CLIMBING in THAILAND

I first heard about Thailand rock climbing in the late 80ís when I met Dominique Potard, co-writer of the first guide and early route pioneer in the area. His fascinating stories of climbing in Thailand convinced me to visit. It wasnít until late in the year 2000 that I had the opportunity to fulfill this dream with a 6-week visit through November and December.

The flight from Toronto to Krabi was an endurance test; 24 hours in the air, another 10 hours hanging around airports along with a 12 hour time difference. We flew into the night for most of the trip. On the last leg, in morning light, places like Vietnam and Cambodia came into view far below, places that I had heard and read so much about as I was growing up.

 Between flights with a few hours to kill in Bangkok, we ran out of the airport, hoping to see something of the city. We were hit by a wall of heat and were soon sweating profusely. For the next 6 weeks, I rarely stopped sweating, although after about 2 weeks, I felt myself adapting to the heat to some extent. However, exertion especially at the heat of the day remained difficult throughout the trip.

After recovering from exhaustion from the trip with a night in Krabi, we set off for Ralei Beach and soon dispensed with the lodging issues. Bungalows surrounded by beautiful gardens of exotic plants are lined up in rows almost like a North American sub division. However, in spite of being influenced by American culture, a distinct Thai presence dominates this place.

The mode of transport in this region is the long tailed boat. Similar to a war canoe and about 25 feet in length, it has a long bar attached to the back with a propeller. Four cylinder engines drive these craft. They are powerful and maneuverable, well designed for the area. The proud, tough but fun loving boatmen are master seamenand will take you most anywhere.
 

We discovered an interesting way of improving communication with the boatman that also worked well with all Thai people. The boatmen are very persistent when asking tourists "Do they want a ride". Most tourists answer "No". The boatmen persist and follow the tourists repeating the question over and over, as the tourists try to escape. This scenario was acted out daily with both sides seemingly a little upset. Rather than saying "No", we found that telling them what we had planned instead of a boat ride ended the interaction on a positive note. For instance statements like "Climbing to-day" or "Bungalow now" or "Swimming now", stopped any further questions from the boatman and usually got a smile and nod of understanding. I believe that using "No" without context of an alternative action is not acceptable and perhaps even insulting to Thai people.

The Thai people seemed to be gentle and polite, and smiled readily. I never saw any of them lose their cool in spite of the occasional test by ignorant tourists. They are very tolerant of the visitors. They also were very friendly, often spoke English and welcomed the chance to interact with others. I think that this characteristic of Thais is socialized from a very early age in their culture. I watched a mother with a four-month old child walk down the sidewalk on many occasions. All Thais stopped to engage the child, even construction workers would stop work and interact with him. It is a very different process in modern western culture. The Thai climbers were extremely friendly, very helpful and went out of their way to initiate conversation with us.

Perhaps the other side of the smiling, polite and sociable Thaisí manifest itself in Thai boxing. Thai boxing is the National Sport of Thailand. This ferocious form of full contact fighting allows knee and elbow strikes to the head. The courageous fighters move like cats, quick and agile. The fight is preceded by ritualistic dances and builds in tempo as the fight proceeds accompanied by music that follows the tempo of the fight. The audience gets heavily involved, chanting and cheering in unison with the strikes.

The Thai climberís style was similar to the Thai boxers. They were more dynamic than Western climbers perhaps to compensate for their shorter reach. They moved quickly and powerfully with great agility and balance. They also do not lack courage.

Beautiful sand beaches broken by limestone monoliths like bookends dominate the scene. Behind the beaches are developments composed of bungalows, stores and bars or dense lush tropical forests. Seemingly mindless sunbaked imbeciles vie for space with the crabs on the beach, occasionally coming to life to swim or play Frisbee. Strange behavior. We hurry by with fleeting looks at the more naked specimens, to the limestone monoliths, impatient to start the important and more normal activity of climbing.

The most extraordinary thing about the rock and in my opinion the main reason for climbing here, is the size and preponderance of the stalactites. They take on a surreal appearance, like elephant tusks or talons or goatees. Sometimes they join up with stalagmites, forming a continuous system to the ground. They reminded me of ice formations, more solid than ice and without the cold. These formations come in various colors including pink, blue, white and gray. The rock is generally rather steep. Flowstone of the same material along with pocketed limestone and the odd crack fill in the gaps between stalactite systems.

The climbs that follow stalactite systems are three-dimensional and demand a full repertoire of moves from the climber. Routes of all grades that would be classics in any other area of the world were everywhere. There is a hugh amount of unclimbed rock. The potential for new routes would be great if the bolt corrosion problem and present access issues were resolved.

When I first looked at the condition of the top anchors, I didnít want to lower off. But I looked at a few other routes along the cliff and noticed that they were worse. I soon fell into a mode of thinking where I rationalized that the last person had made it safely and I would too. This actually worked but in retrospect I trusted anchors that I would not have trusted in most other areas. I also climbed in a more controlled manner, much more in a comfort zone, rarely risking a fall, except when encountering glue in bolts that I was told are relatively new. I took more of a trad. climbers mentality in regard to risk taking.

To climb successfully, a climber must be able to juggle variables like tides, crowds and sun direction. Crag hopping is also necessary because the crags are fairly small and to avoid the sun. This can prove to be frustrating. I remember arriving at 8 in the morning to a climb I wanted to do so as to avoid the sun and crowds. However I had miscalculated the tides and found myself waist deep in water beneath the climb. At other times tide and sun calculations were correct but I found two other parties waiting for the route.

