Being half Vietnamese, South East Asia has an important place in Caroline’s heart. Being English, South East Asian food has an important place in my heart! Our trip to discover some of SEA’s hidden gems was more than just an excuse to escape the harsh European winter, it was a chance to step a little off the beaten track and discover something magical.

What is it that makes an area popular?  What is it that makes an area good?  On first thought one may assume the two to be the same, yet look a little closer and you will realise there are definite differences,  some of which border on being mutually exclusive.  Great rock is necessary for both, and on this point, I feel everybody would agree. Easy and quick access helps, along with cheap and plentiful local amenities such as places to eat and sleep, as these are the things that open a place to more than a select motivated few.

However, attract too many people and things begin to look a little different.  The once great rock becomes polished and broken, queues form below routes, and the once tranquil paradise become more akin to a climbing gym on a rainy weekend.  Local facilities also become overused.  At best, the once charming campsite morphs into an emotionless holiday park, at worst, unable to deal with such high traffic the place collapses under the pressure of a thousand turds, and you finish literally sleeping in the shit!

Popularity doesn’t guarantee quality, and in some unfortunate cases is the very reason for its loss.  Fortunately the world is big, and for now there seems like always a new paradise to discover.  With a little research and a few hours travel, you can change from hell to heaven.  Queuing for the classics can be swapped for deciding which section of the 1km long cliff of perfect un-touched red limestone to check out today.  Instead of bartering with bored locals over the price of a 1 bed prison-cell, you could be enjoying a home cooked meal with an adorable family as you share stories about each other’s lives.

5 star hotel in Perlis, Malaysia

5 star hotel in Perlis, Malaysia

Over the last 7 years I had visited Asia on many occasions, checking out most of the major climbing areas, as well as a few of the minor ones.  Places like Tonsai are on the top of everyones list when they plan a tour of these far away lands, and it is easy to see why.  The place is breathtaking and I remember my first visit like it was yesterday.  Turning the headland during your first longtail ride, the excitement is overwhelming as you set eyes on the palm trees, white beaches, and melting limestone walls – you are sure you have arrived in climbing heaven.  Yet come a little closer and you begin to re-evaluate; the crowds, the rubbish, the smell… Tonsai; a terrible victim of its own success.

Having visited a few smaller areas dotted around South East Asia, and being happily surprised by their quality, I was sure there must be more to discover.  With a month and a half free after Christmas, and my girl from the tropics disliking the cold, we decided to swap the snowy blues of England for exploration in the jungle.

I made a list of all the places I had been, searched the net for new ideas, and marked everything on a map.  After a few days of discussion and debate we created our itinerary which was mainly based on a mix of optimising conditions and avoiding the Christmas/new year rush in the more popular areas.  We would begin in Laos, where conditions would be most favourable as by being that bit further north they actually have seasons.  From here we would come down through Thailand, checking out a few new developments around Bangkok, before visiting the more famous cliffs in the South, ultimately moving on to Malaysia for the final part of the adventure, where seasons don’t really exist and the later date would barely matter.

Green climber's garden, Laos

Green climber’s garden, Laos

Laos

I have written before about the joys of Vang Vieng, and of its pitfalls.  Unfortunately, over the recent years the latter has started to win out, and although I still highly rate the climbing area, day to day life in Vang Vieng is not exactly the reason you go to Laos.  I had heard from my guide friend in Vang Vieng about a new area being developed near Thakhek that apparently had more potential and was still unspoiled.  When I added this to what little I knew about a French expedition to another nearby area, the beginnings of a plan began to emerge.

Fortune was smiling down on us, as when I began to research the climbing near Thakhek, I found that a small climbing camp was imminently due to open in that very place.  Green Climbers Home is run by Tanja and Uli, two Germans who visited this place during a round the world trip, fell in love, and never left.  It is a tranquil little haven, 10km out of town and just 100m from the cliff.  A central restaurant serving amazing and cheap, breakfast lunch and dinner is surrounded by several cute bungalows, and a space for a few tents.  From here you can get everything you need.  Chalk, a topo, and basic climbing gear, as well as the essential everyday supplies.  Turn up and turn off your brain, its climbing made simple.

Actually, don’t completely turn off your brain as we are in Asia after all.  Things are not quite the same as back home; there are lots more scary animals waiting to bite and sting should you get too close, and don’t forget your passport when out on the rock!  If you have a tumble and need to visit the hospital the only way is to cross the border, and without a passport the customs men will do little more than watch you bleed all over their desk.

A wild cliff not far from Taekek, fire is recommended to scare the snakes...

