Sun and Limestone in Laem Phra Nang (Railay), Thailand

Laem Phra Nang, the peninsula jutting out from the south coast of Thailand into the Andaman Sea, is better known simply as Railay. Offering a huge number of bolted sport routes, it's a deservedly world famous climbing arena. Steep lines on vertical limestone afford stunning views over palm trees and sparkling azure waters. The rock itself often seems purpose built for climbing. Lines top out into surreal aerial caves, and stalactites stretch down from precipitous overhangs. Wall-to-wall sunshine and an abundance of restaurants and bars make for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere.

Railay/Tonsai Peninsula, taken from pitch 2 of Circus Oz  © papashango
Railay/Tonsai Peninsula, taken from pitch 2 of Circus Oz
© papashango, Aug 2013

What's there?

Laem Phra Nang has three main climbing areas; the village of Ton Sai to the north west, and West Railay and East Railay which flank the peninsula itself. Laem Phra Nang beach at the southern end of the peninsula is also considered as a separate sector in some guidebooks. Ton Sai is the the base of choice for most climbers, with its laid-back vibe, cheap accommodation and some nice bars to kick back in after a day on the rock. It can be hard to remember that Laem Phra Nang is a peninsula and not an island, because it's inaccessible by land and the only way to get there is by longtail boat.

photo
Hanging on to 'Burnt offerings'.
© Riikka Mäkelä, Jul 2005

Between them, the three areas have some 49 walls (not including the islands off the coast) and more than 700 routes. Highlights The grades at Laem Phra Nang are mostly at the higher end of the scale. The easy-to-access Ton Sai Beach wall, for example, is home to some seriously steep and strenuous but generally short lines. And if you're really feeling adventurous, Dum's Kitchen wall is home to Greed (8c), officially Thailand's hardest sport route. Multi-pitches are in abundance too, with the 4-7 pitch Humanality (6b+ crux) and its superb aspect one of the best known.

photo
Riesenbaby (7a+) and a typically steep start at Ton Sai Beach wall
© steve7734

Jon Reading hanging around in Ton Sai Roof  © Paul Phillips
Jon Reading hanging around in Ton Sai Roof
© Paul Phillips

Thaiwand Wall, the unmissable spire of rock at the end of the peninsula, is also well worth a visit. Normally accessed from West Railay beach, it stands 200m high but enjoys shade for much of the day thanks to a northerly aspect. It boasts 21 routes over a broad range of grades, including seven multi-pitch routes. The five-pitch Lord of the Thais offers a wildly exposed 7b crux, though many climbers find the first pitch alone (6a+) a nice distraction from gravity. Other multi-star multi-pitches include Circus Oz (7a crux pitch) and Equatorial (7b crux).

Thaiwand Wall (on the right) from Ton Sai, towering over the bay  © steve7734
Thaiwand Wall (on the right) from Ton Sai, towering over the bay
© steve7734

Though the majority of routes are 6c or higher, Laem Phra Nang easily has enough sub-6c routes to justify a visit for lower grade climbers, though it's not the best destination if you have young children and want to find them something basic to climb. One Two Three Wall on East Railay is the most popular crag for easier lines, but can get crowded with backpackers trying out supervised climbing for the day. Other good lower grade options include Fire Wall and Wee's Present Wall. The former is home to The Groove Tube (6a) a comfortable but enjoyable 3-star line to the top of a smooth chimney.

123 wall from railay east  © robal
123 wall from railay east
© robal, Mar 2011

Beta

The quality of the limestone is excellent for the most part, though a few areas have rotten rock and loose stalactites (!) so should definitely be avoided. Holds can be polished, especially on the more popular routes. The fierce heat means that most climbers chase the shade, starting on a west-facing crag in the morning and moving to an east-facing area in the afternoon. The sweltering midday temperatures make long lunches justifiably popular! Another consideration is the tide. At high tide, the walk from Ton Sai to West Railay means that a ten minute detour over a rocky headland is needed. Some walls can only be reached on foot at low tide, but it's often possible to hire a boat to otherwise inaccessible crags like Eagle Wall.

