Have you ever skimmed through a travel guidebook, honed in on the pictures section, and picked your destination? Isn’t it funny how those spots are often the toughest, most far flung areas to get to? It’s as if they’re showing us these images to say, “look, we got the picture so you don’t have too.” The bottom of the photo references a page number, so you flip through the book and find out the hard truth – going there is “not recommended,” “seasonal,” “for the extremely adventurous,” or “only accessible with a guide if the weather has been good.” But, if you’re like me, you go anyways.
Thais pointed me in the right direction, but Westerners warned me not to go. From the overly comfortable beach town of Ao Nang, I caught a traditional longtail boat to the isolated isthmus of Railay. Popular with rock climbing enthusiasts, Railay is an outcrop cut off from the mainland by massive limestone cliffs which are pocketed with caverns. At the far end of the isthmus lay an eye-shaped cliff with an emerald green lagoon deep within its iris. This was my destination – the place in the picture in the center section of the Thailand Beaches and Islands guidebook, the place they warned against going.
Departing the rocking, wooden boat at Ao Railay (west), I trekked across the flat, palm-lined center to Ao Railay (east). Along the way, black-faced monkeys blocked my path. By the looks of things, they’d been raiding the rubbish bins and were unperturbed by my presence in the middle of their family brawl.
Thanks to its isolation, Railey felt more like an island than an extension of the mainland. It’s car-less township edged up against the mangrove-lined beachlet of Ao Railay (east). Small up-market resorts and Thai cookeries beckoned vacationing yuppies, capitalizing on the shore’s rugged, palm-shaded mystique.
To reach the lagoon, I crossed back to the west side at the far end of the beach at Ao Railay (east). On the other side of the isthmus, Phra Nang Cave loomed over the west coast’s most mesmerizing strip of sand. But, I would stop halfway next to a slick, dangling rope resting on a muddy cliff. An inconspicuous wooden plaque assured me that this was indeed the route, so I swapped sandals for boots and snagged the mud-soaked rope to begin my ascent.
I could have paid to go rock climbing nearby, have an instructor, and harness up in some nut-crunching apparatus. Instead, I was relying on roots, rocks, and ragged ropes as well as the memory of glossy guidebook photo to heave myself uphill. The relief I felt as I crest the top was instantly squashed upon realizing that this was no hilltop lagoon. No, the lagoon was hidden twice as far down into the core of this conical hunk of karst.
Scrambling down a staircase of three sheer 20m drops, my heart pounded into my head. I was now leading an expedition of four other tourists and it was with my word that they would proceed over each hurdle. Arms and legs akimbo, I spider crawled down the wet rocks riddled with waterfalls until the emerald iris below swallowed me whole.
Floating on the thick pillow of murky green water, I stared up through the fan-leafed bushes towards the grey sky above. My white clothes, draped over a bulging rock, appeared coffee-brown, stained in patterns of woven rope and printed hand. Perched on a rock near the vertical entrance to the lagoon, I reached for my camera. Yet, no matter what position I found myself in I could not capture the grandeur of the scene. Through the lens of my camera, the lagoon may as well have been a pond in Florida.
Perhaps, the camera sensed my frustration. After a few lackluster shots, the lens froze up and broke irreparably. I never got the shot I came for. But, I made it to the place in the picture. Half of the fun of these photo sections is picking your destination. The other half is pointing and bragging about it after you’ve returned.