While Jamie and I were living in Toronto, and prior to us embarking on our painfully strict budget with the purpose of saving for Southeast Asia, we were becoming rock-climbing fanatics. About 3 times per week, we’d hop on our bikes (often in negative temperatures) and ride for about 20 minutes to Joe Rockhead’s in Liberty Village. There, we’d spend about 2-3 hours scaling the walls, gradually building up our strength and continually besting ourselves with the ultimate goal of being able to climb any route in the gym. Around February or March, we had to cut it off as the $50 monthly fee was eating in to the total amount we were going to be able to save for our trip. Out of all of the stingy decisions that we had to make, this one hurt the most. As a result, when we discovered that Railay Beach on the west coast of Thailand was one of the premier spots in the world to rock climb, for both beginners and experts, you can bet your ass that we were all over it.
A lot of people that we met while traveling throughout Southeast Asia had either been to Railay Beach or were planning on going. For this reason, we were a little surprised when we finally discovered how isolated the area actually is. When arriving by bus from Koh Phangan, we were dropped off at a little travel agent who then asked us whether we were planning on continuing to Ao Nang or Krabi Town. We had often heard that, “Railay Beach is close to Krabi,” so we booked a taxi to Krabi Town and that was that. What we learned afterwards is that Railay Beach is only reachable by boat. Long tail boats leave from Krabi Town every morning, take around 20-30 minutes, and cost about $5 per person. Krabi Town itself is about as quiet as quiet can possibly get whereas Ao Nang is supposed to be a bit more touristy and thus livelier. If you have to stay in Krabi, I’d suggest no more than one night.
The third and best option for accommodation is the area located directly on Railay Beach. Heading over here might sound as simple as getting a long tail boat from either Ao Nang or Krabi Town to Railay Beach, but that would be ignoring the fact that there are actually 4 beaches that entail Railay. Here’s a bit of the low-down to help you out:
1) Railay East: Accommodation isn’t incredibly expensive, but not incredibly cheap either. This is the mid-range resort town. The beach area’s a bit rocky if you’re looking to swim, but you can always walk to Railay West or Phra Nang Beach, which are much more sandy. A number of rock climbing schools for beginners are located on Railay East and offer half day lessons for about $60 per person.
2) Railay West: A beautiful sandy beach with high end resorts, this area’s great if you’ve got the money to blow, but for unemployed backpackers it’s a bit of a stretch.
3) Phra Nang Beach: With only one resort located on Phra Nang, this is the most expensive spot you can stay (although also the most spectacular as bungalows look out directly on to the ocean and massive limestone cliffs.
4) Tan Sai Beach: The backpackers haven. Weed, beer, slack-lining, and reggae beats make this spot a hippy’s paradise. This is the cheapest spot in the area for accommodation. We found a bungalow for about $16 each per night, although there are cheaper near the beach (they were full by the time that we arrived at Ton Sai). Tan Sai is a bit more rustic than West Railay or Phra Nang, but as it’s surrounded by impossibly tall limestone cliffs (which are littered with experienced rock climbers) the views are mind bogglingly cool. You can walk from West Railay to Tan Sai when the tide is out (morning and evening) but otherwise it’s completely cutoff by any means of transport other than long tail boat or kayak.
Arriving on Tan Sai was like experiencing all of the incredible pictures of Thailand you’ve ever seen on Google simultaneously, in person. The cliffs, the beach, the colour of the water, the extreme sports, the vibe… it’s all so overwhelmingly awesome. In the late afternoon of our first day on Tansai, Jamie and I laid out our towels on the sand and watched a couple of rock climbers in the distance. Suddenly, at about 80 stories up, one guy begins to fall. We watched in horror for a good 2-3 seconds as a man was seemingly about to meet his inevitable death, when suddenly a parachute erupted out of his backpack and he sailed safely over the ocean, landing easily on the sand below. The entire beach erupted into applause, and continued to watch as 4 more people proceeded to base-jump from the top of the cliff. As watching the base-jumpers from the safety of our towels seemed like exercise enough, we then treated ourselves to a beachside massage. Life is tough in Thailand.
The next day, we rented a kayak for about $5 each and paddled over to Phra Nang beach to get some cheap lunch from one of the many long tailed boats parked along the beach. After lounging for a couple of hours and swimming below the massive Phra Nang Cave, as well as visiting the bizarre phallus shrine located at the end of the beach (apparently fishermen have been making offerings to the shrine for centuries in exchange for good fortunes at sea), we continued to paddle around many of the cliffs protruding from the ocean. It was a spectacular day, but Jamie was feeling a bit off for the most of it. As I’d been violently ill in Koh Phangan only a couple of days before, I could recognize the symptoms all too well, but was hoping for the best. As a result, we reserved our spots for rock climbing the next day as soon as we returned to Tan Sai (thankfully, without paying a dollar).
At about 6am the following morning, two hours before we were supposed to make our way over to the rock climbing school, Jamie began to punish the porcelain. She was in agony like I’ve never seen before, finding it impossible to stand up without hunching her upper body over at a 90 degree angle to her lower half. She moaned, she groaned, and made a few other involuntary noises that I’ve been working tirelessly to erase from my memory. To be truthful, I’ve never seen anyone so sick. My bout of food poisoning on Koh Phangan was basically a hangnail compared to what Jamie went through in our little bungalow on Tan Sai.
The timing was unfortunate, to say the least. As Jamie was extremely ill for the next 3 days, unable to eat and frequently rushing to the bathroom, we did not go rock climbing on Railay Beach. As we were paying $16 each for every night spent in our tiny bungalow infested with ants and a few cockroaches to boot, Jamie was in dire need of moving on to Koh Phi Phi as soon as she could stand up. It was an absolutely beautiful spot, and I encourage anyone who visits Thailand to go there. Perhaps you will have better luck than we did.
We were not, however, the only people in Tan Sai who got food poisoning. Many people we spoke to had come down with it after eating a seafood BBQ the night before. In short, it was an isolated little village and a combination of unhygienic cooking practices with questionable food sources were to blame for Jamie’s sickness. Although, I wouldn’t say that food poisoning was a condition unique to Tan Sai. In fact, I had a mild bout in Chiang Rai, a pretty bad one in Koh Chang that resurfaced in Bangkok a few days later, and of course on the night of the full moon party on Koh Phangan. Food Poisoning has been a significant factor in my love/hate relationship with Thailand, and no matter where you stay or what you plan on doing, it may strike you at any time. You must come to terms with this if planning on travelling through Southeast Asia. Jamie’s parents were quite lucky and didn’t have it once on their 5 week trip through Thailand. We’ve come down with it many times, and it has put a damper on some of the experiences that we were looking forward to the most. In this case, it prevented the experience altogether. That’s the way she goes, but I’d be lying if I were to say that it’s not frustrating. For sanity’s sake, you’ve got to organize everything in Southeast Asia as either “incredible,” or “make’s you appreciate home.” For me, Tan Sai was a bit of both. As for Jamie… I can’t help but remember a certain breakdown after a particularly rough trip to the toilet on which she slammed her fists down on our mattress and screamed, “F*CK. THIS. PLACE!!!!” I would say that for her, Tan Sai was entirely the latter.