As my toes gripped a small ledge at the top of a 70-foot tall tufa, I was faced with a decision. Already secured into the anchor point, I looked out over Tonsai Bay with its white and vermilion streaked limestone cliffs towering over a crescent beach holding back the waters of the Andaman Sea. Easily one of the most idyllic locales of any standard, the Laem Phra Nang peninsula, home to some of the best sport routes in the world, is a veritable paradise for dirtbag climbers like me. This was my second trip here in as many years and I can’t imagine not coming back again. “When?” would be a question for another time. Now, I had to choose whether to link a second pitch by going left, up a steep headwall with the possibility to stem off a hundred foot long multi-pronged stalactite, or go right, and jug my way up tiny fin shaped tufas, stalactites, and pockets galore. To quote an oft misunderstood classic by my man Robert Frost, I chose the latter, and it “made all the difference.”
The first pitch of climbing that brought me to the junction at which I found myself was an enjoyable 5.10a route called “Climb of the Ancient Mariner” (big up to another literary homeboy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), up some seams in the giant tufa, featuring a crux traverse, just before pulling onto the ledge. The second pitch, the namesake of the Melting Wall where we were climbing, was a 5.10b/c called “Melting Pot”, and although short, it was possibly the raddest climb I’ve ever done. Reaching out with my right foot to a knob sticking out from the overhanging face, I peered up into the maze of potential sequences that would take me to the top. I leaned my body weight out onto that foot and I was off, curling my chalk covered hands into pockets, pinching fins, and laybacking off of small stalactites that rang like steel drums as I slapped onto them, all the while keeping my feet on the wall with a core that was quickly fading. Although this type of climbing doesn’t necessarily pump out your hand strength, it takes the wind out of you, because of the different muscle groups used in pulling your body weight up an overhanging face, this one going at about 75 degrees. Just as my exhaustion was about to give way to a lead fall, a hole appeared in the massive stalactite on my left. I pulled over to it and leaned back against the undulating monolith for a timely no-hands rest. Looking down at Jenna, belaying me a hundred feet below, I let out a whoop to let her know all was good up here and that I just needed a short breather.
Huffing in the thick tropical air for a moment, I gathered myself before pushing upward. Unlike some of my climbing buddies who lack the instinctual fear of falling and “just go for it”, I tend to be a bit more methodical. If they are monkeys climbing up a wall, I’m a sloth. But there are times in every athlete’s life when his doubt fades to the background and a sixth sense takes over, making normally arduous tasks effortless, as if he were “one” with the field of play, his teammates and opponents, the ball, or in this case, the wall. Swinging up from hold to hold, I too had reached that state of flow, where everything became easy in spite of hanging backward off a wall hundreds of feet above the sea stretched out below me. As I clipped into the anchor at the top, I released two months worth of pent up climbing hunger in one halcyonic breath – I was in Tonsai.
The next four days of climbing were highlighted by more memorable and meaningful lines. Our second day took us to Wee’s Present, a slightly overhanging wall en route to the Thaiwand, one of the biggest and best walls in Thailand. Facing a rainout on the Thaiwand, we did some fun routes at Wee’s. The final and best climb of the day was fittingly called “Ling Rong Hei” (“Monkeys Crying”), which goes at 5.10c. As I approached the crux of the climb, requiring an awkward transition from a tufa seam to face crimping on sharp rock, monkeys began jumping from tree to tree all around me. Partly from exhaustion and partly just wanting to watch the monkeys do their thing, I allowed myself to take and hang there for a few minutes to watch generations of the troop¹ effortlessly scale trunks and traverse branches, swinging from bough to vine, all without a seeming care in the world. And here I was, hang-dogging it on a 10c line. Spurred on by the primate patronization, I climbed the rest of the route clean, finishing on a bouldery set of overhung moves through the last three bolts. As I lowered from the route, I noticed that my elbows were dripping like the stalactites I was climbing under; then I looked at my clothes. I was completely soaked.
We took the next day off from climbing, as we moved our home base from the rustic charm of Andaman Nature Resort ($4/night) in Tonsai to a four-star place just one beach over called Railay Princess Resort and Spa, which to us was luxury for a bargain ($37/night). This brought us closer to the furthest crag from Tonsai, Escher World, which looks over the Xanadu that is Phra Nang Beach. Since catching a glimpse of it last year, I had wanted to come back to go for the on-sight of the “Best Route in Minnesota”, a supposed four-star 5.11 classic up an arete inside a cave. From the looks of it, the crux appeared to be down low between the first and second bolts, and I figured that if I could just get past that, I’d have relatively clear sailing to the top. Boy, was I wrong. After a minute of working it out, I nailed the crux move, but the further up the route I went, the more polished and slimy it became. Two bolts from the top, having taken a significant fall a few bolts earlier (deadpointing to a chalked up sloper) and lacking the confidence to trust my hands or feet on the slick, rounded features, I bailed. Dejected and nearly badly injured from a big swing into an adjacent boulder after back-cleaning the bottom draw, I cursed the route and all those who called it a classic line. This is often my reaction to so-called “classic lines.” Somehow or another, certain climbs develop a reputation as being of the highest quality and no one in the climbing community wants to rebuke the trend. The higher the notoriety, the more the routes are climbed, the more holds are pulled off, and the harder the routes become, further cementing their standing as test pieces. In this way, the climb “Minnesota” may have been too good, attracting too many climbers, polishing it into oblivion, and shattering my hopes for my first 5.11 onsite. Having penciled this into my to-do list for over a year, I was obviously crushed. But I had a backup plan.
