“BLAM, BLAM, BLAM.. Ao Nang shooting range, real guns, real bullets, a great day out for you and the family” was the message being broadcasted from a truck which slowly made its way up and down the main street in Ao Nang, Thailand. Meanwhile the breaking news headline on the TV in the foyer of our guesthouse was condemning the latest school shooting in America. One senator was telling us that if the teacher in the school had had an automatic in their desk then this tragedy could have been avoided. What is it with this fascination for guns, is it just about empowerment? Maybe as we take more and more decision making away from the individual by wrapping them up in legislation and health and safety they feel the only way to take power back is to buy a gun and carry it about with them. America is not alone in its gun-derived tragedies, but it is way ahead of the world. Why I dunno but the NRA and this constitutional right to tool yourself up must take a fair proportion of the blame. Anyway, discussion over, however it would be better if the gun toting lunatics of this world just blew the stuffing out of each other rather than turning their focus on the innocents, but I guess that shooting another gun toting lunatic would not make world news, glad I just like going climbing…
Which was of course one of the main reasons we had decided to flee the Xmas and New Year commercial and overindulgent insanity that grips our consumerist society and come to Thailand. The weather in blighty may also have had something to do with the decision making process. Thailand was a climbing destination I had long heard others talking about, but it’s a long way to go to tick some routes. My friend Steve Findlay had been coming out to Thailand for many years and had been instrumental in the development of the climbing, so armed with the knowledge that we had a font of knowledge on the ground we booked tickets for a five week jaunt (just to make the cost justifiable) and fled the rain and the wind. It’s a long journey but via an 8 hour stop-over in Abu Dhabi and an overnight stay in Bangkok we flew into Krabi early doors and stepped out into the jungle humidy of equatorial Thailand.
The airport bus dropped us off at the wrong hotel and after an hour of humping our bags up and down the main street of Ao Nang in 30 degrees we arrived at a guest house where we were greeted by a friendly Australian bloke who said “ you must be Chris, do you want a beer?” Never had these words been so welcome. Long journeys to new places are always just a bitty stressful but we were here and we had someplace to stay, courtesy of Steve who had booked us this place many weeks in advance.
(Totally recommended, Chatchada guest house http://www.chatchada-guesthouse.com )
The climbing in this area of Thailand is mainly centered around Railay beach which is only accessible by a 10min boat trip from Ao Nang or a slightly longer boat trip from Krabi. There is a big climbing/tourist industry there with accommodation and restaurants etc etc but Steve had advised us to stay in Ao Nang, which was in my opinion a bit of advise I was to come to really appreciate in the weeks that followed. Ao Nang 10 years ago was nothing but a fairly un-touristy beach front village from where the boats left to take climbers and tourists to Railay but over the last few years has turned into a tourist destination in its own right. No Wonder, it is one of the most beautiful beachfront places I have ever been to (despite the crassness of some of the more tourist derived commerciality)
The road from Krabi, some 20K, winds its way through jungle covered Karsts (big limestone monoliths the tops of which are largely totally inaccessible due to the precipitous cliffs that surround them and are the remnants of the largest coral reef ever seen on the planet) to arrive in the town which has a well developed sea front but within a couple of K in each direction just deteriorates in a thick Jungle environment. The beach at Ao Nang, which two years ago was voted the best beach in the world stretches for some 4K to the north west and then disappears into Mangrove swamps, whilst to the south and east stops dead about half a K from the main beach where precipitous jungle covered cliffs take over.
Steve met us later on the day of our arrival and dragged our jet lagged minds and bodies into the town where he showed us the best local and cheap places to eat then next day got us organized with scooters and showed us the local crags, beaches to get away from the crowds etc etc..
The next day he took us out to Ton Sai/Railay and gave us our bearings in the main climbing area. This was a STEEP learning curve day, climbing on European crags is all a bit clinical by comparison. Kalymnos for example is well bolted, the guidebooks are excellent, it’s easily possible to go and clip 6 or 7 routes in a day. That day we warmed up on a 6a+ (given 6b in the guidebook which I subsequently purchased) went onto a 6b/6c then tailed off onto more shade covered 6a’s and b’s as the heat and humidity took its toll.
1. The routes are all generally v. steep.
2. The routes in this area are more than a bitty polished
3. The protection is by slings and bolts and is sometimes quite spaced
4. The holds go from small pockets to big palming tuffas Like grit stone
5. Every route is an adventure.
By the end of this first day I was despairing of ever getting onto anything hard, the 6b’s had killed my arms and the heat and humidity had drained my energy, after only four routes I was knackered. However we persevered and next day took ourselves out to the local Ao Nang crag Chong Plee, which had been developed by Steve and his mates.
