Climbing In Thailand

Article by Toby Dunn
Friday 6th May 2011


It is a cool breezy morning for Thailand. The wind takes the edge off the air temperature, which is still around thirty degrees. I savour my bowl of muesli, fruit and yoghurt at a small roadside shack just behind the beach, looking out at the grounded long tail boats silhouetted against the Andaman Sea in the early morning light.

I sip the last of my mug of coffee and shove some bananas into my rucksack, handing the smiling lady in the shack a crumpled note in exchange for my breakfast. I meet my partners down by the morning's agreed warm up.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

Tonsai Bay 


There isn't another climbing venue that I know of where you can start a route off the balcony of a beach bar; and then climb a 40-foot high bamboo ladder before you touch any rock. There are, in fact, a huge number of unique facets of climbing in Thailand, no taking warm clothes to the crag: you'll be unlikely to need more than a t-shirt and board shorts. There aren't that many places where you occasionally have to give way to monkeys when climbing a route. There aren't that many climbing destinations, which are as laid back, sociable, and generally utterly easy to exist in as Tonsai.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

Sunset from Tonsai


Warmed up now, we wander down the beach to the chosen route for the morning. I climb the route in several sections first, to place the quickdraws and practice the moves. It feels sweaty and awkward, despite our early start. The temperature already feels as though it is rising steadily. Other climbers lope along the beach on their way to other sectors.

I lie back on my rope, stacked on a plastic beach mat to keep it off the sand, and wait for my redpoint turn. Al's screams of enthusiasm and frustration as he hurls himself at the final section of his project blend pleasantly with the insistent lap of waves on the beach as the tide creeps further up the beach towards our playground.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

Narsillion 7a 


The climbing in Thailand has many unexpected bonuses, one of which is the fact that many of the finest rock features are surmounted by some remarkably easy routes. The gnarled stalactites, and dribbly tufa that you may have photographs of tend to be on 6s and low 7s; pockets and crimps dominate the harder lines. One particularly memorable piece of rock is the third pitch of the magnificent five-pitch route, Lord of the Thais. It is grossly overhanging, and extremely exposed. The guidebook describes it like ‘clinging to the underside of a 747'; and high up in the centre of the Thaiwand Wall this may well be close to your experience. Anything but the biggest of jugs would render this pitch 8-something; however it is endowed with a trail of chunks of brain-like tufa stuck to the smooth steep wall like petrified cauliflowers sprouting from the rock. They provide such excellent holds that you can swing around gleefully in a pale imitation of the grace and ease of the monkeys in the trees far below.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

Tonsai roof scene


I brush as much sand as I can from the my feet and rock shoes, and yard through the initial roof on my route, trying to forget about the gaping holes in the ends of my rock shoes and pretend it won't make any difference. My fingers stab into a 3 finger pocket, and I wrap my left heel over the top of my left hand, trying to pull myself into the rock with my leg and stomach muscles.

My feet scrabble beneath me as I try to arrange them to make the crux lock for an inset letterbox-like jug hold. I stare at the smudged white tick mark that shows the way to the hold, hidden around a smooth bulge. My fingertip pads just tag the lip of the jug, and I can feel its rough edge gripping my skin. A quick nudge to wrap my finger around the hold, and I feel confident now.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

The author on a 7c tyrolean wall 


I know I find the rest of the ground ok despite the small holds, but still clench my teeth on each move and force myself to lock down harder, just to make sure. I clip the belay up by a hanging frond of foliage, and feel the thin breeze struggle to evaporate a film of sweat from my back. Longtail boat motors rasp and roar in the bay behind me. I take my tight shoes off as I am lowered back to the yellow sand and the smiles of my friends. The route is called Gaeng Som Pla, which in case your Thai is a bit rusty, means ‘sour fish curry'. Many of the routes on the Phra Nang peninsula have similar food - orientated names. The pioneers' obsession is understandable as soon as you experience the quality, and availability of extremely finely cooked Thai food within spitting distance of the crags. You hardly ever need to actually take any provisions to the cliff with you, as you can pop over to the nearest bar / café / restaurant  / minimart to sustain you whenever you fancy. On Tonsai roof, you could probably order a beer and a snack whilst belaying (or indeed climbing!).


