If you picture your dream beach, what ingredients would it have? Clear blue sea, soft sand, gently swaying palm trees? I’ve never been one for the stereotypical beach holiday with an endless sea of sun loungers, but was converted when I discovered the paradise that is Railay Beach in Thailand (without a sun lounger in sight)
Located in the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand, Railay (or Rai Leh) is not an island at all, but a small peninsula in-between the coastal destinations of Krabi and Ao Nang. It has often been voted as having some of the most beautiful beaches in the world and it is easy to see why. When you initially land you may get one of those ‘déjà vu’ feelings – that’s most likely because you have seen it before. Railay and in particular Phra Nang beach, features heavily in those dreamy posters of Thailand you see.
Compared to other Thai beach resorts with their brash beach bar strips and wild Full Moon parties Railay comes up lacking. To me (and I’m sure to many of you), this is only a plus. The laid back way of life is king here, with no cars, no roads and no rush!
Railay itself is deceptive as there are actually four beaches to choose from:
- West Railay – the main and largest beach, surrounded by limestone cliffs with a couple of higher-end resorts.
- East Railay – lacking a beach but sporting a mangrove, there is a wide choice of accommodation and restaurants here.
- Phra Nang – a stunning picture-postcard beach on the bottom of the peninsula, but a popular spot for daytrippers.
- Ton Sai – one for the climbers and backpackers out there, Ton Sai is known for its hippy vibe.
Luckily you don’t really have to choose one due to the compact nature of Railay: walking from West to East Railay for instance takes only a matter of minutes, so you can easily explore all four options if you have a day or two.
While it is certainly a paradise to kick back and relax in, if you are looking for more than just feeling the sand between your toes, Railay doesn’t disappoint either. It is world renowned for its rock climbing on the giant limestone cliffs you see on every advertisement for southern Thailand. With climbs suitable for beginners to seasoned experts, if you want to get your pulse racing and enjoy some of the world’s best scenery, there is scarcely a better spot. A number of spots around the peninsula cater to climbers, meaning you can try out a variety of climbs such as these. If water based activities are more your cup of tea, then Railay and the surrounding islands are teeming with underwater life that make for great snorkelling or scuba diving. Dives can be booked easily on the island, with sites recommended based on your experience.
For an unusual sight, you will also find a small cave on Phra Nang beach with a shrine filled with phallic statues! This is dedicated to the deity Sri Kunlathewi, an Indian princess who legend holds was wrecked along the Krabi coastline in the 3rd century B.C. Local fishermen still come to the shrine to ask for a bountiful catch.
If you want that perfect picture of Railay to take home, you might also want to consider the climb up to the view point. Like me, you might however walk past a small sign on the way to Phra Nang beach pointing up a seemingly vertical rockface and think ‘huh? This must be pointing in the wrong direction’. Well, no. Look again and you will notice the ropes to haul yourself up with! It is a fairly arduous climb for a complete beginner and is not for the faint-hearted or ill-shoed. After the rain it can be quite slippery, so walking shoes or trainers are advisable to provide the grip you need. Once you reach the top however, the view down over Railay provides an almost complete panorama of the peninsula. You then have the choice to come back down the way you arrived, or trek further to the secret lagoon. Again, this is not an easy climb, but the lagoon view is worth it at the end. Head out early as the climb can take several hours in total, and be prepared to get sweaty/muddy!
Unfortunately, there is a small negative to this paradise: its lack of culinary delights. While the food on offer is perfectly edible, the price in comparison to the price and taste of the food you experience elsewhere in Thailand is disheartening. Don’t let this put you off however – the incredible view when eating right said food practically on the beach most of the time more than makes up for a long wait or average dish.
Transport to Railay offers two routes: by long tail boat from Krabi to East Railay, or from Ao Nang to West Railay. Many hotels will offer packages for transport, but if you decide to go independently like us, a shuttle bus/taxi to Ao Nang from the airport drops you at a boat departure point on beach road, where a 10-15 minute longtail boat ride then takes you straight to Railay at a total of 200B per person. Two things that should be considered when catching the long tail boat is that they need a minimum of eight people to depart (which could see you setting off straight away or waiting for an unknown time), and secondly – dress and pack appropriately. You will need to board and disembark the boat sometimes in knee high water so go for flip flops and shorts, and avoid a heavy suitcase unless you are able to carry it!
My top tips for Railay Beach:
- Importantly, be prepared financially. Railay is not the typical Thai ‘cheap as chips’ destination; being completely cut off by water visitors are limited in their options, so resorts and restaurants can get away with charging more when compared to many other resorts in Thailand.
- Staying on Railay? Make the most of the morning and evening to explore and relax in peace– between 10am and 4pm is when the masses of tourists on day trips arrive.
- Don’t be put off necessarily be the apparent rainy season – it only rained once in my visit, and the resorts were almost blissfully quiet.
- We stayed at Railay Village resort on West Railay which provided immediate beach access. For a more budget friendly stay, East Railay offers a wider selection of accommodation, small bars and restaurants than West Railay.
- Don’t plan to do all your holiday shopping in Railay. It’s one street, literally called ‘Walking Street’, contains only a handful of small shops, a minimarket, tour operators and the Flame Tree bar and café which serves an astonishing range of cocktails right on the beachfront. Perfect for watching the sunset
- Finally – make sure you sit back and relax in one of the most beautiful spots in the world!