This crag is in the jungle which means, its even hotter and more humid: it lacks the sea breezes of Railay but being away from the main climbing area means it is less polished. We didn’t have a guidebook so just picked some easier looking lines and got on with it. The rock was seeping and wet in places, sometimes covered in ants and other jungle beasties but as the rock dried out over the next few days we came to appreciate the style of climbing and the adventure and our grades climbed towards the 7a target.
Our bodies had also been adjusting to the heat, shedding the extra weight needed to survive the British winter and we were getting into the swing of two short days on (afternoon on the beach) followed by one day on the beach walking and swimming ~ it’s a hard life. By the time Xmas had come and gone we were comfortable with the grades, and style of climbing (were used to the adventure) knew our way around the local crags and were setting our tick lists for the two weeks remaining.
New years eve saw us out at Railay and at a crag called Wee’s present wall, we ticked five routes there and then headed up to Thaiwand Wall where I tried a route called “Equatorial” to round the day off. I got totally spanked by it, yeah it was over 30m and sustained 6C but the previous five routes had taken their toll.. another lesson learned.
The next day ( 1st Jan 2013) despite being in bed the night before by 10 o clock totally wasted, dehydrated and incapable of even contemplating alcohol we had put aside to try Ao Nang tower.. no way, it was an enforced rest day for all, we were still wasted from the day before..
The 2nd of Jan however Choire and I headed back to Tonsai to have a bash at Humanality, a four pitch route at 6B+ which takes in the majority of the big wall above Tonsai beach, what a route.. the third pitch climbs up a steepening wall till all the holds just disappear, then when you are wondering what on earth you are going to do you realise there is a massive tuffa hanging behind you which you transfer onto, climb for a couple of metres and then transfer back onto the main wall where the holds start again, totally brilliant.
Time was running out for us now, we only had a week left but what a week we had.
Esher wall was visited, crappy and dirty but one route “The best route in Minnesota” made up for it, both Choire and I had a bash and Jane took some pics.
The route, which starts in a bit of a cave goes up a slippery wall then traverses out onto a steep arete, which leads to a bulge which in turn leads onto a very balancy scoop/slab. The whole 25m or so was not made any easier by it being a very hot, humid and rainy day which left all the holds very greasy and us dripping with sweat by the time we were 2m up.
A very worthwhile experience however.
We climbed for seven days, The nest ( mosquito hell ), back to the Keep and more at Chong Plee where Choire eventually red-pointed a route called Grace ( a very hard 7a ) in excellent style.
Our last full day arrived and Choire and I headed out to Ao Nang tower, the first day we traveled over to Railay we passed this amazing sea stack and I was awestruck, I had to have a go. So we booked a boat which picked us up at 0800 and after climbing out of said boat onto the tower watched as it departed with instructions to come back in three hours.
Its a lonely feeling and a real adventure to watch as your transport sails away leaving you hanging on a rock face above the sea, however it does mean that you just have to get on with it, so that is what we did. The three pitch route climbs the left hand skyline in the picture above in three pitches, 6B, 6B+ and 6c. Exactly three hours later we abseiled down onto the ledge, after getting to the top, to see the boat coming round the cliff face to our left, the boat man waving and shouting “A you leddie”. A totally awesome way to end our five week trip.
So my feelings on climbing in this area of Thailand…
You have to like climbing in hot humid temperatures, one route and you are totally dripping and soaked in sweat, the routes are generally very polished and the easy crags are dominated by the local Thai climbing schools. In general the routes are well protected and there is more than enough there to keep you going for a couple months at least. The opportunities for multi pitch bolted routes is just amazing with many real adventures to be had. This aspect alone will certainly take me back. Neither did we visit all the areas on this trip, we never got out to the islands ( which we had intended to ) due to other projects taking priority.
Where it does come into favour is not really about the climbing, the food is fantastic and extremely cheap £3 will buy you a great meal with a beer, accommodation is cheap if you are booking it for a few weeks. The beaches are also fantastic, however I am not sure just how much longer the main beach areas will remain like this. I saw broken glass in the sand at Ao Nang and I would not swim in the sea at Tonsai, I have seen what discharges into the water.
I guess that if you are prepared to take the higher prices of food and drink and want a bit of a party atmosphere then Ton Sai / West Railay might be your bag. To me this area was just a bit spoiled, the sea front beaches are beautiful, the base jumping, kayaking and climbing are great but behind it all it is just a bit seedy with rubbish dumped behind the bungalows and toilet facilities etc really squalid. East Rai Lay is a building site with big expensive hotels going up along the whole beach front, which is a really crap beach by comparison to the others. It does not take the mind of a genius to see where it is all going. Also the whole climbing industry here is very developed and busy with the local Thai climbing schools taking over some of the crags all day every day. However there are great crags like the Keep, which is an adventure in itself to get to, Thaiwand wall etc where the climbing, both single and multi pitch is just superb.
I will be back…