Thailand: The Info

Climbing in Thailand - Google Earth Capture

Provided by Google Earth


The Basics


  • The Phra nang peninsula is in southern Thailand, in the Andaman sea. The nearest airport is Krabi; most international flights are taken to Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, followed by an hour short flight to Krabi.
  • From Bangkok, train (to Surat Tani or Trang) or bus (to Krabi) is also an option.
  • Once in Krabi, get yourself to Ao Nang in a shuttle bus or taxi, and then take a longtail boat out to Railay or Tonsai.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

Bhet Mak Mak 7c+ 




  • ‘Dry' season is December - February. However, this is the tropics, so in climbing terms although it is always really hot and humid, it can be a little less so around this time.
  • The dry season is also busier and more expensive, but the ‘scene' is great, especially around Christmas and New Year. If you like a quieter life, the off season may be more enjoyable.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

The typical jungle canopy around Tonsai 



  • Sport climbing, single and multi-pitch; deep water soloing and some bouldering.
  •  There are a very few traditional routes but you'd have to be very dedicated (or going somewhere else as well) to take a rack with you.
  • Grades: you'll probably want to be climbing at F6b to get much choice of crags and different routes (although there are plenty of very good easier lines).
  • Perhaps best range is 6c-7b. Much above this, the choice thins out dramatically, although, again there are many excellent routes - especially on Tonsai roof.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay




  • A single 60m rope and a rope tarp.
  • 14 quickdraws 
  • A couple of locking carabiners and slings for belays if you plan on doing multipitch routes.
  • Rock shoes should be a bit larger than you would wear in the UK, if you wear them at all tight as the temperature will mean your feet are more swollen and tender.
  • Spare rock shoes if you plan on DWS'ing.
  •  It is worth taking a lot of chalk; it is expensive and / or poor quality in the shops there.
  • Almost all crags are approachable in sandals.
  • A cotton or silk sleeping bag liner is as much insulation as you'll need at night.
  • A headtorch is useful.
  • Guidebooks are very easily available when there, or ‘Thailand' by Sam Lightner Jr is recommended, and readily available in the UK. As well as route info (which is a bit out of date now), this book has quite a bit of helpful advice on travel and culture in Thailand.


Accommodation and Food


Bungalows grouped around the Tonsai road are 150 baht upwards depending on quality and time of year. Around 300 baht for a basic bungalow with a double bed, mosquito net and a bathroom is about as cheap as you will get in the high season. You can pay more for air conditioning, or a concrete rather than bamboo hut.

You can also stay at Railay, which will be considerably more expensive, but there are much more luxurious options available.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay



Most of the eateries in Tonsai are really good, you'll discover your own favourites I'm sure. The Thai food is fresh, cheap and plentiful with plenty of fruit, vegetables and fish; and colourful, flavoursome curries, stir-fry's, soups and salads. Some restaurants also do barbecue, and various more Western dishes if you are craving these. About 250 baht will easily buy you breakfast, lunch and dinner at restaurants. Beer will up the daily budget a bit (50-80 baht a bottle) 


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Tonsai Bay

...and some drink.


Other hints and tips


  • Take plenty of antiseptic and first aid equipment; any cuts get infected very easily in the hot, humid environment. Many people rush to take antibiotics, although in reality they are probably not necessary as often as they are used. There is a pharmacy in Railay, and several in Ao Nang.
  •  Mosquitos: worst on crags in the jungle around 4pm - dark. Buy some coils and repellent out there. It is worth wearing long trousers in the evenings to minimise any bites.
  • Stomach problems: you might get some - drink bottled water, or filter the piped water properly. You could stick to well cooked food to minimise your risk of getting a bug, but I haven't had any problems.
  • Air out your climbing gear every evening to avoid harness, shoes etc starting to mould as they will get pretty damp from sweat and the humid atmosphere.
  • There are ATMs in Railay but not Tonsai. It's only a 20 minute walk between the resorts, but this is worth bearing in mind.
  • There are many climbing shops there, which sell all the usual gear and clothing. 





