Climbing in Thailand: A Journey through South East Asia

Thailand has been well known to climbers for many years thanks to its stunning rock and tropical paradise locations. There are lots of wonderful climbing areas spread throughout the country, and there is definitely a lot more to Thai climbing than Tonsai and Railay alone. Climbing aside, Thailand is very popular with travellers and holidaymakers, being the most visited country in South East Asia. While some places can get overcrowded, what shines through is the warmth and kindness of the Thai people, who remain incredibly welcoming. We made our way into Thailand overland from Malaysia, and traveled up through the country before crossing the border into Laos. The climbing areas below will be discussed in the order we visited them, of course there are many other areas in Thailand we didn’t visit. We chose the areas we did based on the quality, quantity and location of the routes and we thought all of the areas we visited were really good.

Masses of limestone cliffs erupting out of the sea
Stunning rock and location near Koh Ya Wa Sam

Guidebooks for Climbing in Thailand

Thailand has several different guidebooks and several editions of those books exist, it is a little confusing trying to find one book to rule them all. The next problem is finding the book available to buy, as they always seem to be sold out and some are potentially out of print. The two most obvious choices are the ‘Thailand Route Guidebook’ by King Climbers and ‘Rock Climbing in Thailand and Laos’ by Eike Schmitz. There are several other topos produced for the Krabi climbing area, but these books are better for those climbing in Northern Thailand as well.

Boat alongside a tall grey limestone cliff with a steep under cut bottom which is dripping with tufas. In the background is the tall orange and grey of Ao Nang Tower standing alone in the sea
Impressive rock between Tonsai and Ao Nang

We searched high and low, but couldn’t get our hands on either of these books. We were lucky enough that we met a few climbers who between them had both of them. The books were really nice and would do the job perfectly. These books weren’t purchased recently, they had owned their copies for several years. The best option after that was to use the Vertical Life app. You can pay €4.99 for a months subscription, which gives you access to a lot of different guidebooks. Luckily for us this included the King Climbers guidebook. The system of digitalising guidebooks has worked ok, but the app is quite clunky to use at times. Nevertheless, it does the job and contains the topos and information you need. The subscription isn’t binding and can be cancelled for free at the end of each month.

For the more minor areas, The Crag and Mountain Project contain most of the information you’ll need. Dedicated locals have often taken the time to upload topos and good quality descriptions that can be accessed for free. Not all areas have been so well cared for and occasionally you may have to do some bushwhacking and route counting.

Tall rock cliff of Ko Rang Kai with the white limestone climbing sector of Happy Island on the beach landing. The rock is surrounded by sea and in the background are more islands.
The stunning Happy Island sector seen from Phra Nang beach (note the bolts here are NOT titanium)

Weather and Climbing season in Thailand

Thailand has a tropical climate, with hot and humid weather remaining reasonably consistent throughout the year. The main concern for climbers is visiting in the dry season, which runs from November until early March. April is usually the hottest month and May to October is the rainy season. No matter what time of the year you are climbing in Southern Thailand it will be hot. However, Chiang Mai is almost 1200km north of Krabi and that makes all the difference. In the winter season, Chiang Mai is reasonably cool, especially when compared to the south. For Krabi, anytime from November to March will be good. For Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand you must also consider the burning season, when farmers burn old crops, creating intense air pollution. This occurs in the latter half of the dry season, around march, but can vary greatly year on year. This makes Chiang Mai a good call for the early half of the dry season.

Two wooden long tail boats which have landed on Tonsai beach. In the background are different size imposing limestone cliffs with forest that rise straight from the sea and the beach
Long tail boats on Tonsai beach

If you aren’t used to climbing in these sort of conditions you can expect to be humbled a bit in your first few days. Take plenty of water and an old towel to clean all your sweat off. Interestingly, the grades don’t seem to take into account the weather, even if the crag is a sun trap. As such, things can feel like huge sandbags when you’re getting into it and can then feel soft when you’re a bit more adapted. As we travelled overland from Malaysia we felt quite in tune with the weather, but even still, Krabi felt hot. Similarly to Malaysia, mosquitos can give you serious problems, particularly if you are at a crag in the jungle. Always make sure you have mosquito repellent and coils in your climbing bag or you might have to abandon the crag mid session!

