It still doesn’t feel quite real, but we are definitely settling in to the wonderful routines of travel. After spendy Singapore, it was a relief to get to Thailand, where we can afford to eat and drink! Two weeks was just the right amount of time to explore the southern end of Thailand, we’ll have to return to see the north (it’s currently 100 degrees and very smoky).
We flew in from Singapore to Phuket and spent two nights in Patong Beach. Had we done further research, we might have avoided Patong Beach due to the crowded beaches, thumping techno, busy, dirty streets lined with big, touristy bars and creepy expats, but it provided us with a decent place to rest up, relax, and plan our next series of adventures. And the beach at sunset? Still beautiful.
We stayed at Bodega Hostel, and although it is marketed as a party hostel, we found it to be a welcoming and mellow place where we were able to rest up before moving on to find the side of Thailand we were looking for. Bonus: the owner of the hostel is a fellow Seattleite! We spent our time in Phuket swimming, walking the beach, and indulging in cheap beer and fantastic Thai street food. Our favorite restaurant, clearly a popular spot with locals, was simply called Number 6. They cranked out authentic, quality Thai food at affordable prices and with impressive speed (they served the best Pad Thai of the dozen or so we tried).
We then escaped the madness of Phuket and took the ferry to Koh Phi Phi Don, a very enjoyable 2 hour ride, and we quickly realized that we had found more of the scene we were looking for.
The Phi Phi islands are a group of small, dreamy islands which boast perfect turquoise waters, white sandy beaches, and a great introduction to the incredible limestone rock faces and climbing that Thailand has to offer!
We stayed at the Tropical Garden Bungalows on Phi Phi Don – a cheap, no frills but functional establishment (you get what you pay for). Phi Phi is certainly still a party scene, but simultaneously a small, charming town with a much more laid back beach party vibe. There are no cars on the island, which definitely adds to its charm, and there are normal bars and a fun young crowd.
In a moment of overexcitement we decided to start our first climb in Thailand around dusk, which lead to most of the climb on Tonsai Tower being done in the dark. The tower is just at the west end of town with an incredibly easy approach. There are a lot of routes to choose and the limestone has endless holds and features! It felt like climbing at the gym but with a much better view. Much different than the California granite trad climbing that we’ve gotten used too, and what seems like a much softer rating system.
It had been a long time since we went sport climbing! Maybe it wasn’t a mistake to bring along 20 lbs of climbing gear after all… We were starting to wonder. We met some local dive instructors at the crag who talked us into going diving our third day on Phi Phi, and we were so glad we did! We got to do two dives on different sides of Phi Phi Lee, plus a lunch stop at Maya Bay.
We swam through beautiful schools of tropical fish and saw sea turtles, moray eels, lobsters, sea snakes (yep), and much more. Not to mention the fact that the breezy boat ride and diving was a nice escape from the afternoon heat. Have we mentioned that it has been brutally hot for pretty much our entire trip so far?
Our favorite bar on Phi Phi was definitely Banana Bar. They have great Mexican and Thai food, an awesome rooftop dining and bar area, games, and they show movies every night (they happened to be showing The Jungle Book the night that we showed up – a personal favorite).
Before heading out on our third day, we hiked up to the “viewpoints” on the east side of the island. Most people hike to viewpoints 1 and 2, but if you keep going, there are also viewpoints 3 and 4, and a nice, unadvertised trail system that you can take to some of the other more secluded beaches. We went down to Phak Nam Bay, which had probably the best swimming area of our trip so far. Deep, crystal clear water , white sandy beaches, and very few people. You can pay to take longtail boats to these beaches but no one tells you that you can hike there too – highly recommend.
After three nights in Phi Phi, we took the ferry to Railay Beach, where we planned to post up and climb for a week or so. The ferry ride offered a beautiful view of the rock faces around Railay, which are stunning! We were immediately stoked. We had always thought southern Thailand to be relatively flat, compared to the more mountainous north. It’s fun to be wrong!
