Tonsai and Railay: a climber’s paradise

Tonsai was our favorite place so far. It’s a total climbing paradise set on the west coast of mainland Thailand but feels like an island. With awesome climbing, beautiful beaches, and amazing people we didn’t want to leave

welcome to Tonsai
welcome to Tonsai

To get to Railay beach, you have to take a long boat there. Railay is on mainland Thailand but there aren’t any roads that go there. We didn’t think we would have enough time to get there and find an accommodation before dark so we stayed our first night in Krabi, the town we flew into.

We slept in a 12 bed dorm in a hostel in Krabi shared with a girl Ohio and 4 Indian guys. The Indian dudes got up and were talking and walking around the room at what must have been 5 in the morning. At the time I didn’t realize what time it was and thought it might have been a reasonable time and it was close to wake up time anyway- it wasn’t.


I kept going back to sleep and waking up every 20 minutes until I finally got up to pee at 7:00am and that’s when I realized how early it was when they woke me up the first time. Alan told them off and told them they can’t be talking when there’s four other people sleeping. Alan and Dylan had just spent a month in India and were not surprised by their lack of social politeness. They said these guys were polite for India standards.

We headed out in the morning and took a cab to Ao Nang to then take a long boat to Railay. The area is divided into Railay East, Railay West, and Tonsai. Railay East and West are resort areas and Tonsai is backpacker territory.
Tonsai is right next to Railay West but there isn’t a paved road that goes there. The long boats wouldn’t take us over so we took the 30 minute jungle path walk. We ran into two other backpackers coming off of the trail and all they said was good luck.

We understood why when we got on the trail. It was muddy and pretty steep at some parts. And, mind you, we were all carrying our backpacks and day bags. The path had electric wires on the ground and one that was running right across the path at hip height that we had to climb over (on the muddy, slippery path with our bags).

We finally made it to Tonsai and started looking for a bungalow to stay in and found one for 400 baht for the three of us (about $12 USD). We left after a few days for a nicer place – you’ll see why.

It was one big bed and they rolled out a cot for us too. They unfolded the cot and there was a capped needle sitting in the crack… they casually picked it up and brought it outside without saying anything. This was the beginning of the not quite perfect first day in Tonsai.

We went to a climbing instruction store to see about deep water soloing – the main reason we came to Tonsai and Railay. Deep water soloing is climbing without any safety or rope above water so when you fall, instead of a rope catching you, you just fall right into the water.

What we didn’t know is that this wasn’t a good time of year for it. The weather and waves are too unpredictable. If the waves aren’t calm they can crush you against the rock when you fall.

So, with our hopes crushed we headed to the beach on the Railay West side (Tonsai isn’t good for swimming because there is too much dead coral and rocks close to shore) to swim. It turns out there is a much shorter path the runs close to the shore line instead of through the jungle. It’s still steep and involves a bit of climbing but it only takes about 10 minutes to cross.

Tonsai beach when the tide goes out
Tonsai beach when the tide goes out

After our swim, the tide had gone out and we were able to walk right on the beach from Railay to Tonsai. The mosquitos here are relentless so I was so itchy from the bug bites and from the salt water dried up on my skin. I dibs showering first when we got back.

The rock climbing place earlier told us they close from 5 to 7 for the mosquitoes and we found out why. When we got back to the bungalow they were swarming. We ran inside and started spraying the curtains with DEET. I headed for the shower and turned the valve but nothing happened.

After what felt like an hour, they finally got the water working and we were able to take a shower with the generous trickle that came out.

From here on, the rough beginning was over and our love affair with Tonsai took over. Tonsai is a climber’s paradise. It’s limestone rock walls are full of great holds and stalactites hanging off add quite a challenge for the more experienced climbers.

climbers in Tonsai
climbers at Phra NangBeach

Tonsai is really laid back and full of reggae bars that everyone hangs out at. We spent a lot of time at one bar called Sunset Pirate Bar. They had rope netting above like a spider web for people to climb on from below or hang out on from up top. We met a few girls who hoola hooped and put on some really cool shows. A lot of locals do fire tricks and they put on some of the coolest fire shows I’ve ever seen. One guy was dong fire tricks on the slack line at the bar – I can’t take 3 steps on a slack line let alone spin fire on one.