Bolts

In any of the coastal areas of Thailand it is extremely important to understand the differences between the types of bolts used to protect a climb. A combination of factors mean that any stainless steel bolts will fail very quickly. Highly acidic groundwater levels and extreme proximity to the sea means lots of routes that appear safe visually could be lethal. Only climb on Titanium glue in bolts. Do not climb on any expansion bolts of any kind and do not climb on stainless steel glue ins. The King Climbers guide (available on the Vertical Life app) tells you which routes have been re-bolted with titanium. Always double check this yourself before you set off. Re-bolting routes with titanium is extremely expensive, so consider donating to a local bolt fund. It seems there is not one singular group doing the work but a combination of dedicated individuals and local companies. These people are not supported by sponsors or grants and pay for the new bolts out of their own back pockets, for the good of the climbing community. Once you’re there and know the lay of the land it will be easy enough to work out where is best to donate. You can see an example of a bolt fund for the Krabi mainland crags here.

Climber abseiling off a steep limestone wall of sector Tonsai Wall that has tufas hanging off which empathises the steepness and size.
Abseiling off the top pitch of ‘Humanality’, 6b+

Southern Thailand

Krabi Area

One of the first things you’ll come across when looking at Thailands most famous climbing area is people using different names to describe what is essentially the same area. Tonsai and Railay are the two big names, which are often made out to be two completely different places, particularly by non-climbers. In reality they are the same beach, separated by a 5 minute walk through some trees. There is also Phra Nang, which is a very easy walk from Tonsai or Railay. The main thing to know is that these areas can only be accessed by boat, although they aren’t actually island, there are no roads or footpaths leading to them from the ‘mainland’. The nearby towns of Krabi and Ao Nang are the places to get boats from. These areas are on the ‘mainland’ and also have climbing sectors of their own. Krabi, as well as the town, is the name of the province that all these areas sit within, so we think it makes sense to refer to the area as Krabi. To avoid confusion we will separate Krabi into the Peninsular and the Mainland.

Climber lay backing on the curved flake of Lion King. The belayer on Ton Sai beach . On the opposite side of the bay are more limestone cliffs with caves and tufas surrounded by jungle.
Climbing the classic ‘Lion King’, 6c+ at Dum’s Kitchen

Peninsular

To get access to the best areas you’ll want to stay in Tonsai or Railay. If you stay in one, you’ll only ever be about 25 minutes walk from the most distant sector in the other. In our opinion, Tonsai has the nicer atmosphere, with more climbers and less partying tourists, it is much less crowded overall. Railay feels a little over touristic, although it does have more accommodation options, restaurants and convenience stores. Ultimately, it doesn’t make too much difference as you can walk everywhere easily and you’ll spend the majority of your time outside enjoying the crags and the beautiful coast.

Looking out of a cave which is lined with tufas along the edges. On the opposite side across the bays are Tonsai and Railay. There are two beaches with cliffs on each side.
Stunning view of Tonsai and Railay west from sector Melting Wall

The landscape in this area is seriously impressive, there are loads of spectacular walls rising straight up from the beach, dripping with massive tufas and high quality rock. On the peninsular alone there are over 700 routes, with grades from 4a to 8c+. As climbing areas go it is fairly unique, being more popular for general holidaymakers than for climbing. Although the beach can be busy, the crags generally aren’t. Its normal to have a couple of other pairs at a crag, but its also possible to find quiet spots you’ll have to yourself.

A view of Tonsai and Railay from the sea. The large limestone cliff runs the length of both beaches which are separated by a small jungle hill.
Where Tonsai and Railay meet

The climbing is of a very high standard, with lots of classic routes to choose from at any level. The karst limestone here is very special, there are loads of stalactites, tufa blobs, hourglass pockets, spikes, giant jugs and undercuts. The routes are often quite 3 dimensional, sometimes with unusual or comical moves to one of a kind holds. One of the only downsides is much of the rock is very smooth, even when virgin. It doesn’t take much for it to feel polished and glassy, which when mixed with the heat and humidity can take your grade down a peg or 2. Climbing in the shade is a must when the sun is out, use any cloudy days to climb at south facing crags when you can.

Two small limestone island cliffs which are surrounded by water with other islands in the distance.
The view of Happy Island sector (left) from the Escher World sector

The short steep crags on Tonsai beach are the most popular, and they have really fun climbing in a truly beautiful location. However, there is a lot more to the area than just these crags, big multipitches are some of the most special experiences to have, as well as climbing at out of the way spots in the jungle or at crags only accessible at low tide. The key to making the most of it is variety, visit as many different crags as you can and explore the peninsulas other cool sites, like the lagoon. On the day we arrived it was hot, early afternoon and we were quite tired, so decided against climbing that day. Instead we decided we would walk to pretty much every different crag in the area and see how good they looked and which we would definitely want to visit. This took several hours as there are loads of crags! It turned out to be well worth it as we completely understood the lay of the land, ready to hit the ground running the next day.

