Best Beaches

A luxury-tinged guide to Thailand's Railay Beach

Karla Cripps, CNNUpdated 4th June 2018
Krabi, Thailand (CNN) — It's golden hour on Phra Nang beach, near the tip of Thailand's Railay peninsula in Krabi province.
The setting sun has left the monstrous limestone karst formations that tower overhead ablaze with color, bringing out the yellow and red hues of the ancient rocks against a purple-tinted sky.
Travelers -- some still in their swimsuits after a day of sunbathing -- sit on sarongs, gazing out over the shoreline into the distance.
Over on nearby Railay West a livelier scene is underway. Groups of locals and tourists are gathered on the shore; a game of beach soccer has just kicked off.
The tide is out, attracting the beachcombers in its wake. Families with young children trudge through the wet, mucky sand past the dozen or so anchored long tail boats that remain now that the day trippers have left.
It's just another evening on Railay, one of the most popular stops on the Thailand beach-hopping trail. Here's a luxury-focused guide of what to expect when you travel here:

Lay of the land

A row of long-tail boats on Railay West
A row of long-tail boats on Railay West
Pongpat Patumsuwon
There's an obvious reason for its fame -- it's simply spectacular.
Railay looks and feels like an island, but it's actually part of the Thai mainland on the Andaman Sea side. The karst topography has left it isolated and devoid of road access, meaning the only way to get in is by boat.
The entire peninsula is commonly referred to as Railay Beach, though there are four main stretches of sand with different names. In addition to Railay East and Railay West is Tonsai. Situated to the north, it has more accommodation options for the budget-conscious traveler.
Railay West has a number of mid-range hotels -- some with pools -- and the expat-loved Railay Beach Club, which is made up of privately owned Thai-style beach homes for rent.
A jungle path connects Tonsai and Railay West but at low tide you can walk around the rocky cliff that separates the two. Filled with mangroves, Railay East isn't much of a beach and is mainly used by boats as a pickup and drop-off area.
Closer to the tip of the peninsula to the south is the beautiful Phra Nang Beach, arguably the most beautiful of the lot. The only hotel development there is high-end resort Rayavadee, though its beach is open to the public.

Luxury in the jungle

Rayavadee's swimming pool is an absolute stunner.
Rayavadee's swimming pool is an absolute stunner.
Rayavadee
A scarcity of undeveloped land has prevented the big-name hotel brands from moving in. This means that if you want to do Railay in true luxury style, Rayavadee is your only option.
The award-winning resort has been around for nearly 25 years. It's made up of 96 spacious two-story pavilions and five villas, several of which have private pools.
One of the major appeals of Rayavadee is that it has beautifully embedded itself into the surrounding jungle and towering cliffs, offering direct access to both West and East Railay as well as Phra Nang. It's just that big.
Despite its size, Rayavadee manages to compliment the natural setting rather than overshadow it.
Its main swimming pool is the perfect example of this symbiotic relationship. Facing West Railay, Its remarkable setting makes it a wonderful escape from the crowds on the beach.
The resort's four dining options are spread out across the various shores.
Most famous among them is restaurant "The Grotto," which has appeared in dozens of design and hospitality magazines. Set in an actual cave on Phra Nang Beach, the tables and chairs are right on the sand.
The menu includes a mix of casual international and Asian dishes, from sandwiches and pasta to stir fries and Thai salads.
In terms of activities, there's a pretty spa offering traditional and modern treatments and a well-stocked sports center with complimentary access to standup paddleboards and kayaks, among other equipment.

Boat excursions, hiking and world-class climbing

Krabi Rock Climbing offers guided Railay tours for climbers of all levels.
Krabi Rock Climbing offers guided Railay tours for climbers of all levels.
Krabi Rock Climbing
One of the most common complaints about Railay is the overload of day trippers that pours in from mid-morning to about 5 p.m., crowding the shores with boats.
Save for waking up early -- during a recent visit, we arrived on Phra Nang Beach at 7 a.m. and had the entire stretch of sand to ourselves -- one way to avoid the crowds is to hit the seas for your own excursions during the peak hours of the day.
Long-tail boats can be hired for snorkeling and sight-seeing trips to nearby uninhabited shores. Rayavadee has its own luxury speed boat, which guests can book for private day trips.
Hiking is another popular activity, with several trails snaking through Railay's inland jungles. But what the area is truly famous for is rock climbing.
There are more than 600 climbing routes set up in 45 different areas accessible from Railay's shores. Among the reputable local climbing outfits on hand is Krabi Rock Climbing, which offers equipment rentals and private guided climbs.
"We have routes for all levels," owner Satarpon Dindang tells CNN Travel.
"Due to this and the amazing views I think this makes Railay one of the top locations in the world for climbing. Also, we are able to climb here the whole year due to having a sheltered area at Phra Nang Beach."
Railay Rock Climbing's office is located on the walking street between East and West Railay.

Dining and shopping

In terms of dining, Railay isn't exactly a hotspot on the Thai culinary trail given most cooking ingredients are brought in by boat.
Standard Thai fare can be found in small restaurants throughout Railay as well as international cuisine including Italian, Indian and American dishes.
There are plenty of restaurants and small bars on the long walking street that connects Railay West and East, leading up to the hills, some with sea views.
But those in need of an authentic southern Thai meal might want to consider taking the boat back to Ao Nang for a night out.
For a high-end Thai dining experience, Rayavadee's Krua Phranang restaurant has a diverse menu that includes several southern Thai specialties that don't scrimp on spice out of fear for foreign palates.
When it comes to shopping in Railay, there's no shortage of walking street vendors selling beachwear, souvenirs and toys, mixed in with pharmacies, convenience stores, massage spas and tour agencies.

Getting there

Those flying into Krabi's small international airport should hire a taxi to the piers in Krabi Town or Ao Nang, where they can hire a long-tail boat to their desired beach.
There are also regular ferries that travel from popular Thailand beach destinations including Phuket and Phi Phi Islands.
Rayavadee offers airport pickups and speedboat transfers.
Rayavadee, 214 Moo 2, Tumbon Ao-Nang, Krabi, Thailand; +66 (0)2 3011861