Thailand “Light” at Tonsai Beach

January 10th, 2009

Looking for a way to Krabi, the closest airport, he had positioned himself in the beachside internet and travel agency hut. It was a tiled and glassed-in affair with a commanding view of the longtail boat taxis pulled up to the high tide mark.

“Ao Lang?” he kept on asking, mispronouncing Ao Nang, the nearest town reachable by longtail boat. It is also the closest ground transport for people staying at Tonsai beach, a sheltered cove surrounded by steep limestone cliffs. Well known on the climbing and backpacker scene, Tonsai has great climbing, rustic living, and somewhat inexpensive pricing for a tropical destination.

Finally the guy, a shaggy-haired, shirtless, mid-twenties North American turned toward me.

“Is there anything between Krabi and Bangkok?” he asked.

I was taken aback. I wasn’t sure how to answer him, sincerely or flippantly; I was confused.

“I mean, there’s nothing in the book and people don’t go anywhere so do you think there’s anything to see between here and Bangkok?” he continued.

“Well,” I paused. Was the question he was asking meant to find out if anything was set up for tourists?

“You could probably take regional busses or taxis, hopping up the coast and see a lot of fishing villages,” I continued. My only real knowledge, and interest, lay in stories of labor exploitation in the commercial fishing industry.

“Really? Which coast?” he responded.

“Either,” I said. “Both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf support a fishing industry.”

“How about getting to Krabi?” I guess he wasn’t interested, for he was back on that.

I described the various ways I’d learned, including costs. Most of which were quite affordable unless one was on a severe budgetary diet. He was.

“Aww Man,” he was dejected. “I can’t afford that. 600 baht (~$18 USD) is like two night’s lodging,” he paused again. “Have you heard about those pickup trucks with the seats in the back? I hear you can take one for 50 baht (~$1.75).”

The Song Tau, the ubiquitous and cheap taxi. I shrugged and said I didn’t know. I wished him well and told him I hoped he had time to experience the real Thailand. Then I left, emerging onto a restaurant patio where Jack Johnson came from the bar and shirtless climbers struggled up an impossibly hard overhang. A friend of mine describes these oasis as the “tourist” zone, a place designed to help travelers feel comfortable. The further outside the marked guidebook territory, the further from the tourist zone one gets. But, conversely, the more authentic the traveling experience becomes.

Tonsai was probably “authentic” at one time as a sparsely populated, shallow-draft cove occasionally used by fishermen. An initial few tourist bungalows brought the first wave of climbers and, with the development of climbing routes, it has become a world-reknown destination. Starting near Railay Beach, local and international climbers began developing routes on the heavily featured limestone cliffs. Reed huts grew into iron-roofed cement block buildings. Soon Railay’s white beaches supported more upscale hotels and the climbing crowd, at least the backpacker types, moved to the the cheaper digs on Tonsai, a 20 minute walk down-beach through the jungle. With its less attractive shore–at low tide the shallow bay is a sprawl of mud and coral shattered by countless longtail boats–Tonsai has only periodic diesel-generated electricity and a greater host of woven reed huts best described as “authentically rustic.”

During the high season, Thai from neighboring towns flock to Tonsai and Railay to staff the restaurants and bungalows with names like Freedom Bar, Mambo, Kasbah, Dream Valley, Pyramid, and Mr. Pancake. Prices are hyper-inflated; it’s a tourist zone and there’s the added expense that everything has to be brought in by boat. Bargaining isn’t common. However with the tourism package come the comforts which make this–in my limited experience–a tropical paradise beach. Sunshine, cold drinks, good food, and if you spend a little more, comfortable housing. Many people agree, for they come from across the globe to scuba dive, climb, or simply lounge.

Songbirds wake the village at six as the sky lightens from a deep orange, revealing the towering cliffs and open ocean. Real coffee (as opposed to Nescafe) in the morning with eggs and ciabatta bread–or some of the most deliciously fresh fruit of the day with yogurt–later in the afternoon its BBQ chicken and mango with sticky rice under the shade of a beachside tree. The cicadas hum through the forest, adding to the lethargy of the midday heat. With the tide in, it’s possible to lie in the pale sand until the sun grows hot, then wade into the warm waters of the sea; the sticky-skin of salt water residue becomes normal. Evenings come fast with the equatorial sun. Again, the light turns a brilliant orange, silhouetting longtails at anchor. Tall bottles of Singha or Chang with ice emerge on tables while chefs hock whole fish for the grill.

We developed our restaurants of habit and the owners would start calling to us by name when we ambled by. The bungalow staff would as well and, in the casual village-like atmosphere, we saw glimpses of their lives as well.

