Climbing and rappelling offer unique Thai sights from a height.

I’ve traveled to Thailand a few times, but on the last trip I decided to do things a little differently by involving a rope.

I had always been fascinated with rock climbing, so when I found out you can learn in my favourite Asian destination the combination seemed too good to miss. A brief search online revealed quite a few climbing trips and training courses, especially in the mountainous north around Chiang Mai, but also in the island peppered south, where Krabi’s Limestone cliffs are legendary among climbers. I opted to start in the hills.

The Basics

I had been pleasantly surprised to discover that with a little tuition, most people can easily manage what’s required for rappelling (or abseiling). It doesn’t require you to be a ”power jock” by any means although obviously a bit of upper body strength and leg power can help with agility and balance.

Rock climbing, of course, needs more strength and fitness, but rappelling really requires just general fitness. I walk, run, bike ride and rock hop – and if you have a full routine like that, you’ll be fine. For the more athletic outdoors enthusiast, rappelling and rock climbing can even be combined.

Safety First

To cut the risk of accidents most climbing and repelling operators have stringent safety requirements and wisely insist you buy life insurance in the rare event of a fall. Some companies even go as far as insisting that participants weigh between 110-350 pounds (49-158kg). Sudden winds (though infrequent in Thailand) can toss a light person around, while risks of snapping ropes lurk at the other end of the scale. I met people in a wide spread of shapes and sizes on the rocks, but most people attempting this stuff were definitely average to athletic in build.

Northern beauty

Chiang Mai offered a comfortable stay in the hip Nim Man area and on the first night, I joined my fellow climbers on an excursion that involved the most amazing spread of spicy northern Thai dishes I’ve ever tasted. I can’t tell you the wild dreams this chilli mix caused, but I can say that when our guide took us on the 45-minute songtaew (benched truck) ride to Crazy Horse, a very well-tended climbing area the next day, the toilet jokes were plentiful, although perhaps more as a way to allay our fears.

That day we spent several hours learning the basics, which focus, obviously, on safety and clarity of simple climbing technique. The mechanics of using the equipment is also key and helmets were worn by all, at all times. We were also shown how carabineers must be locked, all attachments at least triple-checked, and how to belay (safety-rope) each other and feel relaxed using a top-rope system, where safety holders and ropers are above as well as below. Chalk use is also vital, to prevent slips.

Up and Away

On the day after training, the gang of life-long dreamers joined together in a great camaraderie. Our first climb was a “rush” from start to finish, with great whoops of glee as each person reached the top of the wall. We helped each other, but the instructors were also constantly shouting tips, giving reminders, and encouragement for everyone, which made it a morning of mad and marvellous  adventure.

Since we’d already learned how to catch ourselves if we lost one device’s hold, and belayers keep double and triple holds, no one experienced more than a second of fright.

Going Down

A much needed recharging lunch was enjoyed before the next session of the course, which was also my life-long dream: learning to rappel. And, it was a lot easier and less scary than I’d thought.

First, we were shown how to wear the harness…well, it wears you, sort of…and, how to wrap ropes around us, secure them with carabineers and “prusik” or backup knots. Next, we learned how to use the ropes for safety, as well as the how to feed rope through the descender device that controls the speed at which you let yourself move down the rope, and how to bounce off the rock as we descended.

Then in no time at all, descend we did. First down a slightly intimidating but only several stories-tall cliff face, and then into the heart of darkness: a huge, echoing and eerie but cool cave.

After the two day course, some of our group went on to book private lessons to “lead” climbs up tougher rocks and to do rock-climbing and rafting, as well as abseiling down waterfalls. I opted to move on to the other sites, to take in more of the country and dizzying heights.

Coastal Climbing

Now that I had the basics down, I was ready to enjoy the amazing scenery of Railey Beach, high above Krabi province and the sun-flecked Andaman Sea. Phra Nang Cape, midway between Krabi Town and Ao Nang Beach, is a sought-out climbing and rappelling location, both for its beauty and also the fun marine activities on offer.

With over 500 routes established to zip up and down the rock faces, you are spoilt for choice in Railey Beach so I decided to work up to comfort level by sweating my way up a spire that hung out over the water – a “bucket list” tick-off of mine for a long time. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to tick off the one about loosening the harness and falling into the water, but I’m saving the equivalent for some Brazilian cliff diving – or, maybe just jumping to reduce  the risk of a painful ‘sea slap’ in the face.

Next, I repeated a similar experience when ascending Phuket’s Via Ferrata – some 440 feet (135 m) of granite wall perched high above Thailand’s largest island. Hundreds of steel steps make this an easy climb, but other routes exist to challenge more experienced climbers. The Flying Fox, a fun and exciting zip line ride, brings another dimension for those wanting to add a little airborne adventure to their rock-scrambling.

Although I was a novice, I left Thailand feeling proud of my skills and also having enjoyed some of the best rock climbing and rappelling in the world.  I also enjoyed some of the best weather, food, company in the world, not to mention a great massage to relax muscles after I climbed just too high.


Plan Your Climbing Trip

Taking some time to plan your climbing trip will ensure that you hit those travel highs. Whether it’s food, clothing or more mundane considerations like insurance, make sure you are well prepared.

  • Popular Northern Thai Dishes to try between climbs include: Naam Prik Noom, a stunningly fresh chili composed of eggplant and Thai green chilies, served with fresh veggies; Sai Ooa, sticky-rice-accompanied spicy sausage, Khao Saoi, a delicious northern style curry noodle dish and, of course, a couple variations of Som Tam, papaya salad, which is served all across the country.
  • Climbing clothing in toasty Thailand is simple: sports shoes with good grip, and rock climbing shoes if you’re going into craggier zones with sharper stone. Then there’s comfy t-shirts, halter tops, swim tops or light nylon upper gear. Shorts are usually fine, but long pants might suit in cooler caves or shaded climbing zones. Remember that cotton can hold sweat and cool off too much, so poly or nylon is usually recommended in tropical zones.
  • World Nomads is a popular insurance choice, as it is not very costly and has an understandable application form. Whichever company you choose, make sure they have coverage for the equipment used, type of activity, location and particulars including instruction, as well as any specific clauses relating to your country of origin.

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Jim Grubman
Jim Grubman has lived more lives than the average cat, though he's hoping his two Flame-Point Himalayans beat him. He has written and edited many things, including cookbooks (he's a qualified chef), and he has even saved lives as a dialysis technician among a long list of medical and other jobs. For fun, he travels, writes about it, and sails as close to the Southern Seas as a sane man dare try.