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Railay's Redeeming Features

Rock-climbing and Snorkeling in a Paradise gone Posh.

sunny 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.

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Rock Climbing

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."

Snorkeling

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:
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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.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 01:26 Archived in Thailand Tagged cliffs sunset accommodation nature beach hotel thailand krabi sun west rock tour climbing tourists set east limestone snorkeling expensive railay longtail peak bungalows prices overpriced real_rock diamond_cave fruit_bats Comments (0)

Railay or Bust

A race against nausea and heat-exhaustion.

sunny 82 °F

With our desire to do some more SCUBA diving satisfied, Sam and I got an early start on leaving Koh Phangan the next morning. Our next destination: Railay Beach, one of the places I'd been most excited about visiting since we started planning this trip. We knew it was going to be a grueling trip -- it ended up being just over 11 hours by tuk-tuk, catamaran, bus and long-tail boat -- but keeping in mind postcard-perfect visions of sun-soaked white beaches and sapphire tides stretched between towers of jungle-capped limestone cliffs, we set out. Travel in Thailand up to that point had been fairly easy and pleasant compared to some horror stories we'd read from other travelers, but we were about to have a little experience of our own.

One option for travel here is to buy what the call a "joint ticket" which includes the bus, boat, taxi or whatever it takes to get from A to B for one price. We'd heard that some of the buses in those packages were "scams", on which peoples bags were looted and frequent stops were made so shop owners could hassle riders to buy something. We decided to forgo the package deal, get to the mainland and make our own way via the government buses which we had read were supposed to be safer, cheaper and nicer. So we took a Songserm slow boat from Koh Phangan to a small pier on the mainland with nothing around it but a ticket booth and a food stand. We were told there was a mini-bus on the way to take us into Surat Thani town, so we set our things down to wait and a few people bought some food and snacks from the only available option. After everybody was finished buying food, a guy who had been there since we showed up stood and announced that the mini-bus (which had been there the whole time) was ready. We've learned since then that buses in Thailand and Cambodia stop VERY often at food stands/ small shops. I can't decide if stops like this are a courtesy to the riders or if the bus companies get some kind of commission for bringing in customers, maybe a little of both. Either way it's a little annoying for a couple of westerners who are used to things running fairly efficiently and on-time.

Anyway, we made it to Surat Thani, where we set to work trying to find the government-run bus station that, as far as we learned, does not exist. It's actually just a street lined with buses of varying colors and shops that sell over-priced tickets. To get the best deal you have to find the correct bus and avoid getting suckered into buying a ticket while you're at it. There are plenty of people on the sidewalk assuring you that their friend runs the shop that sells the ticket you need. It's best to just ask them which bus you'll be riding and then go directly to the bus. The driver will sell you the ticket without the middle-man mark up. Even direct from the bus driver, prices can vary. Sam and I paid 200B each, the girls in the seats next to us bought from the same guy and paid 250B each. A Swedish couple we met had bought through one of the travel agency shops lining the street and they paid 500B each! And this is the bus that we thought was supposed to be legit!

As expected, the bus ride was awful. By the time we boarded the bus only the back seats, where you get none of the a/c, were available. But we had it better than the girl in the seat next to me. Things were fine for her until we started moving and some hidden reservoir of stale water cascaded from the ceiling into her lap. She patched it up with some first-aid supplies and the rest of the trip was uneventful; boring except for the continuous game of trying to keep from passing out or throwing up from the mix of heat and blaring Thai pop music.

The road signs for Krabi were a welcome relief, from there we were expecting to catch a long-tail to take us to Railay, but that would have been too easy. We pulled into town and everyone got off, except the six foreigners who were told this wasn't our stop. Instead we were driven to a coincidentally inconvenient spot about a mile out of town. When the Swedish man confronted the bus crew as to why we couldn't get off in town he was told "That stop Thai people only. You stop here." "Here" happened to be nothing more than a three-walled shelter with a few desks occupied by smiling travel agents eager to tell us the "more better" way to get to our destination. With no other option at this point Sam and I pooled together with the two Slovenian girls to take a cab to Ao Nang beach, where we hopped in a longtail for the short ride to Railay Beach West.

It was about 5pm when we arrived and we headed for the more backpacker-affordable accommodation on Railay Beach East, which is about a 5-10 minute walk from Railay West. We soon found out that this happened to be the weekend of the Chinese New Year. The combination of the holiday and the beginning of the tourist season meant ALL of the budget accommodation was booked by the time we got there. Sam camped out at a little juice shop with our packs and I ran around for a good hour or so trying to find a place we could afford. I finally found a place, a little windowless brick room big enough for a bed, it was ridiculously over-priced but it was the best we could do. Dehydrated, hungry, head aching and soaked with sweat, I took the room. I found Sam and lead her back to our home for the night, we both immediatley collapsed on the bed where we laid in the dark for few hours before even considering our next move.

I think it's a requirement to have at least a couple terrible travel experiences while in SEA. Ours wasn't as bad as some we've hear about but here's hoping it's the worst we'll have to deal with. At least it makes for an interesting memory.

Posted by Sam.and.Avery 01:20 Archived in Thailand Tagged boats boat travel bus longtail koh_phangan scam ao_nang getting_around how_to_get_around surat_thani krabbi bus_ticketrailay frequent_stops scam_bus joint_ticket Comments (0)

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