Ton Sai is a beach near Krabi in Thailand, offering a combination of inexpensive accommodation and great rock climbing routes that make it popular with both backpackers and climbers alike. Compared to neighbouring Railey and Ao Nang it's relatively rough around on the edges; in particular, the beach gets unsuitable for swimming and becomes quite rocky as the tide goes out. But this only happens for about ten days every moon period. The rest of the time the beach is suitable for swimming although not overly sanitary, take care and use antiseptic on all cuts.
There's no easy overland access to Ton Sai, so most visitors arrive by boat. It's possible to hike 1.5 hours, but it's not recommended if you are carrying luggage. Rai Leh is a five minute longtail boat ride or a 20 minute walk. Longtails from Ao Nang to Rai Leh may also stop at Ton Sai. Boats between Ton Sai and Rai Leh generally don't run at night.
If you're arriving from Krabi bus station you will need to get a taxi or tuk-tuk to Ao Nang Pier. The price should be around 60 baht. Expect the tuk-tuk to drive around a bit and pick up more people if it's not full, before heading towards Ao Nang Pier. From Krabi airport there is a shuttle bus that is less than 100 baht. It takes 45 minutes to Ao Nang Pier. From there, share or charter a boat to Ton Sai. Boats run frequently from Ao Nang Pier to Ton Sai, but only when enough people have gathered and the boat is full with 10-12 persons. In high season it takes around 20 minutes to fill a boat depending on the time of the day. In low season it usually takes longer. Tickets costs 100 baht at the ticket stand at the southend of Ao Nang Pier. The price almost doubles after 18:00. Alternatively, charter a boat and make a deal with the boatman. Expect to pay the price of 10 tickets if you want the boat all to yourself. The boat ride from Ao Nang Pier to Ton Sai takes 8-10 minutes and is very scenic.
There are three ways to reach Rai Leh on foot:
1) At low tide you can walk around the rocky outcrop which separates Ton Sai from Rai Leh (20 minutes).
2) At high tide, go to the south end of Ton Sai Beach, walk the obvious path at the end of the beach, through the forest, up and over the rocky outcrop. You'll pop out on the north side of Rai Leh west. It is possible to use with route with a large pack if you take your time. However, when the tide is at it's peak you may need to walk through knee deep water on tonsai beach.(20 minutes).
3) The least used option is a longer trail through the Jungle. Walk away from Ton Sai Beach along the road where all the bungalows and resorts are. When you get to Wee's Climbing School, turn east and continue on the road uphill. Eventually you'll pass all the bungalows. Continue on the obvious path and you will eventually pop out on Rai Leh east near the Diamond Cave area (50 minutes). Although longer, this trail is smoother and easier to walk than the shorter one.
None of these options are possible at night without a flashlight/torch, and the jungle paths can be slippery and treacherous after the rain.
Alternatively hire a kayak and paddle around. (10 minutes)
The only way to get around Ton Sai is on foot. The beach and the main road act as the primary throughfares in the area. It may take five minutes or less to cover the entire area. During heavy rains, the dirt road becomes muddy and treacherous.
Ton Sai is more of an activity kind of place, rather than sights. It is worth visiting the Phra Nang shrine on Phra Nang beach, which is either a 30 min walk away or a 20 min kayak. Thai women come here in the hope of increasing their fertility, and the shrine is adorned with wooden penises. Quite a sight!
Another sight worth visiting is the lagoon. Located on the way to Phra Nang Beach, a path off to the left of the main track leads steeply up to a landlocked lagoon. Takes some scrambling to get there, but surrounded by beautiful cliffs and perfect for a dip. Only worth visiting when the tide is high. The pool is salt water and empties out at low tide.
At the far end of Phra Nang Beach (near Escher wall) there is a cave which is the access point to a beautiful viewpoint of Ton Sai and West Rai Leh. It is an easy climb up 4 bamboo ladders, but take a torch as its pitch black in the cave. Breathtaking views that are definitely worth the the climb.
