Rai Leh (อ่าวไร่เล), also commonly known as Railay, is a tourist area located on the Andaman Coast of Thailand, in Krabi Province. Rai Leh is primarily known as a rock climbing hot spot, attracting climbers from all over the world to its superb towering limestone.
As Rai Leh is a peninsula surrounded by ocean and mountains, final access can only be by boat. Longtails depart from Ao Nang (10 min, 100 baht/person, minimum 8 people) and Krabi Town (30 min) on demand, making those towns the gateways to Rai Leh. It's also possible to access Rai Leh via regular ferries that run between Ko Lanta, Ko Phi Phi, and Phuket Town (from Rassada Pier) (more frequent in the Nov-May dry season (times available from local travel agents, or check online ferry schedules).
The Krabi Province, Phuket, Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi articles have information on reaching Rai Leh gateways from throughout Thailand. From Bangkok there are flights to Krabi and Phuket, direct bus services, and trains to Surat Thani with onward connections by bus.
If departing from Ao Nang, be aware that you're expected to walk out several metres into the surf before getting on a boat (depending on the tide). It might be best to change into clothes suitable for getting wet, or at the very least be sure you don't have more luggage than you can carry a few metres into the ocean.
Rai Leh is considered to be all of the peninsula, which has four primary areas:
- Phra Nang: (shown as Pranang Cave Beach in local maps) a fine white sand beach, on the southern tip of the peninsula. Can get crowded and busy. This lovely beach, recently voted one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world, is 20 minutes away from Ao Nang by longtail boat. It has jaw-droppingly spectacular scenery and is an excellent swimming beach. Watch the climbers climb right off the beach. Have a massage, eat a delicious barbecue and salad lunch, maybe cliff-jump off the rocks into the water. It's a great place to spend a lazy or not-so-lazy day. Phra Nang is arguably the finest beach in Thailand. A broad strip of white sand with massive cliffs framing each end of the beach, Phra Nang has just enough facilities: roast chicken and salad lunches cooked on the beach, massage ladies and people inconspicuously selling cold drinks. It still thankfully lacks all the things that spoil a beach: pollution, traffic, noise, over-enthusiastic hawkers, jet-skis, and lager louts.
- Rai Leh East: the mangrove side of the peninsula, used by longtails to/from Krabi. Not good for swimming or sunbathing. Plenty of restaurants and bars. Budget to mid-range accommodations.
- Rai Leh West: a fine beach of white sand and shallow water, where most longtails arrive from Ao Nang. North end of the beach is great for swimming. South end is OK, but a little rocky under the water. Mid- to high-end accommodations. This beach is especially beautiful after sunset, when the silhouetted surrounding rock faces give the place a totally unique and almost supernatural look. Idling on the beach while watching the antics of the rock climbers scaling the surrounding cliffs is about as relaxing an experience as can be found anywhere. To the right the bay stretches away past Ton Sai to the massive Sleeping Indian cliffs, so named because that is exactly what they resemble, at night. The kilometre-long Sleeping Indian is lying on his back, with his hands folded across his midriff, his feet sticking up and a feather sticking out of his headdress. It's an uncanny resemblance, especially at nighttime.
- The place to catch the sunset is at Coco’s very comfortable bar, right in the middle of the beach. This, the only bar on West Rai Leh is always a quiet one and has to be a candidate for being southeast Asia’s best beach bar. After sunset West Rai Leh beach starts to empty and by midnight is usually almost completely deserted, except for the occasional party of illicit skinny-dippers, enjoying a dip au naturel at the northern end of the beach, where there are no resorts and so no people around.
- Midnight swims, au naturel or otherwise, are sensational on dark nights, when the brilliant-blue bioluminescence in the water lights up disturbed water like a neon-lit Christmas tree. To best appreciate this amazing phenomenon, bring a pair of swimming goggles along and swim underwater for a while: the bioluminescence will wreath your body in a million tiny blue lights, in surely the loveliest clothes you’ve ever worn.
- Ton Sai: a cove around the corner from Rai Leh West where rock climbers and backpackers hang out in cheap accommodation and practice climbing.
