If you are a serious rock climber, then the Railay / Tonsai area in Thailand needs to be extremely high on your “must-visit” travel list. A unique climbing culture with an awesome vibe, beautiful scenery, and forty crags ranging from a three to a thirty minute walk from where you’re staying, all make this a veritable heaven on earth for climbers.
Where to Stay
If you’d like to stay at a more hippie/backpackery location, Tonsai is definitely the place. The story behind the accommodation is quite interesting. Apparently accommodation used to be right on the beach, until a large hotel chain bought all the property, with a concrete wall surrounding the land. So, there is now a pleasantly winding dirt path through the property all the way to the wall, with a makeshift ladder allowing you to scramble up and over the wall.
Once you do, you’ve entered the magical hippie community of Tonsai. The rustic bungalows, the creative artwork on the wall, the bars with slacklines and advertising “happy shakes” all make it an enchanting place that you’ll never want to leave, while the whole time being surrounded by towering, awe-inspiring limestone rock walls that you’re going to be climbing over the coming weeks. Be sure to check out the “Chill Out Bar”, with great food, a friendly community, and fire shows every night.
Railay is a fair bit larger with more upscale accommodation, and more restaurants and bars to choose from, but it’s still a quiet, laid-back vibe. The beach is much nicer here and is the main attraction, crowded with sunbathers during the day. There’s plenty of climbing crags around here as well, along with a hikes to a lagoon and a viewpoint. Getting between Tonsai and Railay is just a short ten minute hike through some rocks and trees connecting the two, so it’s common to take day or half-day trips between one and the other.
What to Do
Climb, climb, and climb! If you’ve never climbed before this is a fun and beautiful place to learn, and lots of companies offer intro to climbing classes, or more advanced classes if you simply need a skills refresher.
Deep Water Solo
If you like rock climbing but can’t be bothered with the fuss of ropes and safety equipment, this is the tour for you! Sign up for a day tour (we went with Basecamp Tonsai) and take a boat out to a few rock islands, where one side overhangs the water. Your guide will hang a ladder to help you get started. You climb a ladder, then climb the rock as high as you want, or dare, and either fall off or willingly jump in for a finale. It’s quite a fun feeling to hear the ocean splashing below you and look down and see the water.
To be honest though, as an avid climber, deep water soloing was fun, but not more fun than regular climbing. You’re wearing old shoes (included with the tour) with holes that don’t fit well, you can’t chalk up, your feet are wet so you slip pretty easily… so basically, it’s hard to push it to the max and fall attempting an epic move. My experience was more that I climbed something relatively easy, then at some point glance down and realize, “Whoops, that’s a bit further down than I thought!” and wimp out and jump off. Worth it to do it once, though!
Just Enjoy the Craziness
People who hang out at Tonsai are truly awesome, so just hang out at a bar on the beach and watch them- or better yet join in! While you’re sipping your beer or cocktail you can watch climbers attempting crazy hard inverted routes right on the beach as the sun sets. On the beach, you’ll probably get people practicing their juggling, acro-yoga, fire spinning, or anything else. And if you’re lucky, you might see a base jumper launch off the cliff overhead. We only saw one in ten days, but some people claimed to see them much more often.
Where to eat Ice Cream
The standard frozen dessert in Thailand is not ice cream, it’s a fresh fruit smoothie, which is fresh, delicious, and admittedly healthier. But when you get that craving that only ice cream will satisty, you’re in luck, there’s a homemade ice cream shop over in Railay.
Local Homemade Ice Cream
I’m not even sure if it has a name, it just has a sign “Local Homemade Ice Cream”- but you can’t miss it, there’s only one real street in Railay, and the ice cream is fairly close to the beach. They had a number of fantastic sounding flavors seemingly with local ingredients, such as “Avocado Coconut Milk, “Passion Fruit Honey”, and “Pinapple and Cinnamon”.
The texture was a bit off- a bit grainy- probably a result of less fat in the ice cream, and perhaps more water (for example, from coconut milk). However, the taste was fantastic, and Avocado Coconut Milk was definitely the winner for me.
It was a little expensive- 120 baht ($4 USD) for two scoops, which could buy you, in Railay, two fruit smoothies or a large beer. But for a treat after a solid morning of rock climbing, definitely worth it!