Railay and Ton Sai – Backpacker Paradise and Rock Climbing Mecca

The next day, we had a boat ticket to Railay Beach, a beach located back on mainland, but only accessible by boat.  It left at about 1:30pm and only took about two hours.  Once we got close to the beach, we had to transfer ourselves onto a small longboat that would take us, and our bags, the rest of the way.

We were dropped off on Railay Beach West, an absolutely stunning beach, with absolutely stunning accommodation, for an absolutely stunning price.  We had researched beforehand and knew that Railay Beach East (about a 5 minute walk away) was where the cheaper accommodation was, so we headed straight there.  Once we got to the east side, we were greeted not only by perhaps one of the ugliest beaches in existence (all rocks, glass, and garbage), but also disappointingly pricey (and often full) accommodation options.  Well, what now?

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Railay Beach West. Beautiful, but way out of our price range! It’s mostly full of top dollar resorts.

At this point I was starting to get peeved and a little hangry, so we decided it might be best to get some lunch before figuring out our next move.  We sat and ate, then discussed the possibility of trying Ton Sai, a neighboring beach we had heard was a little more suited for backpackers.  Ton Sai is a relatively short, but steep, hike through the jungle from Railay West.

Joe kindly offered to carry my backpack and we made it about a quarter of the way before giving up and deciding to turn back to hire a boat to take us over, instead.  By then it was about 6pm.  During the day a boat to Ton Sai is only 50Baht per person, but since it was after 6, it went up to 80Baht per person.  And that was only if the boat had at least 8 passengers.  If we wanted to leave right then, we would have had to pay 200Baht per person…and there didn’t seem to be any other people looking to go to Ton Sai.

This is when I had a full on meltdown.  The combination of walking around for hours trying to find accommodation, eating crappy overpriced food, walking back and forth, up and down the trail, going back to the beach, and finally being demanded four times what we should have had to pay for a boat ride…it just got to me.

“WE’RE TAKING THE TRAIL,” I growled, as I dramatically hurled my backpack onto my shoulders.

Ignoring Joe’s wise observation that perhaps taking an unfamiliar trail through the jungle as the sun was going down was not the best of ideas, I stormed off the beach; determined to get to Ton Sai on my own accord.

The anger and frustration was enough to fuel me up the hill (the silver lining, I guess?) and we finally made it to Ton Sai.  The very first bungalow we came across offered us a fan room and free breakfast for 500 Baht.  DONE!

We threw our stuff down and collapsed on the bed.  Once the exhaustion and frustration wore off though, curiosity kicked in and we wandered down to see what Ton Sai was about.

As soon as we got down to the beach, we were so glad we hadn’t stayed in Railay.  The meltdown, the exhaustion, the arguing…it was all instantly forgotten.  It had gotten dark by then, so we had a limited idea of our surroundings, but even in the dark we knew it was a magical place…

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The trail leading to the beach from our bungalow. A lot of the restaurants and bars were lined with colorful lanterns.
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A peep at the sun setting behind the cliffs.

There was a bar a few minutes down the road called Pirate Sunset, another treehouse-y bar, with multiple levels that you can climb up, and limitless reggae music.  We treated ourselves to a round (we seriously needed it after the day’s events), then grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant where we had veggie pizza and vegetable fritters…yum!  Things had turned around.

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I’m not going to lie…getting a good night’s rest in Ton Sai was not easy.  We were in the farthest bungalows from the beach so it wasn’t the noise, it was the heat.  At our bungalow (and all the others surrounding us) we only had electricity from 6pm to midnight.  That wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the fact that Ton Sai was incredibly hot. We didn’t have air conditioning (which we hardly ever splurge on, anyway), but we couldn’t even use the fan.  It was like being in an oven.  There were most likely more expensive options offering a more comfortable stay, but as stated in previous posts, southern Thailand was proving to be significantly more expensive than our prior destinations, so we were really trying to monitor our budget.

