Rock climbing: Phuket to Railay day-trip

A close friend had a destination wedding in Phuket, Thailand – halfway(ish) between his family in Australia and his bride’s in Europe. We’ve been friends since kindergarten which makes him my oldest friend. I’ve never seen him look so happy in the 30 years I’ve known him. It was a real honour to be a groomsman and a wonderful wedding (although it will take me a while to forget some of the things I really didn’t need to see in Patong during the bucks – much worse than the proverbial ping-pong balls). Spending the week in Phuket for the wedding meant we could make a side-trip to fit in a day’s climbing at Railay.

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We said our goodbyes at the wedding reception around midnight, drove back to the hotel, and set the alarm for a 5AM start. All too soon we were up and driving the 170km or so from Phuket to Ao Nang in the dark in our trusty hire car to catch a long tail boat to Railay. The drive to Ao Nang takes around two-and-a-half hours and soon the beaches of Phuket gave way to a landscape of karst rock cliffs and out-crops. It had been raining and the karst rock and low clouds formed an impressive combination in the gloomy low light conditions.

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Railay had grated on a me a little the last time we were there due to the hordes of tourists, hippies and hedonists and the excesses of mass tourism evidenced by the piles of garbage that can be found between the back-blocks behind the beaches. It feels as though if you scratch the surface you will find only a very thin veneer. Part of the attraction of climbing to me is the opportunity to get away from it all – escaping the rat race to serene and pristine locations which is much needed when living somewhere with the urban intensity of Hong Kong – but in Railay it feels less like you are off-the-beaten-track and more like you are in the middle of a tourist superhighway. Still, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go back seeing as we were in the neighbourhood and it felt good to be back when we got there. I wouldn’t say “charm” but the place does have a strange attraction.

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By 8AM we had made it to Ao Nang after an uneventful drive (we’re thinking about a rock climbing road trip in the western U.S. so enjoyed the road tripping element) and were on the long tail boat to Railay. We had a seriously delicious congee breakfast (piping hot congee in chicken broth, shredded chicken, soft-boiled egg, and coriander with a generous amount of black pepper – well worth the early start by itself). It had been raining during the week and wet rock from the rain limited the areas available for climbing so after breakfast we headed to picturesque Pha Nang Beach where the routes begin on the sand and are set in a large open cave and remained dry.

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It was pretty busy as the wet rock had also funneled other climbers to Pha Nang Beach to take advantage of the cave (mostly first-time climbers on guided half-day tours) and numerous tourists dropped off on the beach from cruise boats stopped to take-in the climbing. After four pumpy routes on smooth limestone – with breaks in-between whilst we waited our turn to climb given the crowds – it was time to break for lunch.

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After lunch we headed back to the Diamond Cave Wall where we had done most of our climbing last time. I had some unfinished business from the last trip and after some effort knocked off the 6b that had defeated me last time when I was hot, tired and had a thumping dehydration headache (despite the wet rock, the overcast conditions were far better for climbing this time round compared to the unrelenting summer sun last trip even if it meant that there were issues with wet rock and holds full of dirty water).

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I’m pretty tall (195cm) which is often useful due to the extra reach but this was one climb where it was not an advantage. The crux section features finger pockets and foot holds quite close together and the taller you are the more your torso gets compressed and pushed away from the wall which increases the load on your forearms when you have to stand-up to make the reach move to the next hold (and after a fairly boozy week of over-eating at wedding related events I was also carrying a few extra kilos).

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As dark was falling we were beat and on the boat back to Ao Nang. We had parked the car at a service station in the morning without thinking and it was a relief to get back 10 hours later and find the car was still there and hadn’t been towed or had any misadventures. Heavy eyelids, torrential rain in sections, little or no roadside lighting, dodgy headlights in the hire car, faded or missing lane markings (and seeming ambivalence to what lane markings there were) and pedestrians, dogs and scooters walking, sitting and riding in the shoulder with no lightning or means of seeing them until the last second made the drive back to Phuket “interesting” compared to the drive to Ao Nang in the morning. We got back to our hotel 16 hours after we had left in the morning. After smashing a comfort food dinner of beer and pizza we crashed heavily – tired, sore and very happy.


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