Climber on the exposed crux pitch of Humanality with a huge tufa hanging behind. Below there is a bar on the beach and the blue sea.
The crux pitch of ‘Humanality’, 6b+, a classic 5 pitch route at Tonsai Wall

As there are so many different crags and buttresses scattered throughout the area it is pretty pointless trying to list them, or even list the best ones as the majority of them are really good. We would recommend taking a walk around as we did, but browsing the guidebook or staring at crags from the beach will easily guide you to some amazing spots. It is also worth considering how long to stay, we would recommend somewhere from 1-2 weeks. There is enough climbing for far, far longer. However, the island atmosphere and crowds can grow tiring, and the mainland also has fantastic climbing that is much quieter and well worth visiting. Any less than a week won’t give you enough chance to appreciate the different venues, more than 2 and it might feel a bit like Groundhog Day, but it is of course subjective.

Looking out from Ton Sai Wall sector to the other side of Ton Sai bay and the sea towards the other limestone cliffs.
A special view from the last pitch of Humanality

Another great experience is deep water soloing, and Thailand is pretty much perfect for it. Steep, solid rock and warm sea make the perfect recipe for fun and excitement. Koh Poda is the best known spot, but there are hundreds of suitable walls on the islands of the Andaman sea. In order to access the good stuff a boat is essential, and they are too far to realistically kayak. Basecamp Tonsai do trips in a long tail boat (with kayak too) and they are the best choice to enjoy the area. The guys are really friendly and know the area like the back of their hand. The day is super flexible, based on what you want. They’re happy for you to push it hard and high or take it easy and snorkel too. The trip needs 4 people to run, we made some friends and went as 2 pairs which worked perfectly. With 4 people it is 1,500 Baht per person, which includes lunch and climbing shoes if you don’t want to get yours soaked. You will be out for pretty much the whole day and the guys are very chilled and in no rush to get back.

Climber with feet cutting loose on the 90 degree roof which is several meters above the deep blue sea at the deep water soloing venue at Poda Island.
Great moves, rock and emotions at Koh Poda
Under cut sector at Koh Poda which is completely dripping with different size tufas hanging above the sea. The mountainous mainland is in the background
Otherworldly rock at Koh Poda
Climber deep water soloing traversing  along the cliff several meters above the sea at Koh Ya Wa Sam.
Enjoying a fun and sequencey traverse just off Koh Ya Wa Sam

Mainland

There are a lot less crags on the mainland area than there are on the peninsular, however the quality is just as high. The vast majority of climbers that visit Krabi don’t climb on the mainland, which is a real shame. Many people we spoke to in Tonsai/Railay didn’t really know the crags were there at all. Although the mainland crags don’t have the paradise beach location, they more than make up for it with their tranquility and are definitely worth a visit.

Chong Phli, also known as Spirit Mountain, is the biggest climbing area on the ‘mainland’ of the Krabi province. Despite being only 11km from Krabi town and less than 6km from Ao Nang, Chong Phli is in a very quiet and peaceful environment. It is completely devoid of most tourists, isn’t particularly busy with climbers either and the routes are great, bliss! There are around 129 routes, ranging from 5a-8c+, they are really well bolted and the fixed gear is regularly checked and maintained by the people at Spirit Mountain. They have accommodation right next to the crag, a cafe/restaurant and can do gear rental or instruction for those who want it. They have done a superb job of developing the crag and their business whilst maintaining the charm of the natural landscape. Chong Phli also happens to be mostly shaded, with some of the best sectors facing north west.

Climber on a white limestone wall at Spirit Mountain
Enjoying glorious technical climbing on ‘Grace’, 7a

The rock is very high quality and the crag is just a generally nice place to be. There are lots of great routes through the grades, but it really excels from the mid 6s to the mid 7s, where there are lots of long and beautiful pitches to enjoy. We would really recommend anyone climbing in Krabi visits Chong Phli, it provides the perfect contrast to hectic Tonsai/Railay without any compromise on quality. You can stay at Spirit Mountain, or if you are short on time you can rent a scooter from Ao Nang or Krabi for about €5 including insurance and ride out for the day.

