Sport Climbing in Thakhek – South East Asia's best sport climbing?

Since the Democratic Republic of Laos opened its borders to tourism in the mid '90s, and first route development in 2010, Thakhek is a relatively new destination and is fast becoming one of the top sport climbing venues in South East Asia. The range and quality of lines, coupled with the warm climate, low cost, and the breathtaking scenery - it's easy to see why climbers come to Thakhek and find it hard to leave.

Matt Cooke on Relapse (8a) with the stunning backdrop of Pha Tam Kam valley  © Tom Skelhon
Matt Cooke on Relapse (8a) with the stunning backdrop of Pha Tam Kam valley
© Tom Skelhon

South-East Asia has a great appeal for international climbers – it's exotic, the tropical climate, the culture and it's cheap! But where to go? The same names usually pop up - Tonsai, Crazy Horse, Yangshuo, but more recently… Thakhek. However as areas such as Tonsai, Crazy Horse and Koh Phi Phi suffer from overcrowding and closures, Thakhek is fast becoming a more appealing choice.

Sitting on the banks of the Mekong River, which forms the border between Thailand and Laos, Thakhek is a small, sleepy town on the SE Asia tourist trail. Only 12km south of the town, the flat scenery gives way to numerous karst towers, and nestled amongst them is the Green Climbers Home.

After an exploratory visit by a team of Germans in 2010, putting up the original sport lines, Tanja and Uli Weidner returned the following year to build the first Green Climbers Home – a dedicated climbers camp. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of route development around the camp seeing a steadily bigger stream of climbers visiting the area year on year; so much so that a second camp has sprung up. As of 2019, there are over 400 fully bolted sport routes and the camp is now open for the season under new management.

Climbing

Dominating the scenery within the Pha Tam Kam valley are limestone Karst towers as far as the eye can see. These towers, which are also synonymous with the venues of Yangshuo and Tonsai provide the excellent varied rock for the hundreds of routes put up in this area. The climbing has been developed on the towers surrounding the camp and as with karst, the featured limestone tends to be on the steeper side with pockets, tufas and huecos.

There is a lot of variation on the climbing terrain from vertical routes to the mindboggling horizontal 'Roof'. As such, one of the major plus points of the area is the spectrum of grading, which genuinely gives plenty of routes between 5 and 8a+. At present, there are 70 routes below F5, 130 routes of F6a-6b, 90 F7s and 15 routes of F8a and above.

Tom Skelhon attempting to escape ‘The Roof’ on Jungle King (7b)   © Kai Rueber
Tom Skelhon attempting to escape ‘The Roof’ on Jungle King (7b)
© Kai Rueber

Most of the crags line either side of the valley where the two camps are based. As the crags face a variety of aspects, there is always somewhere to climb in the shade throughout the day.

The most well-known sector is 'The Roof', an outrageously overhanging cave offering steep pumpy routes through a forest of tufas from 6b+ to 8a+ on big holds. Classic routes such as Jungle King (7b) and Big Smile (8a) escape the labyrinth of the roof, and continue on the steep headwall above.

Despite 'The Roof' being the most famous sector, this represents only a fraction of the quality lines in the area. There are many crags with routes that are equally as good on flatter angles.

Here are some of the best sectors:

Partymeile and Hangover – a mixture of vertical face climbs some of which finish with overhanging jug pulling for glory. The crimpy Schwitzerland (7a) vs. the single clean pinch tufa of Acid Therapy (7a) or the sustained Konterbier (7b+).

Anna Fedorova despatching Schwitzerland (7a) at the Hangover sector   © Tom Skelhon
Anna Fedorova despatching Schwitzerland (7a) at the Hangover sector
© Tom Skelhon

Open all Hours – with the advantage of all-day shade hosts some long 6s on the left with overhanging finishes and more vertical crimpy routes on the right. Highlights including Scotch on the Rocks and Pulveriser (both 6c+), L4 One of the Best (7a) and Go bananas (7b).

Worldtrip – 30m long searing Tufa routes from top to bottom with some crimpy vertical offerings on the left. Try Mr Keo (7a) or Mr Ku (6c+) for a full forearm pump.

