Dreamers hoping to climb in Thailand often imagine the seaside cliffs and mid-ocean karsts of the Phra Nang Peninsula. The jungle-topped limestone boasts features reminiscent of melting wax, including stalagmites and stalactites. But most aren't considered living and thus aren't protected from human contact as they would be in their more typical cave environment. This promise of unique routes in a pristine setting is ultimately what drew us to the country's Andaman Coast.
The Phra Nang Peninsula, also referred to by the names of its popular beaches, Railay and Tonsai, stretches into the turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea. Though technically attached to the mainland, the very cliffs you'll climb keep this prize spot unreachable by road. You'll have to hail a long-tail boat from Ao Nang and, depending on the tide, may end up wading or rock-hopping to the shore.
|Long-tail boats at Ao Nang.|
If you're a climber, you're probably headed to the Phra Nang Peninsula because it's a mecca. So we'll start with the routes. Because the cragging in Railay/Tonsai simply doesn't disappoint. The cliffs literally butt up against the beach and the shore. And thanks to the wild interaction of the limestone with jungle plants, complex soils and high humidity through the rocks, you'll get to pull on pockets, handles and tufas galore!
|It was like climbing the inside of a cave, but outside!|
|Stacey on Groove Tube (officially graded 5.10a, |
but Mountain Project consensus puts it at 5.9-)
We really enjoyed some of the area's classic moderates, especially Groove Tube (the first pitch) and all the routes on Cobra Wall.
But in reality, if you're not a confident 5.10 leader, you won't have a ton of options in Railay/Tonsai. This place is world-class, and we had a great trip, but it's probably more fun if you're into super steep, powerful climbing and comfortable dealing with and assessing unfamiliar protection.
In short, safety is a real concern as the conditions significantly degrade the traditional steel bolts. Re-bolting efforts that use more appropriate materials are well underway, but they're not yet complete. So, if you're even considering climbing on the Phra Nang Peninsula, definitely follow The Thaitanium Project and get updates at Basecamp Tonsai or another reputable shop when you arrive. Basecamp has a great wall displaying safe and unsafe bolts to give you an idea of what to look for. And just know that some of the routes (for example, Groove Tube), have foregone bolts altogether in favor of pieces of webbing or climbing rope strung through the huecos. This type of protection can be quite safe, but always always check its condition just as you would a bolt you're about to clip. If you're not comfortable identifying safety issues, get some more experience climbing outside with a mentor in a better regulated spot first.
But even if you're not the most experienced or confident outdoor climber, don't write Railay/Tonsai off your list. Even if you've never climbed outside before, don't write Railay/Tonsai off your list. The sublime setting stands alone. Some reputable guides can get you up the routes safely (we recommend Basecamp Tonsai because we had a good experience with them, but ask around on the peninsula for others locals speak highly of). And if you're willing to try the sport without ropes, you can give deep water soloing (DWS) a go.
|Deep water soloing (DWS) off the Phra Nang Peninsula|
The first spot teemed with other climbing groups, so didn't provide much in the sense of atmosphere but it was still beautiful. And the climbs there felt more like actual routes. While the second karst offered more seclusion, Mike described it more as cliff jumping than actual DWS. The excursion included shoes (so we didn't need to ruin our own), boat transport, a route map and lunch in a beautiful (but crowded) lagoon.
|The short hike rewarded with a beautiful view of the peninsula.|
The food on the peninsula is decent, though compared to the north we found it relatively dull and too tourist-oriented. And while we didn't get sick, we were warned to be extra cautious about meat-related stomach bugs since many restaurants lose power during the day.
Culturally, this part of the country didn't really feel like Thailand. Whereas Crazy Horse Buttress has become a local crag with a deliberate ethos of being part of a community, Tonsai has created its own world. The only Thais we encountered worked in the tourism industry so much of the character we'd loved on the first ten days of our trip suddenly disappeared. No markets, no Thai locals eating in restaurants. And a fair amount of partying. But the international climbing scene is redemptive on its own merits. We enjoyed hearing so many languages at the crags and being part of a shared passion.
|A yawning macaque highlights why it's worth staying on their good side.|
This guy got a bit too close for my comfort. Look at those canines!