Thailand: Hanging Over Tonsai Bay

Rock Climbing in Thailand: Scaling the Limestone in Tonsai, Krabi

By Eloise Horsfield

A rock climber hangs over Tonsai Bay, Thailand. Eloise Horsfeld photos.
A rock climber hangs over Tonsai Bay, Thailand. Eloise Horsfield photos.

My first challenge is to cross from dirt path to crag in flip flops without tumbling into the leafy precipice.

And now, having admired a jaw-slacking view of beach, bay, and hunky men – because all men who rock climb are hunky – I am harnessed and roped up, hanging off the near-vertical wall with my heart positioned firmly in my mouth.

Till today I’ve only ever climbed at an indoor gym wall in London. I am pleased as punch to be feeling the sun on my back in Tonsai, a paradise raved about by climbers all over the world for its gnarled stalactites, tufas and secret grottos in golden limestone.

Tonsai, sister destination to white-sand wedding spot Railay. Tonsai, a stone’s throw from Ko Phi Phi, a tropical haven immortalized on screen in 2000 in Danny Boyle’s The Beach.
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Rock climbing – on actual rocks

I’m not here for the scenery though. I’m here to climb. Yet how can I concentrate on where to place my feet when a glance over my shoulder reveals the most magnificent expanse of twinkling Andaman Sea? The climbing center cocoon is thousands of miles away now.

Its smooth, colorful, man-made handholds are a thing of the past. Here in Tonsai, I find only raw, unforgiving rock which will soon turn my fingertips to scouring pads and cover my knees in weeping cuts.

Tranquil Tonsai Bay, Thailand.
Tranquil Tonsai Bay, Thailand.

The sounds I have come to associate with climbing – drum ‘n’ bass beats, the whoosh of milk being steamed for coffee and metal equipment bashing into hardboard walls – are now replaced by light wind in the trees and the loud buzzing of longtail boats ferrying travelers in and out of a climber’s dreamland only accessible by sea.

Island vibe

OK, so it’s not ONLY accessible by sea – but no traveler in their right mind would cart their backpack for an hour and a half up the jungle path from Ao Nang, the nearest town.

No, the best and most practical solution (as long as you don’t mind wading in the water then hoisting your luggage into a bobbing bus-on-water) is to catch a longtail boat from Ao Nang shore. That way you arrive in Tonsai in perfect style, after a 10-minute sea journey taking in paradisiacal views of your new surroundings.

This seclusion certainly creates in Tonsai a feeling you are somewhere fairly isolated, and more than a little bit special. No cars. No roads. Nobody who has arrived here by accident. A hidden place where everyone here has come with one mission – to climb rocks.

Busy climb-table

Over the next ten days, my hunky friends and I meet early for breakfasts of sticky rice with mango, or salty, nutty pad thai, then lug our quick-draws, carabiners and chalk bags to bolted walls we find listed in our climbing guide book.

Cheap accommodations in Tonsai: Banyan Tree Bungalows.
Cheap accommodations in Tonsai: Banyan Tree Bungalows.

To my delight, all the spots we climb are either directly on the beach, by the beach, above the beach (particularly fun at high tide) or around the corner from the beach.

On more than one occasion we are joined at the cliffside by cheeky local monkeys, who to our embarrassment climb a darned sight better than any of us. These primates don’t think twice about rooting through our rucksacks for any scraps of food – or in one case an entire chunk of chocolate cake – which may be inside.

Sometimes we take the rocky forest path from Tonsai to Railay in search of new crags. This walk leaves us sweaty and panting – especially the poor sod carrying the rope.

In Railay, we push on past the honeymooners and topless sunbathers and are occasionally reprimanded for trespassing on posh hotels.

Another morning we charter a boat to a nearby jungle, where we are devoured by bugs as we snack on banana bread between routes, despite strategically-placed mosquito coils.

Captivated with the new dimension the great outdoors brings to my climbing, finally one afternoon I emit my first-ever climber’s grunt completely spontaneously as I muster up all my might to heave myself to the last hold.

A ballsey monkey.
A ballsy monkey.

Rest days

Some days we leave the ropes at home and laze about on the beach or enjoy a Thai massage. One day, for a change, we decide to try out some deep water soloing. We’re taken in a boat to waterside crags, where we ascend the rock freestyle then drop into the sea when we’ve either completed the route, made a critical blunder – or simply become too petrified to continue upwards.

