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Day 17 – Railay Is for Climbers

March 20, 2010

Dateline: Tonsai Beach, Krabi, Thailand, Saturday, March 20, 2010

Railay, in Thailand’s Krabi province, is a rock climbing Mecca. People come here to try out some of the best climbs in the world. Now, every place claims to have “the best climbing in the world.” In my estimation, though, Railay is a rock climber’s paradise for at least three reasons.

#1 – The Rock Climbing

First, there’s the rock climbing. It is indeed epic. There are rock faces in every direction so you can climb all day long in the shade so long as you keep switching venues. There’s multi-pitch, bouldering, sport, and something called deep water solo where climbers go out in boats and climb without ropes on rock faces that hang out over the ocean. You won’t get bored in Railay. New routes are being created all the time. People spend months here climbing their brains out. Which brings me to the second reason why Railay is special.

#2 – Thailand Is Cheap

Sure, Yosemite, the Swiss Alps, Vail, and New Zealand have great climbs. They are not, however, cheap. By Thai standards, Railay is a bit pricey. Most climbers, though, are not Thai. You can still find lodging for under seven bucks and have a meal for two. I’ve even seen people camped out in tents on Tonsai Beach. If you bring your own rock climbing gear, your daily expenses would run you about $15 a day. Imagine how much you could spend on booze.

#3 – Location, Location, Location

In my experience, rock climbing areas are very pretty. When you get high enough, you have expansive views of whatever countryside or desert or valley you’re climbing over. The views here are quite nice. You climb over bays of crystal clear water. You lay your ropes down on white sand. At the top of your climbs, you look down on tropical beaches, tropical trees, and tropical, topless, European sunbathers. I took one look at the climbs here and realized that regardless of how terrible you climb, you’re going to look good against this backdrop.

#4 – The Rasta Vibe

This is one chilled out place. The icon of choice isn’t Buddha, it’s Bob, as in Marley. Seems like every Thai guide has dreads. If you visit the right bars, they serve joints instead of peanuts. Reggae culture reigns supreme.

I have no idea why this is the case. Perhaps it’s the tropics. Perhaps it’s because the Thai climbers here connect with Marley’s hymns to the oppressed. Maybe they’ve just got some damn good bud. I don’t know. I do know that it gives the already slow tropical life an even more relaxed feel. People seem friendlier. People seem high.

This is all well and good. I’m in a climbing holy place. I will climb. This, despite the fact that, on balance, I probably hate climbing.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the feel of scrambling up rock. It’s a puzzle for me. Hang on this, pull on that, squeeze on this, ascend into the heavens. There’s something very rewarding about “solving” a wall. You can look down and know exactly how much you’ve accomplished.

Now, you may look at this and say to yourself, “HHhhhmm. . .call me crazy, but it sounds like you like rock climbing.”

I don’t. Scrambling up rocks is not rock climbing. To rock climb you actually have to have a little bit of strength and body control. Climbs are steeper. You cannot have the grip of an eight-year-old girl. I have the grip of a four-year-old girl with mono. I’ve been hanging on a wall, admiring my 10 foot achievement, and come to the realization that my wrist is cramping. Suddenly, I am hanging on for dear life, wondering if I’ll bang my knee on a ledge before I hit the ground. This is usually a static position, which eliminates the climbing part of the experience.

Yes yes yes. I know I’m being melodramatic. I’ve only ever top roped, which means I have a rope that keeps me from hitting the ground and from even falling more than two feet. So, if the fear of death is removed, why do I not enjoy climbing?

Easy. I end up in a static position because I don’t want to let go of the wall. Not because I don’t want to die (though that’s a little bit of it), but because letting go of the wall is failure. A good climber never lets go of the wall. They climb up with less protection than people like me. For them, failure to hold on means they’re falling far. They will get hurt. They may die. They most certainly will lose some choice pieces of skin. That’s a high price for failure.

To me, failure means humiliation. I hate humiliation. When I climb, someone is watching, if only the person holding the other end of the rope. It’s rare, though, to climb with only one person watching. It’s impossible at a place like Railay.

I have no problem with private failure. Shoot, the anonymity of academic grades certainly proved that. Failure in front of family and close friends is bad, but not life threatening. Failure in front of people is the opposite of fun.

For me, rock climbing is an exercise in public humiliation. Inevitably, I will have to admit defeat at least four times on a climb. I will have to hang on the rope for at least 20 minutes to rest. I will slip and lose my grip. People will see my hands and calves shake as I hug the wall for dear life, trying to figure out what to do next. People on the ground will wonder why I’m taking so damn long. I may not die, but I will want to. At least in that, I’d get a little respect.

People keep telling me that I should just chill out and have fun when I climb. Those people usually fall into two categories: 1) they are good at rock climbing and 2) they are female. If you’re good at rock climbing, you’ll inevitably think I’m exaggerating and that I’m not that bad. After all, you’re good at rock climbing. To you, rock climbing is not that hard. You have the grip of a championship judo wrestler and the balance of the Empire State building. You do not realize that rock climbing might be difficult for others because to you it is like breathing. You cannot talk to me because you do not understand. You do not experience my horror. You will stand on the ground as I climb and wonder why it’s taking so damn long.