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Longboats on Ton Sai Beach
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Ton Sai Beach, surrounded by towering cliffs
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There are lots of climbers on the rocks everyday, you can watch them from the beach at the bottom.
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Joe on Ton Sai beach

The next two days were spent doing one of three things: laying on the beach, eating, or drinking.  Ton Sai not only boasted a gorgeous beach, but it was surrounded by sky high rock cliffs, making it a rock climber’s dream.  You can lay on the beach and watch the climbers scaling the walls above you, and a lot of them were really, really good!

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The rock overhangs provided a bit of shade
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The cliffs all had cool stripey patterns on them
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Nicole at Ton Sai Beach

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It was so hot, though.  I don’t know why (or if it was just in our heads?) but it really seemed hotter than anywhere else.  And there wasn’t very much of a breeze either, so even in the shade it was unbearable and suffocating at times.  When it cooled off in the evenings though, Ton Sai came alive.  The crowd there is almost entirely backpackers so there is certainly a party crowd, but a very laid back one.

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So colorful!

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It seemed like at least a quarter of the travelers here had dreadlocks (not hating, as I am one of those) and there were also people hooping on the beach and spinning fire at night.  It was sort of like being at a music festival with people from all over the world.

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One of the restaurants on the beach had barbecue every night.  They even had shark on the menu and there was a live, wiggling 2 ft. shark displayed on ice.  Eating shark is really unethical and disturbing, but I resisted my desires to steal it and throw it back into the sea…  We did have barbecued chicken though which was delicious after a steady diet of fried noodles and “stuff on rice.”

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We really loved Ton Sai, and we considered staying longer, but we really could not tolerate the inability to sleep at night due to the heat.  We booked a ticket back to Bangkok, but it didn’t leave until 1pm, so we had one last morning to enjoy in Ton Sai.

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One last morning on Ton Sai
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Walking down the beach to the path to Railay

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We hung out on the beach and watched the climbers for a bit, then we decided to take a walk over to Railay West.  There is actually a path directly from Railay West to Tonsai without having to walk all the way around and through the jungle.  Why this trail is not on the map in Railay West I have no idea…wish we would have known that when we had first landed in Railay!  Oh well…

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The view from the rock path, looking at the Ton Sai side
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This path was so much easier than the one we had taken to Ton Sai, darn it!
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The beautiful Railay Beach
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The nice thing about staying on Ton Sai was that we had easy access to both beaches but we didn’t have to pay the Railay West prices!

The morning was a nice little goodbye to Ton Sai and Railay before departing on the 16 hour trek back to Bangkok.  The islands had been good to us, but it was time for our journey to the north!

3/29

Breakfast: 180B ($5.54)

Boat to Railay: 1100B ($33.88)

Water: 15B ($0.46)

Lunch: 310B ($9.55)

Pirate Sunset Bar (Beers): 310B ($9.55)

Dinner: 290B ($8.93)

Waters (2) + Gatorade: 140B ($4.31)

Accommodation: 500B ($15.40)

3/29 Total Spending: 2,845B ($87.62 USD)

3/30

Breakfast: Free!

Bandages: 150 ($4.62)

Water: 30B ($0.92)

Lunch + 2 Beers: 360B ($11.09)

Water: 35B ($1.08)

Bar Beers: 720 ($22.18)

Pancake: 70B ($2.16)

Accommodation: 500B ($15.40)

3/30 Total Spending: 1,865B ($57.44 USD)

3/31

Breakfast: Free!

Lunch on the Beach + Fruit Shakes: 320B ($9.86)

Water: 35B ($1.08)

BBQ Dinner: 220 ($6.78)

Water: 40B ($1.23)

Accommodation: 500B ($15.40)

3/31 Total Spending: 1,115B ($34.34 USD)

Don Det – The 4,000 Islands

In the southern-most part of Laos, right on the border of Cambodia, in the middle of the Mekong, lies Don Det–one of the major islands of Si Phan Don, also known as the 4,000 Islands.

We arrived in Don Det after a pain staking journey from the North, ready to do what everyone comes to Don Det to do–nothing!

Well, not entirely nothing, but mostly.

