Friday, September 30th, 2016

Railay Revisited — Is It Still The World’s Most Beautiful Beach?

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Railay 2014

I’m going to do something different for this post. I’d like you to read an old post first and see what you think.

Go, read The Endangered Beauty of Railay — it’s short — and come back here.

Right. Let’s get started.

In the first piece, I briefly mentioned Gone Walkabout — but I didn’t share just how much it inspired me. I first came across this collection of travel diary entries in 2006 and I fervently read through it, literally shaking with excitement as I read it.

People could save up money and travel the world alone for a year. The concept had never come across my mind.

I could do that. I WOULD do that. Right away, I started a travel savings account and began socking away cash.

I was 22 and working at my first job out of college, keeping the site up in the background and reading entry after entry as the Sean, the writer, traveled solo from New Zealand to Thailand to Nepal to Iran.

The single location that inspired me the most was Railay, Thailand. Sean spent several weeks living here, describing an idyllic environment. At that point (1994/1995), Railay had hardly been developed at all and was a place that only travelers in the know would visit.

Railay 2014

In 2010, I made it. It was November and shoulder season. While it rained at night — so hard my friends and I were wading through ankle-deep water! — the days were sunny and warm.

That said, this was not the pristine environment that Sean had described. I had a nagging fear that stayed in the back of my head for the duration of my visit, which I later put into words:

I genuinely fear for Railay.Β I’m afraid that it will become the next Koh Phi Phi, the entire island smelling like sewage because the infrastructure can’t handle the number of visitors.

Kate in Railay

I returned to Railay three years later in early January, the height of peak season in southern Thailand. I arrived on Railay West Beach and smiled as I passed streets and shops that I had forgotten, making my way through the pathways to Phranang Beach, the most beautiful beach of all.

Railay Monkey

Monkeys still hold court on the path to Phranang Beach. They’ll leave you alone if you leave them alone — but you definitely don’t want to tease them. One of them poked a hole in a man’s water bottle!

Railay 2014

As you would expect in peak season, the weather was at its best and the crowds were at their worst.Β Once again, I struggled to get photos that weren’t filled with crowds.

And then I was given an unexpected gift — the wind picked up in the afternoon, whipping sand everywhere. People started leaving the beach in droves. Perfect — I could take uncrowded pictures!

Crowds notwithstanding, Railay is still beautiful. Gorgeous. Breathtaking. Every cliche word. When you’re at your office during a snowy day in February and you close your eyes, imagining the perfect beach in Thailand, this is exactly what you have in mind.

Railay 2014

The water is still turquoise. You can go far into the ocean and still see the bottom.

Railay 2014

There are still longtail boat restaurants in lieu of buildings on the beach, which delighted me three years ago — only instead of two, there were about a dozen this time, selling mostly kebabs, burgers, and pancakes.

Railay Penis Cave

Phranang Beach still has its infamous “penis cave” filled with a shrine to the phallus. (I checked my old pictures and yes, that hefty golden peen is a recent addition.)

As much as I loved being back on that beautiful beach, my fears weren’t unfounded. Phranang Beach was covered with trash, especially tied-up plastic bags that had been half-buried in sand.

I wonder if all that trash is a factor of seasonality or time. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Maybe they need to start charging an arrival fee and putting it toward keeping the beaches clean, a strategy that appears to be working in both Koh Lanta and Boracay.

Railay 2014

So is Railay worth it? Of course it is! Really, in terms of natural setting, Phranang is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

But I would recommend going slightly outside peak season if you can. If you come during July or August, you might struggle to get sunshine, but the beaches will be virtually empty (and the rates far lower!). October, November, April, or May are good shoulder season months that give you a combination of nice-but-not-ideal weather and far smaller crowds.

I stayed on Phranang Beach until the virtual sandstorm started wearing me down. (Little did I know I’d be finding sand deep in my ears for the next week!) I headed back to Railay West for a drink before hopping into my longtail boat once again.