Down the hill, across the beach, and over a small channel lays Happy Island, a karst formation that reveals a small beach at low tide. Packing up our gear and heading across the water, I hoped that the climb, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” would be a fittingly mellow endeavor after the flail fest of frustration that had just ensued. With the tide coming in slowly, Jenna and I were able to walk out to Happy Island with the water barely soaking the bottoms of our shorts. Checking out the guidebook, we approached the overhanging start, parts of it still dripping wet from earlier rains. Jenna gave it one look and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m not trying to climb that thing.”
I had a different take on it. Once I cleared the slimey roof, the climbing above looked fairly straightforward. And if not, I tried to embody the name of the climb, thinking, “What’s another bail beaner to the wall?” This time, as expected, the hard start did give way to easier climbing above. As I made my way up from tufa to tufa, Jenna’s form below got smaller and smaller and the beach and surrounding cliffs took on a whole new form. The climbing was very good; the location was unbeatable. Did this make up for the last climb? In a way it did. But it also taught me that whether you achieve a goal or not, it’s the journey that’s important, more so than the destination. In this way, I better understand that as critical as goals may be, so too is practicing acceptance and being open to changing my attitudes, plans, and direction when things change…or become egregiously polished.
Our last two days on the peninsula took us to Railay East to climb at the perpetually busy (because tours go there) 1-2-3 and Muay Thai Walls. I sent my hardest on-sight of the week on the 5.10d, “Muay Thai”, while Jenna notched her first 5.10 ascent on limestone on “Ramazon”. There were so many other incredible climbs over the course of our week in Laem Phra Nang that deserve mention, from the campus start up a low hanging stalactite on “We Sad”, to the airy finish up an overhanging fin on “Bad Boy”, to “Groove Tube”, a moderate classic fully deserving of its status. And we left many, many more for next time – Thaiwand, I’m coming for ya!
I understand that this place may not be for everyone. Those who covet backcountry solitude will have trouble finding it here as the hum of longtail boats can be heard at points throughout the day and in the high dry season, crowds surge. Moderate and trad lines are hard to come by and generally pale in comparison to the better sport routes here. And if you don’t like climbing on limestone, some of which happens to be badly polished, sorry Charlie!
Its imperfections aside, Tonsai (aka Railay, aka Krabi, aka Laem Phra Nang), might as well be called Shangri-la for sport climbers the world over. The quality, length, and unique characteristics of so many of the climbs here alone would place it high on any enthusiast’s list. Add to that three stunning beaches, scenic beauty only seen in a handful of other places in the world, and a wide variety of non-climbing activities for rest days, and it’s even more attractive to even the most pedestrian among us. With cheap gear rental (We paid only $100 for a full set of gear for two people for five days!), to inexpensive accommodations of all types, to chill island vibes, this place was hard to leave. It’s been two months since our road trip through seven different climbing areas in the mountain west, and for as exhilarating a desert crack up a tower at sunset may be, I’ll take Tonsai.
¹ A group of monkeys is called a troop.
LOW SEASON vs HIGH IN TONSAI
On our way back home, we decided to stop again in Tonsai to get in a few more climbs. This time, it was the tail end of high season. What follows here is a postscript on our second (and my third) trip to Tonsai and how it is different during the busy season.
The longtail cut through the liquid blackness as its engine churned the water of the Andaman sea into a foaming wake behind us. A humid wind in my face and the outline of the cliffs of the Phra-Nang peninsula rising before us, an unbridled excited came over me, as it had twice before. Goosebumps rose on my forearms and legs and my heart sped up; my throat clenched, as the prospect of climbing here in Tonsai again became a reality. One of my favorite places in the world, the climbing Mecca of Tonsai is home to many a limestone crag, spartan bungalow, and varying numbers of dirtbag climbers, like us. But this trip to Tonsai was just a bit different from what we’d experienced there only a few months ago.
As our plane touched down in Krabi, I was nervous that there wouldn’t be enough people to warrant a shuttle from the airport to the Ao Nang pier, but there were plenty going in that direction. Then, I was concerned that we wouldn’t have enough people to afford a boat to Tonsai that night, but the group on our minibus alone was easily big enough to depart upon arrival. The last piece in the puzzle to fall into place was our accommodations. We planned to check into Andaman Nature Resort, a collection of simple shacks up a path in the jungle. Would reception still be open to check us in at 9:00 pm? When we arrived in similar fashion back in September, there was no one at the reception desk and all the lights were out. I had to walk down the jungle path and find someone to give us a key to one of the bungalows. As we approached Andaman’s this time, it was clear that they were still open – guests occupied nearly every table in the usually abandoned restaurant. Our concern changed from whether they would be open to if they would even have room for us! Last time, shacks cost only 150 baht ($4.50), now, they were 300 baht, which is still a deal, considering it’s less than $10 for two people. But I could tell, something was different about Tonsai. This time around, it was high season.
