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Text and photos by Daniel Allen.
With legs fully extended, British climber Cain Blythe clings to the gnarled cliff face like a limpet. Chalked, calloused hands search overhead for the next handhold, while 75 metres below the incoming Andaman Sea laps at the mangroves fringing East Railay Beach. Farther along the sandy crescent, toy-like in the distance, anchored long-tail boats begin to rock gently in the surf. For Blythe, the idyllic view is ample reward for the pain.
“Nothing beats that feeling you get when you make it to the top of the pitch,” says the amiable rock jock. “Aching arms burn with lactic acid, but you’ve earned the right to stop and glory in the magnificent panorama for a few tranquil minutes. Then it’s time to descend, enjoy the backslapping of fellow climbers, and prepare yourself for the next ascent,” says Blythe.
Isolated from the mainland by its jagged karst topography, the southern Thai resort of Railay is an elongated peninsula of dramatic limestone towers, palm groves and sheltered, sandy coves. While its natural beauty is enough to justify any visit, many come here with energetic pursuits in mind.
“Railay really is southeast Asia’s mecca for rock climbing,” explains Blythe. “With routes ranging from beginner to advanced, it’s a great spot for those of any age or proficiency. Many climbs start straight from the beach, so between ascents you can wade out into the sea for a swim, or lie back on the sand and contemplate the sky,” he adds.
While Railay’s mangroves are somewhat thin on the ground, the saltwater forests of the surrounding Krabi region can be thick, impenetrable affairs. With their aerial roots exposed at low tide, they are home to a strange and bountiful fauna, including giant monitor lizards, crab-eating macaques and exotically coloured legions of mudskippers.
One of the best ways to explore Krabi’s fantastic mangroves is by kayak. Ban Bo Thor, a national park less than an hour’s drive from Krabi Town (a stone’s throw from Railay), is a system of saltwater creeks and limestone peaks that makes the perfect afternoon’s paddling, with local operators offering guided tours and basic rentals. Exploration of the park’s myriad caves is one of the highlights of kayaking here.
“Make sure to check out Tham Lod Nua cave, with its beautiful stalactites and stalagmites,” says local fisherman Sert Krongsatipanya. “The nearby Phi Hau To Cave (‘Ghost Cave’) was given its name from the discovery of seven ancient skeletons and pottery inside. Look on the ceiling for prehistoric paintings.”
Deep in the dipterocarp forest, close to the village of Nong Thale, dappled shadows dance across the jungle floor. As a troop of spectacled langurs cavorts in the canopy overhead, two lumbering bull elephants emerge from the trees. Directed by their Thai mahouts, the pair of pachyderms lumber onto a trail and head for a nearby stream.
Rapidly disappearing from the wild, the elephant is still considered sacred by the Thai people. One of the best places to get up close to these gentle giants is at Nosey Parker’s Elephant Camp. En route to Ban Bo Thor at Nong Thale, about 20 kilometres from Krabi Town, the camp’s ever popular elephant treks include feeding and twice daily bathing sessions.
Also good for trekking, both on two legs and the back of an elephant, is Phanom Bencha National Park, located a short drive north of Krabi Town. This expanse of pristine forest boasts numerous waterfalls and abundant wildlife, making it an ideal place to hike, dive and swim away from sun and sea.
“The waterfalls of Namtok Huai To and Namtok Khlong Haeng are both gorgeous,” says Krabi-based tour operator Patty Suebsuk. “There’s nothing more fun than giving elephants a wash and scrub here, although riders invariably end up wetter than their rides.”
Back in Railay, a late afternoon snorkel group explores one of the resort’s offshore reefs. Individual triggerfish dart nervously amongst the coral fronds, while shimmering schools of dazzlingly-hued fusiliers and damselfish compete for attention.
“The Andaman Sea around Railay is teeming with life,” says local snorkel tour operator Chai Boonmee. “Depending on the time of year, snorkelers can expect to see turtles, dolphins, sharks, coconut crabs and a huge variety of fish.”
While snorkel operators abound, those who prefer to snorkel alone can charter a long-tail boat and find their own deserted stretch of Andaman. After some aquatic action, drop anchor by a sandbar to dine on succulent seafood. The perfect end to a day of high adrenaline adventure.
Thailand’s coastal haven
Situated in the south-east of the country, Thailand’s Andaman coast is a land of superlatives – the tallest karst formations, the softest sands and the bluest water. The gateway to this paradise is the town of Krabi (pronounced “ga-bee”), which has its own international airport. From Krabi harbour boats of all descriptions transport visitors to myriad offshore islands, as well as isolated peninsulas such as Railay.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.