Where to stay in this beautiful Thailand location.

If you’re looking for a beautiful place to unwind after a long weekend in Bangkok, Railay Bay near Krabi is stunning. Quite simply it has the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever seen.  The tropical climate, soft golden sand and crystal-clear water create an exotic island paradise. Thai food is prepared on boats anchored by the beach which serve both a delicious, cheap lunch and gorgeous photo opportunities. But what really sets this area apart is the dramatic scenery courtesy of the limestone karsts. These towering rock formations, shrouded in jungle and ringed with beautiful sandy beaches, create an idyllic, fairy-tale setting.

It’s difficult to find another beach that ticks so many boxes. Being only accessible by boat, Railay Bay was once a hideaway for backpackers and independent travellers. But now the word has spread. Railay Bay is much busier. However, there are still ways to escape the crowds and enjoy a bliss filled Thailand beach.

Beaches of Railay Bay

Railay Bay is blessed with 4 different beaches, all within walking distance of each other. Railway West is the main beach with 600 metres of soft delectable sand and the most shops and restaurants. Tonsai Bay is a rock climbing bliss and home to adrenaline junky thrill seekers. Railay East contains the pick of the high-end resorts, while Phra Nang Cave Beach is a picture postcard paradise with zero facilities and roaming monkeys.

 The beach you choose to stay at will be determined by the type of holiday you are looking for. Each has their own particular appeal, activities, accommodation styles and eating options.

Railay Bay Beach 1: Railay West

Railay West is the main beach in Railay Bay and the scene of many famous Instagram posts. The dramatic limestone karsts on either side of the beach twist into postcard perfection. Railay West is the main drop-off point from the nearby Ao Nang Beach, so any time of day it’s a hive of activity. However, the lush tropic views, beautiful water and long stretches of sand, provide plenty of places to relax.

Most of the bars, café’s and shops are located on Railay West, along with a number of resorts ranging from mid to high end. The small and local Walking Street contains a mix of convenience stores, bars, cafes and craft shops. The service at many of the cafés – it needs to be said – is in desperate need of improvement. It’s actually a little sad to watch. The café staff seem despondent and uninterested to say the least. We saw staff snapping back at tourists complaining about their failed orders, and a number of dishes being walked back to the kitchen by the miffed waiters. I don’t think we once got what we actually ordered.  It’s a shame service has gone downhill so much since our last visit. The best approach is to remember you are on holidays, nothing really matters, and just go with the flow.

Railay West remains one of the most popular beaches at Railay Bay, and for good reason. Regardless of the service, it’s still a beautiful location. It’s also an easy 5-minute walk over to Railay East and about 15 minutes over to Phra Nang Cave Beach. Most tourist choose to stay at Railay West due to the accommodation options, and the amazing beach right out your front door. Staying here means you can enjoy the beach at sunrise and sunset without the need to walk over to another beach.

Railay Bay Beach 2: Railay East

Railay East is a very easy 5-minute walk from Railay West and is the main pick up point for boats to going from Railay Bay to Phuket and Phi Phi Island. It also has a number of high end accommodating options and a few shops selling essentials along the front. The downside is that Railay East is not a swimming beach. It’s mostly mud flats and mangroves when the tide is out. When the tide is in, the water comes all the way up to an unappealing cement path joining the nearby Phra Nang Cave Beach.

While Railay East isn’t a great place to hang out. It does catch good afternoon sun when the tide is high, and the scenery is still very good. As it has the pick of the high-end resorts, it is a good option if you are looking for better accommodation with an easy walk to a nice beach. Otherwise, Railay East is best served as a walkway to get over to the beautiful Phra Nang Cave Beach.

Railay Bay Beach 3: Tonsai Bay

Railay Bay is famous for its unique, young limestone, overhung climbing and vertical walls. Tonsai Bay is the premier destination to partake in great rock climbing. The surrounding limestone karsts twist into vertical walls with various sections of nerve-wracking overhang. It’s the ideal playground for rock climbers of various levels. Even if you’re not a rock climber, watching these daring athletes from the comfort of the nearby bar is a test of nerves.

Tonsai Bay is separated from Railway West by a rock face. At low tide, it’s possible to walk around the base, with some scrambling over rocks. At high tide, there’s a path that goes up over the rock and back down into Railay West. Both ways take around 15 minutes to walk.  It’s really no deterrent at all if you wish to stay at Tonsai Bay, however, there are important things to note. Firstly, you couldn’t do this walk with a lot of luggage, so if you wanted to split your trip and stay in both Railay West and Tonsai Bay, you would need to hire a boat to get between them. Secondly, you couldn’t do this walk at night, so wherever you’re staying, that’s where you’ll be enjoying the evening’s activities.

What doesn’t make it over the rocks separating Railway West and Tonsai Bay is the poor service. The quality of food, service and general attitude of Tonsai is far removed from its nearby neighbour. A small street lined with friendly local bars and cafes serving terrific food is tucked into the cliffs behind the main resort (Tonsai Bay Resort).  It’s a very relaxed atmosphere filled mostly with backpackers and rock climbers. It’s not on the beach, in fact, it’s separated from the water by an ugly concrete wall. But for great food, an amazing chilled vibe and the best food on Railay Bay, it’s well worth checking out.