Elephant and Hilton - flanking 'The Roof' couldn't be more of a contrast with highly featured vertical and almost slabby rock on huge tufas like molten candle wax which give over 40 routes in the 5-6 range. Highlights include Red Ants (6b+) and Mon General (6c) at Hilton and Mr Nyoi (5b), Das Geschwer (6a+) and Sinterorgie (6a) at Elephant.

Päivi Hantula makes the most of the all day shade on L4 One of the Best (7a) at Open all Hours sector  © Tom Skelhon
Päivi Hantula makes the most of the all day shade on L4 One of the Best (7a) at Open all Hours sector
© Tom Skelhon

Multi-pitches – A handful of 4-5 pitch fully equipped multi-pitches have been put up. Most are in the 5+ to 6b range giving everyone the chance to top out on one of the towers and enjoy an amazing view, (dusk or dawn is the best time for this). The best of the bunch is probably Chinese New Year (6a+).

Burnout - known to give stiff grades, but gives great vertical crimpy face climbs with tidy rock. High-quality lines include Work Life Balance (7b), Sabbatical (7a+) and Breaking Bad (7c).

Schoffl block and Schnecke - Within a stone's throw distance of camp 1 (literally), the sectors of Schoffl block, Schnecke and climbers home offer the ultimate in zero-walk in climbing with a smorgasbord of routes in the 6s including Watch my Figure (6a+) and Schnubbes (6b).

For those wanting to get away from the hub of the camp, or in the unlikely event of running out of routes to climb, you can walk 30mins to the newly developed and much quieter sectors near the Tha Falang swimming spot. The routes at Phantasia have a wilder feeling being reclaimed by the jungle, but the routes are still of great quality with tight bolting. Plenty to go at in the mid 6s here.

Many of the lines have been written up in the UKC logbook, available for a pre-trip tick list here.

Päivi Hantula showing no sign of Burnout Syndrome (7a+)   © Tom Skelhon
Päivi Hantula showing no sign of Burnout Syndrome (7a+)
© Tom Skelhon

Fia Weis, one of the previous hosts of Camp 2 on Breaking Bad (7c) at the fierce Burnout sector  © Tom Skelhon
Fia Weis, one of the previous hosts of Camp 2 on Breaking Bad (7c) at the fierce Burnout sector
© Tom Skelhon

When to Go

The climbing season runs between October and May when the Green Climbers Home is open. Due to monsoons, climbing is ruled out during the summer months. The camp is busiest during December and January so book well in advance. However, equally great cool and dry conditions can be found in November and February when the camp tends to be a bit quieter. If travelling alone, it's easy to pick up partners at the camp so don't fret about finding a catch.

Accommodation options at the camp include bungalows, with or without en suite bathrooms, and tents, all supplied with bedding. As the camp is busy during the high season it's essential to book well in advance if you want a bungalow! Based on 2 people sharing, a bungalow is approx. £9 / £6.50 (with/without en suite) and a tent £3pp a night. Visit www.greenclimbershome.com for more details and booking. Some climbers base themselves in Thakhek town where there are a few options of hotels. This does mean a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride each way every day.

The popular bungalows at Camp 2 - just as the sun rises above the morning crags   © Tom Skelhon
The popular bungalows at Camp 2 - just as the sun rises above the morning crags
© Tom Skelhon

How to Get There

From Bangkok take an internal flight to Nakhon Phanom (Air Asia / Nok Air £40 each way). From the Nakhon Phanom airport, take one of the regular minivans to the bus terminal in town (100 Thai Bhat). Buses from the terminal over the bridge border crossing into Laos leave hourly during the day (1.5 hours, 70 bhat). To cross into Laos, ensure you have a passport photo and 35 USD for a 30-day visa on arrival. Once in Laos, the bus will continue to the Thakhek bus station. Wander around for a couple of minutes with your climbing bags before being accosted by a taxi driver offering a ride to 'climbing', and take the 12km ride to Green Climbers Home for 100,000 KIP. Note it's worth grabbing a few supplies and Laotian currency in Thakhek town before heading to the camp. For those on a budget or already in the region, buses head to Thakhek from Bangkok, Vientane, Pakse, Hanoi and Hue plus other destinations to Nakhon Phanom.

