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16 February 2011

Two Weeks on Tonsai

Tonsai. Just uttering the word makes my fingers tingle. Imagine white sandy beaches crawling out of the jungle and kissing the azure waters of the Andaman Sea. NOW imagine giant towers of limestone thrusting out of the ocean and reaching toward the sky, everywhere, with vegetation covering and spilling off of the walls and spires. Sound like a climber’s paradise? It is.

Phra Nang Beach, from the Defile.
But for climbers’ eyes only? No! Normal people can soak up the beauty too. And they do. Nearby Koh Phi Phi (where the movie “The Beach” was shot) consistently earns “one of the most beautiful islands/beaches” of the world status. And the Phra Nang Peninsula, where Tonsai and its sister beaches are, displays the same natural wonder. In fact, southern Thailand in general is covered with beautiful coastline on both this side and on the Gulf of Thailand, where the famous islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are located. This kind of beauty attracts notice. Phra Nang and Railay Beaches are covered with tanning hard (and soft) bodies, rich and famous, or just rich, from all over the world speaking languages of many origins floating on the ocean breeze. Tonsai Beach, just across from Railay, is more the climber and budget traveler hangout… erego, that’s where I was at.

So the climbing: It’s by far the steepest, strangest, funkiest, most overhung, and downright alien climbing I’ve ever done. All kinds of weird stuff to grab onto, scum up against, stick your head into, paste your foot upon, and generally stare at and wonder, “how the hell am I going to use that?” Then there’s the green stuff. Trees and their kin hug the steep slopes, edging a sylvan elbow into any habitable zone on the mountainside. Vines and roots and runners leap off the tops of towers, dangling down the walls and cliffs to find nooks and pockets and crannies to bed down in. One way to tell how steep a wall really is, is to gaze up at the plant matter hanging down at dead vertical from its top and then measure the angle at which the wall steadily creeps away inward. Yeah, it’s steep.

The impressive karst topography is the combined result of bedrock (limestone and dolomite) and the erosional power of the ocean and the tropical monsoon. Check out these sites to get a better understanding of the process: Wikipedia, Answers. A loose way to imagine it is to think of the water flowing through the porous rock and dissolving, transporting, and then depositing minerals in new, down gradient locations. This essentially causes the rock to flow like a liquid, and create stunning and bizarre formations like stalactites, pillars, stalagmites, tufas, and “flowstone” (read, everything else) for climbers to play on. It also creates massive underground cave systems. The world’s largest cave was discovered in Vietnam a couple years back in the same kind of landscape. On Phra Nang one tunnel traverses under the massive Thaiwand to transport climbers through the dark hollow, over rickety bamboo ladders and ledges, from Phra Nang beach and Escher World to Railay and the Thaiwand’s north face.
Up on Monitor Wall. The Thaiwand and Railay Beach behind me.
Getting back to the steepness. Your shoulders and arms are nearly always pitched back with your feet in and below you. This kind of climbing is intensely physical and pumpy (where your forearms fill up with blood, muscles and tendons and ligaments tighten, and you can no longer grip anything), and forces you to get creative to try and work reasonable rests into your progress. Given the featured nature of the rock, the rests get pretty funny-looking. One of the best is the crotch-tufa-squeeze, where you straddle each side of the flowstone and squeeze with your groin muscles to hold you in place and shake out your arms. Others involve sneaking into small caves, which are then typically pretty dicey to get out of; shoulder scums against tufas, which can be tenuous if you’re slippery with sweat; and the notorious “ride the pony,” where you get to wrap your legs all the way around a free-hanging stalagtite and lock your feet on the other side. You don’t believe it works ‘til you’ve done it. It’s an adolescent-minded climber’s dream.

Annaliese loving life, Tonsai Beach behind her.