The downside to Tonsai Bay is that it’s not a swimming beach.  At low tide it’s rocky and muddy, at high tide the beach all but disappears.  What you get instead is a cool relaxed vibe, a bar right on the water, and the opportunities to hang out with the rock climbers who have just descended the rock. Spending an early evening watching the last of the climbers make their way down as the sunsets over the karsts is a fantastic thing to do.

Railay Bay Beach 4: Phra Nang Cave Beach

Phra Nang Cave Beach is the least developed of all the beaches but quite possibly the most beautiful. It’s about a 15-minute walk from Railway West through some very interesting limestone cliffs, complete with monkeys clinging to the trees overhead. The beach is about 450 metres in length and contains soft fluffy sand and shallow warm waters. Two small islands (Koh Rang Nok and Nai) sit just off the shore. With the islands, the beautiful sand, the jungle background and the surrounding limestone karst, it’s a sublime scene.

While there are no facilities on the beach, at lunchtime several long tail boats pull up serving a great selection of delicious Thai food. Standing in the water, sipping your coconut, waiting for your food to be freshly prepared is Thailand holiday bliss. If you have an image in your head of Thailand beaches with lush jungle backdrops, atmospheric limestone karsts and beautiful water, this is the beach you are picturing. We’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best beaches we’ve visited, mainly because it ticks so many of the essential beach boxes for us. Beautiful scenery, clear water, soft golden sand, minimal facilities and great people watching.

Phra Nang Cave Beach can get very busy, for good reason. So, it’s best to turn up as early as possible, score a spot in the shade, and while away the day soaking up the amazing atmosphere. Because it’s a little difficult to get to, the crowd around you are all doing the same thing – nothing. There are no large tourist boats dropping off day trippers to spoil the relaxed vibe. Not much would stop you spending an entire day in this Railay Bay paradise.

Railay Bay Roundup

Staying at Railay Bay really comes down to two choices, Railay West or Tonsai Bay. Railay West has obvious appeal. The beach is beautiful, and the accommodation options are all directly on the beach. This means you can be the first on the beach in the morning and enjoy a sundowner in the evening while remaining within staggering distance of your hotel.  While we have some grumbles about the service, Railay West has a good selection of food and shopping options. It also has the main concentration of tourist offices who can organise boat trips out to the nearby islands. It can get crowded, but if you want to be in the heart of Railay Bay, Railay West is probably the beach for you. This all applies to Railay East, the only difference is you’ll be in better accommodation and a 5-minute walk to the beach.

Tonsai Bay’s charms as less obvious. On our first night, we thought perhaps we’d made a mistake and should have stayed on Railay West. But slowly, it’s appeal became more obvious. It’s much less crowded and the crowd here are hip, friendly and relaxed. There are no large tourist groups here, just worn out rock climbers, easy going backpackers and tourists looking to get away from it all. Although there’s no swimming, sitting at Tonsai Bay Resort with a beer in hand, soaking up the atmosphere and admiring the impressive views is more than enough. When it comes to eating, Tonsai Bay has the pick of the quality food options by a significant margin.

Our Recommendation

Our decision came down to our regular key factors: hotels, food, quality of the beach. At Railay Bay, we also added walking distances between each of the beaches to our criteria.

Tonsai Bay has a good hotel (Tonsai Bay Resort) at a fraction of the cost of anything on Railay West. The food is significantly better and the walking distance to the beaches was no deterrent: 15 minutes to Railay West, another 15 minutes to Phra Nang Cave Beach. Due to the rocks separating Railay West, you are limited to spending your evenings on Tonsai Bay.  Railay West has average food, amazing beaches right on your doorstep and better-quality accommodation, but at a higher price tag. You are also only a 15-minute walk to probably the best beach in the area, Phra Nang Cave Beach.

Regardless of where you choose to stay, you must go to Railay Bay. It’s quite simply a stunning location. On balance, we recommend Tonsai Bay because it suits our travelling style. It’s affordable, the food is excellent and walking distances are very manageable. While you miss the sunsets over Railay West and need to stay on Tonsai for the evenings, there’s more than enough to keep you occupied.  High quality, chilled bars, interesting characters and – while not quite as good as Railay West – beautiful views.

Getting to Railay Bay

To get to Railay Bay, fly in to Krabi Airport and get a taxi to Ao Nang Beach (around 45 minutes from Krabi). From Ao Nang, take a long tail boat to Railay West (around 20 minutes). The public longtail boats will wait for a minimum of 10 passengers before departing (100 baht per person). While this generally doesn’t take too long because of the popularity of Railay Bay, you can hire the whole boat rather than wait. If you are going directly  to Tonsai Bay, you will need to let you boat driver know before you leave.

Organising the transfer from the airport to the hotel yourself will mean carrying your stuff on and off the boat.  There are no piers, so the boats just pull up to the beach. At low tide, this requires wading through the water with your luggage, then carrying it up the beach to your hotel. If you have a lot of luggage, you may want to organise a transfer from your hotel. This way your boat driver will carry your luggage for you, making the whole journey very effortless. At the time of our visit the private transfer from the hotel, including taxi from the airport and private boat was 1400 baht for up to 4 people.

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