Discovering a remnant of the ‘old Thailand’ at Tonsai

Tonsai beach/ (Will Jackson)

Places like Tonsai aren’t supposed to exist anymore. I thought all the exotic little beach hideaways had already been bricked over with soulless, generic resorts. Apparently not.

Bracketed by towering limestone cliffs and backed by jungle-covered hills – which make access only possible by boat – Tonsai is as visually gorgeous a location as any in the world.

But while the surrounding beaches on the Railay peninsula on southern Thailand’s east coast have all been ruined, somehow development at Tonsai has been limited to a few driftwood bars, a couple of low-key restaurants and shops and some bungalow accommodation.

The place doesn’t have any paved roads or even mains electricity, with generators providing power overnight.

The stalagtites drip into the water at Phra Nang Beach. (Will Jackson)

The stalagtites drip into the water at Phra Nang Beach. (Will Jackson)

Most people who go there are rock climbers attracted by the limestone rock formations and backpackers who have heard there is still a slice of the “old Thailand” still left.

I actually went by accident – I meant to go a different beach – but within minutes of arriving I was sitting on the sand with a bunch of new friends – a beer in one hand and a spliff in the other – and I figured I might as well hang around.

I ensconced myself in a huge 300 baht ($AU10) a night bungalow and busily set about chilling out; every day is Sunday at Tonsai.

A local rockclimber shows off at Phra Nang. (Will Jackson)

A local rockclimber shows off at Phra Nang. (Will Jackson)

The main activity on offer is rock climbing – including the deepwater solo trips during which you can drop off the sea cliffs into the water – but kayaks are also available for hire and there are slack lines slung up all over the place.

Sights include a lagoon and lookout accessible via a jungle climb, and the spectacular Phra Nang Cave.

The beach at Tonsai is not the most amazing in the world but the much better Railay West and Phra Nang beaches are only a 15 or 30 minute walk away.

If you’re feeling less active or maybe a bit sore from rock climbing there are plenty of places to get a Thai massage for 300 baht ($AU10) an hour.

One of the guys at the Chill Bar spits burning diesel. (Will Jackson)

One of the guys at the Chill Bar spits burning diesel. (Will Jackson)

I spent most of my evenings drinking 120 baht ($AU4) cocktails at Tonsai’s beachfront Chill Bar. It’s run by a bunch of young Thai guys who love reggae, rarely wear shirts and spend as much time playing with firesticks as they do behind the bar.

The people I met were all cool including a super lovely American couple who promised to take me rock climbing in Yosemite National Park next time I’m in California.

Longtail boats at Tonsai in the evening. (Will Jackson)

Longtail boats at Tonsai in the evening. (Will Jackson)

After five nights I didn’t really want to leave but boredom was looming as an issue.

So I packed up my stuff and walked down to the end of the beach where the longtail boatmen were pulling cones out of a long bamboo bong.

Hopefully the developers (and the authorities) don’t discover the place before I come back next time.

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  • Tom Le Mesurier

    Oooh, lovely! Are you sure there weren’t any hidden communes of cool kids, led by a creepy, overbearing matriarch?

    • Will Jackson

      Cool kids lead by creepy, overbearing matriarch? Sounds like my family! Boom-tish.

  • Hugh McIntyre

    hah awesome

  • capnbob

    So why blog about it? Better left as a hidden gem.

    • Will Jackson

      You serious? I hardly think Tonsai’s a hidden gem. It’s in all the guidebooks already. I was just surprised the place was so nice and hadn’t been ruined yet.

      Anyway, I just arrived in Chiang Mai this morning (you run the Chiang Mai Cafe yeah?) if you want to discuss the ethics of travel blogging over a strong latte.

  • Mike Yam

    I love the second photo. Can’t wait to try climbing those cliffs then cool off in the pool. Drinking cocktails on the beach with reggae at night sounds pretty cool too.

    • Will Jackson

      Yeah man, it’s the best.

  • Mike Yam

    Oops, just realised I wrote “pool” instead of the “sea” lol. By the way did you try the climbing? I am wondering how much it costs. I asked a company there by email but it sounded really expensive. I was quoted 3,000 Baht for 2 hours, it is 250 Baht for the same at an indoor wall in the Philippines. I expected it to be more as this is outdoors and remote, but not more than 10 times the price. I’m not interested in courses, just wanted someone to hold the ropes and tell me which climbs to do.

  • WhatWouldYodaDo

    Awesome! Just had my second trip here. Such a gem.