Topping out on We Sad (6a+), One Two Three wall  © steve7734
Topping out on We Sad (6a+), One Two Three wall
© steve7734

The combination of tropical conditions, a salty coastal location and high levels of groundwater acidity mean that stainless steel bolts have a tough and seriously short lifespan in the Thai limestone; 'new' bolts rusting to breaking point after just nine months are common. For this reason, glued titanium bolts are the norm (see http://thaitaniumproject.com) and up-to-date guidebooks make it very clear when lines are not safely or recently bolted. Rope slings are common, but usually give way to bolts on crux moves and higher graded climbs.

photo
The view from the top of The Groove Tube (6a), Fire Wall
© steve7734

Logistics

When to go

The best time to visit is from November to March, during the dry season.

Where to stay

Laem Phra Nang offers a good choice of accommodation. In Ton Sai, bamboo or brick bungalows with double beds are the norm. At the budget end of the scale, bungalows in Ton Sai can be found for as little as 400 Baht (about £8) per night. Staying in West or East Railay provides a lot more comfort, but at a price – expect to pay from about £30 per night for a typical double/twin room.

Hiring gear

There are three shops in Ton Sai which hire out full sets of gear; the popular Base Camp Tonsai, the slightly more expensive Rock Shop near Ton Sai beach, and the newer Shadow Rock. King Climbers, based in Ao Nang, is also well established. Prices between shops vary but expect to pay around 1300 Baht (£25) for a full days' kit hire for two climbers, including rope. As always, inspect all gear carefully before use and hire at your own risk.

Guidebooks

Rock Climbing in Thailand and Laos by Elke Schmitz, widely sold in Ton Sai, was updated in 2014 (7th Edition). The latest 8th Edition of King Climbers Thailand Route Guide Book covers 2013-2014. Both are excellent guidebooks for the area.

How to get there

Krabi is the nearest major town and airport, with flights and buses from Bangkok and some flights from international airports. Laem Phra Nang can only be accessed by boat, either from Krabi or the much closer town of Ao Nang (100 Baht, or about £2, one-way). Note that there are no ATMs in Ton Sai, so if you need more cash you'll have to head across to Railay.


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26 Feb, 2016
Interesting timing of the article seeing the current goings on in Thailand. Lots of area's have banned commercial and recreational climbing in the National Parks due to 'unsafe' practices going on. I have to admit, when I was out there in 2010 I hired a rope from a guy who had a stack-load of stuff in his back shed. Just left over gear that backpackers didn't want to carry on their onward travels. He basically said "don't tell the climbing shops I've got this" Fortunately for me the rope was practically brand spanking new, but he's probably still hiring it out not knowing the history of it.
27 Feb, 2016
The bans probably aren't much to do with these "unsafe practices." Probably more to do with officials wanting bribes etc. As for the article, it's a good starting point, but the Krabi/Phang Nga region now has much more than just the Phra Nang peninsula. If I get a chance I'll put something together about Spirit Mountain, Koh Yao and some other new locations - all within one hour of the Phra Nang peninsula. In addition, I think the main selling point of the climbing on the Phra Nang peninsula is the big multi-pitch stuff. The single-pitch honey pot crags are getting a little "tired," but there are few destinations that can match Phra Nang for big mutli-pitch bolted adventures. I'll remember, for a very long time, back-clipping down almost every pitch when abbing off the Monitor Wall or Thailand wall.
27 Feb, 2016
I had a great couple of weeks in Tonsai a few years ago, but have heard they have since developed the beach front and the jungle between the beach and the parallel track a few hundred yards inland, and are taking the whole bay upmarket. If so, what's the difference in atmosphere, costs, clientele etc? Cheers, Lex
27 Feb, 2016
In reply to PeakDJ Agreed, very cool. Ever been to lopburi? 200m limestone multi pitch routes just north of bangers! We had the whole site to ourselves for 2 days. I too will remember for a very long time getting my rope stuck on nearly every cactus (or is that cacti?) on the ab off.
28 Feb, 2016
Actually I was chatting to one of the Thai guesthouse owners in Ton Sai about this. You're right, a large square of land has been bought up by a developer between the beach and Ton Sai's main street. And they've built a 2m tall concrete wall around much of it. But so far they haven't actually started developing that land. It's still pretty much jungle. The lady I spoke to said that development had been stalled or postponed for some reason. I just hope it stays that way.
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