The vibe on Railay is waaaay mellow. It’s only accessible to other towns by boat, so again there are no cars, only “walking streets” lined with laid back reggae-style beach bars and an abundance of local family restaurants. There are wild monkeys swinging through the trees above and running along the rooftops. The air smells of sweet tropical fruit. We have arrived!
Railay doesn’t really have hostels, only resorts, so finding the right place to stay was a challenge. We spent our first night at Railay Viewpoint Resort, and while they likely have some nice rooms, the room we stayed in (the cheapest) was pretttty awful. It looked like the room had been previously invaded by plants that had just been removed the day before we arrived. This room also set the record for the biggest cockroach seen so far. We moved to Anyavee for our remaining nights on Railay – definitely more than we were hoping to spend but the clean room and AC were a nice reward after climbing in the sweltering heat all day.
Aaaaaand the climbing in Railay is JUST INCREDIBLE. There are many different climbing areas, each with many routes to choose from and there are literally striking limestone features everywhere (caves, stalactites, chimneys, cracks, face-climbing, flakes, you name it). There’s been a great effort by the Thaitanium Project to replace the old, dangerous bolts that were “failing on a weekly basis” with new titanium bolts, making it much safer to climb here. Big thanks to them!
The hardest part of the climbing in Thailand is definitely managing the heat – it sucks all the energy right out of you. Finding crags in the shade is absolutely essential, but they’re easy to find.
The incredible climbing was hard to leave – we ended up staying in Railay for five nights and did another single night in Tonsai (the very small town next door to Railay, about a 15 min walk on the beach). With this much time, we were able to do a couple of climbs on most of the major climbing areas and still take our time, enjoying our days, and taking breaks to swim and escape the heat. One highlight worth mentioning was the hike into Phra Nang cave.
The cave is enormous and totally amazing (it’s dark, bring a headlamp)! You hike up into the cave for 5-10 minutes following a series of bamboo ladders. Eventually, you pop out up on the top of Thaiwand wall, with a beautiful view of the ocean. There are anchors in the top portion of the cave so that you can rappel or lower down to the base of Thaiwand. Totally worth it!
Tonsai is the hippie little brother of Railay, complete with yoga studios, barefoot locals, dreadlocks, dirtbag climbers and of course, reggae. It was almost more Jamaica than Jamaica.. these dudes were seriously laid back, especially at Chill Out Bar and Bungalows where we stayed our last night in the area. Just be careful around the water or you might get Tonsai Tummy.
The climbing gear we brought included: two harnesses, two helmets, two belay devices with locking biners, two chalk bags, one sling, two pairs of climbing shoes, one 60 m rope, and 8 quickdraws (total of 20 lbs).
This gear list, including eight draws, was enough to do most of the climbs we wanted to do, although we had to skip bolts occasionally to make things work (it builds mental toughness, right?).
We did not buy a guidebook – we rented it on day one to learn where all the crags were and then we were able to get by just fine with online beta and by borrowing books from other people at the crag. Clearly, some have come to climb in Railay and never left… It was hard, but we did eventually manage to break free and leave the incredible cliffs behind (we’ll be back). A trip here is certainly a must do for any serious sport climbers out there.
On our way out, we were happy to sell our well used climbing gear for $300 (replacement cost of $450 in the US). 20 lbs off our backs and some extra cash was a huge win for us, and the local shops do a ton of business with tourists, so they need the gear – total win win.
We felt as though we had really climbed our hearts out in Railay, and although there is certainly great climbing to be found in many of our other destinations, we decided that feeling more mobile would be well worth it.
Before leaving Thailand, we stopped for a three night stay in Koh Pha Ngan. We stayed at the Cosy Bungalows, a super affordable spot with great beach access. We relaxed, we swam, we ate excellent street food from the local market, and we explored the island via scooter .
It was an incredibly fun and cheap place to chill for a few days while organizing our next series of endeavors, and it was a perfect way to say goodbye to Thailand. Cambodia, here we come!
For anyone keeping track, the current roach count is 6 out of 8 (as in, we’ve had a cockroach in 6 out of the 8 places we’ve stayed). Not that they’re terribly bothersome, just a fun fact…