Angus McDonald and friend take some time out on Thailand’s Railay peninsula, where rock climbing is optional but lolling on the beach is unavoidable.
The information was accurate, if not the spelling. ‘Danger! Sliperpy area a head,’ said the sign. In front of us, a fraying rope traced a line up a wall of jungle, rock, and wet earth the colour of rust. As we contemplated the climb, a French couple descended, dressed in swimsuits and slathered in mud as if from some wrestling spectacle in a low-rent bar. Fifteen minutes to the top, they told us. This was starting to look less like a life-endangering experience and more like fun.
Grabbing the rope, we levered ourselves over knobs of rock, grasping for hand- and footholds on the tree roots that veined in every direction. After ten minutes of sweaty ascent, the slope became gentler. Five minutes more and we were on a more or less level path. The rope no longer there to help us, we slip-slid, branch-grabbed and log-hopped the rest of the way to our destination, the fabled Railay lookout. The final bit was a downward slope of mud, with only our wits and the occasional precarious foothold to prevent us from sliding over the sheer drop at the bottom.
It was worth it. Below us, a slim waist of land, lush with palm trees, separated two curving beaches, aprons of golden sand sheltered by sweeping walls of limestone. The crags were crowned with trees as if they had been thrust up from the jungle floor a moment before, their flanks dribbled with colour like melted candlewax. Cabins and beachfront restaurants nestled amongst the foliage, but the most satisfying thing was this: no roads and no cars.
We had arrived in Railay a few days earlier the only way you can – by boat, from Ao Nang in Thailand’s Krabi province. Although the idea was to have a simple relax by the beach, this was destined to be, in the words of Paul Theroux, a holiday where you get your feet wet. It began with the wade out to the long-tail, tottering beneath the weight of our bags. Luggage stowed, we roared past dramatic limestone karsts streaked the colour of tobacco and white wine, their overhangs bearded with stalactites, their crowns festooned with forest, their feet decorated with tiny beaches or shady, tide-scoured grottoes. After a ten-minute ride, we pulled up amid mangroves and waded to a narrow concrete esplanade that forms Railay’s main street. As we were to discover a little later, even this goes underwater at high tide.
We’d gambled on a visit during the attractively-named ‘green season’, a euphemism for the Andaman Sea monsoon. High season in Railay is from November to April, but in September, as the rains tail off, the resorts are quarter-full and half-price – perfect for a quick getaway if you don’t mind heading indoors during a steamy downpour. We spent sunny days ducking in and out of the aquamarine sea or resting beneath shady trees, and whiled away rainy interludes taking massages or sampling the offerings of beachside restaurants. At our resort’s restaurant, I lost count of how many times we ordered the crab cakes. Each night they used a different recipe. Most restaurants offer a barbecue, including fish and prawn kebabs, but my favourite meal was an enormous sea bass that I picked out and had grilled whole. Catherine, a first-timer to Thailand, ignored the seafood and went straight for chicken laab, a lovely, tangy salad that originates in the parched and landlocked northeast of the country.
In a part of Thailand that’s been a tourist mecca for decades, Railay sits at a wonderful equipoise between development and raw beauty – quite an achievement considering its beaches are regularly rated amongst the most gorgeous in the country. The limestone walls that isolate this tiny peninsula have proved an effective barrier, keeping concrete construction to a minimum and sleaze to a level where it still has entertainment value. With any luck, things will stay this way, with an ecotourism project that sponsors regular mangrove plantings, bans motorised water sports and encourages recycling of water and rubbish. The sea teems with crabs and the forests are alive with lizards and monkeys such as the spectacled langur. Some species, such as the crab-eating macaque and the water monitor, manage to make the best of both worlds.
Affordable resorts line part of the beachfront, many of them offering tasteful cabins set back amid lush gardens behind open-air restaurants. Ours was a five-minute walk from Railay beach, a concave curve of golden sand surrounded by karsts that undulate like a gigantic rollercoaster. It took a couple more days to discover Phranang beach, a ten-minute walk via an overhang with stalactites and stalagmites wound around with colourful cloths. At one end lies the Princess Cave, where fishermen place carved phalluses – some of them rather large, with a red hi-gloss finish – to thank the goddess Phranang for the day’s catch and their safe return from the sea. Local lore has it that a lot of lusty seamen fought for the affections of a standoffish princess who once lived here, but were turned into crags by a holy man irritated at having his peace disturbed. The old sadhu did well: the view from Phranang is an array of phantasmagorical shapes, from the nearby island with its twin humps vaguely resembling a camel, to Chicken Island – you can guess what it looks like – and assorted mushroom-shaped oddities.