We arrived by boat in the early afternoon where we promptly found a bungalow, equipped with a private bathroom and two hammocks in front.  We dropped off our bags and set off to walk the 7-8km path following the perimeter of the island to see what was going on.

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The main road of Don Det
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Jojo next to the river
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Some local livestock

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We explored the island for a couple of hours, passing by playing children, feral dogs, and local houses built on stilts.  We even passed a raging party of Laotians, in the middle of a dry rice field.  They were dancing to strange pop music and downing shots of lao lao, the local rice whisky.  At first we were anxious about interrupting their party, but then they started beckoning us to join them!  We declined because it was like 1pm, but it was really hilarious to see!

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Lao children carrying puppies down the road

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Once we got to the other side of the island, we stopped at a place called One Last Bar, where we ordered two amazing homemade ginger ales and enjoyed the riverside view.

Don Det is similar to Vang Vieng in that there are drug-filled edibles available everywhere (happy shakes, happy bags), lots of people with dreadlocks, and…not a ton of Lao culture.  That being said, it is wayyyyyyy less rowdy and much more laid back.  One could argue that Don Det is also a ‘party town’ but people are not nearly as loud or obnoxious about it.

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Not as subtle as in Vang Vieng

That evening, we had dinner at Jasmin Restaurant, (one of the best Indian restaurants ever) before retiring to our modest bungalow.  The mosquito net was essential too, because it was sweltering hot until about 3am (so we had to open the windows, to even be able to sleep.)

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The next morning we decided to move to a different bungalow.  There was nothing wrong with the one we had been in the first night, but we decided it would be worth the extra $2.50 to get one right on the river.

We found one on the other side of the island that better suited our needs, and decided the day would be best spent in the hammocks out front.  I do not exaggerate when I say that is all we did the entire day, with the exception of brief ventures out for food at mealtimes.  After our lengthy journey down the entirety of the country, it was well deserved and well appreciated!

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…and then we did the same exact thing the next day.  Don’t judge, you would have too.

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After two glorious days of doing nothing, we decided it was time to go out and explore again.  This time, we rented bicycles and rode across the bridge to the neighboring island of Don Khon.  

We rode along the bumpy dirt road of Don Det to the bridge that connects the two islands.  It was scenic, but also painful.

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The bumpy dirt road
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Crossing the bridge to Don Khon

Once we crossed the bridge, we headed straight for Tat Somphamit, also known as the Li Phi waterfalls.  Apparently ‘Li Phi’ means spirit trap and it is believed that the spirits of dead people and animals are trapped there.  Despite its morbid mythology, the raging waterfall was spectacular!

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The top of the Li Phi waterfalls

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We walked all the way down to the bottom of the falls to Li Phi Beach.  Although the water was much slower at the bottom, there were still signs warning people not to try to swim because of the currents.  It was still nice to walk along the beach, though.

We went back to our bikes and decided to continue on to Tha Sanam Beach a little further along, which was also really pleasant, though the sand was a thousand degrees and really painful to walk on.  We stopped for a coconut at one of the stands near the entrance before heading back.

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We rode back to Don Det in the blazing afternoon heat, just in time to catch sunset at a local restaurant.  The hazy clouds made it look like an orange ball just floating above the trees.

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We had done just about all there was to ‘do’ in the 4,000 Islands, but we wanted just one more day of lounging around in the hammocks.  After all, we still had a couple more days left on our Lao visas and we had no other destinations planned before heading to Cambodia.

So, we did!  And it was just as satisfying as the other days.  We also treated ourselves to a wood-fired pizza at a restaurant down the road which was excellent.

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…then Jojo got sick. 😦

We were worried it was food poisoning, but it ended up passing pretty quickly (and luckily, because had a long bus ride booked for the next morning.)

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We loved Don Det and wanted to stay forever.  We were really glad that our change of plans ended up taking us there, when we had not originally planned to go.

We were also sad to say goodbye to Laos, but excited to venture into Cambodia.  Laos was good to us, and we will surely visit again some day.