Railay Beach is normally accessed from Krabi via boat. After arriving on a flight from Bangkok on a plane on which Eric and I were the only Asians on board apart from the crew, we hired one of the licensed taxis to take us to Ao Nang Beach.
The taxi deposited us as this ramshackle pier where we paid 50 baht each for a longtail boat into Railay. Longtails, so called because the boat’s means of propulsion consist of a naked engine attached to a long, rusty, metal shaft with a propeller down one end and the driver’s steering hand (or, in the case of our longtail, the driver’s groin) on the other.
Interesting steering technique
Railay has two beaches – the mangrove-ridden East Beach and the slightly more genteel West Beach. It turned out that our taxi had actually taken us to Ao Nam Pier on the East side of Railay instead of Ao Nang on the West side. Luckily we arrived on the East Beach at high tide, saving us the lengthy trudge across the beach necessary for those arriving during low tide when the sea retreats several hundred metres out.
Most people come to Railay for the rock climbing. It has a large number of limestone cliffs which characterise the region, many of which are climbable. The four of us had been climbing for about a year beforehand, but that was all indoors “top rope” climbing. Outdoors climbing was something entirely new and we also wanted to learn how to lead climb (I’ll explain the jargon soon).
Every third shop in Railay is a rock climbing shop offering gear rental, guides, climbing lessons – whatever you need. The prices are actually fairly uniform, so it can be difficult to pick which shop to go with. We spent an evening doing the rounds, trying to find a place that looked decent.
Everyone in Railay is very relaxed – both tourists and locals. There are no touts on the island at all, save for the longtail boat drivers who will hopefully parrot “Boat? Boat? Boat?” if you walk past their hangout on the West Beach at any time of day or night (we were once asked if we needed a 45-minute boatride to Krabi town despite it being midnight and pitch dark on the water). So we weren’t all that surprised to come across one rock climbing shop manned by a staff member smoking some weed on its front step.
Being a group of 3 lawyers/lawyers-to-be and a risk analyst, we were interested to see if these climbing places were insured, and if so, by who and for how much money. In Australia when you climb indoors you have to sign all these waivers, disclaimers, go through safety checks and so on, but in Thailand – as to be expected – paperwork was simply unheard of. The most paperwork you’d get out of any of them was a rag with a number and date scrawled on it proving you’d paid. So when we asked the rock climbing shops who they were insured with, they stared at us like we were the first people to ever ask them that question. On hindsight, we probably were the first people to ever ask them that question.
But anyway, back to the shop manned by the guy that was high. We walked past him and into the store. He didn’t follow, but let us sit inside for several minutes while he finished his joint. As I said, all the locals are relaxed and none of them are in any particular hurry to take our money – which is kind of refreshing in a South-East Asian country. Finally, the man eagerly bounded in, “So, you want to go climbing? Let’s go!”
The wind visibly went out from his sails when we popped the question about insurance.
“Insurance? Yeah we got. Let’s go climbing!”
“Can we see the policy? You know – the paperwork?”
He hesitated and looked at us strangely. When he realised we were serious, he spun around to confront the rack behind him which was laden with folders and paper. He made a half-hearted attempt of flicking through one folder, becoming increasingly flustered. About five seconds later, he abruptly slammed the folder shut and barked at all of us: “Too busy for insurance!!”
He stormed out of the shop and promptly lit up another joint.
We settled with the place a few doors down (incidentally, they were insured by New Hampshire Insurance). Actually, all the climbing stores are licensed, and one of the requisites to being licensed is being insured, so we needn’t have worried. We hired a guide for one day. We had brought along our own harnesses and shoes but all the shops there are fully stocked with gear that can be rented.
Our guide was called Boy (his name is probably better transliterated as Boi, but we’ll stick with Boy for now). We were a little dubious at the start when we asked if he enjoyed rock climbing and he told us that he was getting bored of it (he was 23 years old). He turned out perfectly capable however in showing us the ropes. Amusingly, when he was 16 his parents sent him to school in South Africa to learn English. When he arrived there, he went to school for one day, decided it was boring and never went back. He spent a great deal of the next three months watching English movies. Actually, he only watched one movie over that three months, and of all the ones to watch to cut his teeth on, he had to pick Conspiracy Theory. But three months on, it finally clicked and he understood what was going on.
We learnt more that day than in the year we had spent indoor climbing. The form of rock climbing people are introduced to in indoor centres is called “top roping”. This is because the rope has been looped through an anchor point at the top of the climb. The climber is attached to one end of the rope via their harness, and the belayer (the person who will arrest the climber’s fall in the event they come unstuck from the wall) is attached to the other end. As the climber climbs, the rope slackens, so the belayer pulls the rope tense and, via a locking device attached to their harness, locks the rope in place. If the climber falls, the climber will only drop a few centimetres (the distance the rope stretches, plus any slack the belayer has failed to remove). You can belay someone who weighs a little heavier than you because if the climber falls, some of their weight is borne by the anchor point at the top of the climb – although of course if the weight imbalance is too much, the belayer will go shooting off the ground which is not good for anybody.
