Rockclimbing in Krabi, Thailand: Climbing the walls

Getting to grips with a vertical world is immensely satisfying, writes Louise Southerden.

The walls in southern Thailand's Krabi province have blood on them, some of it mine; little drops left behind when I have scraped a knee or sliced my hand on sharp limestone - rookie mistakes, and rites of passage when you learn to climb in Krabi, the epicentre of rock climbing in Thailand.

I had done some climbing back home before this trip, just with friends, never consistently, but I had always wanted to learn the ropes, so to speak. Krabi seemed the ideal place. Not only is it tropically warm and rain-free during the high season (November-April), but it has hundreds of bolted sport climbing routes along its coastline and on many of its 150-odd islands.

Ground zero for climbers wanting to explore Krabi's vertical world is the Railay Peninsula, cut off from the rest of mainland Krabi by the intimidatingly high limestone walls that have made it famous. Its two main beaches are accessible only by boat, which adds to the adventure.

There is Tonsai, popular with experienced rock rats and backpackers seeking a protein-shakes-and-yoga vibe. Then there is Railay (divided into west and east), where I'm staying, which is more touristy, but has more options for beginner climbers than Tonsai, in terms of routes and climbing schools, many with inspirational taglines such as "Climb not with strength, but with the mind".

I sign up for a three-day course with King Climbers, which wrote the guidebook on climbing in this part of Thailand - literally. My instructor, softly spoken, wild-haired Kaud, is on the cover, photographed halfway up a seemingly mile-high wall that rises straight from a tropical beach. I'm sold.

Day one is organised chaos. I join the throng of wannabe climbers in King Climbers' tiny shop nervously trying on harnesses and too-small climbing shoes, designed to be uncomfortably snug to enable you to stand on tiny nubbins of rock.

We are given chalk bags to clip to our harnesses, before our instructors lead us to the nearest climbing spot, a wide and not-too-high wall called Diamond Cave.

There are ropes striping the rock face left and right, people milling about at the base of the wall, instructors in fisherman's pants calling up to their charges: "Left foot higher!", "Enjoy the view!" and "Use your legs!" (another rookie mistake is to think climbing is all in your arms).

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One-liners ease our anxiety: "Use more 'cocaine' on your hands!", "You want to come down? 200 baht!" and "You say you no like to go high, but I see you smoking weed last night!"

Jokes aside, the instructors are watchful, reassuring and supremely safety conscious. It's a little disorienting, though, clinging to holds and looking down to see if that was your instructor directing you to move your left foot. But somehow, it all works.

We students are like emperor penguin chicks, each remarkably able to recognise the voice of our own teacher above all the others. (It helps when he uses your name: "Lewis!" Kaud calls up to me, "Move your left foot up, yes!")

We climb in the shade every morning and afternoon - only mad English lads hell-bent on a Thai tan climb in the midday sun here - and there is a two-hour break in the middle of the day for lunch and a swim in the sea. Still, by 5pm I'm spent from six hours of climbing, and belaying (which can be just as strenuous: you have to take in the rope as your climbing partner ascends, and lower them safely back to earth).

My hands feel as if they have done something real, not just tap-danced on a keyboard or skated across a touchscreen. There is chalk around my fingernails. My knees are patch-worked with sticking plasters. I love it all.

On day two, there is less actual climbing and more knot-tying, because we are learning to lead - that is, to climb at the "pointy" end of the rope, clipping onto bolts fixed to the wall as we go, instead of being supported by a top-rope someone else has set up. It is scary, but exhilarating, and Kaud always has us in his sights, keeping us safe.

We also start carrying gear on our harnesses - carabiners, slings and "quickdraws" (two carabiners joined by a short piece of webbing) that jangle and clink as we walk.

I feel like Lara Croft. One of my fellow students, a New Yorker, has another image in mind. "That was very 'Bond girl'," he says, after I abseil from one climb.

To my delight, I have become one of those people I had seen walking around with loops of rope on their shoulders and climbing shoes clipped to their daypacks.

But the true joy of climbing lies in how it feels, the sense of achievement, the physical and mental challenge of tackling something that might be too hard, but that you will give a go anyway.

At the end of day three, I realise something else: I have thought of nothing but climbing for three days. It is a moving meditation, a workout and an outdoor adventure all in one. A couple of times I have been so consumed by the task at hand, finding the next hold, that I am at the top before I know it. "Lewis, you're there!" Kaud shouts. "Look around, enjoy the view!" Even at the modest elevation of 25 or 30 metres, looking down on palm trees, noisy longtail boats puttering in from Krabi town and the mobs of Russian tourists walking along the beach, I feel on top of the world.

The writer flew to Thailand with assistance from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

TRIP NOTES

Thailand is experiencing civil unrest. See smartraveller.gov.au before you travel.

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways has a fare to Bangkok from Sydney (9hr) for $1096, including taxes; see thaiairways.com. Bangkok Air has a fare to Krabi from Bangkok (1hr) from 3450 baht ($115) including taxes; see bangkokair.com. Railay is a 10-minute longtail boat ride from Krabi or Ao Nang.

CLIMBING THERE

King Climbers, at Railay, has courses ranging from a half-day introduction for about 1000 baht ($30) to the five-day advanced course for 10,000 baht. See railay.com

STAYING THERE

Anyavee Railay Resort has rooms from 1120 baht a night (May-Oct) and 2400 baht a night (Nov-April). See anyavee.com

MORE INFORMATION

tourismthailand.org.

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