If you’re a woman telling me that I should chill out, that’s because you have not experienced the humiliation of public climbing. There’s a double standard at work here. Chicks that rock climb are cool. No matter how bad you are, men (though perhaps not women) will encourage you and give you props for throwing yourself repeatedly at the wall. Men dominate the rock climbing world, so you, as a female, have not experienced the embarrassment of repeated failure because, for you, the bar is lower. You just have to climb. That is success. This means you’ll have initially enjoyed climbing and done it again and again and, over time, you will be good at rock climbing (see category #1). Then you will doubly not understand what I’m going through.

There’s also an underlying male dynamic here. Men, back me up on this, but there’s a competitive vibe to everything that we do. Men go to great lengths to not fail in front of their own species. This will sometimes lead to excessive drinking, driving too fast, and Mark McGwire. The pressure to do well in front of other men is intense.

Now, in most aspects of my life, I’ve come to grips (so to speak) with who I am. I’m good at some things and not others. I can live with that. I can put myself in situations, not do well, and be fine with it. That’s usually because I’m either doing that activity with my friends or have repeatedly explained to the other participants that I suck and that they’re going to have to live with it.

More often than not, though, I just avoid doing what I’m not good at. I don’t play baseball. I don’t try to take the lids off jars without assistance. I don’t rock climb.

Did I mention that Railay is a rock climber’s Mecca?

Today, Darrel and I checked out Tonsai Beach and found all the rock climbers. I’d rented a pair of shoes and used them for a total of 15 seconds. I tried to boulder a face, got tired, and hopped off. That experience cost me (81 cents) a second. I know hookers that charge less.

It was way too hot to do much. We spent the afternoon just hanging on the beach, eating, drinking, and napping on these mats that a restaurant had out on a deck overlooking the sea.

If you’re wondering why I’m philosophizing more than recounting, that’s because there’s nothing to recount. The pic above is one of only two I took all day. If you look closely, you can see white chalk marks where climbers have climbed. You can also see quickdraws hanging from the overhang, which climbers hook their ropes into.

I am in Railay though and I will rock climb. Visiting Railay and not climbing is like visiting the Louvre and not seeing the Mona Lisa or going to Mardi Gras and not showing your boobs. As much as I suck at it, I’ll gut out a route or two. If nothing else, because I just paid a guy to take me deep water soloing. That’s right. Boat, ocean, rock face, no rope. This is a bad idea.


Stupid Travel Tip of the Day: Love rock climbing when you visit Railay.

Not So Stupid Tip: If you’re climbing, consider spending a day or two at Tonsai Beach. The vibe is really chill and the accommodations are supposed to be cheaper. The beach isn’t as nice and you’re more isolated, but you’ll probably meet a lot more climbers since most of them are there for the walls and not for the sand, surf, or the accompanying pricier accommodations.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Doris permalink
    March 22, 2010 12:18 am

    lol. At least you are trying!
    I was just thinking about the rock climbing issue today. I have all the gear but haven’t tried climbing again in about 3 years because I am TERRIBLE at it (something about my lack of attention to detail and inability to figure out that if I put my pinky this way instead of that, I can climb up the rock). Also I do not like being a beginner. Ever. At anything. But I am thinking about trying again…

    • March 23, 2010 1:17 am

      I don’t mind being a beginner, so long as I’m having fun. Because I’m so weak, rock climbing is more work than fun. Doing two moves then getting tired and having to hang on the rope is slow, tedious, and humiliating.

      You should definitely try to get back into it.

  2. Jason Oei permalink
    September 3, 2010 12:25 am

    Mervyn! Obviously I’m way behind, but I can’t believe you were there! That was my favorite place when I was an SM in Thailand. I seem to remember it only being a 3-4 hour van ride from Had Yai. Good to see that it recovered from the tsunami, had heard it got hit pretty hard. Safe travels!

    • September 16, 2010 11:50 pm

      The place was definitely hit hard by the tsunami. On Phi Phi you could still see some of the remnants. For the most part, though, the place seems to be doing well. I agree with you, Railay is a great place to hang out. Laidback vibe, so long as you stick to the backpacker (east) side of the peninsula.

      Glad that you’re reading. I hope you enjoy the rest.

  3. Jason Oei permalink
    September 3, 2010 12:46 am

    Oh yeah, guess it won’t hurt to say this now that you’ve left Railay, but there is also another issue with those anchors: They’ve been finding that the rain/moisture creates a pretty good acid when it interacts with all that limestone (cave formations, right?) which just chews up those metal anchors and bolts. Good to know AFTER you leave, right?

    • September 16, 2010 11:53 pm

      Yeah. Ignorance is bliss, no? I didn’t do any rock climbing, so it wasn’t much of a risk for me. I’ve been climbing before, though, and every time I’d been, I could give myself goose bumps if I thought too much about how little stood between me and a fall. (Guess that’s why I’m not a rock climber.) Thinking back to those Railay rope anchors gives me chills just thinking about it. If I had climbed, I would have definitely insisted on anchoring into the chains or bolts instead of into the ropes hanging off them. 🙂

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