Rock-climbing and Snorkeling in a Paradise gone Posh.
2/22/12 - 2/24/12 85 °F
Like I mentioned in the last post, Sam and I had been really excited about spending some time in Railay. We'd read about it and watched a few YouTube videos that made it sound pretty low key and relaxed. I had envisioned a beach lined with rustic bungalows and hippies, backpackers and rock-climbers lounging around. It's our own fault for being misinformed and for coming in peak tourist season, but we were surprisingly disappointed by what we found in Railay instead. And we weren't the only ones taken by surprise, over the few days we spent there we saw plenty of backpackers running around wide-eyed, soaked in sweat and asking where the cheap bungalows could be found. (Sorry, man they're all full! I know! Bummer!)
Apparently, the whole area has become a choice destination for Europeans on holiday. And with that status comes over-development, inflated room rates and hordes of tourists with wailing children in tow. They have just as much right to enjoy those stunning beaches as anyone, but this wasn't the Railay we had been looking forward to. However, if you can manage to look past the crowds and get over the fact that you're spending half of your daily budget on accommodation, Railay really is a beautiful place with a lot to offer.
Our first night in Railay was a write-off. Both Sam and I were nursing headaches from not eating or drinking enough water during the bus trip and after a little nap we had the energy to search out some fried rice and that was about it for the night. The next day, feeling recharged and happy about having been able to move to a larger, better lit room (with windows and everything!) we were off to a much better start. I set out to find someone to teach me rock-climbing -- Railay is said to have some of the best climbing in the world, one of the major reasons I wanted to visit -- and by that afternoon I was headed to "1, 2, 3 Wall" with some laid back local guys from a shop called Real Rock.
At the wall I was introduced to my instructor, Len, who was busy belaying for one of two brothers from Pittsburgh who I was climbing with for the day. There really wasn't much instruction before I got started but I'm more of a learn-by-doing type of guy anyway so it suited me just fine. Len showed me how to tie in my harness properly and told me to have at it. I took a deep breath and scanned the rock in front of me while I chalked my hands up for the first time. This was supposed to be an easy climb and for not having done any real rock-climbing before I thought I pulled it off pretty gracefully. I found myself rushing through the first part, my adrenaline started pumping and I had a little bit of tunnel vision where all I was thinking about what getting up and getting back down as quickly as possible. It's an interesting feeling to be clinging to a rock with nothing keeping you off the ground except your own skills and a rope tied to a stranger on the ground below you. I slipped a couple of times but Len was always quick to stop my fall and shout suggestions on what my next move should be. As I became more confident in him and myself I was able to slow down, enjoy the feeling of raw physical activity and even turn around and take in the view a couple of times, which even from only 30-40 feet up was spectacular.
Our group spent the afternoon completing increasingly difficult climbs around that same rock. I was able to finish all of them but the last one. It was the longest and hardest climb of the day. I was exhausted just looking at it.
"Just go straight up!" Len offered. Soooo much easier said than done, but I gave it a go. I made it about 30-35 feet up, around 3/4 of the way to the top. At that point I was hanging on by two footholds deep enough for the tips of my shoes and a sliver of rock large enough to grip with three fingertips. From there with was a long stretch to the next decent hand hold. I gave it my best in four or five tries and then just hung there looking up at the last 10ft of the climb. My knees marked with the bruises and scrapes of an inexperienced climber and aching from neck to toe, I called it a day. Maybe on a new day I could make that last ten feet, but it definitely wasn't happening that afternoon.
I yelled to Len, "I'm dead."
I would love to do some more rock climbing and there is plenty of it to be done in Railay, but we had limited time there and I was so sore the next day I didn't think it would have been worth my time to even attempt it. Instead, Sam and I had a lazy breakfast and strolled up to Diamond Cave -- a shallow limestone cave just a short walk from the beaches -- where we poked around for awhile before meeting up with a snorkeling tour that afternoon.
We hopped on a large longtail with about 15 other people and spent the rest of the day being carted to a handful of snorkeling spots around some of the smaller islands about an hour boat-ride from the mainland of Railay. The snorkeling was enjoyable everywhere we went despite poor visibility. We spotted quite a bit of wildlife including a lot of clown fish, banner fish, butterfly fish, grouper, barracuda, box fish and a bunch of other stuff I can't put a name to. There was also one moment when the schools of fish around us exploded in what I thought might be panic. They shot past us in a blur and I turned the direction they had come from hoping to see a shark. I kicked a few times in that direction and saw a large tail fin flash into my range of visibility and then disappear. I grabbed Sam, hoping to share a sighting with her since it's a goal of ours to see a shark, but whatever I saw was probably long gone by the time I looked back and we didn't have anymore close encounters .
That evening we headed to an island beach where we watched between two rock formations as the sun set on the horizon. In the waning light the sky and water were matching swirls of blues, purples and pinks. Overhead, a steady stream of massive fruit bats dotted the sky between the cliffs and the mainland. It was a surreal moment neither Sam or I could capture properly on film and could only stand and watch in awe. Pictures just can't do a scene like that justice.
Here are a couple anyway:
We ate a quick meal of spicy green curry on the beach and boarded the boat for our last stop. We approached a rock cliff that looked a lot like the others we'd coasted past throughout the day, but as the boat sliced nearer to the formation our wake began to roll out in shimmering blues and greens as it peeled away from the boat. The water there was full of a bioluminescent algae that lights up when the water is disturbed. When everyone was prepped and in the water, the boatman killed the lone light on the longtail and we were left in the shadow of the cliff. Here, shielded from the moonlight, the algae danced brilliantly with each kick or swing of an arm. We were suspended there in what our guide described as "stars above and stars below". I couldn't have said it better myself. We treaded water for about ten minutes there. Each of us thrashing around in the water, shrouded in our individual clouds of neon specks and enjoying the natural light show before climbing into the boat for the chilly ride back to shore.
Sam and I both enjoy they outdoors and the more nature-y things in SEA never seem to disappoint. In this case, Railay may not have been the laid-back retreat we had imagined, but it is undeniably beautiful. A couple of days spent clinging to a rock and snorkeling out among the many islands and cliffs away from the crowds was enough for Railay to redeem itself and leave us with a favorable opinion.