed off on a path through the interior and made our way to Railay East. Here there were few people, as the mangroves grew right up to the boardwalk in many places. Strangely, we encountered several optician and tailor shops. Just what you need on your tropical holiday?

Our final bit of trekking was once again back across the peninsular, skirting the edges of fabulous climbing walls on our left, and the grounds of the Rayavadee resort on our right. This complex is huge, with a price to match, and features mushroom shaped villas.

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It also plays host to a troop of crab-eating macacques, as well as several spectacled langurs, which we were lucky enough to spot.

Here’s a short video:

Tonsai Monkeys

Phra Nang was spectacular, as advertised, but was jam-packed with day tourists come in on party boats. Having just been on a bit of a hike, we made ourselves comfortable in the shade, and then jumped in the warm tropical waters to cool off.

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After relaxing for a bit, we took a look around. Off to our right was the imposing bulk of the Thaiwand, a vertical pinnacle of rock with some of the hardest climbs in the area.  To our left was Phra Nang cave, known as a shrine to an ancient goddess.  It’s traditional for local fisherman to place offerings here before setting off to sea. These include flowers and sticks of incense  but often also phallic images for good blessings of fertility. These offerings have spilled out of the cave proper into several other nooks along the shore.

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Even further to the East was a small cove with overhanging cave-like ceiling, the so-called Princess Cave. I went for a little exploration, and was rewarded with some great views back along the beach, with stalactites imposing themselves above me. Out the other side of the cove, I was able to scramble up some rocks to watch two groups of climbers working routes on a wall that was hidden from the view of the beach. Pretty cool location.

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As evening approached we headed back towards our own beach, passing local climbers doing some tough climbs on steeply overhanging rock. They looked like they were having a great time, and had waited till all the westerners left for the day.

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Back on Tonsai, we finally got to take a closer look around and really appreciate the culture there. Climbers were lounging in all the beach bars, relaxing with big beers and protein shakes after a hard day on the wall. Lending to the vibe was the lack of mainline electricity on the beach, all power being supplied by generators which hummed in the background, giving a primitive feel.

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Sadly, it sounded like Tonsai would be wired up in the next year or two, as development is booming right now. Prices are about triple what they were just two years ago, and we heard several people lamenting the slow loss of the things that make this place special.

For our last morning, we decided to treat ourselves and go out for breakfast before catching the boat back to Ao Nang. We found a great little restaurant / coffee shop on the main street with a really cool atmosphere. We both ended up ordering rice soup with coconut milk (50 baht, great deal for Tonsai!), which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It reminded me of my childhood, when we’d always have a concoction dubbed “milk rice” the morning following a stir-fry dinner. Milk would be added to the leftover rice, and allowed to steep overnight, produced an delicious porridge/soup. It was almost exactly what we had here. Also true to childhood, we ‘enhanced’ the dish with liberal doses of sugar (sadly no cinnamon).

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Having until noon to get out of our bungalow, and not wanting to desert this paradise any earlier than necessary, we decided to go on a strenuous hike up the hill at the end of Railay East. We’d heard there was a great viewpoint at the top, and after about twenty minutes of extremely steep ascent over boulders and muddy red clay, we found out the tales were true.

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The vista overlooking all the beaches and the surrounding rock walls was stunning. I just wouldn’t want to try to get up there after it had rained!

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After a last view across the peninsula we hopped on a boat and bid adieu to Tonsai with thoughts of returning one day for a longer, more dedicated stay. A climber could really spend weeks or months here exploring all the available routes, and enjoying the laid back culture and beach atmosphere. I just hope development is held in check and there is something for us to return to.

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Planning Notes for the Curious:

In February 2013, we found prices in Tonsai and Railay to be as follows. A songthaew from Krabi Town to Ao Nang is 50 THB per person. The longtail from Ao Nang costs 100 THB per person and won’t leave until it has 8 passengers. A bungalow at Jungle Hut with ensuite bathroom (but no fan) was 400 THB, and was easily the cheapest we could find. Price would be less in the low (monsoon) season. The cheapest food can probably be found at Mama Chicken, though the minimum for an actual meal was still 80 THB. Fruit shakes are 50 THB pretty much everywhere, and pancakes run from 40-70 THB depending on vendor and filling. A big Chang is 100 THB and up. Obviously, many restaurants charge substantially more. There are lots of minimarts, but prices are about double relative to what you’d find in a 7-11.

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