Tides need to be understood since some areas cannot be approached or climbed at high tide. Two high tides, 12 hours apart and two low tides occur each day. Each day the tide occurs one hour later than the previous day. In addition the highest tide occurs at full moon. Tides at other times do not reach this point. Even armed with this information, we often seemed to get it wrong.

Weather can be overwhelmingly hot and humid; one must climb in the shade. We arrived at the end of the rainy season and rain occurred on most days. These were usually short bursts up to half an hour in length that we welcomed because the temperature cooled down for a short period. Rain didnít seem to get many of the cliffs wet. At one period, it raining steady for three days, yet we were able to climb at perhaps half the areas although the holds were a little slimy. Clouds were also a relief as they allowed us to climb at areas that faced the sun.

There are many other things to do in the Ralei area on rest days. At first we tried to arrange things ourselves but this proved to be difficult, frustrating and stressful. Later we signed up for tours. These are inexpensive and simple to arrange. You pay the tour operator and stand where he tells you to, holding a piece of paper and looking as stupid as possible. After a while, a very nice Thai person comes and takes you to unbelievably beautiful places. We did snorkeling tours to various Islands and a tour of a few forest monasteries. The Forest Monasteries offer peace and tranquility and a glimpse into Buddhism. The Monks at the Forest Monasteries have taken on the role of protecting the forest and allow an opportunity to walk through the jungle. Many other tours are available.
 

Forest Monastery is located in a beautiful setting.

Snorkeling was fantastic. The reefs appeared to be in decent shape and there were fish everywhere. I was surprised that a land lubber like me, a novice snorkeler and totally out of my element saw so much sea life including an octopus that was larger than a person, a few sharks and barracuda in addition to a myriad of colorful fish and other things that I couldnít begin to name.

Sea kayaks are available to rent locally. It was fun exploring the cliffs along the coast. From Ao Nang tours by Sea Kayak of the mangrove forest can be arranged. I enjoyed the local Fire Show held on the beach but wasnít attracted to any of the movies that the bars played in the evenings. There is a pool table at Co Coís Bar. Internet Caféís are available on the island.

The Diamond Cave was impressive with huge stalactites within Cathedral like rooms. The Thaiwand Wall can be accessed via the Escher Wall cave; an interesting and adventurous diversion if you are into caving. Take rappel gear and a rope. A hike up to the lookout and lagoon above the Princess Cave is worthwhile but should be done at high tide for the full effect.

Krabi is an interesting town to visit, eat and shop or hang out. Ao Nang has some good restaurants. The bus trip from Ao Nang to Krabi is picturesque and worthwhile.

The restaurants on Ralei are good with a great variety of food. Thai Massage is also available and helps recovery from hard climbing.

To relax one can also drink. They say that a taste for the local Singa beer must be acquired. This is true. I developed the taste after my first beer and drank it exclusively through my trip. I have no idea of the taste or quality of other liquor and drinks.

Recently, a new Thai boxing arena has opened outside Ao Nang. On Fridays, a man who works at Sand Sea Resort organizes trips to the fighting. Champions from Bangkok often fight here. I highly recommend this trip. Inquire at Sand Sea.

In this area, 6 distinct ecosystems converge and as a result a vast array of life is present. We saw a Monoclad Cobra, a Sea snake, Monkeys, Giant Water Monitors, eagles and lizards in addition to plant life and sea life that I wouldnít be able to start to name.

On the night of the highest tide of the year just as it was getting dark I was leaning on the wall of a restaurant. The water was about thigh deep and was lapping against the wall a few feet from me. About 10 feet away I saw a large snake swimming parallel to the shore. It was a cobra about 8 feet in length. It eventually swam about 5 feet from me. I called out to the boatmen who were hanging out close by. They became very excited and one of them jumped in the water behind the snake trying to grab it. At the same time about 5 waiters from the restaurant, Cinta and another boatman came up, all very excited. The boatman followed the snake in the water for 50 feet and after it turned followed it another 200 feet until it escaped. At the same time the shore team ran back and forth presumably shouting encouragement in Thai to the boatman in the water. There was a great deal of commotion. The boatman was never able to hold the snake well enough to capture it. I was unable to understand why he did this and what significance the snake had for them.

The most dangerous things I encountered on this trip besides poisonous snakes and the equipment on some routes were the falling coconuts. These fell regularly at night, seemed to shake the ground and often woke us up. I was terrified that one would fall on my head.

Before leaving Canada, I was concerned about the mosquitoes. Much to our relief, the mosquitoes were only a mild nuisance, easily discouraged by a little DEET that we only used at a few crags that were in forested areas. At night we used mosquito netting, although this was not essential. Canadian mosquitoes are larger, more persistent, meaner and swarm in greater numbers.

After a few weeks in Thailand I felt disconnected with the outside world. I read the Bangkok Post to try to stay connected but had difficulty getting up to date issues. They were often old issues and out of sequence. Events that I read about had already happened days before and seemed so far off. Often I read issues out of sequence and had already read the ending of a news story as I read a previous issue. This gave time a strange quality.

The Thai people were so consistently friendly and genuinely nice. It was unacceptable to not be happy in public. At times the black side of my personality came forth. I felt like grumbling and being in a bad mood. It was impossible to do this in public as it was so frowned upon. I resorted to hiding in my bungalow and being moody by myself emerging later when the mood had passed.

If you are planning a trip here, almost everything you will need can be acquired in Ralei, Ao Nang or Krabi. The only thing I couldnít find is power bars or sport bars. If you need these, better to bring some along.

I strongly recommend a climbing trip to Thailand especially if you are also interested in climbing in paradise.

Bob Bennell
January 2001

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