Thailand: Rock Climbing in Paradise

Limestone cliffs towering above a remote beach provide the ultimate escape.

March 2, 2010— -- It was a hot morning -- the type of day where the sun melts the ice in your umbrella drink before you can gulp it down.

Good thing I didn't have a drink.

Instead of sitting on the beach of this tropical paradise, I had decided to spend the last day of my vacation dangling on a sharp rock ledge 15 stories above the beach. A rope and my guide below were the only things preventing catastrophe should I slip.

I had come to Railay Beach, on the southern coast of Thailand along the Andaman Sea, to relax for a few days after trekking through Southeastern Asia.

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I had planned to go sea kayaking, snorkeling, swimming and enjoy the amazing beaches and plenty of waterfront shacks serving drinks. (All things I managed to accomplish.) But the real draw to this seemingly-remote beach community was the limestone cliffs rising out of the sea. They created a phenomenal backdrop that left me constantly wondering: where am I?

Then I learned that the cliffs were one of the top rock climbing destinations in the world. Soon I found myself roaming the rows of waterfront stands, investigating rock climbing tours.

Some establishments seemed a bit fly-by-night … I mean would you really trust your life to a rock climbing outfitter that also doubled as an Internet cafe? I guess it was better than the restaurant next door that also offered to do laundry by the pound. You can only hope they used separate pots.

Rock Climbing in Thailand

Other outfitters had been around for decades and seemed a bit more legitimate and I soon found myself signing up for a half-day of climbing. There was no better way, I figured, to end my vacation.

For less than $20, I got a morning of climbing, gear rental, insurance and a guide.

Having climbed in the United States for 15 years, I was a bit shocked by the lack of safety gear. For instance, I am used to always climbing with a helmet. Here, my outfitter had a row of helmets but didn't find it necessary to take them off their dusty shelf.

But overall, the guides were very professional and kept everybody in my group safe. It was just pretty clear that they weren't worried about a team of lawyers coming after them if an accident were to happen.

There are nearly 500 bolted routes around Railay Beach's cliffs. They range from the first-time beginner to some really advanced stuff. My group of three guides and a dozen fellow climbers was a mix of skill levels.

One of the best parts of the climb was actually bonding with this group of international travelers that included two Swedes, an English woman, a U.S. Marine stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar and two Australians in town for a wedding. There were a lot of jokes about what would happen if the best man took a bad fall.

We headed out to a climb on the east side of the beach and almost immediately one of the guides was scurrying up the rock wall to set up the ropes. He made it look so effortless. The course was set up and it was now our turn.

Beach Provides Personal Paradise

Nobody in my group wanted to go first so I volunteered. Maybe their understanding of Darwin was better than mine?

I ran the climbing rope through my harness, tied a figure-eight knot and threw some chalk on my hands. My guide gave a quick -- almost too quick -- look at my knot and sent me on my way.

I started my assent and almost immediately was hit by the hot tropical air. The sun hadn't even started to warm the rocks yet and I was already dripping sweat.

The higher I climbed the more alone I felt. But still when I needed help my fellow climbers were there for me. At one point, I flailed around trying to find a good grip. After a few failed attempts, a chorus of voices in multiple languages and accents shouted up to me, directing me.

A few more steps, a scraped leg here and a bruise there and I was at the top.

I paused momentarily, caught my breath and took in the view. It was an amazing vista; the stuff that postcard creators dream about and a perfect last image for my vacation.

The easiest way to get to Railay Beach is by flying from Bangkok to Krabi. Several airlines, including Thailand's national carrier Thai Airways and discounter Air Asia, serve the airport. For a few dollars, a longtail boat will take you to Railay Beach, which while technically part of the mainland, is a virtual island thanks to the large cliffs making it only accessible by boat. Countless rock climbing outfitters can be found in Krabi town or along the beach.