As the cliffs grew closer, we saw the outline of large, lithe creatures scurrying beneath the overhanging rock, their skin shiny and firm. I gasped as one fell, caught just feet above the sand by an attached rope, a roar of frustration coming from his direction. The cliffs were covered in them — climbers — wiry, bronzed, tattooed and disproportionally dreadlocked.
A narrow wooden boat had ventured out into the open ocean to meet our ferry and those of us destined for Thailand’s Railay Beach had been ushered aboard. The very real prospect of having to sleep on the sand couldn’t dampen our excitement about finally reaching this mythical spot — a peninsula only accessible by water given the cliffs severing it from the mainland.
Our attempts to get there began a week earlier at Krabi’s central ticket office.
“Two tickets to Railay,” I asked, groggy from the overnight bus ride.
“It’s booked. How about Ko Lanta?”
“Sure.” It wasn’t on our itinerary, but therein lies the beauty of traveling without time constraints. After a few lovely days celebrating Christmas on Ko Lanta, we were back at the same ticket office.
“Railay is booked.”
“Still?” We asked. “The whole beach?”
The busy Thai woman nodded abruptly.
“How can a beach be booked? Can we buy two ferry tickets anyways?”
“Yes, here you go, but you’ll have no place to sleep,” she said forebodingly and handed over the tickets.
A few hours later and we had finally arrived at Railay. I stepped off the boat and walked up the beach, in awe of the half-naked bodies dangling in the distance. Even after months of trekking and traveling, I suddenly felt pale and flabby in their midst.
Despite the minor detail of our destination being “fully booked,” we defiantly headed inland from guesthouse to guesthouse, asking for a room. Eventually, we succeeded…sort of. At the end of the road, a shop with a large wooden deck had been transformed into a makeshift campground with about 15 tents. We took the last one available, elated by the prospect of a night without sand fleas.
Ten minutes after dropping off my bags I was settled on the beach with mango sticky rice, dividing my gaze between the pink horizon and the cliffside acrobatics.
The small beach, like many of the tourist-monopolized hangouts in Southeast Asia, offered a laid-back vibe, almost aggressively so — complete with slack line, live music, beachside cafes and outdoor activities. The food catered to the calorie-burning climbing crowd, a perk that resulted in double-sized curry portions.
Some climbers call this strip of beach home for months at a time, jumping across the ocean into southern Myanmar for the occasional visa renewal (something we would also have to do later on) and subsisting on $10/day.
Visitors — Italians, Israelis, Spaniards, etc. — far outnumbered the locals who were few and far between.
Our fear of missing out initially drove us to Railay, in pursuit of another “backpacker’s paradise,” but our inferior athleticism and restlessness ultimately drove us away.
Although specifically a climbers’ paradise, the beach is still worth a stop for the average ground dweller, who can snorkel, kayak between the dramatic karst formations or explore the surrounding islands, including the filming location for Leonardo Dicaprio’s The Beach.
Staying for a full month though, which many do, is probably best reserved for the climbing addicts, as alternative activities can be managed in under a week.
Since sport is at the heart of Railay’s appeal, not drinking, the scene, though touristic, isn’t as morally gray as what one might find in Vang Vieng. The exhaustion that comes with a long day on the rocks followed by a series of early mornings keeps the atmosphere from becoming as hedonistic as a couple of islands over on Ko Phi Phi or infamous Ko Pha Ngan.
If you’re looking for a taste of the slow life, the easy life or an escape from life then swing by Railay Beach, but beware, if you stay long enough, you’ll leave with a six-pack, dreads down to your bellybutton and an affinity for overhangs.