Tall, slightly overhanging white limestone cliff with dark stripes that is featured with tufas. There is jungle at the base of the cliff.
A striking wall at Chong Phli

The North Wall does exactly what it says on the tin, and has a selection of awesome shaded routes. The crag is a relatively new addition to the area and sits just on the outskirts of Ao Nang. There are currently around 83 routes from 5a to 8a including a few very hard unclimbed lines, one of which has been touted as a potential 9a. The rock is great quality, steep light coloured karsty rock with massive tufas and loads of great features. The North Wall seems to be a lot busier with climbers than Chong Phli, although one is not really any better than the other. Despite a reasonable amount of traffic some of the tufas can be a little dusty but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the routes.

Massive tufas protruding from the crag at North Wall. Looking behind a tufa you can see a climber on the wall
Unknown climber on the classic 6a ‘Keep Yourself Alive’

The size of some of the tufas is mind-blowing and the crag is really impressive, quite something considering its often viewed as a ‘bonus’ crag for Tonsai/Railay. The crag is also well suited for lower grades, with some superb routes either side of the 6c range. The routes are generally really well equipped and it feels like it was developed with a lot of care and thought. The North Wall is on private land and is very close to a house. Access is currently good, but be very mindful of not causing any friction with local people and don’t park next to the house.

Climber on the white limestone cliff at North Wall, Ao Nang which is covered in different size tufas. They are bridging their legs between a large wide tufa and a drain pipe like tufa
Climbing the long and classic ‘Life of Leif’, 6b+

Koh Yao Noi

Koh Yao Noi is an island in the Phang-Nga province, which is the neighbour to Krabi province. It is one of a pair of islands, with the bigger island of Koh Yao Yai immediately to the south. It is easy to travel there from Krabi town or Ao Nang by boat, which will take roughly 30 minutes. The atmosphere on Koh Yao Noi is wonderful, very relaxed, more authentic and far less touristic than the Railay/Tonsai area. Of the comparatively small number of tourists that go, they are there for the relaxed atmosphere and culture, not to get drunk and party all night. It was a very welcome change of pace.

Looking from the beach on Koh Yao Noi towards the different cliff islands in the distance and behind them is the rocky and mountainous mainland of Krabi
Beautiful views from Koh Yao Noi

The climbing on Koh Yao Noi seemed very promising, the rock is described as being very high quality and there are over 100 routes, mostly from the low 6s to high 7s. There is also some known DWS spots, it seemed like the complete package, like a miniaturised Tonsai/Railay without the crowds. Unfortunately, that is pretty much as far as we got for the climbing. The majority of the routes are in the north of the island, located in/next to the ‘Paradise Resort’. We initially thought the drive down an awful muddy road to get there would be the crux, but we were quickly proven wrong. The resort has a guarded entrance and they will not let non-customers in no matter what, even if you offer to pay for access, they are having none of it. The resort is an extremely expensive €120 night, way out of our (or any sane climbers) budget. Regardless of price, we wouldn’t want to patronise a tourist resort that is denying locals access to a significant piece of land on their own island.

Woman on motorbike on a really muddy road through the jungle on Koh Yao Noi.
The squelchy road to ‘paradise’

There are other options to approach, particularly by walking to the left of the resort along a disused road until you reach a beach, then walking along it and onto a jungle trail. The start of the trails were obvious and well worn, but after a few meters they abruptly end, although you can see the trail disappear into the undergrowth. In our opinion, these trails have been deliberately blocked off by someone chopping down vegetation. We tried every conceivable way to get there without trespassing, walking over 20km in total whilst trying everything, even traversing the coastline around the headland. We concluded that it isn’t possible for now, even just to get close. We emailed the mountain shop on the island, visited their apparently closed premises as well as visiting an activity company offering climbing to see if they knew anything. We either got no response or we were told that it wasn’t possible to climb there anymore. With more digging it seems the climbing may have been banned completely by local authorities, but this remains quite unclear.

Grey and white limestone cliff rising up from the beach within the jungle on Koh Yao Noi
The beach just north of the ‘Paradise Resort’, where the approach trails start and then abruptly end.

While we clearly can’t recommend the climbing, Koh Yao Noi as an island was great. It had the best quality nature and wildlife of anywhere we visited in the Andaman area of Thailand. We saw lots of interesting snakes, spiders, lizards, wild monkeys shy of people and best of all were the birds. We saw lots of Hornbills on the island, a few different species. It was amazing to watch them, some of the most vibrant and extravagant birds we have ever seen. The people of Koh Yao Noi were incredibly kind and friendly, and the island as a whole felt much less affected by tourism than other parts of Thailand. If you need a break from climbing, or aren’t a climber, then we would recommend Koh Yao Noi over pretty much every other area we visited in southern Thailand. 

