After adventuring in some of the world’s harshest environments, we went to Thailand to thaw out and drink from coconuts. We wouldn’t be laying on beaches though. We were there to experience some of the best sport climbing in the world.
The last few months had been pretty brutal. I nearly died in Iceland. Barely made it down from a 6189m peak in Nepal. I figured that Daniel Bruce Lee and I could use some time to defrost. In Thailand. Within a week of getting out of the mountains, we were on Thai Airways Flight 322 from Kathmandu to Bangkok.
Crystal, my climber friend from LA, met us in Krabi – one of the world’s premiere sport climbing locations. We were both craving ‘dat mineral. Limestone in this case.
Chill out at the Chill Out Bungalows.
A little bit of research and a lot of word-of-mouth led us to Tonsai Beach, a dirtbagger’s haven. Tonsai is full of chill bungalows (at Jungle Huts, you can get your own bungalow for 300 baht/$US9 a night. A tent on their covered porch only runs 100.) Chill bars. And even chiller people (aka “Hippies”.) Unfortunately, Tonsai is also full of trash. The interior literally looked like a landfill. Or the victim of a Tsunami. And no one seemed to be taking responsibility for it. Heartbreaking.
We weren’t there for the bungalows though. Or the bars. We definitely weren’t there for the hippies. We were there to climb. And neighbouring Railay Beach (where we could never afford to stay) was chock-full of world-class sport climbing routes that overlooked the ocean.
Limestone for everyone.
Why Go? Southern Thailand — particularly Tonsai, Railay, and Koh Phi Phi — is home to some of the world’s best sport climbing. For the uninitiated, sport climbing is rock climbing on previously established routes that have permanent, dedicated anchors for safety; in traditional climbing, climbers must place removable protection as they scale the wall.
Due to the presence of permanent anchors (negating the need for lots of expensive, heavy, and complicated “trad” climbing equipment,) sport climbing is relatively accessible. There are tons of climbing guides on Ao Nang, Tonsai, and Railay who can literally “show you the ropes” for a nominal fee (we paid 800 baht/$30 per person for a half day of guided climbing, which allowed each of us to get about four routes in.) No previous climbing experience is necessary to get up on the walls.
Thailand is also a relatively cheap country to travel to. You can eat delicious street food for 50 Baht (about $1.90) a plate. Hostels can be found for less than $13 a night. Nice hotels for $50. Roundtrip airfare to Bangkok from New York or LA: $1000.
The people are generally very friendly; many speak conversational English.
Scene from the upcoming Star Wars sequel, “The Beard Awakens”.
Climbing: We met our guide at the Basecamp Tonsai hut at 1.30pm. We made introductions, he outfitted us with our climbing gear, and we all headed down to the beach. A five-minute longboat ride took us over to Railay West; we walked across the peninsula to Railay East to “1-2-3“, a popular area with twenty routes on the limestone wall.
The area was crawling with climbers. We belayed our guide as he lead climbed a couple of routes, setting up the top ropes for us to follow. Once ropes were run, Crystal, Daniel and I each took turns scurrying up an easy 8m high, 5.7 warm-up route.
That got our blood pumping, but we were ready for more. Out of the three of us Crystal was the only one with any actual sport climbing experience. I had done a bit of indoor sport climbing at the Stronghold Climbing Gym in LA, but never outdoors. The closest Daniel had ever gotten was while harnessed up to climb Imja Tse — a baby Himalayan peak, just 6000m — a month earlier.
Who needs elevators when you can just climb?
I guess I did OK on that warm up though, because our guide threw me onto “Make A Way” next, a 25m high 5.10c. The crux was kinda tough, but I spidermonkey’d right up. Why didn’t I get into rock climbing sooner? That was fun! I rested afterward while Daniel and Crystal took turns getting their rocks off.
Next, I climbed “Ling Noi,” a 10m high 5.9. It went quick; afterward, our guide called me “Little Monkey.” I thought he was giving me a compliment, but turns out that was just the English translation of the route.
My final climb of the day was “Massage Secrets,” a 30m high 5.10b that ended in a cave with an incredible view of Railay’s East bay. The climb was easy, but fun; the view from the top was outstanding. Wish I climbed it again with my camera.
So much for that mani.
By the time I got down, Daniel and Crystal had finished their last routes of the day; we all walked back to Railay West, and took the famed “Monkey Road” (a steep, treacherous, muddy path that links Railay Beach) back to Tonsai.
The United By Blue Aiden is right at home on the beach.
What You’ll Need to Bring: If you plan on climbing with one of the many guide shops in the area, they will provide you with climbing shoes, a harness and hardware, along with a chalk bag with chalk — basically everything you need to go on a guided climb. If you’re already an avid climber, it can’t hurt to bring your own gear — chances are you’ll be more comfortable using it.
If you know how to lead climb, bring your own gear and rope. There are endless, accessible opportunities for self-directed climbs.
How Do You Get There? From Bangkok, you can either take a tourist bus down to Krabi (takes about 14 hours; costs about $25 one-way) or fly. The flight is 1:20 long and will set you back about about $70 (one-way) on Bangkok Airways. You can fly down for $25 on Thai Lion Airways, but they only allow 15kg of checked luggage (Bangkok Airways allows 20kg).
The waterproof Boreas Echo pack is perfect for adventuring in places like Thailand, where the sky could fall out at any moment.
To get to Tonsai/Railay Beach from Ao Nang, take a long boat taxi from Ao Nang beach. It will cost 100 baht per person, each way. Boats depart as soon as there are eight people to fill them.
What Should You Do While You’re There? You can rent sea kayaks from Tonsai Beach and take them out on your own. The rentals were really cheap; we paid 200 baht/$7.50 for two hours on a double kayak.
Watch a Tonsai sunset. Every night. They are incredible.
Check out the nightly fire shows held at each of the bars on Tonsai. We stayed at Chill Out Bar & Bungalows; their fire guys were awesome. There are also opportunities to slackline at the bars. You can even slackline during a fire show!
Crystal on a V2.
There are also lots of bouldering problems on both Tonsai and Railay. Local guidebooks are available for purchase at any of the climbing shops — ask nicely and the guides will point them out on a map for free.
After climbing, get lots of Thai massages. You can get an hour-long oil massage for 300 baht/$11.25. My back was destroyed after carrying 27kg for 290km through the Himalayas. A two-hour session fixed me right up.
Also, consume as many mango or watermelon or pineapple or coconut shakes as you can. They’re made fresh on the spot and they are delicious!
Always carry your rain jacket when adventuring in Thailand. You never know when it will start pouring.
What We’d Do Differently: Go back in time and learn to lead climb, then show up and be able to do every single route there by ourselves. Or, just learn to lead climb while on Tonsai.
We only sport climbed for one day while in Thailand, but we would have happily climbed every day. Next time, we’ll go back and make friends with other climbers so we can get more time on the wall.
Pictures: Chris Brinlee Jr, Crystal Tan