It was a good day on one of the best beaches I’ll ever see.

Railay 2014

As for Sean, I wonder if he ever returned to Railay since his trip 19 years ago. I wonder what he would have thought of it today.

Essential Info: Railay is on the mainland but only accessible by boat, and unless you’re staying at one of the fanciest resorts, you must arrive by longtail boat. You can take large ferries here from places like Koh Lanta, Koh Phi Phi, and Phuket, but they will herd you into a longtail boat for the final leg of the journey.

For that reason, if you have unusually large or bulky luggage, you might want to take a day trip instead of overnighting there, as you’ll need to do the hauling of the bags into and out of the longtail boat yourself, and the boats stop in water about one foot deep.

I visited Railay as a day trip from Ao Nang and the longtail journey cost me 100 baht ($3) each way. You buy tickets at a kiosk at the corner of the main road and the beach. It’s 50% more expensive at night.

If you do choose to stay overnight, the cheapest accommodation is in Railay East, further away from the beaches. I recommend hitting up The Last Bar — they have great live music and it’s a nice, chilled out atmosphere. And if you want to go rock climbing in Thailand, Railay is hands-down the best place.

Tonsai Beach is next door to Railay, accessible by a path, and a world away in terms of the culture. Accommodation here is basic and much cheaper than Railay proper, and while Railay tends to have more older couples and families, here you’ll find a reggae-loving community of beach bums.

Have you been to Railay? What did you think?

Comments

56 Responses to “Railay Revisited — Is It Still The World’s Most Beautiful Beach?”
  1. I’ve never been but of course would love to go. I really enjoyed this post, very clever idea. Thanks for sharing, Kate! Beautiful photos as always.

    Happy travels πŸ™‚

  2. Kaitlyn says:

    Just started reading the Gone Walkabout travel journals after reading about them in your post. I can’t stop!

  3. Clare says:

    It’s so interesting to read about revisits and to observe whether the things we expect to change in places are the ones that actually do. This does look like a beautiful part of the world. And how great to share some of the writing that inspired your life of travel!

  4. Beanie says:

    Love your honesty. So refreshing to read post that are completely independant and not selling a dream, but a reality (and bonus if the reality seems like a dream)

    … So thank-you!!!

  5. Laryssa says:

    Gorgeous. Gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous.

    And…it’s cold and snowy in February, so this is perfect timing, Kate. πŸ˜‰

  6. Stunning pictures. I think it’s still a beautiful beach. After all, places becomes full of tourists for a reason!

  7. Meggie Kay says:

    I LOVE Railay when I was there. I feel like I made the right choice in going there instead of switching last minute to Phuket like my friends did. They had a blast there so good for them but I feel they missed out on Railay! πŸ˜›

  8. Renuka says:

    It’s commendable that you managed to get good pictures despite the crowds. It’s sad that a place loses its charm the moment it gets touristy. I think all we need is a little bit of responsibility and respect for a destination.

  9. Juju says:

    I’ve been to Railay, twice, that’s how much I love it.

    No cars, amazing scenery, small enough but not totally remote…but last time I went — Feb. ’13 — there seemed to be more trash around in general, everywhere.

    There really needs to be an effort there to curtail it, pick it up, prevent it. It’s a simple thing to do and will preserve the overall impression of beauty and respect for the environment. I hate that gorgeous places like Railay can be potentially ruined when it’s unnecessary. There was some new construction there in Feb, but the area is only so big; can only contain so many buildings. Hopefully.

    I agree with charging a visitor’s fee as a start, esp. for daytrippers. I also think the shop, restaurant and resort and guesthouse owners could be a bit more proactive about picking up trash within the vicinity or walk to their properties. It’s unacceptable.