It's a 5-10 minute walk between any of these landmarks, except for Ton Sai, which is a longer hike through the jungle. The village itself is a pedestrian's dream, as there are no cars, and the uneven bumpy walkways make even bicycles impractical.
- Lagoon & Viewpoint (Walking on the path from East Rai Leh to Phra Nang Beach there is a sign that points towards an upward path to a viewpoint of Rai Leh and Ton Sai). The climb to the top takes about 20-25 minutes and to the viewpoint another 10 minutes. From the top of the trail, there is another path that leads down towards the jungle for about 20-25 minutes to the lagoon. The path to the lagoon is steep, rocky, and dangerous. Some have carried climbing gear to reach the lagoon. There are hand ropes along the steeper parts of the path, but note that if you are not in decent shape, wearing only sandals, or carrying a heavy pack, the trip is not advisable. Monkeys may be encountered in the forest here. They can be approached cautiously, but feeding or petting them is not a good idea. Watch your belongings, as they can quickly snatch glasses, wallets, or food from you.
- Phra Nang Cave (Diamond Cave) (On the east side of the peninsula, to the north of Rai Leh East). An interesting place to explore and one of the few strictly sightseeing destinations at Rai Leh. A nominal entrance fee pays for a short walk along the lit boardwalk through formations that glitter as if they were full of diamonds. Though not breathtakingly large (and thus easily viewed in about fifteen minutes) it is quite beautiful. The cave is a common stop for day trips from Phuket and Ao Nang.
- Phra Nang Shrine (North end of Phra Nang Beach). Dedicated to the spirit of the drowned princess (phra nang) who gave the beach her name, this small shrine in a small cave is notable primarily for the dozens of carved red-tipped phalluses donated by fishermen seeking her favour.
Rai Leh is perhaps the best winter sport rock climbing area in the world, with over seven hundred bolted routes up limestone faces with breathtaking views over the ocean. If you are an avid rock climber, chances are you already know about this place and the spectacular cliffs are the reason you are here.
Climbing is graded on the French scale, most is steep and challenging with only limited possibilities for beginners. Due to the corrosive nature of the seaside location, the steel bolts may be of questionable integrity, bolt failure is not uncommon here, and threads (rope tied through holes in the rock) may be of questionable integrity as well. Overall the rock quality is superb; however, like everywhere else, you will find the occasional loose section including the famed Rai Leh stalactites.
Required climbing gear: Rai Leh and around is all sport climbing. Beyond a 60 metre (200 foot) rope, sixteen quickdraws, your harness, shoes and a lot of chalk, you won't need much else. Anything you forget or don't have can be rented at the climbing shops.
Guides: Rai Leh and Tonsai have several guide operators with services ranging from introductory rock climbing courses to rent-a-belay partner.
- King Climbers (On the east side of Rai Leh, at Railay Princess Resort).
- Sea Cliffs (In Rai Leh East, just a few metres down the path that leads to Rai Leh West). One of the instructors is named Porn (pronounced more like Pon), and is very easy going and cool.
Guide books: There are three different guide books published in a variety of languages by the local guide shops, each providing excellent directions and route finding. Most were updated around 2004 or more recently and can be ordered online, directly from the guide shop, or your local climbing store might carry stock.
- Rock Climbing in Thailand by Elke & Wee. New edition 2007.
- Thailand: A Climbing Guide published by The Mountaineers and written by Sam Lightner Jr. All the money earned from it is to be donated to the re-bolting cause.
Diving & snorkelling
Rai Leh is not a major diving spot as the local coral and sea life is not as diverse or spectacular as other areas of Thailand. However there is a dive shop that will certify divers and take them on boat trips to decent dive sites, including a sunken wreck. Serious divers tend to prefer the Similan Islands, Ko Phi Phi or Ko Lanta for quality diving.
- King Cruiser is a car ferry that sank in 1997, providing the area with its only wreck, located at 30 meters. Unfortunately its condition is deteriorating fairly fast in the warm waters. This is the most popular dive site in the area.