It is in theory possible to get a closer look at these islands than from a warm towel spread on Phranang beach, and we did at one point get as far as collecting some brochures. The most popular outing is to the Phi Phi group, known for their exceptional scuba diving and snorkelling, a 45-minute speedboat ride away. There’s also a half-day tour to nearby Tup, Poda and Chicken islands, and a trip to admire the Hong islands, with still more snorkelling. Some way down the list is a James Bond tour, Udaipur-style, to see a monolith that featured in the 1974 Roger Moore clunker, The Man with the Golden Gun. It is even possible to walk to the camel-shaped island from Phranang at low tide, 100 metres away across a sand spit. We saw people do it.
Weather permitting, we made a couple of excursions to check out the night life. With Railay mercifully free of full moon parties and pumping bars, this involved slopping northwards in flip-flops along the half-submerged esplanade to the budget end of town, where Railay’s past as a backpacker haven is still very much apparent. Joy’s bar was a plank platform over the beach that offered the usual cocktails, sipped while sinking ever further groundwards on triangular cushions that had seen a season too many. We sampled enough to work out that the common ingredient was grenadine, before attempting the return slosh to the resort. Penetrating deep into the heart of backpackerdom a couple of nights later, we followed the siren sound of a singer whose routine, consisting of Tom Petty and Crowded House standbys, and an unforgettable rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ (imagine McCartney’s throaty yell interpreted as a prolonged dog yap), had been echoing faintly along the beach every night since our arrival. We found him in the Lucky Restaurant, a sprawling deck draped with grubby cloths in rainbow colours. The singer eventually shuffled off, to be followed by a display of fire-stick twirling, watched by a fascinated crowd as an Angelina Jolie film played on a giant video screen at stage left. We retreated to play pool and table soccer for the rest of the evening.
Every once in a while we would contemplate something even more strenuous. Kayaking and diving are popular options, but Railay’s big attraction for the adventurous is its rock climbing. I got as far as sitting down with one of the more reputable-looking companies – in other words, one that didn’t consist of long-haired boys lounging around a reggae café – to canvass the possibilities. Classes are available for beginners and more advanced climbers, with novices doing three to five routes over a four-hour period. Those who get halfway up a cliff only to decide it isn’t for them – and there are plenty of these, apparently – can opt to be lowered by rope back to the ground. More advanced courses cover lead climbing, multi-pitch climbing, caving and abseiling. For those who have attained a certain level of skill, there’s a thing called deep water solo, which involves free climbing over open water, then jumping off whenever the fancy strikes. Fleeing the beach one morning during a downpour, we watched a lesson in progress in an overhang near the Princess Cave, the cliff echoing with moans of fear, shouts of encouragement and whoops of glee. Alongside us, a Russian tour group seemed more interested in their pre-lunch beers and cigarettes, and a couple of Speedo-clad German boys photographed each other intently as they hugged the stalactites. Some oddly masculine-looking women frolicked in the surf.
For us, the scramble up to the viewpoint was as adventurous as it got. We briefly contemplated a little more trekking to find a lagoon that supposedly lies hidden amid the jungle, then decided we’d probably chanced the slippery mud enough, and headed down to the west beach to catch the sunset. A beachside bar had laid rush mats out on the sand, lit by little oil lamps, so we settled onto one of these to contemplate the hectic activities around us – beach volleyball, a soccer match amongst resort staff, and a particularly acrobatic display of frisbee throwing by a couple of the rock climbing instructors, their Bob Marley locks flying. Amongst the tourists, taking pictures of each other posing in front of the view seemed to be a major attraction. As we quaffed Chang beer and watched the long-tails putter in and out of the bay on their taxi runs, the sun shot rays through clouds that hung on the horizon like shreds of torn silk, then became a crimson ball that sank behind the winking lights and mauve coastline of Phuket, far off to the west. A new moon rose and the sky turned a translucent shade of indigo which lingered into the night, silhouetting the limestone crags into frozen waves which towered over us in a looming mass. We plunged into the water to loll amid the gentle surf for half an hour. Then it was time to head back to the resort and find out what shape the crab cakes might be tonight.
This article first appeared in Outlook Traveller, November 2011