Housing in Tonsai ranges from a tent on a platform to western-style bungalows replete with airconditioning, hot showers, TV, and electricity 24/7. I started in a 500 baht ($15) reed bungalow with a toilet bowl set into a concrete slab. There was a shower head attached by blue pipe to a tank up the hill. Though the interior was rather dark, I found the bed comfortable, the mosquito net adequate, and the view of the jungle from the porch relaxing. However, with all my gear, I wanted someplace a little more secure and a few more creature comforts. Lu would arrive in a few days and I wanted something brighter.

Following Marshall and Megan to another set of bungalows, I was able to get into an aircon unit (made affordable at 900 Baht–$26–by turning off the aircon and hot shower) with white tile, more space, more windows, and most importantly (for me) window screens.

Jenna and Dylan had made all the initial bookings sight unseen, from Seattle, for everyone who was arriving for the wedding. For many who showed up near midnight, after 30+ hours of travel culminating in an open boat ride through the darkness, having a place to stay must have been quite comforting. Later, people moved to bungalows they could afford or felt more comfortable with–mostly upgrading but in some cases, cost was the primary concern. While we did hear stories of bed bugs and neighborhood rats, there certainly was housing for most people’s comfort or budget.

One story worth retelling is that of Tyson; he bounced from bungalow to tent and back again, moving further from the beach as he sought out cheaper accommodation. He awoke one night to find a rat zipping up and down the length of his bed and, screaming, he ripped through the mosquito net and spent the remainder of the night in a hammock outside. The next morning he checked the mattress; it had holes in two corners and one in the center where the rat was nesting. He hadn’t realized this on the first night because he’d passed out drunk. Tyson moved one last time, to a tent on a platform, where he was sure he wouldn’t bed down with any more rats. Proudly, he note how he’d found a cheaper place.

While housing is always a concern while traveling, Tonsai can provide and once one is settled it falls to the background. However, food is the other major component and while the eats were good, sickness became an oft-talked of event. I’d estimate about 75 percent of the wedding party got sick. Seemingly everyone went through a day or two of vomiting, diarrhea, and fever. I think I was spared because I’d been eating in Cambodia for over a month. People would simply disappear, not seen at breakfast or dinner, for a couple of days. Even Lu got sick, maybe on shellfish, and she spent a good amount of time bemoaning her inability to make it to the beach to tan. Looking pathetic in her agony–between naps–she said “You were sick like this in Cambodia, all by yourself?”

But one of the most startling memories I have is 100 meters of wading through knee deep water and broken coral, from a grounded longtail, and hearing Kasi retch in the darkness. Later Lu and I heard a guy in a neighboring bungalow do the same thing; it echoed through the forest.

I recall these stories more with humor than anything; true, in the moment it can be uncomfortable, but this is part of travel. This is where Jenna and Dylan first met, in a backpacker’s oasis and some of the world’s most famous climbing. The rats, feral cats, slacker backpackers, mosquitoes, sewage, and proliferation of plastic bags and trash–they are all part of the experience. It is still a tropical beachside climbing destination and, with a little love and care, can continue to be so. It is a holiday, a time to play on the limestone, swim in the ocean, and enjoy lusciously ripe fruit and fresh seafood.

For those interested in going, I would say do, but take the time to find the rhythm, know you will probably get sick, and realize that this is Thailand “light.” The real Thailand lies somewhere out there, on local buses and taxis, in places the guidebook doesn’t mention. I wonder what that shaggy guy ended up doing–if he strayed from the confines of the tourist zone and found the real Thailand. Either way, I’m sure the trip was an eye opening experience for him. It was for me; it was a vacation. A real one.

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2 Responses to “Thailand “Light” at Tonsai Beach”

  1. Gene Hashmi says:

    Thanks for that Tim.

    Your post sounds like the climbers are certainly still there.

    I last visited Tonsai in 2007. Any idea what’s become of the place in these three years?

    Has the beach been privatised and the big noisy construction started on the shi-shi hotel yet? Or did that never happen?

    Also, did you notice anyone still pitch a tent up for the night, or is that not on anymore?

    I’m planning to be in Tonsai 5th April to 20th May, 2010. Just need to be prepared for the worst.


  2. tim says:


    i don’t know if people are still pitching tents informally. there’s a place you can do that at Tonsai, up in the trees and i think in one site at the beach. you can pitch on sand or an established site on platforms. most people book the huts which have a varying degree of cleanliness and lack of rats (of which there seem to be many).

    rilay has a lot of shi-shi ness. having only been once i don’t have a lot to compare it to, but tonsai is still more low-key.

    have fun!


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