So many magical routes, but a few to get you started:


6a Groove Tube; the obligatory classic and is almost ladder-like, but ascends a fantastic vertical pipe feature and is only seconds from the beach.


6b+ Missing Snow; a favourite warm up of the Tyrolean sector, and consequently extremely polished, but this does not diminish its quality or the enjoyment factor. The variety of holds is amazing, including a couple of handlebar tufas. 


6c The Best route in Minnesota; I've never been to Minnesota, but this would be the best route in a lot of places. It features memorable, technical wall and arête climbing with a tricky start and then easier, but interesting movement all the way up the hourglass feature on Escher Wall. As another bonus, the route is always in the shade.


7a The Narsillion; go to Low Tide wall. It's a long walk (by Tonsai standards!) but this route alone is worth it. You'll find perfect holds, up a beautiful wall, above a deserted beach. The Narsillion is a real desert island route.


7b Cross Eyed; High up in the trees at Fire Wall, Cross Eyed starts up an unassuming slab from a muddy clearing in the jungle. It surges up the impending wall above by a variety of pumpy, physical and at times deeply unobvious movement. Clip the chains with relief, mop the sweat from your brow and turn around to watch the late afternoon light turn orange across Tonsai bay. Listen to the hoots and crashes of monkeys in the trees below, and think about getting down to the bar for a cold beer before the jungle fills with clouds of mosquitos.


Toby Dunn - Climbing in Thailand. Gaeng Som Pla 7c+ 

The author on Gaeng Som Pla 7c+


7c Exodus Apparently named for the exodus after the boxing day 2004 tsunami, this excellent route threads up a pocketed crack line up on Marley Wall. A short thrash through some remarkably spiky undergrowth leads you to an oasis of superb, white stone. Exodus plays host to some remarkably sloping holds, an exciting prospect, as the prevailing Thai climbing conditions don't exactly lend themselves to optimum friction! Fortunately, there are enough pockets and footholds to keep the climbing at a reasonable level all the way.


8a+ Asia Shadow Play Although the route follows a blank wall, it is a superb line. On close inspection, it follows the faintest of grooves up the blankest, most inspiring piece of wall on Dum's Kitchen. It starts off a huge boulder, where Tonsai beach meets the jungle and climbs to a hanging stalactite about seventy feet above via a series of pockets, thin crimps, and a welded tufa jug which provides a brief respite. It is disarmingly reasonable in difficulty, until you attack the final few moves having climbed all the way from the ground, when reasonable is unlikely to be the first thing on your mind.

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Krabi tips - 06/05/2011
After a few memorable trips to Krabi there are a couple of things I would add: Effective rubbish management is a problem for lots of places in Tonsai. You're going to drink a lot of water there so try to get it from the shops where they have a dispenser rather than buying plastic bottles every day. Take some strong antibiotics in case of stomach infections. One trip there it seemed that about 60% of people got sick over the course of two weeks and it seemed to just spread around Tonsai from one person to the next. If you're going over Christmas it might be worth paying a bit extra for the first couple of days and booking online. It gets packed out and a lot of places will charge you extra for the compulsory Christmas party. If you get a guide or an instructor make sure they are not stoned. There are lots of good guides/instructors there but some are a bit too into the rasta image. Best roast chicken and green papaya salad is on the track leading away from the beach at the eastern end of Tonsai. That and a Singha on the beach is the perfect way to round the day off
Mr Fun - 08/10/2011
What a lame experince , who doesn't want a stoned guide , come on dude its not straighto town!!!

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