- Snorkelling is not a major draw for Rai Leh though it is possible to swim out and see coral and fish a few metres off the sandy beaches. Beware of the ever present longtail boat traffic. Most looking for some snorkelling fun rent a longtail and head for the islands south and west of Rai Leh, such as Poda Island, but even there the snorkelling is only moderate. Some hotels organize snorkelling trips or you may prefer to charter your own boat for the afternoon. A one way trip usually takes less than 25 minutes.
While not as good as Phang Nga, the kayaking around the peninsula at Rai Leh affords a great alternative to climbing and a stunning view of the area. Several of the limestone islets off Phra Nang Beach have sea caves eroded into their bases, including a few large enough to offer opportunities to beach the kayaks and explore. Paddling into caves and through subterranean passages is particularly interesting, but watch out for low, jagged ceilings. For those with more ambition, a short open-water crossing (about one hour of steady, heavy paddling) leads to the private island of Ko Poda which has beautiful and relatively isolated beaches.
Several bungalow resorts on the Rai Leh West side of the peninsula have sea kayaks available for rent for around 600 baht/half-day, 1,000 baht/full-day (including life-vests). The kayaks are simple two-seat plastic models, but perform fine on the millpond-smooth water of the bay. A half-day is probably plenty long enough to explore the immediate environs of Rai Leh. A bottle of water, a hat, and plenty of sun protection are essential!
Rai Leh itself does not offer many trekking opportunities, as the peninsula is so tiny. The one interesting and undeveloped area is the jungle atop the limestone towers that make up the club-shaped southern end of the peninsula. Along the paved path that runs from Rai Leh East to Phra Nang beach, a so-called "trail" leads up a slippery, rocky embankment to the jungle-covered plateau. A narrow, indistinct trail circles the top of the southern tower, with a left turn offering access to the highest point (accessible via a sheer face and thus navigable only with climbing gear) as well as a fantastic lookout point over the peninsula. A right turn on the path leads downward into a hidden glen, which provides access to the secret lagoon called Sa Phra Nang or Holy Princess Pool. The route from this glen to the lagoon leads down a steep, rocky ravine, and the path is covered with slippery red clay, making it quite treacherous even for the experienced. The technique is not so much climbing as scrambling, and the knotted nylon ropes are often more dangerous than they are helpful. The lagoon itself is breathtakingly beautiful, but try not to step in, as the soft bottomless muck has quite a penchant for trekkers' footwear.
Rai Leh has many small general convenience stores with various essentials at reasonable prices, considering shipment costs to what is essentially an island. Though most shoppers (souvenir or otherwise) will be better satisfied in nearby Ao Nang, clothing, souvenirs, beachwear and such are all also available in various small shops in Rai Leh East and Rai Leh West. There are no real grocery vendors, so meals are limited to the restaurants, though some small snack items are available in the convenience stores.
Rai Leh has a variety of restaurants to choose from, although none are remarkable (for Thailand at least) in character or quality. In general however, the food is what you would expect for southern Thailand, tasty and inexpensive.
Rai Leh West has four restaurants: one for each of the three hotels on the beach. All offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner along the beach with a lovely view of the surroundings.
Rai Leh East has more restaurants and the variety is much greater, though none offer the scenery of the west beach (restaurants near Diamond Cave may be an exception where they offer an impressive view of the bay from their position higher up the hill).
- Flame Tree Restaurant, Walking St, Rai Leh West. Decent food, good spot for breakfast or lunch. Monopoly on "casual" food in Rai Leh West means pretty high prices. Includes a coffee station and sister ice-cream parlour across the way, stocked with good Buds of San Francisco ice-cream. Staff need a little encouragement to bring the bill. 200+ baht.
- Local Thai Food Restaurant, Rai Leh (On the footpath between Walking St on Rai Leh West and Ya-Ya Rd on Rai Leh East). May have an actual name but they don't advertise it. While sitting next to the trees and cliff face is nice, beware of the large black mosquitoes swarming from the nearby stream.
- Railay Bay Resort & Spa Restaurant, Rai Leh West (south end of Rai Leh West beach). Expensive, but not extortionate meals that vary from edible to good. Not the best food but wide variety. Friendly but slow service if busy, which it often is. Right on the beach front so very scenic most of the time but bad weather can be a problem. 160-500 baht.