At the bar a girl we met earlier, Martine, met someone that said he’d take us to the lagoon the next day. I had heard there was a lagoon in Railay but didn’t know much about it. To be honest I barely knew what defines a lagoon.
So the trip to lagoon wasn’t what I thought it would be. We had no idea what we were in for.

The path to the lagoon is a muddy steep death trap. There are some ropes set up but some are more sturdy than others. For the most part we were better off holding on to any rock we could. Matt had done this trek before so he was able to show us the safest ways down. Being a climber was definitely a plus for this. It’s like climbing an easy wall except for the fact that you can slip at any time from the mud.

the well earned lagoon
the well earned lagoon

It was a sketchy was down to the lagoon but definitely loads of fun. The lagoon was beautiful. Milky blue water enclosed in limestone walls. We were the only people there (understandably so, the trip was not for the faint of heart) and it was peaceful and quiet. The bottom was clay and along the rock walls say scuptures that people had made. The lagoon was salt water so it was very easy to just float, look through the opening into the sky through the rocks, and just relax.

After the lagoon we went to Phra Nang beach next to Railay East. We came off the trail covered in mud head to toe (and monkey poop if you’re Martine- a monkey got her back on the way out) and walked past all the resort goers to wash ourselves off in the water. The water at this beach was probably the calmest and warmest ocean water I have ever swam in. We swam for a while and decided to watch the sunset from Railay West.

Phra Nang Beach
Phra Nang Beach

The next day we had a local guide, Maxi, take us climbing in Railay. I belayed Maxi while he set the route and he just climbs up these walls quickly and effortlessly. He was a lot of fun just to watch climb – and to watch everything else he does (slackline, fire spinning, make pad thai…he’s a man of all trades)


Maxi setting a route
Maxi setting a route

The walls were awesome. Some had holds that were like jug handles, something I’ve only seen in rock gyms (not that I have a ton of experience climbing outdoors). It was Martine’s first time climbing ever and she killed it. The first time I climbed outdoors I was petrified and she’s never even climbed indoors.

The climbing culture and the people in Tonsai is incredible and something that I’ve had a lot of trouble putting into words. I kept meeting people who came intending to stay for a week and then had to made a border run to renew their visa because they stayed so long. It’s so small that after two days you know pretty much everybody’s name and feel like your part of this modern hippy club on the island of misfit toys. It feels like a home you didn’t know even existed.

Everyone is so friendly and willing to teach you new things. A girl we met, Melissa, taught us to lead climb one day. Side note: Martine and I met Melissa when we were about to climb up the path from Railay to Tonsai.  We saw this girl with a tie-dye dress and a big backpacking bag and I asked her if she was looking to get to Tonsai (she looked like a fellow dirty backpacker so clearly she was) and we showed her the way up and over the path.

Melissa taught us more about lead climbing and Alan and Dylan tried it for the first time all because of her.  I think that was the highlight of the trip so far  for both of the guys.  Dylan had a big drop at one point and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so happy to smash their body into a rock wall.

Dylan lead climbing
Dylan lead climbing

A lot of people who come here live and breathe climbing and even if you don’t it’s really fun to watch. We went to grab dinner one night by the beach and there was a group of climbers night climbing with a big light shining on the wall.

night climbing
night climbing

Even at the bar climbing makes its way in. Some guys were making a strength game out of swinging from the ropes and later we made a human pyramid. Part of what made Tonsai so great was all of the people we met and the community we got to feel like a part of.

the human pyramid at Sunset Pirate Bar
the human pyramid at Sunset Pirate Bar (eighth time is a charm?)

If we weren’t going to the half-moon party after this we would have never left.

Next Stop: Koh Phangan

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