    • Agree, Juju — it’s a start. As for the locals picking up trash, that’s a cultural thing as well and it will take a while to get people doing that regularly. When Mario was in Koh Chang, he said that Lonely Beach was filled with a lot of trash, which made me sad — it’s my favorite beach! And he said that some expats were trying to start clean-up efforts and the Thais refused to pitch in.

  10. Christine says:

    Also worth noting: Railay is an INCREDIBLE destination for rock climbing. Some of the best cliffs in the world for beginners and advanced alike.

  11. yara coelho says:

    Awesome photos Kate! I actually changed my plans and decided to stay in Koh Lanta instead of heading to Railay beach. So now I have an excuse to go back!

  12. Megan says:

    Definitely a drop-dead gorgeous beach, and I do like the idea of charging an entrance fee to help with cleanup- could only be helpful! It’s sad when tourism takes over and trashes things, but it’s nice to know that some places are trying to keep things in check. I didn’t make it to Railay, but I’d love to check it out, especially for the climbing. I can also vouch for visiting during the shoulder seasons- still nice, and oh so pleasant without tons of crowds.

  13. Your blog inspires me like Gone Walkabout inspired you. Even though I already knew I had a love of travel, I wanted to read more and start a blog of my own to share my stories. Thailand has been on my list for years (ever since I worked in a Thai restaurant in college). I hope to make a long trip to Thailand and visit places like this!

  14. Chad Thomson says:

    Wow, it looks beautiful. It would be awful if it was spoilt my tourism before I can travel there!

  15. Anna says:

    You are in railey? I would love to meet you for a drink! Please keep posting where you are; it is my first time in SEA and I admire your travels here.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Hi Kate, I must disagree with some aspects of your blog post about Railey. Whilst it is a beautiful beach, I do not think the restaurants or accommodation on Railey are suited to the budget traveller. Granted, we were there in high season, however we ended up paying well over the ‘norm’ for a wooden hut with no electricity and stinging ants in our toilet bowl! I’ve written a blog post about my accommodation in Railey here:

    http://www.travelbllgr.com/travel-blog/not-so-appealing-backpacker-digs/

    We also found it very difficult to find a budget restaurant in the evening, although admittedly, there were one or two we found on the sandy path between east and west railey. We also walked over to Tonsai, there is obviously much cheaper accommodation on that side, however when we visited, the beach was covered in rubbish and there were maggots crawling in the sand – it must have been food waste all along the beach, also, notwithstanding the rubbish, the beach is actually very sheltered with the high cliffs/trees along it – so not great for catching a tan. I’d therefore say to head to another beach destination in Thailand as I really do not think Railey is anywhere near the best. I’d recommend Koh Lanta, or Koh Lipe.

  17. Sara says:

    I went to Railay in May 2013 and had an amazing time. I had no idea about Tonsai until someone I met at the beach one day mentioned we go over there – what an awesome spot Tonsai was! Met lots of cool people and had a great time. I can’t wait to go back later this year (hopefully). Would recommend both locations to anyone πŸ™‚

  18. NIna says:

    I’m so happy you still liked Railay Kate! It is still beautiful, even with all the people. I agree. I had a similar situation. I went in 2011, 2012, and 2013!! And I noticed a difference every time. It was still magical to me though, especially Phranang Cave Beach… I just had to ignore the flocks of people and tell myself to go back after season. I’m Krabi now, so I plan making a 2014 visit to Railay, but I’ll wait a few months for everyone else to leave πŸ™‚

    Did you ever go to the lagoon?! It’s amazing! It’s on the way to Phranang.

  19. Beautiful place and you have some equally beautiful photos of it despite all of the people. Hope I can get to this part of the world soon.

  20. June says:

    Great pictures and advices! Hope to go there someday…

  21. Catherine says:

    It does look beautiful, though the penis cave is a little surreal! You’ve got me hooked on Gone Walkabout now as well!