“Jumping in from anything over 10 meters can be seriously dangerous if you don’t do it properly,” we are warned during our pep talk. I quickly discover I have an undeniable fear jumping into the water – manifested by woozy legs and palpitations – and spend most of the day in the boat marveling at others who head fearlessly higher and higher in their soggy climbing shoes.

Another evening we go night snorkeling, where we plunge into the dark depths to admire the phosphorescence emitted by plankton, something everyone should experience once in their lifetime.

Railay ‘adventure’

One evening I amble over to Railey, Tonsai’s sister beach, at dusk. Cheap internet is calling; at Railay, it’s only one baht a minute. As I wander south along the beach, preparing to pick my way around the rocks at low tide, I cross one of my new traveler friends, Simon. “You’re going across to Railay now, are you?” he says. “Here, take my torch for the way back.”

The cliffs at Tonsai Bay.
The cliffs at Tonsai Bay.

In Tailay, I surf the web at a leisurely pace, only noticing the arrival of the night as I start my way back towards Tonsai.

The tide is now in – I’ve no option but to take the forest path. No problem, I think, taking Simon’s torch from my bag. I shine it along the rocks, find the track I’ve taken by daylight so many times before, and start to climb with the aid of a pre-placed rope.

The trail, which is pretty hard work by day, is a job to stay on by night. I’m sweating slightly, surprised at how physical each step is. I kick myself for not leaving Railay earlier and at the same time praise Simon for having the insight to lend me his torch.

Night terror

Then, the light flicker outs. Pitch black! My heart jumps as I realize the hairiness of my situation. Shall I head back to Railay and charter a longtail boat? I’ll be charged a fortune on my own, says my shoestring budget. No, I’ll keep going. And with a violent shake of the torch, the glow comes streaming back.

hanging over the bayI follow the path, not always 100% sure I’m still on it. It’s strangely overgrown for such a well-used track, I think. Twice I find myself in caves, dangerously close to the lapping waves below. The path is nowhere near any caves, a little voice in my head says. As I frantically seek the right way with a flickering torch, I stumble and bang my shins on the sharp rocks, leaving my leggings ripped and hot blood streaming down to my socks.

Each time I step forward, it’s lucky if I stay balanced – most attempts to progress result in awkward stumbles. My expensive silver bracelet is yanked off during one such fall, and I tut as it clatters down through the rocks. Then the torch battery goes flat. This time for good.

“HELP!” I scream. I think of my mother. I think about that bit in The Beach where Leonardo DiCaprio is almost shot for straying off the jungle path. What will become of me? Are there snakes here?!

Saved by the moon

Supplies can be found in Tonsai Bay Village.
Supplies can be found in Tonsai Bay Village.

After an hour of utter terror, the moon comes up and I can see again. Yes, it’s the moon that saves me. I stagger in the direction of Tonsai’s reggae beats, soon finding the path again. I cross a stoned traveler heading to a party in Railay and hurl myself into his arms in overzealous thanks.

My climbing friends will be so worried! I think. But no. I find them propping up our usual bar, hardly aware of my absence. They show slight interest at the extent of my scratches but are amused enough to give me a nickname: “You missed dinner, Jungle Jane,” says one.

They assure me they’d have come looking if it had got any later and laugh affectionately as I burst into tears once again, my emotions still controlled by shock.

Relaxing happy

And so the climbing bliss continues, and I don’t mind at all when my jungle scars are mistaken for climbing injuries. Each evening we head to Freedom Bar, supping Chang beer or bottles of sweetened soya milk through straws. Here we marvel as Swiss, US, German, or Australian climbers attempt multi-pitch routes extending high up the cliffs until way past nightfall.

And after showering and double portions of green, red or massaman curry we retire to our wooden bungalows – exhausted, aching and ready to do it all again at sunrise.

Details if You Want to Rock Climb in Tonsai

Climbing season: October to May (June to September is the rainy season)

Equipment rentals: Basecamp Tonsai

Accommodation: Banyan Tree Resort, Tonsai Bay

Beers: Freedom Bar

Climbing guide book: Rock Climbing in Thailand and Laos, Elke Schmitz, 2012

Deep water soloing trips: Basecamp Tonsai

Snorkeling: Scuba Talent Dive Center (Tonsai beach)

Eloise HorsfieldEloise Horsfield is a freelance writer from the UK.

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