Beautiful beaches, friendly locals, amazing food, cheap beer and great climbing. In March-April of 2018, I made my second trip Thailand. This place is so amazing, I feel that I would be doing the world a disservice by not sharing my experience.
Tonsai is without a doubt the Thailand’s best spot for climbing, though with the rise of Crazy Horse in Northern Thailand and Mae Hong Son in Central Thailand that title is starting to become challenged.
However for the time being Tonsai remains king. It is the most developed and well-know, and for that reason it sees the majority of Thailand’s climbers. The rock is a very high quality limestone, and there is a nice mix of grades from 5+ to 8c.
Tonsai is one of the world’s best know climbing spots for a good reason. Make the trip, and you won’t regret it.
To start off, Tonsai is incredibly beautiful. Huge limestone cliffs shoot straight out of the perfect crystal blue waters. Nearby Railay beach is one of the world’s most popular beach destinations (that’s saying something). When you’re not climbing, there are plenty of “normal” beach activities to do, kayaking, swimming, sun tanning or whatever.
Tonsai is also one of the world’s prime places to dirtbag. Here the hippy lifestyle is embedded in the culture. You’ll likely meet people who have been there for months (or sometimes years!) with no intentions of going home. This place has a magical pull to it… once you arrive on the Tonsai bubble you’ll soon find it hard to leave.
The climbing community here is strong, it is probably one of the best places in the world if you want to show up solo and find a partner. The place brings an eclectic mix of climbers from around the world, I particularly enjoyed meeting the high concentration of Korean, Russian and Chinese climbers.
In addition to the climbing, Thailand is worth going to for the food alone, so having the ability to combine the two is something special. The best food is without a doubt Mama’s Chicken, located a few minutes up the dirt road away from the main strip. For breakfast, I suggest Chill Out Bar. It was the only place I found that makes a proper cup of coffee.
If Thailand wasn’t so goddamn hot, it would probably be the best place in the world to climb. But as with most of SE Asia, the heat and humidity can be oppressive. Though it does cool down a bit in the winter, don’t expect great ‘sending’ temps.
It’s also worth mentioning, the popular routes become increasingly more polished each year, especially on Tonsai’s beach. That mixed with the heat can make for some slick foot holds. But don’t let this stop you, with a bit of adjustment you’ll be crushing in no time.
The climbing can be divided into two main areas, Tonsai and Railay. I’ve broken the climbing down the best I can to give you a good place to start from. I would suggest purchasing a guide book once you arrive so that you can explore a bit more yourself.
It is worth mentioning that Tonsai used to be one of the world’s top DWS (deep water soloing) spots. However, due to a recent death caused by a massive belly flop (no joke), most of the areas have been permanently closed off to tourists. It is still possible to visit some of the closed spots via kayak (a bit illegal), however the guided tours will not.
Daily DWS tours still run from Tonsai or Railay, but now the best DWS in SE Asia has to go to Cat Ba Island. If you have the time, I suggest taking the trip.
For more reading Cat Ba I would suggest seeing my “Trip Report – Cat Ba Island Vietnam” article.
Most of the climbers stay in Tonsai (as opposed to Railay) and for that reason the crags here tend to get more crowded. However it is only about a 20 minute walk between the two beaches, meaning that you could stay at either and climb at any crag you choose.
The beach areas are the quintessential Thailand climbing experience. You’re literally going to be belaying off of the pristine sand. It is a one of a kind experience which has to be experienced to fully understand. I would suggest starting off here, and spreading out as time goes on.
A few suggested routes from these (too many good ones so say them all).
- Viking in Heat (6c, a great warmup)
- Tital Wave (7b+, great but beware of that left heel hook, this route has caused a lot of injuries)
- Tonsai Playboy (7a+, Steep and pumpy)
- Tantrum (8a+, for those of you trying to show off to the crowds, this is the one!)
- Gaeng Som Pla (7c+, probably my favorite, powerful pockets with a mono for good measure)
- The Lion King (6c+, some say a sandbag, just trust the shitty feet)
- Jai Dum (8b, if you’re an animal)
- Tyrolean Air (7c, super good, felt soft to me)
- No Have (7b+, starts off steep, crux is a small finger crack)
- Missing Snow (6b+, the area’s warm up, oh so nice!)
Now for the afternoons you have a lot more options, I actually enjoy these climbing areas more. Most of the areas are good, just take a look in the guidbook to get a better idea of all of the options. If you’re looking for a good ‘mix’ of routes (beginner and intermediate climbs) I would suggest Fire Wall. The longest and most impressive climbs have to be located on Melting Wall. These are only a few minutes past Fire Wall. If you want the highest quality rock, I have to suggest Cat Wall. It is without a doubt one of the best crags in Tonsai.
- The Groove Tube (6a, super soft, bolts are a bit spaced out, but excellent)
- Fire Starter (6c, it’s well nice)
- Cross Eyed (7b, a super long pumpfest, fantastic)
- Affenhitze (7a+, a slightly easier version of Cross Eyed)
- Gilles No Limits (7c, the best 7c in Tonsai, yeah I said it)
- April Fool’s (7b, one of the best 7b’s!!)
One thing to mention is that Tonsai doesn’t have a huge quantity of ‘easy’ climbs (we’ll say under 7a). If you are a beginner climber, there will be much more for you to do in Railay.
A View From “Lord of The Thais”
About a 20min walk from Tonsai lies Railay Beach. Arguably more beautiful, it has its own share of phenomenal climbs to choose from. For how close the two areas are, the people who visit the two couldn’t be any more different. Here you’ll see a plethora of beach goers perfectly content with spending their limited time off doing absolutely nothing all day. Not a problem though, leaves more climbing for us.
