For our annual family vacation, my parents, my Holga and I went to Railay in Thailand.
The Two Sides of Railay
From Krabi we took a long-tail boat to get to our destination. Although Railay isn’t an island, it feels like one; it’s a peninsula cut off from the mainland by high limestone cliffs. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon during low tide. From the boat we mounted a tractor trailer for a bumpy ride to the peninsula’s eastern shore. Railay East isn’t a beach, but a declining mangrove on the waterfront. Seeing garbage lying about in between the mangrove roots was quite a shock, but it made sense. The east side is both cooler and cheaper than its west side compatriot, with small shops, travel agencies, some medium-priced resorts and reggae-style bars.
Our resort was located in Railay West, neighbour to five other high-end resorts whose clients were made up of couples, honeymooners and young families. At first glance the beach was stunning; the perfect Thailand picture postcard. Long-tail boats lined up along the shore, the sand was white and the sky had that perfect mix of clouds and azure blue.
Railay West is also known as Sunset Beach, and it’s true. Every night saw an amazing sunset descend over the peninsula. As dusk began to fall, people would gather on the beach with their camera at the ready. My father would ask me for advice on how to set up his digital camera and how to compose his shot. He would then shoot at least a hundred photos.
On a Long-Tail Boat
After a couple of days lazing around between the pool and the beach, we decided to take some trips to the nearest islands. I organised the tours with the boat captain directly at the only small shack on the beach. We left at 7am each day to catch up with the tide; it’s early but worth it. Being on a private tour allowed us to stay as long as we wanted on the beaches we liked, avoid the ones that were too crowded, and enabled us to go to places off the beaten track for photos.
The photos I took with my digital camera were great, but I couldn’t see myself in these photos — they were too perfect, too much like a postcard. They lacked feeling.
Luckily I packed my Holga. It’s a toy camera with a plastic lens and without many settings, only focus, sun or cloud aperture and flash. By camera standards it has a lot of defaults. But I like it that way.
There is something poetic about a Holga and in Railay it allowed me to recreate my private state of mind: an expressive escape from reality. It let me create images that reflect my thoughts, feelings and memories.
The Holga was created in 1981 and is a medium format film camera made in Hong Kong that is part of the Lomography family. It is almost entirely made of plastic, even the lens. It’s that very plastic lens that gives the camera its default: blur, vignetting, light leaks and other distortions. This poor aesthetic is what made it popular among photographers. It’s a very simple camera with only a few settings, putting most of the control on the type of film you use. This keeps you from overthinking settings and allows you instead to focus on creativity.
There are many variations of the Holga: flash, no flash, coloured flash, pinhole, panoramic, twin lens reflex, 35mm adapter and more.
There are tours you can do to two groups of small uninhabited islands with beautiful white sand beaches when the tide is low; the Chicken and Poda Islands Tour and the Hong Islands Tour. The best way to go is to rent a private long-tail boat for the day from the little shack on Railay West Beach. That way you can negotiate directly with the captain of the boat.
Budget options are mostly located in Tonsai Beach and start from around US$21 (VND441,000) a night; mid-range options cost from US$50 to US$90 (VND1.05 million to VND1.9 million); luxury goes for as much as US$700 (VND14.7 million).
Eating and Drinking
If you want to eat outside a resort you have a few options on Railay West’s walking street and a bit more in Railay East.
Railay is one of the best-known climbing areas in the world with more than 700 routes, all with amazing ocean views. Some rock climbing operators in Railay East and more on Tonsai offer courses to beginners and intermediate level climbers, with options for the experts. If you are a hardcore climber, Tonsai Beach is the place to go.