- Rampala, Ya-Ya Rd, Rai Leh East (behind Diamond Cave Restaurant, up a flight of steps). Pretty poor Indian food, not very expensive but not big enough servings to call it value either. Try elsewhere. One unique feature is that a meal includes access to a fairly dodgy looking practice climbing wall with old mattresses under it, half way up the stairs. 100+ baht.
- The Rock Restaurant & Bar, Diamond Cave path, Rai Leh East (on the walk from Rai Leh East to Ton Sai). Amazing Thai-style structure, offering a spectacular view of the sea, and the rocks from above during daylight hours. During night maybe the only place where you can enjoy your meal without the hustle and bustle of the beach front. Well-worth a visit. Popular spot for the macaque monkeys to hang around. 60-100 baht.
- Utopia Restaurant, Rai Leh (on the footpath between Walking St on Rai Leh West and Ya-Ya Rd on Rai Leh East). Hidden away in the trees beyond Walking St, serving Indian and international food. Screens movies after dark and advertises a Wii available to play then too. While setting next to the trees and cliff face is nice, beware of the large black mosquitoes swarming from the nearby stream.
- Yam-Yam (Yum Yum), Ya-Ya Rd, Railay East (behind Diamond Cave Restaurant). Good, cheap Thai food, half the price of nearby classier establishments but with arguably better food. Curries are recommended. Free Wi-Fi. 60-100 baht.
- Rai Lay Bay Resort Bar (At the Rai Leh Bay Resort and Spa Hotel). The bar is on the beachfront and is lined with stools and shaded by the nearby palm trees. As it is the largest bar on Rai Leh West, it usually fills up quite quickly prior to sunset.
Rai Leh East offers more in the way of energetic bars with dance music.
- Cocktail Bar (Just north of the middle of East Rai Leh). A fun, relaxed place to have a cocktail or two. It features a small deck where you sit on mats overlooking the shore.
- Last Bar (At the end of Rai Leh East). It's the closest thing to a dance club Rai Leh has to offer. With nightly shows, and plenty of travellers, it's the place to spend the night if you plan on having a few Chang beers.
|This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:|
|Budget||Under 1,500 baht|
|Mid-range||1,500 baht to 2,500 baht|
|Splurge||Over 2,500 baht|
Rai Leh primarly caters to two groups: honeymooners/families and rock climbing backpackers. Fortunately, there is accommodation to suit both ranging from bamboo bungalows to concrete three story hotels. Prices typically double during high season (November-April inclusive)
Most Rai Leh budget accommodation is found on the east side of Rai Leh. For the best variety of budget accommodation (wooden bungalows) try neighbouring Ton Sai Beach, a ten min walk or one min longtail ride, where rooms can be had for a few hundred baht/night.
- Railay Cabana Bungalows (Behind Diamond Cave on Rai Leh East). The cheapest accommodation on Rai Leh is a collection of bamboo bungalows. Prices can be as low as 100 baht in the low season, Jul-Aug, reaching 700 baht in high season. The savings do come with a price. Expect a 10-15 uphill walk from the beach. 500 baht.
- Railay Phutawan Resort (Formerly Railay Highland Resort) (In the middle of Rai Leh behind Diamond Cave Resort). Offers a complete set of basic room amenities, i.e., fan, air conditioner, shower, bath. 1,200-3,500 baht.
- Anyavee Railay (Anyawee), Ya-Ya Rd, Rai Leh East. Three room types, swimming pool, daily breakfast. 1,700-6,000 baht (high); 800-1,200 baht (low).
- Diamond Cave Resort (At the far end of Rai Leh East). With steps from near the beach leading up to well-maintained gardens with a pool, surrounded by a variety of concrete bungalows, several of them in the jungle marking the edge of town. High season rates 2,000-3,400 baht.