The physical nature of the climbing also triggers another physiological response: profuse sweating. This is the tropics, on the ocean, and although this is the dry season, you remain perpetually wet. Being the monster sweater that I am, all I had to do was peer at the rock and think about climbing and I was drenched. Just slipping my feet into my flip flops in the morning caused beads on my brow. So when I actually got on the rock, I was a veritable waterfall. I constantly apologized to Annaliese for sliming up all the holds for her. I think every climb we did was one grade harder for her since everything was so thoroughly slick from my passage. But the rock wasn’t the only thing that got slimed. December through February is the high season here, and the crags were often swarming with people. Packed in densely at the base, one may or may not have been liable to be hit by my rain of sweat pouring off the wall from above. Thankfully, stalactites will drip consistently throughout the year here, so unexplained droplets never drew me any unwanted ire. What they didn’t know didn’t hurt them.
Inspired by our constant grungy tropical funk, we sought out and found a new word in Thai: kee klai. Body grime. It seemed fitting, as the sweat inevitably mingled with dirt, chalk, sand, vegetation, dead bugs, etc. to form a mosaic of grossness. Most evenings (well, more like some evenings), a nice cold shower would cleanse me of my filth, while I conversed with the resident toad that lived in our shower drain. He was a climber too, so he understood.
After two weeks of climbing it was hard to leave. Tonsai is a kind of vortex that you easily slip into and fall out of the time-space continuum. You climb awesome routes, eat amazing Thai food, drink cheap beer, meet cool folks from all over the world, sleep and repeat. Sometimes, you mix it up with swimming, lounging on the beach, reading, shooting pool, chess, the occasional Thai massage. But that’s basically it. Wear as little clothing as possible and soak up the incredible natural beauty of this peninsula paradise.

My main gnome, Hinnie Fumbeggins, with
Happy Island in the background.

Our second to last night, Annaliese and I figured we would investigate the night life a little. For most of the trip, we had focused exclusively on climbing our heads off and relaxing accordingly, have a beer or two, go to bed early. But Tonsai does have an evening scene with fire spinning, dancing, and all kinds of tropical cocktails. So we decided to give it a go. 

Well, our festive natures revealed themselves that evening, as we cocktailed, shot pool with Norwegians whose names we couldn’t pronounce (Svehdreh?!?), drank beer, talked smack, engaged the bartender (Mai) and his brother (Wee) in some solid whiskey slapping (intrigued, aren’t you?), watched Wee perform some incredible slack-line fire-dancing-and-spinning, partook in LOTS of hearty laughter, watched John the Brit cheat and repeatedly beat Muay Thai Kickboxing Wee at arm wrestling, then agree to get whooped a little in some street Muay Thai to help Wee recover some face, which inevitably turned into Wee knocking the crap out of a German judo master Franky, who just wanted to observe this foreign martial art and didn’t expect to get whalloped (I don’t think anyone expected that), and then John, Annaliese and I intervened as moderators to prevent an all out brawl as Franky expressed his discontent (severe), Wee acted confidently cool that he had done nothing wrong (and could take Franky, no problem), and Mai lifted up his shirt in bravado, threatening to knock Franky once more (Franky would have judo-chopped the drunken Mai). With our international social mediating powers combined, the three of us were able to diffuse the situation enough that beers were bought and hands were shaken and no large quantity of blood was spilled. Exciting multi-cultural exchange, no?

But such a minor skirmish couldn’t sully a truly wonderful experience. Since I have left Tonsai, I have dreamed of returning for more of that intoxicating lifestyle. The tropics and the beach just go so well with… well, really anything. But especially climbing. It has been delightful to meet many climbers since then that have yet to visit Tonsai, and to regale them with the sheer excellence of the place, and watch their goofy smiling anticipation grow dramatically.

A note from 18 January in my journal: “Today Annaliese and I parted ways. After a spectacular two weeks climbing, chilling, eating, sleeping, swimming, whiskey and rum slapping, and billiards-ing on Tonsai, Railay, and the greater Phra Nang, our adventure has ended and the next phase begins.”
Indeed it has.


  1. Awesome post, Case. Your photos are spectacular (although they are making me quite jealous).

    Might as well change your middle name to kee klai...

  2. Gave me the shivers. Sounds like you and Annaliese had a fantastic time together, absorbing some staggeringly beautiful earth. I think of you often, my friend, and enjoy the hell out of these written words. It's exciting to hear of these new beginnings from half the world away. Hopefully we can chat soon. Also, I particularly enjoyed your use of "karst" and "sylvan."