Rock climbing is the primary draw for visitors, with Ton Sai offering as many routes as Rai Leh, and hosting a number of climbing schools and guiding companies, including:
Playing with fire -- Ton Sai could well be the world centre for fire tricks: light something on fire, twirl it in the air, that's the basic idea. A lot of climbers can be found on the beach during their rest days practising on the beach.
Share or charter a boat to nearby islands. Chicken Island is good for snorkelling.
Rent kayaks from one of the bungalow operations along the beach and paddle around to Rai Leh or the beautiful Phra Nang Beach.
Look out cave Next to the Freedom Bar, there is a bamboo ladder that climbs to a lookout point. Although the ladder is fairly safe, be cautious especially after the sun goes down.
Massage There is a massage parlour at Mambo's, with a view of the beach. It's inexpensive, clean and the masseurs are good. They give you a cup of scented tea and biscuits after the massage, which takes place in a small open room with a few beds next to each other.
There are very few shops in Ton Sai, and they are pricey (by Thai standards) as everything is brought in by boat. It's probably best to bring everything with you or make a trip to Krabi, which is a much larger town with better choices. However there are a few mini marts selling cold drinks, snacks, phone credits, and tacky clothing.
There are several restaurants and bars on the beach and most bungalow operators have restaurants as well. Not all business have electricity all day long.
A lot of climbers report food poisoning while in Ton Sai. Have a look at the overall cleanliness, or ask around where people got sick.
The street vendors also make fantastic authentic Thai food. Try the mango with sticky rice or som tum (papaya salad). Cheap too!!
Mamas Chicken Kitchen seems to be a popular choice. It sits on the Eastern dirt road (starting from the beach). Will do it "Thai-style" if you ask them.
Another popular choice is on the cement road. Start from the Ao Nang side of the beach, pass Viking Climber's shop, walk up 100m and it's on your left.
Expect to be paying 2 times more than in other rural places.
There are several bars on the beach, several of which (oddly enough) feature non-stop reggae music. You can even chill out with a "special" coffee or tea.
A popular climber's hang out is Ton Sai Roof, at the east end of the beach, where the routes begin at the foot of Freedom Bar, another hot spot with glorious views of both the rock and the whole bay.
Also be sure to check out Small World Bar, right in the middle of the loop, where there is amazing nightly fire and slackline entertainment and a super-relaxed atmosphere with great staff.
The "Pyramid bar" offers real coffee for 50 baht (2013) and opens at 6:30am. It seems to be opening first in the morning. Pyramid bar is opposite "Basecamp Ton Saï", the climbing shop on the backroad (not the beach one).
All accommodation is set off of the beach and tends to be of the bamboo bungalow variety, and a little more rustic (and certainly more affordable though prices have more than tripled over the past five years) than at Rai Leh. Rubbish piles and noisy generators are common nuisances but as Ton Sai has no mains electricity it is a necessary nuisance.
Andaman Nature Resort - set well off the beach near the base of the cliffs. The basic bamboo bungalows are popular with budget travellers. The Andaman is largest collection of bungalows in Ton Sai. Rates are around 800 baht during the high season for a basic room with private bathroom. 100-150 baht during low season. 300 baht during March/April. Be wary with your valuables as break-ins have occured, even while guests are asleep in the room.
Country Side Resort - set back behind the beach (follow the path up the hill from the Internet cafe, and take the right-hand fork by Wee's Climbing School - follow the signs), this set of 10 bungalows are comfortable and have views. During low season it is the best deal on Ton Sai, down to 150 baht. Air-con rooms are also available but expensive and unnecessary because there is no electricity during the day. The downside, as elsewhere, is ongoing construction across the street - not a big intrusion since most days are spent at the beach, on the water, or on the side of a mountain.
Mambo Bungalow - Right on the beach near the west side of Ton Sai this place offers basic bamboo bungalows. They have bathrooms and cold water showers for 500 baht in high season. The on-site restaurant has clean food and prices for food are ~70-100 baht for Thai food and ~200-300 baht for Western food. The staff is friendly. This is not a resort and you can expect your bungalow to be co-inhabited by a lot of other animals that fly, slither, crawl, or hop. They don't take bookings so the best bet is to show up at 10:00 and struggle to get a room during the check out period (check out is at 11:00).