Central and Northern Thailand

Nam Pha Pa Yai

After we left southern Thailand and spent a few days in Bangkok, the next area on our hit list was Nam Pha Pa Yai, a climbers camp with some beautiful looking rock about 130km from central Bangkok and close to the town of Kaeng Khoi. We emailed the camp a few times before we planned to arrive, mainly checking for availability and when people would be around. We never got a response, but this isn’t uncommon so we didn’t think anything of it. Then, whilst having a look online for route recommendations the day before we would be arriving we found this page on Mountain Project. Much to our shock it said the camp was closed until further notice, and that no walk in visitors are allowed to enter or climb and anyone trying would be turned away. The date was the 5th December 2022, the day before we were due to go! This was a real shame as it was one of the areas we were most looking forward to visiting in Thailand.

This is a good opportunity to mention the generally poor access to crags in Thailand, it seems there is a lot of friction between landowners and climbers. If you read on resources like The Crag, it seems that many crags have been restricted or banned at some point and even the ones that haven’t often mention sensitive access. We have no idea if this is related to the closure of Nam Pha Pa Yai, but it is worth mentioning all the same. We really hope access to Nam Pha Pa Yai will be restored and the camp will reopen, climbers have put a lot of hard work into developing the area. Don’t write it off, heed our experience but double check when you are in the area and with some luck the situation may improve.

Please don’t feel we are moaning about our experiences of Koh Yao Noi or Nam Pha Pa Yai, we don’t feel hard done by and we don’t want to come off as negative at all, we still thoroughly enjoyed travelling around these areas. However, too many blogs don’t mention their failures and only ever sell the positive success story. We feel it is important to be honest and give people a realistic idea of what to expect.

Khao Chin Lae

Khao Chin Lae, sometimes written as Khao Jeen Lae, is a peaceful climbing area around 20km outside the city of Lopburi. The climbing is in a beautiful area, surrounded by sunflower fields and is accessed through a temple called Wat Pa Suwannahong. To access the best sectors you actually have to walk through the temple, so dress appropriately and be considerate. If there are any monks or nuns present it is expected that climbers will go and say hello, check in with them and then say goodbye when you leave. This is part of a very friendly access arrangement, and they just want to check you are safe. If there is nobody at the temple when you arrive then it is still ok to climb.

Grey and white compact cliff surrounded by forest
The beautiful wall of ‘Kam Khong Sat Lok’, 6c+ (left) and ‘Lok Nah’ 7b+

There are over 60 routes at Khao Chin Lae, including some multipitches up to 200 meters. The grades range from 3-7c and the sweet spot is in the mid 6s. Despite a few comments on Mountain Project mentioning some routes being loose, we found the rock quality was very good and for several of the routes to be really high quality. For example, Chiwit Mai (6b+) climbs on beautiful and clean rock for the full 25 meters of its length, with the routes either side of it being just as good. The crag faces east and in the dry season it only gets the sun for the first few hours of the day. In our experience the crag was quite breezy, which when combined with the shade gave some of the best climbing conditions we ever had in Thailand.

Climber on the compact grey rock at Khao Chin Lae
Climbing the lovely ‘Two Cockerels and a Lion’, 6b+

There is a free PDF that can be downloaded from The Crag which has good descriptions and easy to use topos. We thought Khao Chin Lae was a really nice crag, well worth visiting. The access is good and the crag is popular with climbers from Bangkok at weekends which keeps the routes clean and gives the place a very friendly atmosphere. The nearby city Lopburi is also worth visiting, it is famous for Phra Prang Sam Yot, a 13th century temple built during the Khmer Empire. The temple, along with several other historical sites in Lopburi, are a fascinating way to learn some Thai history. The city is also famous for its monkeys, with Phra Prang Sam Yot being their favourite spot. Over 2,500 of them live in the area and they wreak havoc, particularly on those not used to dealing with them. Monkeys are significant in Buddhism and feeding them is thought to bring good fortune, Lopburi actually has an annual monkey banquet, where thousands of monkeys feast on fruit and other offerings from local people.

