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 an outline of the cliffs of the Phra-Nang peninsula rising before us, unbridled excited came over me, as it had twice before.  Goosebumps rose on my forearms 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.  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 – 60% 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 escaped the Tonsai pull in favor of Railay and one of the areas jewels, the Thaiwand, mostly to climb the classic, Monkey Love, a 5.10c with some unusual sequences 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 crags, 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 fled for more open pastures.  Landing at Melting Wall, we climbed one of my all-time favorites, Melting Pot, featuring what I believe to be the best 40 feet of 5.10 climbing ever, up a slight overhang, jugging up and stemming out on crazy stalactites.  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.

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Cool tree near Eagle Wall
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Jenna stemming up Spiderman 5.10a
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Baby Macaque suckling on mama
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Macaque on the way to Phra Nang Beach
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Phra Nang Beach
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East Railay from the viewpoint
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Hidden lagoon…there are now ladders to get down and up!
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Me at Railay Beach with Tiger Wall in the background
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Railay West Beach
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Sunset from Railay Beach
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Tonsai Wall lit up at dusk and some longtails
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Stemming up an overhang on stalactite jugs on Melting Pot
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Climb of the Ancient Mariner

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