  22. Victoria says:

    What lovely photos Kate.
    I’ve never been to any of the islands in Thailand, only the mountains or the city, but it sure looks good. I really like the boats and the lovely calm water, pity that it’s changing. Having said that though, one cannot deny the magical beauty of Thailand: the country and it’s people.

  23. Jess says:

    I must have been there at almost the same time as you in January. I experienced the same – very busy on Phranang, bit more space on West and even more when the winds got up in the afternoon.
    It is the most beautiful beach i have ever seen but i am glad i only went for a day trip. The accommodation prices were so much higher than Krabi Town i couldn’t justify the expense. It also has more of a resort atmosphere compared to that laid back beach feeling you get on places like Koh Lanta so i guess it depends what you are looking for.
    Also very good point about the luggage especially if the tide is out. When leaving we had to trudge over the exposed mud flats to reach the longtail – can’t imagine doing that with a big rucksack or suitcase!

    (Really looking forward to your Hong Kong / Macau posts as i was also just there a couple of weeks ago and loved it!)

  24. Wow, what a gorgeous beach! I really hope to go here someday .. Thailand still remains a dream of mine. Too bad that tourists aren’t a little more careful with their trash though. πŸ™

  25. I wanted to love Railay. It was hard to be completely enamored with the crowds and trash as you described. I visited 1/03/14 (maybe we were there at the same time) and yes, it was incredibly crowded. But it was still gorgeous and I would love to have the experience of visiting during the low or shoulder season. The limestone cliffs and the camel-colored beaches contrasting with the teal waters create a truly stunning scene, until you step in a pile of discarded cigarette butts and watch a styrofoam container fly by. Beautiful beaches littered with trash make me so very sad.

  26. jennifer says:

    I must admit, while reading this post and seeing the beauty of Railay, the last thing I expected to find a picture of was a penis cave! How completely odd.

  27. Shwetha says:

    Hi Kate,,…
    Great post here
    I talk about the best Places and stories at MyTravellingBlog. Will be writing about you and this particular post of your for this week, as I totally loved reading here and the pictures of Railay beaches.

  28. Amanda says:

    I will be interested to see what I make of Railay when I visit it for the first time next week! Since I never saw it “before,” I won’t be able to make any comparisons!

  29. Glad to hear it’s still amazing! Visited in 2009 and it was by far our favourite beach destination in Thailand. I know it will likely start to lose some of it’s quiet charm as time goes on, but hoping it’s still got a while left. Great photos!

  30. Charlotte says:

    love the honesty and love even more that you still enjoyed it. The worst thing is going back somewhere and the second time is a let down and not as good as your first.

    I just went to Kuta beach and had the same issue with rubbish and tourism, and I have this amazing image in my head of Bali that sadly right now is a little destroyed.

    http://offonalittleadventure.blogspot.com/2014/02/just-few-quiet-nights-on-kuta-beach-bali.html

  31. Devanu says:

    I visited Railay last summer in May. Not the best time to visit the place, but definitely the cheapest with less number of tourists. The pristine turquoise water and the sandy beaches took my breath away. The locals were very friendly and passionate about their work. Nightlife was superb, with enough options for every wallet. And normal Kiwi milkshakes on the Ton Sai beach just tasted better. I even loved the local Chang beer.

    Did you manage to climb your way through to the Princess Lagoon? Its a tough climb and descend, but once you reach the hidden lagoon surrounded by limestone mountains on all four sides, its heaven on earth. The experience took away my longstanding fear of rocks. The lagoon is like a private pool and the view of Krabi from the top is just breathtaking. I am sure 9 out of 10 tourists turn the other way around. The mountain top view is even more breathtaking:
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1376577362614846&l=7fa789b26f

    I would definitely love to go back.

  32. I was in Railay just a couple of weeks ago and opted to stay in Tonsai instead. Did you ever walk over there? While it has just one small beach and plenty of people, there was a distinctly laid back hippie vibe and during low tide and at sunset the beach was virtually empty making for gorgeous photos.