High above the camp on the summit of Chinese New Year (6a+) celebrating a new record of 17min 20sec to simul the entire multipi  © Matt Cooke
High above the camp on the summit of Chinese New Year (6a+) celebrating a new record of 17min 20sec to simul the entire multipitch. Note the victory Laotian whisky stashed at the top! (Photo: Matt Cooke)

Food and Supplies

If staying at the camp, you don't need to worry about cooking. The kitchen in both camps serve up a range of local and western dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks in between (highlights include Schnitzel and Burger night!). Vegetarian and vegans are well catered for. They also have a permanently stocked bar so most leave all of the catering to the Green Climbers Home. In Thakhek there are many eateries geared towards the tourists passing through town.

Camp 2 kitchen at feeding time – plenty of time for post climbing beers and bragging rights  © Tom Skelhon
Camp 2 kitchen at feeding time – plenty of time for post climbing beers and bragging rights
© Tom Skelhon

Rest Days

The camp is self-contained with a great vibe and there's always something happening. But, if the plethora of activities aren't enough to entertain - slacklining, boules, volleyball, Speedminton, etc, there are a few other things to do outside the camp. Thahkek town is on the tourist trail featuring many restaurants, a lively market, day trip tour operators and massage parlours. As such, a great day can be spent stuffing your face with pizza (Patalai pizzeria comes highly recommended) followed by a Thai massage. Thakhek is also on 'The Loop', a 3 day motorcycle trail that many tourists take in Laos with motorcycles available for hire in the town. The camp also hires bicycles if you don't fancy a motorbike. Outside the town, there are loads of great caves and swimming holes to explore close to the camp.

Heading back into camp after a pizza and massage in Thakhek town - such a hard life  © Tom Skelhon
Heading back into camp after a pizza and massage in Thakhek town - such a hard life
© Tom Skelhon

Guidebook

Don't worry about trying to get hold of a guidebook beforehand. Up to date guidebooks are readily available to buy at the camp for 16 USD, and the proceeds go back into the fixed gear fund.

The camp also runs climbing courses, from the absolute basics to leading and technique courses – so worth bearing in mind if this is one of your first outdoor trips or have a novice on the trip with you.

Top Tips

  • Don't pet the dogs in Thakhek town, you'll get bitten and have to get a rabies jab (seems logical, but we saw it happen!).
  • Laos is a poor country and health care is very basic. In case of a serious health issue, the best action is to head straight into Thailand (i.e. back to Nakhom Phanom). Bring along a basic first aid kit.
  • The camp and climbing are surrounded by jungle, so watch out for snakes and stingy/bitey insects (especially the scorpions!).
  • Green Climbers Home employs many locals, giving them the opportunity of work when they otherwise wouldn't have the chance. However, please consider supplementing their income with tips – most of them work very hard, and a small contribution on your part makes a big difference.
  • The Green Climbers Home sometimes need volunteers to help run the camp, contact them directly to see if you can help out.

Tom is an avid climber, skier and mountaineer who tries his best to avoid the daily grind. His love of trad, sport, winter, mixed, ice, DWS and high altitude climbing have taken him all over the world, from Peru, Morocco, the Alps, China, Australia, SE Asia and Cheddar.

You can check out his exploits and DIY guides to climbing and hiking destinations around the world here.



12 Feb

This article is so fascinating, i am looking forward to have the best time in climbing sports!

13 Feb

We love Green Climbers Home (GCH), it's such a relaxed place to be, full of like minded people, great food and amazing climbing. We haven't been since the change of management but I'm sure it will continue to thrive, and many more routes will be put up.

15 Feb

Ever heard the phrases "global warming" or "climate emergency"?

Perhaps it might be better in the context of the above not to recommend destinations involving long haul flights just to go cragging?

16 Feb

Are other types of climbing and mountaineering ok?

20 Feb

I went to ThakHek about 6 years ago. I was really impressed by the place. Lots of very Good climbing in a small area and very friendly. Good conditions too - hot but there was lots of shade and not as humid as Thailand.