Long cold winters in Canada make the opportunities for rock climbing few and far between. The last several years my girlfriend and I have jumped in our camper and driven to the Desert Southwest; however this year we decided we wanted a different experience and headed to Southern Thailand.
The more you research about climbing in Thailand, the more it sounds like paradise; beautiful beaches, warm temperatures, short approaches, and an abundance of gorgeous limestone cliffs. As a climber, what more could you want? It is these reasons that keep a steady flow of climbers coming to areas such as Ton Sai in South West Thailand year after year. For some, it is a yearly pilgrimage, and for others, it is a month-long stop on their South East Asia Climbing Tour. However, it is a bit harder to experience paradise when everyone else is crowding in with the same hopes and expectations.
Maybe being a weekday climber in the Canadian Rockies is the reason I have been afforded numerous days over the past several years without running into another human, let alone another climbing party, but that indeed was not the case in Ton Sai. Ton Sai has a reputation for being one of the best climbing locations in the world, and rightfully so, this also makes it one of the busiest climbing destinations in the world too. If you are travelling from North America this winter to visit a climbing paradise, here are several understated options located very close to Ton Sai that might help you experience a quieter and more local feel.
The Keep is one of the farthest crags from the masses climbing on the beach in Ton Sai. This may be one of the reasons it is also one of the quieter crags as well. Located approximately 45 minutes to an hour walk from Ton Sai, The Keep is home to some of the best 5.11- climbs in the area. Approaching The Keep is slightly adventurous too, at least compared to walking across the beach. There is a slot that you have to shimmy across and down climb before reaching the base of the routes and the approach times can vary depending on if you are approaching in flip-flops or approach shoes.
Situated high above the water with views across East Railey, The Keep is not a beginners crag but indeed not hard compared to some of the other crags in the area. Here you find a variety of vertical climbs on high-quality rock. There are several outstanding climbs in the 5.11 range that are well bolted with titanium bolts.
Another great thing about The Keep is that the routes do not feel polished like many of the other climbs in the area. If you are not climbing multi-pitch routes while visiting Ton Sai, then The Keep is one of the best bets for views and possibly a breeze too. The wall goes into the shade in the afternoon and is a great place to head if you are looking for fun climbs, afternoon shade, no line-ups and excellent views.
Koh Lao Liang
If you are looking for peace and solace, then this is the place. Koh Lao Liang is precisely what you want Thailand to be, primarily your own private island in the Andaman Sea with a pristine beach and 1 minute approach times. What could be better?
Located in the Phetra National Marine Park, Koh Lao Liang is a set of two islands about an hour from shore. The smaller of the two islands is where the climbing has been developed and the location of the private resort
The island is all-inclusive and is slightly more expensive compared to some of the cheaper accommodations in Thailand, but the experience of visiting Lao Liang is priceless. There are approximately 30 tents on the island that sleep two, along with staff for the resort and that is what makes up the population of the island. Wake up for sunrise, and you’ll likely be alone on the beach. Not everyone that visits Lao Liang is a climber, there are backpackers, other adventures, and some visiting Thais too.
One of the more significant hits on the island is the bar on the beach. Most evenings you can find several of the island staff enjoying the night with island visitors. If you take a day off from climbing, then you couldn’t find a better location for a rest day. Kayaking around the island is phenomenal, and there is snorkel gear available too. It takes around an hour to kayak around the island, but if there is any wind, it may not be as restful as you want.
The climbing on the island is fantastic, there is something for everyone except for the strongest of climbers. Literally, the approaches range from 30 seconds to 2 minutes from your tent. Forget something you need? No problem, run back to your tent, grab it and be back on lead within 2 minutes. This is the type of approach you dream of, soft sand, seconds from the tent along a beautiful island beach.
The Bay is the closest wall to the tents, it is less than a minute approach and hosts climbs ranging from 5.10c to 5.12c. There are many fun and entertaining routes a little farther down the beach at Ocean Wall, again the grades range from 5.10b to 5.12c with more than a few climbs involving 3D climbing using tufas. There are several multi-pitch climbs on the island, but many of them require a 70m rope for descent. The main attraction of Lao Liang is Red Wall with its excellent rock quality, definitely check out The Golden Triangle (5.11c) but make sure you plan on climbing it when the tide is out.
Not to be missed is the 2 pitch line ‘House of the Rising Sun’. It goes at 5.10d, and if you do a little extra climbing at the end, you exit through a hole in the top of the island into a pristine, untouched jungle environment.
If you plan to visit Lao Liang, take some time beforehand and research bird’s nest soup collectors and learn a little about this unique and lucrative activity which is located on the opposite side of the island.
The relatively easy access, smaller group of climbers and a large selection of quality routes should make Chong Phli a stop on your South Thailand tour. The crag also known as Spirit Mountain is deservedly one of the more popular destinations on the mainland in Southern Thailand.
The development of this wall is relatively new compared to some of the other areas in Thailand, and the route developers have taken the lessons learned from the corrosion happening at other crags and applied those lessons at Chong Phli using titanium bolts and fixed equipment from the start.
If you are looking for a crag that is more diverse than others nearby, this is it. Some people commute to Chong Phli from Ton Sai via Longtail boat and then rent a scooter, but another great option is to stay in Ao Nang or, for a more laid-back experience stay right at the climbing area in the bungalows that are a quick walk from the climbing. The cottages at the base are run by the same group that takes care of the bookings for Lao Liang so you can coordinate both at the same time. The crag goes into the sun somewhere between 12:30pm – 2:30pm depending on the time of year you are visiting which in Thailand typically means the climbing day is over but if you rent a scooter to visit Chong Phli this means that you now have the rest of the afternoon to explore the surrounding area.
Assuming you will be climbing in the Ton Sai area before visiting Chong Phli, you may find laying your rope tarp down in the grass a little different than the sandy beach that you have likely become accustomed to. Buzzsaw (5.10d) and Seesaw (5.11a) represent just two climbs at Chong Phli where the climbing is a little more diverse on holds that feel less in-cut and not as positive as some of the other ocean side crags nearby.
Chong Phli is a welcome change, offering a quiet mainland climbing option that is different from the line-ups and crowds at Ton Sai. If you choose to visit on a scooter, then you should take the time to explore the local area as well. There is a large grocery store called Tesco nearby that could end up saving you some money on your food budget, or you can head over to the Starbucks in Ao Nang if you are feeling like blowing that budget on a coffee. A trip to Krabi and the giant staircase that is known as Tiger Temple is a great way to explore a less touristy area and some of the culture nearby.
This story was my first Feature Article in Gripped Magazine, you can see it here.