  33. Rob says:

    This makes me want to visit! I might have to add this on the list of things to see once I take off in May.

    Thanks!

  34. Forgive me for being that guy, but I didn’t exactly love Thailand and I really didn’t like Krabi. We started out travels in China and went through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia before arriving in Thailand in peak season. We were admittedly tired but I just felt like so much of the culture was eroded in places.

    I need to revisit some places in Thailand and give it a second chance.

  35. Jerome says:

    I just returned from Railay and was so saddened by the mass tourism that is slowly but surely raping this beautiful place. I was staying in a hillside Bungalow to the far east (Railay Garden View Resort). It was very charming and so inexpensive but lying on the deck during the day revealed a torturous serenade of the constant coming and going of the motorboats – like lying in a garden and hearing a lawnmower ALL DAY LONG. And the motorboats are literally everywhere. The trash on the beach and in the village areas stinks terribly, construction was abundant and it was virtually impossible to find a restaurant that featured only Thai cuisine. Party is the word in this place, backpackers and throwing back as many cocktails as possible. To get away I hired a boatman to take me to some of the rock islands for snorkeling and a quieter beach for a few hours, for around $25. I will never return to Railay. But heck, I’m a bit older and seek a quieter, more serene atmosphere. If you are young, on a budget and don’t care about noise, this place may be the right one for you.

    • Rape isn’t the word I’d use, Jerome, but I completely understand your sentiment.

      • Jerome says:

        My apologies, indeed a daft choice of verb. I am just very ecological-minded and traveling around countries like Thailand is shocking. There is no conceivable way that all of the massive amounts of trash consumerism, the incredible magnitude of textiles (label fakes or otherwise) and just plain GARBAGE – cannot be helped from ending up in massive landfills and/or on numerous earthly shores. It’s a shame that conservationist values play a very minor role in this country (and in what seems to be many southeast Asian countries).

  36. Nice article Kate, I visited Koh Rong in Cambodia not long ago and it’s going to be really interesting revisiting it in a few years – it could go either way I guess. I’m not sure why people are complaining about mass tourism in areas in Thailand – everybody knows the places that are crowded and there are plenty of other places that aren’t, so instead of going there and complaining about it just go somewhere else!

  37. Erica says:

    Kate, I just want to say thank you! My boyfriend and I are traveling Thailand for a two-week vacation, and we discovered your blog right before we left. We’re in Pai now, just finished the most beautiful motorbike trip ever, and now we’re planning for our trip south to the islands. When I first started planning I would visit huge websites like Lonely Planet, but quickly realized people’s personal blogs are far more exciting, inspiring and real. Thank you!

  38. xyzamudio says:

    Hi kate! Isee that you have beautiful post here, and I’ve seen your post about boracay too, which makes me think that you probably love beaches! I do too, I’d recommend though that if you like the best experiemce, go to El nido, Palawan Philippines. the best beaches Ive sen in my life, the finest white sand and the best people too! so if you have time, go and exlore elnido and coron palawan, you wont regret it! πŸ™‚

  39. Lehia says:

    We love Railay, but yes like the rest of Thailand it has changed very quickly – it’s still a semi hidden gem though which is nice and a great escape from Phi Phi!

  40. Natalie says:

    Hi Kate! I’m a first time visitor to Krabi, and I’m really looking forward to making a day trip down to Phra Nang Beach by the long tail boat from Ao Nang Beach, then walk the trails to Railay East and Railay West. However, I’ve been reading mix comments as to purchasing the long tail boat tickets! Do you recommend me to buy the round trip tickets at Ao Nang itself, or buy the one way there at Ao Nang, followed by the one way back at Railay?
    Your reply is must appreciated πŸ˜€

    • You could actually do the reverse — the journey at Ao Nang will drop you at Railay West and you can walk to Phranang Beach from there! You could go either way; if it were me, I’d probably buy one-ways.

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