Quickpost: The Hidden Lagoon of Railay

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.

Amusement Parks for Rocks

One night when I was young and impressionable, I cuddled up with my parents to watch a special on TV about caves.  In this particular special, some unlucky kid had fallen into a cave and got himself stuck in a crevice a hundred meters below ground.  A few hours later, the local townsfolk heard his cries and scrambled to save him.  They had meetings to plan a rescue and began feeding the boy food from a tube but, over time, the boy grew so skinny that his emaciated body dislodged and he fell to his death (presumably to the center of the earth).

That night, I lay awake in my parent’s bed, petrified.  The next night, I slept on the floor outside of my room which, in my mind, seemed safer than sleeping on a heavy bed that might crash through the ground into a cave we never knew about below my house in suburban Washington DC.  For one week of my adolescent life, I thought of nothing else but falling into caves.

The fear went away when I visited my first cave at Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley.  I realized that caves are like amusement parks for rocks.  There are fancy lights, funny names and goofy guides to take you on an adventure below ground.

The Fox River Caves were unlike any cave I had ever been to.  These sister caves were reputedly discovered in the early 1900’s by a local Sheep farmer, Mr. O’Brien, who was searching for his cattle on the opposite side of the river.  Looking across, he saw a sizeable hole in the cliff and the find was reported as a “miniature Waitomo.”  Owners of a local guesthouse constructed an entrance gate and began operating guided tours from the small township of Brighton (today’s Fox River) to the cave from 1906.  In the 1950’s, the gate was removed and the cave was opened up to any wanderer willing to make the two-hour hike through the woods along the Fox River.

Felipe and I (after our arduous journey to the Ballroom Overhang) traversed steep hills of slippery, moss-covered rocks bridled with streams and pocketed with mud to approach a grand hole in the cliff-face.  There, we found the sister caves at Fox River.  The area’s “oldest tourist attraction” sat in the forest like an abandoned set piece from Jurassic Park.  The lower cave’s tempting entrance was graced with signs of caution, warning of falling rocks and sheer drops in the floor.  Part of me wanted to venture in to see what all the “danger” was about, but the other part of me didn’t want to fall into a hole, get fed from a tube, and die.  To persuade us elsewhere, signs guide visitors to the upper cave, which is “safe” and includes, “more spectacular formations.”

I had never entered a cave without all the pageantry.  Where were all the colored lights and dorky guides to teach me the differences between a stalagmite and a stalactite (“Stalactites hang TIGHT from the ceiling of the cave. Stalagmites MIGHT one day reach the roof”)?  Where was the spotlight on the oldest rock and who would point to a group of stalagmites and quip that it looked like the nativity scene?  This idea that I could be allowed access to a cave without a wooden walkway, audio tour, and a $5.00 headlamp rental was new.

There was an eerie chill in the air as we ducked out of the rainforest and into the upper cave. Drips of water cascaded down perfectly conical stalactites to the wet cavern floor in soft echoes.  It was the only sound we heard as we snaked our way into the rock. The cacophony of forest noises disappeared as everything went remarkably quiet.

I had always been taught to not touch anything in a cave, but in such close quarters and with minimal light, this was inevitable.  We climbed deeper into the cave over rocky ravines dividing the crumbling remains of a 100-year-old stone path.  This was certainly one of the blackest places I had ever been.  Yet, it was filled with glistening white.  The calcite formations, developed over thousands of years, jutted out from above and below.  In the beam of the flashlight, we walked through what appeared to be a tunnel of never-ending of vampire chops.

We had read that the tunnel went in for about 200 meters but we were 20 minutes in and saw no end in sight.  When the water levels in the cave rose above our ankles, we chose not to continue through the murky mystery of the dark water.  An upside down city of rock reflected on the placid water making it hard to tell what was coming from above and what from below, and I began to see that you don’t need all the funky lights and tailored journeys to make a funhouse out of a cave.  This macabre obstacle course through the curving tunnel past ghoulish formations and mystical reflection ponds spoke for itself.

Crawling through the dark, following the narrow beam of a solitary flashlight, we made our way out of the upper cave and back into the sticky air of the rainforest.  My eager eyes darted over to the broad opening of the lower cave.  I walked closer to peak in – just to take a look.  Then, I reminded myself of the curious kid who fell to the center of the earth and I straightened my focus, eyed the path home, and didn’t look back.