Top roping is fine indoors where all the walls routes are pre-roped, but in the outdoors it wouldn’t be safe to leave ropes out exposed to the elements, and especially not by the seaside. So, how do you get the top rope up there safely in the first place? This is where lead climbing (also known as sport climbing) comes in. Climbing walls may have a number of routes up them which someone has “discovered”. Along these routes, people have driven bolts into the rockface – small loops of metal which offer a climber protection and peculiarly are referred to as “protection” (as in “hook yourself into that bit of protection”). These metal loops are spaced several metres apart up the rockface. Apparently the steel loops at Railay kept getting corroded away by the salty air, so it was a comfort to learn that titanium loops were gradually replacing the steel ones.
Cath heading up the wall
Lead climbing is called lead climbing because the climber leads the way up the wall with the rope trailing behind. The lead climber carries a set of quickdraws, which are pairs of carabiners attached by a short length of fabric. When the climber reaches a point of protection, they clip one end of a quickdraw into the protection, and clip the rope into the other end. Falling while lead climbing is a fair bit more scarier than falling while top roping because you fall twice the distance to your last point of protection, plus the rope stretch distance and any slack (and there is invariably going to be slack because as the climber moves up the wall, the belayer needs to feed slack rope through to the climber to allow them to continue up the wall – unlike top roping where the belayer needs to take up the slack). You can end up falling several metres which is a bit of a shock to the system.
When you get to the top of the route, you then have to feed a rope through an anchor point (normally a solid metal ring). The trick here is to safely pass the rope attached to your harness through the ring to form a top rope. Of course, you can’t simply untie the rope from your harness, pass it through the ring and then tie yourself up again. Not unless you have a deathwish. So, climbers have evolved what is a rather intricate procedure involving quickdraws and knot tying to enable a lead climber to safely set up a top rope. Well, it’s not that intricate, but for a novice, there is a set of about half a dozen steps to follow involving clips, knots and rope which is pretty intimidating because the first time you do it, no one’s up there to help you and there’s a distinct uneasy feeling that you’re going to untie the wrong knot and plummet to a messy end. It doesn’t help that you use both hands to do the work so you’re not actually hanging on to the rock at all at that stage. Also, during the procedure there’s several carabiners and lengths of rope interwined into your harness, so figuring out which carabiner was safe to unclip, or which rope was safe to untie was a bit like figuring out whether to cut the green wire or the red wire. But with experience you get used to it, though you always have to be alert!
Unfortunately, the second time Kev went up there a couple things went wrong and he was stuck up there for about 20 minutes. “What am I doing wrong?” Kev yelled down at one stage. “Everything!” was Boy’s comforting reply. Eventually, unable to see what Kev had done (a bit hard, given he was 20 metres up) Boy had to climb up another route and talk Kev through the process – which it turns out that he had followed except for one step. Compounding the problem was a case of equipment failure – the carabiner on the safety sling wouldn’t lock.
Lead climbing, though a bit nerve-wracking at first, is quite fun. It involves a lot more thought than top roping – you have to plan your route more carefully because you have to place your protection, and of course there’s this whole anchoring business up the top.
There is also a form of climbing called traditional climbing, or “trad climbing” for short. This enables a climber to lead climb a wall without any pre-placed protection. A trad climber brings up their own protection, for example in the form of spring-loaded camming devices (though there are a lot of other widgets available). The climber pulls a trigger on a cam to make it contract, then places the cam into a crack or other space in the rock. When the trigger is released, the cam expands to jam itself into the space. The climber then clips themself into the device for protection and continues climbing.
This is a lot more scary because you have to trust that the cam is reliable, and that you have placed it in a suitable location on the rock face. Boy claims to have bought several cams some time ago, but never got around to trying out trad climbing because he just didn’t trust the cams. One benefit of trad climbing is that because the protection is temporary, the rockface is not marred. You can see James Bond doing some trad climbing in For Your Eyes Only (although he hammers pitons into the rockface for protection).
You can also climb without any protection and any belayer in what is known as free soloing. Crazy stuff.
Finally, there’s a newish form of climbing called Deep Water Soloing, which is like free soloing, except you climb over a body of water so if you fall and land correctly, you don’t die. This is what it looks like when done by one of the world’s best climbers.
Lead climbing was more than enough fun for us. We even went back again a couple days later for more. We hired Boy again, but before any climbing had begun, he unfortunately had managed to disable himself by whacking his eye with the rope while he was unfurling it on the ground. Luckily, our replacement guide was equally as able.
We spent all of our time on three novice walls – Diamond Cave, Muay Thai and the ever popular One Two Three wall.
Eric leading on the Muay Thai wall
Tying myself in
Me leading through a jungle of top ropes
Kev leading again
The One Two Three Wall
View from 30m up, 1-2-3 wall
View from 30m up, 1-2-3 wall
It got a little dark, but that didn’t stop us
An Asian version of Cpt Jack Sparrow? One of the climbing guides
We also hired a boat one day and went fishing and snorkelling. We went past the island where The Beach was filmed, but unfortunately we didn’t get a look at the beach itself.
There’s also another one of Eric and Kev bouldering in budgies but I won’t inflict that upon you