Now depending on the time of year, the “prime” time to climb does vary a bit, however most of Railay’s climbs are afternoon shade, which fits in well with the “Thai time” which is quite rampant here (good luck finding morning partners!).
As with Tonsai, there are too many good crags and climbs to choose from to list them all here. But to start, Thaiwand Wall has some of the best beginner routes in addition to some of the best multi-pitches in Thailand. Lord of The Thais is a thing of beauty, with out of this world exposure and the best view of the Phra-nang Peninsula you can get, this route is worth the trip down to Thailand alone.
When two of the world’s top climbers, Sasha DiGiulian and Nalle Hukkataival, climbed it in 2016, they remarked that it was the best climb in Thailand. Have to agree with them on that one.
From the Top of the 4th Pitch of “Lord of The Thais”
Nearby to Taiwan Wall is the Escher Wall (most easily accessed through the cave from Thaiwand Wall). There aren’t a lot of climbs here worth trying, except for Todd Skinner’s Best Route in Minnesota. This has very unique climbing on the pinnacle jutting out from the cave. This ultra-classic is a must-try.
The Best Route In Minnesota (or in Tonsai?!)
Phra-Nang Beach is an especially nice crag as well, as it is shaded from the sun and rain all day and has some very good routes to choose from. It’s also a great time to take your obligatory photo of the fertility shrine.
So Much Culture
Last but not least, if you’re looking for something a bit different, I would suggest heading over to Hidden World or The Keep. These are both excellent crags and are generally less traveled. They are characterized by vertical technical climbing and some small crimps. The approach is a bit far (especially if you’re coming from Tonsai), but the climbing is worth it, trust me.
Thaiwand Wall/Escher Wall
- Lord of The Thais 5p (7b, The best route in Thailand)
- The Best Route in Minnesota (6c, technical and balancy, but oh-so good!)
- Tales of Power (7a, short, pumpy and fun).
- Up to You (7b+, Really good, the crux requires the use of a few slippery slopers!)
Hidden World/The Keep
- Tom’s Pitch (HW, 7a+, Fantastic climb, with a some good chimps and a committing crux)
- Viper (6c+, a slightly easier version of Tom’s Pitch)
- All routes at The Keep, for reals.
How to Arrive
The Only Way to Arrive to Tonsai is By Boat
Since this such a popular tourist destination, it is very easy to arrive at Tonsai. For that reason I won’t go into to much detail here, as I would be simply recreating easily obtainable information.
But in short… you have two airport options, Phuket and Krabi. Krabi is closer (about a 45min bus), while Phuket is a 3-4 hour ride. Take the bus to Ao Nang. This is important, because if you tell them you’re going somewhere else (like if you say “Railay” for intance), they’ll try to sell you the other tourist boats which drop you off in Railay East. Though it is true that you can arrive to Tonsai from Railay East (as they always insist), but what they usually don’t tell you is that it is about a 40 min walk.
If you take the bus all of the way to Ao Nang, you can take the boat which drops you directly off at Tonsai or Railay West. It’s only about a 15 min ride, and it cost is 200 baht.
Where to Stay
There are a lot of options for accommodations here with various styles and price points. One of the most popular places would have to be Chill Out Hostel. Chill Out isn’t a bad place if you’re looking to make friends or to party, however it is quite loud and relatively expensive (about 10$ a night in a 4 person dorm).
Middle range accommodations would have to be Andaman Nature Resort or Paasook Resort (6-10$ a night for a bungalow). Both have private bungalows available (with fan only). Dream Valley Resort is more ‘top of the line’ (around 20$ a night), mostly because they have private hotel rooms with air conditioning. These prices can vary a lot depending on the season. Try to negotiate if you’re staying long term.
When to Go
There are two seasons in Thailand. Hot/Dry and the Hotter/Wet seasons. To clarify, the winters (Nov-Feb) have slightly lower temps and are generally characterized by mostly dry days. April-May are the hottest months of the year, as they receive little rain to bring the temps down. In May-Nov the days are hot and most days receive a little bit of rain. However it dries fast.
The truth is that the climbing here is year round, with each season offering its own benefits. For instance, in the winter the conditions are better for climbing, but it is also the peak tourist season so the prices tend to go up (accommodation normally doubles), and the crags get busy.
You’ll experience less crowds in the off seasons, but less than favorable climbing conditions. For that reason I would suggest the shoulder seasons to get best of both worlds (Oct-Nov & Feb-Mar).
Climbing in Thailand is a once in a lifetime experience. It is the undisputed king of Thailand’s climbing. That’s a big claim, but this place can back it up.
But no place is without its faults. During my trip (March-April 2018), Tonsai was in the midst of a large Dengue Fever outbreak. I (and most of the people whom I met) ending up contracting the illness, which lead to my last week being spent in bed as opposed to climbing. Even when there isn’t a large scale outbreaks, mild illnesses are common as are injuries.
This is a cautionary tail to take the precautionary measurements to keep healthy and safe. Many people come down here and have their trips end early due unfortunate circumstances.
Tonsai has started to see some major development over the last few years, and there are plans for the installation of a major Railay-style beach resort. Though I doubt this will “ruin” the climbing, it will only go to further increase prices and eat away from the vibes which have historically lead climbers to pick this place.
All that is to say is that the time to go is now. Life’s short, climb today, work tomorrow.