A True Cliff Hanger in Phra Nang, Thailand
Phra Nang's Cliffs Have Climbers Bolting Up for Thrills
This article was originally published in the Asian Wall Street Journal on March 22-23 1996, under the title of Phra Nang's Cliffs Have Climbers Bolting Up for Thrills. I have included an interview with a local Phuket climber that was conducted on 7-11-2013 following the article for a more recent perspective on climbing.
The jagged cliff face soared hundreds of meters above me. “There’s a handhold on your left,” my climbing instructor yelled from the beach below. I reached up and felt my way over the rough limestone rock. “There, you’ve got it.” Got what? I thought. I gripped the miniscule handhold and shakily held the rock wall called “Massage Secrets” as I desperately searched for my next move.
The colossal karst cliff formation containing “Massage Secrets” also known as “One-Two-Three,” is Phra Nang’s most popular climbing site. With its easy beach access and varied levels of 10 to 26 meter bolted routes, the area offers thrilling challenges for both beginners and experienced climbers.
Located less than three hours drive from the resort island of Phuket, the stunning Phra Nang peninsula in southern Thailand was once considered remote attracting mostly beach loving backpackers. Today, however, the narrow sliver of land that separates the palm tree-fringed Railey beach from Sunset Beach is home to several five-star hotels, numerous bungalows, and known worldwide as a climber’s paradise.
Phra Nang’s steep pinnacles first captured the attention of European climbers in the mid-1980s.
Then in 1990 two Frenchmen, Francois Burnier and Domonique Potard arrived in a tangle of ropes, hauling massive amounts of climbing equipment, including 400 bolts. Through their painstaking and ambitious efforts, a large number of bolted routes were established.
At the same time, their fascinating ascents inspired a few local Thais to learn the art of rock climbing. Among them were three friends: Somyod “Tex” Thongkaew, Somporn “King” Suebhait (the founder of King Climbers) and Vichit “Dean” Sayom, who all swiftly became Thailand’s first well known rock climbers. Due to their devotion and enthusiasm, combined with that of other talented climbers, the formerly “secret” Phra Nang area in Krabi emerged as one of Asia’s most remarkable climbing locales with hundreds of spectacular bolted climbing routes.
It had been 17 years since my last rock climbing attempt in Mexico, where I nearly plunged to my death (or at least it had felt that way), so my first question upon reaching Dean’s beachfront office was whether anyone had ever died while rock climbing at Phra Nang.
“It’s a lot safer than diving,” an instructor assured me after learning that I was a scuba diver. “Don’t worry, no one has died. We have a strict safety policy here – none of us drink or smokes – and we never rent out equipment to people who ask for those ‘thingies.’”
“A carabiner?” I offered, surprised that I could remember what a “thingy” was.
“Right. But real climbers call them ‘beaners.’”
After asking a few dozen other questions and seeing the company’s inventory of brand new equipment, I happily signed up for a beginner’s course. A 9 a.m. the following morning I arrived back at the office and joined three other climbers and Dean. I was excited but definitely nervous. A short stroll down the beach took us to a massive karst limestone cliff formation. It was a busy morning, and more than two dozen climbers were already milling around the shady climb site.
“You’re lucky you weren’t here in December,” said Dean. “People were waiting sometimes over an hour to climb.”
With trembling anxiety I took my turn on the user-friendly sounding rock wall called “Massage Secrets” (relieved that we wouldn’t be climbing “Definitely Makes You Whinge,” “Primal Scream” or “Apocalypso”) and checked my harness for the tenth time. But my nervousness soon turned to total embarrassment. No matter how I contorted my body, I couldn’t manage to climb above the first rock overhang. Finally, with a big boost from Dean, I “cheated” and at last started my ascent.
Slowly, I inched my way upward from one handhold to the next. Dean was telling me to relax, to have fun and to trust my legs. Trust? No way. My legs were shaking insanely on toeholds that he called “great.” I stared up at the rope, “beaners” and bolts with absolute distrust. Then suddenly one meter from the top I got completely stuck. Meanwhile every muscle in my body was screaming.
Finally, there was no choice but to let go. “I think I’m going to fall,” I called out fearfully. But instead of faaaaaalllling (like I had in Mexico) when I let go, the rope held me in practically the same spot. What I hadn’t realized was that I was doing what is called top rope climbing, meaning the rope was attached to my harness and secured to a bolt at the top of the climb and controlled by Dean from the beach, instead of how I had been belayed in Mexico, where my instructor had belayed me from the top of my climb. The wonderful difference is that top rope climbing doesn’t allow you to faaaaalllllllllll. After that, the fun began. Instead of worrying about falling, my main concern was how to top the climbs.
Interview with Nicola Daniela Taatjes-Schmid
The following interview with a local Phuket climber was conducted on July 11, 2013, for a more recent perspective on climbing.
1. Who inspired you to start climbing and when and where did you first climb?
I suppose i could say that it was Tex, a Thai climber who is also a long standing friend of my family who first got me out on the rock when I was 12 years old. After that I did a bit of fun climbing here and there when i could, but i only started to really adopt climbing as a lifestyle while at Uni in Wollongong, Australia. There i climbed mainly in Nowra and the Blue Mountains.
2. When did you start teaching climbing in Railay and which company?
I don't teach climbing in Railay. Sometimes i teach privately but i have only been employed as an instructor in Oslo, Norway.
3. Which climb was your most memorable? Where? When and Why?
It's impossible to name just one climb as there are so many amazing lines that are memorable for very different reasons. What makes a climb special to me is having the perfect balance between enjoyable moves whilst being submersed in beautiful natural surroundings. Climbing multi-pitches on the isolated cliffs in Phang Nga bay (Thailand), reaching the top of granite peaks in 2 am sunshine in Lofoten islands (Norway), or finding different ways to squeeze body parts into sandstone cracks in the deserts of Utah (USA) are all moments I will never forget - and look forward to re-living!
4. What was the turning point in your life? An event or chain of events that caused a major change in your perspective in life.
A big turning point in my life definitely happened when i started climbing regularly. Until then i had dabbed in many different sports but i had never found anything that really grabbed me or that i felt i could call my own. Climbing was not something i did in school or was exposed to very much as a child, so the decision to take it on as my main sport & hobby was entirely my own choice. Through climbing i also managed to find like-minded people and a whole new, exciting and healthy outlook on how i could live my life. And so you can say that climbing has not really been something that i have just added to my life - its become a lifestyle.
5. What has climbing taught you that you have applied to your every day life?
Obviously there is the fitness aspect - the want to keep climbing strong is a huge motivation to always stay fit. But psychologically there have been moments when climbing has given me a very strong opportunity to have a clear view of myself and who i am as a person - in good and bad. I have been surprised by myself numerous times - not only by learning what i am and am not capable of, but also how I as an individual react to situations that might not always be ideal. Obviously fear can play a large role in climbing and through learning to deal with it, I have been exposed to a side of myself that I am not sure I would have been in touch with any other way.
I am very thankful to have such a diverse, challenging and interesting sport in my life that takes me to physical and mental places that I would probably never have the opportunity to experience otherwise.
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