Tall grey limestone cliff surrounded by green fields with some smaller tree covered mountains in the background
The view from the top of Chiwit Mai, 6b+

Crazy Horse Buttress

As we made our way northwards up Thailand, we looked at the best climbing areas we could stop at. Many people will know that Crazy Horse Buttress was banned, and it is still listed as so on several climbing websites. So we messaged CMRCA, who have a crag at Lampang, which due to an arrangement with the military requires permission to climb. They responded that the situation is now the other way around, Crazy Horse is open again! Great news for the climbing community and a good step in the right direction for once. Unfortunately, they said it wasn’t currently possible to climb at Lampang. When we arrived at Crazy Horse the big crag sign had no indication of any restrictions and we spoke to a local climber who also said the crag was now open. This was extremely welcome news and a positive outcome for the area.

Climber on a 3D route on a tufa and heavily featured white limestone wall
Enjoying every moment of the superb ‘Jai Rawn’, 6b

The climbing at Crazy Horse is very high quality, the rock varies from crimpy and pocketed to overhanging tufas and really has a bit of everything. There are lots of different sectors in the area, most being only a few minutes walk from the parking. Many of the closer sectors get a lot of sun, but if you walk 20 minutes further to Heart Wall you’ll get a shaded crag, much quieter and with superb routes – some of the best in the entire area! In total there are 180 routes at Crazy Horse, from 5a to 8a+. The vast majority of the routes are in the 6s and low 7s, it is an absolute feast for anyone operating at that level. Crazy Horse is about 40km away from Chiang Mai, one of the most popular tourist areas in Northern Thailand. Thankfully the crag is a more peaceful affair with nobody really passing through other than a handful of climbers and occasionally some monks.

grey and creamy orange limestone cliff with Chalk marks which highlight where the routes are at Crazy Horse Buttress
Awesome rock at Crazy Horse, the stunning line of ‘Blood, Love and Steel’, 6c, is on the left

Crazy Horse was developed in a really nice way, the routes are very well bolted and have been properly cleaned, it felt like a brilliant venue for pushing your onsighting. The grading is quite fair, we had heard it was soft but it didn’t feel that way. The weather in Chiang Mai is significantly better for climbing than in southern Thailand. Obviously it was far from cold, but it is usually a good five degrees cooler than Krabi and far less humid as well. We enjoyed several really good days climbing at Crazy Horse and we are beyond chuffed the ban has been lifted. We thought the climbing was great and it was a really worthwhile stop on our journey through Thailand. Hopefully the access remains stable, and we would definitely recommend Crazy Horse to anyone climbing in Thailand.

Climber making their way up the tufas and features on the white and black limestone cliff at Crazy Horse Buttress
A terribly blurry photo whilst onsighting ‘Jai Yen Yen’, 6c+

Rest Day Activities

Visit a Temple

Over 90% of Thailand’s population are Buddhists, or Theravada Buddhists to be more specific. Learning about Buddhism is a culturally significant part of a visit to Thailand, and the opportunity to educate yourself should not be missed. The scripture of Theravada Buddhism is called the Pāli Canon or Tipiṭaka, it is split into three ‘baskets’ and contains more than 30 books. It would be a serious undertaking for a tourist to even begin studying these, but there is a good middle ground between deep study and total ignorance. If you read anything about the subject you will learn the middle way is very significant in Buddhism. Above all, don’t be a total philistine and walk around a temple with no shirt on (yes, we actually saw someone do that near Krabi).

The head and arm of the golden reclining Buddha. The walls of the building that house the 15 metre high Buddha are ornate and intricate with designs of golden flower like patterns and paintings of buildings.
The truly beautiful reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, built in 1832

There are over 40,000 Buddhist temples in Thailand, so you definitely won’t see them all. They can vary from small tranquil places to major historic complexes, the differences can be stark. We probably visited about 20 different temples and we would offer a few recommendations to make the most of it. If you are going to visit a large temple that is popular with tourists then make sure it has some history behind it, Buddhism has existed in Thailand for thousands of years and there are some truly ancient and wonderful temples to visit. It isn’t uncommon for temples less than 30 years old to draw big crowds, which makes it all feel less charming. Secondly, make sure to visit a temple somewhere in the countryside, not known to any tourists. There you can get an authentic experience and see what the true, unspoilt atmosphere of a temple is like. These quiet rural temples might not offer as much to look at, but their ambience more than makes up for that.

Ancient stone buddhist temple of Phra Prang Sam Yot, with three pagoda (tower like structures) with a corridor linking them into one building. At the bottom there are crab eating macaques which are using the shade of the building.
Phra Prang Sam Yot, a 13th century temple built by the Khmer empire. It was originally a Hindu temple before being converted to Buddhism at a later date and contains a blend of religious symbolism.