- Railay Great View Resort, Rai Leh East (Walk past the Last Bar, a 10 min walk, adequately lit at night). Tucked away on its own away from the hustle and bustle. Gorgeous views with very well designed cottages with a mix of traditional and modern design. Free Wi-Fi throughout resort. Restaurant and mini-mart onsite. Restaurant does not serve alcohol. Room rate includes buffet breakfast (reasonably good variety and quality). Very steep incline up into the resort so not for aged, infirm, or tipsy! Fan 1,200 (low)-1,500 (high); Air-con 2,000-3,150 baht, deluxe 2,500-3,750 baht.
- Railay Princess (Between Rai Leh East and West). Daily breakfast and swimming pool in the valley of high limestone mountain. Slightly cheaper sister of Railay Bay Resort & Spa hotel. 2,800-5,000 baht.
- Railay Viewpoint Resort. Resort set in beautiful natural surroundings boasting unbeatable views of Rai Leh Beach and the hanging limestone crags beyond. Over the mountain through the natural forest, then back down to West Beach for the 30 minute sunset to the sandy white beaches of Rai Leh.
- Railay Village Hotel. Collection of concrete bungalows, each with private bath and fan or air con, set back off the beach in a garden setting. 500-2,000 baht (high).
- Bhu Nga Thani Resort, Rai Leh East, ☎ , fax: +66 75 819455, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 60 rooms. Curiously up-market considering its setting on less obviously impressive Rai Leh East. Restaurant rarely busy, but beautiful design. 6,000-40,000 baht.
- Railay Bay Resort & Spa. Straddling the whole of Rai Leh peninsula's narrowest point, very nice cottages. 4,500-19,000 baht (high); 3,000-12,000 baht (low).
- Rai Lei Beach Club (On the west side of Rai Leh, adjacent to the Walking St). Rents private houses which vary in size and quality. None have air conditioning or hot water, but include daily maid service. High season rates begin at 3,500 baht for a single room home up to 13,000 baht for a three bedroom home that sleeps twelve..
- Rayavadee, Phra Nang (Access either from the south of Rai Leh East or Phra Nang Beach), ☎ . The only resort on Phra Nang Beach, with a jaw-dropping gorgeous view and prices to match. You'll be looking at upwards of 20,000 baht/night for a stay here. However, after mid-morning the gorgeous public Phra Nang Beach is quite popular and so the room rates do not guarantee the sort of privacy you'd expect. The interior is private and beautiful (supposedly, but who knows?) Non-guests are reminded with frequent signs not to enter). 22,300-128,000 baht (low); 35,000-160,000 baht (high) before tax and service charges.
- Sand Sea Hotel. A collection of concrete bungalows, private baths, choice of fan or air-con and quietly set back off the beach among a garden setting. Although the included breakfast buffet is nothing special, the rooms have marginally nicer décor, and has a nice swimming pool (which attracts a more family-oriented clientèle). High season rates 3,500-5,700 baht.
Getting a tattoo is a popular thing to do on any vacation, but beware of the tattoo scam here. Getting a tattoo in Rai Leh is strongly discouraged. You will be severely overcharged for a tattoo using questionably sterile equipment by a questionably skilled artist. First, in order to impress you, they will show photographs that have been downloaded and printed from the Internet and passed off as their own work. Unless the artist is in the photograph with the recipient, it is probably not their own work.
Once you have described what you want to the artist, they will refuse to give you any kind of estimate, and insist that they must first draw the design on you with a pen before giving you a cost but tell you that drawing is free. While they are drawing, they will delay you as much as possible in order to get you drunk. They'll convince you that the tattoo hurts less with more alcohol, pretend to be your friend and drink with you, have drinks delivered from nearby bars (which of course you have to pay for) and various deceptive an manipulative tactics. Once they feel you're drunk enough, they will finish the drawing and give you a price that is three times the cost of a tattoo from more skilled artists in the United States. They're counting on you being too drunk to realize how much you're spending and you'll just go to the nearest ATM, or that you just won't care if you highly overpay because you're on vacation. They may bargain down to about twice the cost of an American tattoo if you're lucky.
Even if you don't care about the cost, getting a tattoo here is still highly inadvisable. The artists here are not as skilled as they appear to be, and since they use a bamboo needle without sufficient skill the tattoo will not last as long. Although they may claim to use new disposable needles, the sterility of their equipment is questionable at best.