Approaching Railey by longtail boat was like discovering the lost world. Karst cliffs tower from the water, overhanging with stalactites, all draped in vivid green jungle. Caves visible everywhere and the suggestion of hidden valleys beyond the first line of cliffs gives the place a mysterious feel.
However when you arrive you realise that the place has definitely been found – by lots of 4 and 5 star resorts covering every square foot of the flat land on the peninsular. The resorts generally look very nice – so it’s not the end of the world if you can afford to stay in one of those. But if like us you stay in the cheapest room in Railay, it really only leaves the beach and a few bars and restaurants to hang out on.
After our night in Ton Sai and deciding that the location wasnt really for us, and we weren’t really feeling up for climbing (very sore from dragging our packs around recently), we found the cheapest room we could on Railey and moved over – to the Princess Budget Wing (formerly yaya resort) – for which we paid 1000 baht per night – poor value by Thai standards and well over our budget (should be 600-700). The only redeeming feature of this accommodation is its location – the only budget option that’s within 5-10 minutes walk of Phra Nang beach. For that money you don’t even get a hot shower, the fan was extremely noisy to run, the rooms are packed so close together that you can hear everything that goes on in the whole block – and to make matters worse there must be a nightclub nearby that plays music until 4am and many noisy russians staying here who felt the need to shout/talk/throw up late into the night. The room was at least reasonably bug-free – not completely sealed but in an area where mosquitos arent such a big issue – we only got a couple in the room during the two days – so no mosquito net needed (and none was provided). I’d probably consider staying here again if I was backpacking in low season when there would be very few guests and I could get the room for 300 baht or less.
Enjoying the sunset on the end of Phra Nang Beach
Phra Nang beach is stunning – the most incredible beach I have ever visited. Framed by karst cliffs with an immense overhang at the southern end (including a sacred cave at the base), the sand is bright white, fine and soft, backed by trees instead of hotel buildings (although the Rayadavee resort is hidden in those trees somewhere). The water is warm and great to swim in, food and drink is available cheaply from longtail boat vendors. The beach is big enough and remote enough from most places that it never fills up completely – by sunset (and you get some great sunsets here) the north end of the beach is practically deserted. For beach-laying and a bit of swimming it really does live up to the brochure image.
But, and it seems like sadly there will always be a but, the disappointment here was the snorkelling. Perhaps the poor visibility was only temporary (alot of plankton or something in the water, it must have included some animal that delivers a light sting occasionally – annoying but not damaging), but the bleaching of the coral looked distinctly irreversible. I had read about it, but wasnt really prepared for how sad it would be to see 95% of all the coral dead and broken, and abandoned by most other marine life. We swam out along the south side of the two islands that sit offshore from the beach, through the gap, then back along the north side. The north side was in slightly better condition, but we were only in around 2m of water so I couldn’t tell if it had survived better at depth – i had no idea how far out we’d need to go to find a drop-off, but there must be one there as our ferry on departure passed within 150 yards or so of the island. We saw a few fish (incl an angel fish) a sea cucumber, some crabs, sea spider and stef even saw a sea snake.. These stood out in the relatively dead surroundings, unlike what you’d expect on a healthy reef. Caused by sea temperatures rising too high, it’s difficult to know if this damage is human-influenced or not, and it certainly seems like there isn’t much we can do to stop it in the short term.