Night Markets

Night Markets are incredibly popular in Thailand, mainly due to the intense day time heat. It is much more comfortable to shop and eat once the sun has gone down. Thai people also eat out a lot, street food is very affordable and even in small towns the street food vendors will be packed with locals in the evenings. The first night market we visited in Thailand was in Krabi and it was, err, a bit rubbish. We thought oh dear, its just a thing they put on for tourists, full of souvenirs and high prices. Then, whilst on the night bus to Bangkok, we stopped off at night market on the outskirts of Chumphon. It couldn’t have been more different, full of local people and authentic food, just as it should be. That more or less sums up the situation, go to a locals night market without a tourist crowd and you’ll have a great time. There really are loads of them to choose from, in all parts the country and of differing sizes. It is a perfect opportunity to see what food is most popular with locals, and you won’t get the weak spice versions you get in touristic restaurants! There are of course lots of day time markets as well, which are also worth visiting, generally they will offer more produce, clothing etc rather than the night markets which are more street food oriented.

Unusual looking 'crabs' which are on the back of their shells dead in the market. They have a large circular shell and underneath they have 10 legs and a long and sharp looking tail.
The rather unusual Horseshoe Crab at a market in Southern Thailand

Get a Thai Massage

Thailand is renowned for great massages, but it isn’t simply the same as getting a regular massage abroad. Thai Massage is a unique type of massage that uses a combination of techniques like stretching, compressing and pushing rather than just simply rubbing the muscles. Traditional Thai massages are carried out on a mat on the floor, and the recipient will wear loose clothing throughout. Thai massages can be very intense and you might feel sore and even slightly sick afterwards. Sickness can also occur after other types of massage, but is particularly common after a vigorous Thai massage. Once the initial aftermath has worn off you will feel supple and relaxed. Interestingly, Wat Pho in Bangkok has been a centre for teaching traditional Thai massage for a long time and is on UNESCOs list of intangible cultural heritage because of it. Of course it is also possible to receive many other types of massage in Thailand, but a traditional Thai massage is the most authentic and specific to the country. Getting a massage is a good way to relax and loosen up after a few days of trying hard at the crag. A massage won’t break the bank either, and consider giving a tip if your masseuse does a good job. In non-touristic areas, many charge as little as €5 for an hour, which really isn’t enough for the amount of work.

Snorkelling

The Thai coast is famous worldwide for its beautiful beaches and bountiful waters. The water temperature is extremely comfortable and you can easily stay in for hours at a time. We initially planned to do some scuba diving, which is very popular, but we actually ended up sticking to snorkelling instead. Whilst it is probably less spectacular than diving, the freedom of going where and when you want, as well as a drastically different cost, meant that snorkelling had the edge for us. It also helped that every single time we went snorkelling we saw loads of amazing stuff. If you’re in the Krabi area there is no better way to spend the late afternoon after a good days climbing. Be conscious of any sun cream or insect repellent you have on before going in the sea, and consider cleaning it off before you go in. There are a lot of people in the water in places like Krabi and things like that can make a big difference. We found the sensation of swimming around at free will, going as far as you dare to be quite thrilling. The incredible array of marine organisms you see is impressive, and to have it on the door step of a climbing area is a real treat.

Under water photo of black and yellow fish
A stunning shoal of fish near Krabi

Food

Curry is a mainstay in Thai cuisine and one of the many pleasures of visiting Thailand is eating various types of curry. Some of the most popular types of curry are Green, Red, Yellow, Massaman and Panang. There are also regional specialties like Kaeng Pa (often known as jungle curry) and Khao Soi. Curry is eaten with rice brought on a separate plate, always put the curry on the rice, never the other way around. Curry normally comes in a bowl with liquid but you can also get fried curry paste which is without any sauce. You can have various different ingredients to make up the bulk of your curry, the most popular are chicken, beef, shrimp, vegetable and tofu. The variations are endless and you can go on eating curry for a long time and never get tired of it.

Tom Yum is a classic Thai soup dish, with a distinctive spicy and sour flavour. Tom Yum contains lots of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and chillies. These components give the dish a very aromatic and intense flavour, with its roots firmly set in central Thailand. The star of Tom Yum is usually shrimp and the soup is served with a side of rice, often sticky rice.

Pad Thai doesn’t need much of an introduction, potentially being one of Thailand’s best known dishes internationally. The essence of Pad Thai is stir fried rice noodles, with egg, vegetables and a tamarind sauce. Pad Thai can come with a variety of additional ingredients like chicken, shrimp or tofu and is served alongside things like bean sprouts and peanuts. The ingredients in each Pad Thai will vary depending on where you’re eating it and how much it costs.