After a night in Tonsai, we moved to the Railay side of the peninsula, as it is home to more easy-moderate climbs. We were hoping to stay at the Princess Resort & Spa like we did last time, a four-star place with superfast wifi and a banging breakfast. But alas, given the season, pretty much all the hotels had doubled in price since last time, so we opted for the cheaper Anyavee, a mid-range resort down the street. For almost the same price as we paid to stay at the Princess last time, we got a room that was not as nice and no breakfast. Then, after three nights there, we had to rebook at an even higher rate – 65% more than the Agoda price! Eventually, we sucked it up and moved back to Tonsai, settling into the brand new (yet reasonably priced) Tonsai Bay Resort. Our accommodations, though decent, were definitely a step down from last time. The reason? Higher prices…driven by higher demand.
After a rest day, our friend Emily came down to visit us from Bangkok, which meant a couple days of strolling the beaches and soaking in the priceless views from the area’s three best beaches. But looking out over Railay Beach, it was quickly apparent that there was a lot more skin on the sand than last time. Crowds of longtails, each with an engine screaming like a Honda Civic sans muffler, brought tourists in by the dozen, some wheeling their massive cube-shaped luggage laboriously along the beach. The beaches that in visits past we’d shared with only a few other people were saddled with factors more, making a magical place a bit less so. Phra Nang Beach was just as packed, as tourists flocked there from neighboring islands and the mainland, given its esteem as one of Thailand’s most beautiful beaches. And the cast-away of the bunch, Tonsai Beach, was really the only one that was somewhat chill, but even it had people on it, unlike the off-season, when you can have its imperfection all to yourself. The crowds not only tarnished the luster of the beaches, but they increased our wait time for food and climbing. Once, we had to abandon a crag (along with about a dozen other prospectors) because it was just too crowded (and the people just too inconsiderate). The wait times, the endless and ear-splitting buzzing of the longtails (making it difficult to communicate on climbs), and the herds of tourists at the beaches all took away from the classic Tonsai experience for me. The problem: Too many people!
Aside from the increased costs and crowds, the climbing is still amazing and we were able to find a handful of new crags to explore, many of which revealed a surprising number of moderate to intermediate climbs. Our first destination was the oft-inaccessible Eagle Wall, which is only reachable at low tide or via boat. We climbed there our first two days and enjoyed some extremely long (35+ meters) moderate routes. My last, and hardest, climb of day two proved consequential…in a bad way. I fell 25 feet while clipping at the crux, lifting Jenna into the air and crashing her into the rock as she caught me with her belay. Sadly, her foot was cut open pretty badly from the impact and she was unable to climb any more the rest of the week. Nevertheless, she remained in high spirits as we laid low the next few days, chilling with friends, letting her foot recover.
Our last three days in Tonsai took us to three new walls and more incredible climbs. We first explored a crag set deep in the jungle called Gibbon Roof, where at we were fiercely attacked by mosquitoes, but saw monkeys acrobatically dancing high in the trees all around us. It was here that I climbed my favorite new route of Tonsai 2017 – Infected Mushroom, a 5.10c, that goes up an overhang, featuring a wide variety of (movements) and amazing holds just when you need them between big moves. Next, we moved to one of the areas jewels, the Thaiwand, mostly to climb the classic, Monkey Love, a 5.10c with some unusual movements enroute to a crux traverse up and over a massive stalactite. The second half of Monkey Love is easily classic material but I preferred Fit to be Thai’d, a 5.10b, that has serious exposure given the ladder and rope assisted approach further up the cliff face.
Our final day in Tonsai took us to three walls, the first of which was Cobra Wall – most easily accessible at low tide. Since it was high tide, we figured it would be empty there. But when we arrived, the crag was crowded like a climbing gym, with a group of French climbers hogging all the moderate routes. I climbed a 5.10d and 5.11a, but after waiting an hour for the other climbers to prescribe to common climbing etiquette, we left for more open pastures. We came to Melting Wall to climb one of my all-time favorites, Melting Pot, featuring what I believe to be the best 40 feet of 5.10 climbing ever. Wanting to cram one more onsight into the day, we stopped at the ever popular Fire Wall just as dusk was setting in. As the light faded, I climbed faster and faster up the 5.10c Boob Tube, topping out in near complete darkness.
Despite the higher costs, fewer options for accommodations, increased noise pollution, and incessant crowds, we had a really nice time in Tonsai, once again. We met up with some old friends there, and made some new ones, re-did some classic climbs and were taken by some new favorites, and got to experience the area in a different light – with the hue of high season fading into the distance. Bear in mind, we were there at the tail end of the peak tourism season (shoulder season, as it’s called), so I can only imagine the prices and crowds a couple months earlier. Why do people flock there in the winter? The weather – it rains less during high season than at any other time of year. However, in the two weeks we’ve been there in off season (late June, 2015 and early September, 2016), we were only rained out of climbing for half a day. Our conclusion: Come to Tonsai in the off season! You’ll have it almost all to yourself.