Railay (also spelled Raileh, Railey and, thanks to auto-correct, Railway!) is the name of a mainland peninsula just south of Ao Nang, but, as three of its sides are surrounded by the sea and it is backed by a range of spectacular limestone cliffs that cuts it off from all roads, it has the feel of a real island. Almost every square metre of habitable land has been developed, though the buildings are all low-rise, low density and, for the most part, tastefully designed.
The main attraction of Railay is that the two principal beaches are, without a doubt, the most stunning strips of sand on the Krabi coastline – perhaps even on the whole Thai mainland. We are talking world-class, picture postcard material. Long, gently curved, with white powder sand sloping down to emerald green water and framed by coconut palms against a backdrop of towering, craggy rocks. Awesome (in all senses of the word).
As Railay is so small – crossing from one side to the other takes less than 10 minutes – all accommodation can be classed as being close to the beach. Its three sides cannot all be considered equal, however.
West Railay (sometimes known as Sunset Beach), pictured at the top of the page, is where you will find most of the big resorts offering high quality accommodation. Their reception areas, restaurants and most expensive rooms are situated right next to the sand, although the area they cover stretches right back almost to the east coast. The beach is beautiful, but can get a bit noisy in the day as it is also the arrival and departure point for longtail boats from Ao Nang. Evenings are blissfully quiet.
East Railay (Sunrise Beach) has the least attractive beach of the three. In fact, there is no actual beach as much of the water is lined with mangrove trees and seemingly continual construction work along its length means it looks rather shabby. It is used as ‘the back door’ of Railay, the goods delivery point for all of the hotels, as well as the pier for taxi boats to and from Krabi Town and Ao Nam Mao. At low tide, the water recedes around 300m, revealing not sand, but sticky mud.
The bulk of accommodation is actually on this side of Railay and on the steep hill behind it. But why stay here? Well, for one, it is much cheaper. Most of the bars, tour offices and independent restaurants are also located here – but you will have to walk at least 5 – 10 minutes to get to a beach.
Phra Nang Cave Beach is on the southernmost tip of Railay and, as the best beach on the peninsula, is where most people (including day-trippers from Ao Nang and Krabi) spend their days. It can get very crowded as a result, so early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit. If you want to spend your nights here, you will have to splash out on the super-luxurious Rayavadee Resort which occupies all of the land behind the beach. Because of this, public access to Phra Nang Bay is only by boat, or by a pretty cliffside pathway located at the end of East Railay that circles the resort grounds. The path is frequented by monkeys and – occasionally – rare dusky langurs.
Apart from sunbathing and swimming, the main activity on Railay is rock-climbing, which attracts enthusiasts from all over the world. An abundance of climbing schools also exist to teach beginners. Although this is still considered to be the best place to climb, many serious climbers on a budget have moved to the next door Ton Sai beach, which offers cheap accommodation and a more bohemian lifestyle.
The atmosphere in Railay can best be described as ‘hippy chic‘. The real hippy crowd that ‘discovered’ this place 25 years ago have all but disappeared, leaving the pleasant legacy of a slow-paced, shoeless way of life as well as a clutch of bars and coffee-cum-book-shops run by guitar-playing, dreadlocked Thai boys. It is now a great place for trendy, young-ish couples who have a bit money to spend but don’t want to stray too far from the ethos of their student backpacker days. Older people and honeymooners are also very well catered-for.
It is worth noting that the vast majority of the accommodation on both Railay West and East is Muslim-owned, meaning it is also an excellent destination for Halal beach tourism.
Nightlife varies from sitting around candlelit tables on the west beach to wild parties at the east side bars. Live music is a regular proposition, mostly reggae-inspired, although return visitor Fatboy Slim did once play an impromptu set for a crowd of less than a hundred people. Other celebrities spotted out and about in recent years include Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and Mick Jagger.
There are a couple of ATM machines on the Railay peninsula, as well as a pharmacy and clinic. There is a limited selection of shopping, in the “Walking Street Plaza” and along the east side walkway. You’ll find beach clothing, jewellery, and even the odd tailor shop.
One thing to note before you arrive is that prices in general in Railay tend to be higher than the rest of Krabi, simply because it is effectively an island. It has to sustain extra transport costs as well as high electricity bills – though mains current replaced the old diesel generators in 2010, it is supplied at a premium from the local electricity board. Food is possibly another minus point: both choice and quality are fairly limited as the restaurants are cooking for a captive market. The west beach hotel restaurants are the best bet for Thai food.
If you are looking for a beach holiday, pure and simple, then Railay is the perfect choice of destination. Longtail boats are available to explore the islands nearby; and kayaks can be rented to paddle around the cliffs. You can try climbing, and there are short hikes, including up to the lagoon viewpoint, and plenty of caves to explore. However, if you’ve got itchy feet and want to get out and explore the rest of the Krabi region, you may find that staying in Railay makes things a little difficult, as this will require an additional boat trip to Ao Nang. Its relative inaccessibility may also not suit others like the elderly, the disabled or anyone else that has difficulty walking or getting in and out of a longtail boat.
More guides to Railay
List of hotels in Railey Beach
Getting to Railay (includes longtail boat info)
Rock climbing in Krabi
More Krabi destination guides
► Aonang Beach
The main tourist centre
► Nopparat Thara and Klong Haeng
Ao Nang’s up and coming neighbour
► Ton Sai Beach, Krabi
Backpackers’ and climbers’ hangout
► Klong Muang and Tubkaek
Upmarket escape from the crowds
► Krabi Town
Authentic Thai market town
► Koh Jum, Krabi
The last get-away-from-it-all
► Ko Ngai (a.k.a. Ko Hai)
One of Krabi’s most pristine spots
► Ko Phi Phi (external site)
The ultimate crazy / beautiful destination
► Ko Lanta (external site)
For laidback lounging