Khao Pad is fried rice Thai style, a fairly self explanatory dish but quite a staple and something that really hits the spot at any time of day. It can come with chicken, beef, shrimp and almost always contains egg. Khao Pad is very tasty and straightforward, the sort of thing you want to tuck in to when you’re tired and hungry.

Pad Kra Pao is a great authentic dish to try in Thailand. What makes the dish stand out is the use of basil. You will come across Thai basil a lot, but this dish uses holy basil (confusingly referred to as Thai holy basil) which is different. The holy basil is combined with very finely chopped, or essentially minced, meat such as chicken or beef. The holy basil, along with other ingreditrients give the dish an incredible flavour which is both spicy and aromatic. Pad Kra Pao is usually served with rice and a fried egg.

There are obviously loads more Thai dishes worth trying, but this is supposed to be about climbing! For its size, Thailand has one of the most impressive and rich cuisines in the world. There are countries twice the size with less food history and diversity. Eating out is a popular thing for Thai people and foreigners alike, it is a wonderful experience. Despite this, many western tourists stick to their standard, boring fare of burgers and the like. It is very frustrating to watch, not only do they miss an incredible opportunity to eat fresh and authentic Thai food, they also pay massively over the odds for what is basically junk food. Do your tastebuds (and your health) a favour and eat proper Thai food.

Summary

We enjoyed our time in Thailand and we thought the climbing and the landscape were utterly superb. In general, Thailand can be whatever you make it. Some people have travelled half way across the globe and might as well be anywhere, they barely leave their resort and all they do is lie in the sun and drink. Comparatively, if you make an effort to get out and about, do your research and learn about Thai culture you will be rewarded for it. Tourism in Thailand would be far less damaging to the country if people acted more responsibly and sensitively. Unsurprisingly, we never had a negative experience caused by local people, any low points were at the hands of other tourists. This was a time where climbing really made the trip, visiting areas like Khao Chin Lae were true highlights. Mixing with local people and a couple of other climbers (frequently locals too) was the perfect antidote to the hectic crowds of Tonsai and Railay. However, while some areas have better atmospheres than others, the consistent high quality climbing was a thread running throughout the country.

You can read more about the climbing in South East Asia here.

Relevant links and resources

https://gym.vertical-life.info/vertical-life-app

Deep Water Soloing company: basecamptonsai.com

https://ko-fi.com/krabiboltingfund

https://www.mountainproject.com/area/109633316/namphapayai-camp-saraburi

http://vincent.boulas.free.fr/teamgrimptout/topos/asie/topo%20watpasuwannahong%20lopburi%20thailand.pdf

https://www.thecrag.com/en/climbing/thailand/lop-buri-khao-jeen-lair

https://www.thailandclimbing.com

5 thoughts on “Climbing in Thailand: A Journey through South East Asia

  1. Olympus Mountaineering 2nd Feb 2023 / 6:53 AM

    Wow! Wow! Wow!

    What an amazing -and complete- post, with beautiful photos, lovely scenery and of course nice info and details about cimbing.

    Keep up with the great work you are doing and enjoy your climbing days there!

    Liked by 1 person

    • TheCragJournal 2nd Feb 2023 / 7:22 AM

      Thank you very much for the kind words! It really is a beautiful part of the world and it was a pleasure to climb there!

      Like

  2. Monkey's Tale 15th Mar 2023 / 2:10 PM

    When we were in Railay in 2018 they said deep water solo was no longer allowed. I really wanted to do it at least once. But we did climb at Nam Pha Pha Yai, it was great climbing but quite busy. Great post, so much good information if we go back to Thailand. Maggie

    Like

    • TheCragJournal 17th Mar 2023 / 4:44 AM

      Hi Maggie, thank you for the comment! the DWS is a very blurred line there still, the trips from basecamp tonsai run quite frequently, but there is definitely still problems with the national park officers. The future of DWS there is uncertain to say the least. We think its a real shame the DWS has a bad rep with the authorities. We saw lots of generic boat trips throwing anchors into the coral reefs for people to snorkel, the environmental damage caused by that dwarfs anything from DWS, yet that goes completely unregulated. It does seem the situation is more relaxed now than it was a few years ago, so fingers crossed for a brighter future.
      Awesome you got the climb at Nam Pha Pha Yai, it looks such a beautiful place, definitely one we’d love to visit one day if the access is restored.

      Liked by 1 person

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