A wild cliff not far from Taekek, fire is recommended to scare the snakes…

Should too many days of the easy life find you craving for adventure, motorbikes can be hired from the camp, and 150km of windy jungle road will lead you to Ban Nam None, a tiny village in the middle of nowhere 10km before the famous Kong Lor Water Cave.  The climbing here was developed by a French Team in 2006, and many of the routes, especially the harder ones have never been free climbed.  The rock is a mixture of compact limestone, covered in places by gigantesque dripping tufas.  A strange mixture that climbs very well, but due to the lack of traffic, can be very, very sharp.  Also, be aware that the routes may need “a little” cleaning before they are possible, as plants grow fast in the jungle, and animals like to build their houses here.  Your average tooth brush may not be quite up to the job…

Muak Lek

At around 6.30, walking through a sleepy Bangkok suburb as the sun rises, a black pick-up stops beside us and rolls down its tinted window.  Richard Eden smiles warmly back at us, his beautiful baby daughter asleep in the back seat.  Today he has to work, but kindly offers us free reign of his nearby house, promising to be back early in the evening so we can get ready for the next few days.

Muak Lek Is a small cliff, 1½ hours North-East of Bangkok, just over the Saraburi border.  Easily accessible by Bus from the capital, Muak Lek is one of the local hang-outs for the very small group of BK climbers.  I say very small for a reason, in fact, you can probably count the numbers on one hand, and consequently will often have the cliff to yourself.

From the parking, the cliff does not look like much, and if I am honest, I was dubious about the quality of what was to come.  A steep 30min hike up a rocky jungle trail brings you to the cliff, from where my doubts grew even more after the first close up views of stone.

Unlike Thakhek and Ban Nam None there was hardly a collo in sight.  Seemingly blank expanses of white and yellow limestone, split occasionally by discontinuous cracks and corner systems, struggled to inspire.  Richard explained to us the lines of the best routes, and not wanting to offend, we began climbing.

Stepping on to the rock, everything changed!  Meter after meter of fantastic moves on perfect rock is what Muak Lek offers to its visitors.  Nothing painful, nothing dirty – fantastic pockets seem to appear from nowhere, surprising you each time by their presence, and how great climbing around them is.

Climbing an open project up the centre of the main wall was the highlight of my day.  The route had been bolted around 4 years ago by French Ex-pat Ben Grasser and is an absolute joy to climb – a contender for the best route I have climbed in Asia.  As the light of the day faded we finished with one of Richards own creations, a magnificent 7c up an unlikely concave wall just to the right.  Perfect holds were exactly where they needed to be, and Caro and I both agreed that Muak Lek was quite the unexpected little gem.

Nam Phap Ayai

Bangkok james

Bangkok, James in his new 8b route “monti pithon flighing circus”

Ben Grasser (the aformentioned French expat) had recently escaped from Bangkok to open a climbing/adventure camp in the nearby jungle.  Located close to the small town of Kaeng Koi, the camp is a haven for travellers, climbers, and adventurers, and would soon play host to a New-Year/1 year birthday party for a local climbing group.  The nearby climbing looked great, especially in the easier grades, and so with a few days spare before flying to the South, and not being ones to turn down a good party, we decided to pay Ben a visit.

Arriving late in the evening, we followed a rough dirt track to a dark and deserted camp.  Whilst wondering if we were in the wrong place, a head-torch appears through the black, and introduces himself as Ben.  He gives us the quick tour and explains a few necessary precautions, including what to do for a snake bite, and how to check for scorpions in the toilet block. After showing us to our tent, Ben disappears back into the darkness and I start to wonder where it is exactly that we have come.  Whilst falling to sleep, my mind is busy… not with thoughts of whether will we enjoy the next few days, but whether we will survive!

The next morning we join Ben for a visit to the cliff.  Along the way he explains a little about his ideas for the place and the work he has already done – it is clear how passionate he is, and the amount of hard work and energy he is putting in to make it a success

After a few minutes’ walk, we arrive at a wide river, with the cliff on the other side and no bridge for miles around.  Bens solution is as crazy and exciting as the rest of his project – two giant zip-lines allowing visitors to quickly and easily fly back and forth.  We race across, giddy from the excitement, only to be stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of several huge, very hard looking, unclimbed overhangs.

After climbing the best existing lines on the cliff during the morning, the place begins to fill up with guests of the party, including a national Thai TV crew!  Seeking a little tranquillity among the madness, I hike to the top of the cliff in search of potential new lines to bolt through one of the main overhangs.  Moving around on this big cliff is hard work, but by the end of the day a few new bolts are in place – everything must have a beginning.

The next day would prove to be long… especially after the late night shenanigans of the party before.  Caroline had a crash course in bolting, and she helped me to finish our new line and project for the day.  On first impressions, the route looked easy, then after a little cleaning and a closer look, really really hard.  I was not overly confident of my chance of success, but fortunately managed to find several good kneebars, allowing me to shuffle my way through the overhanging madness, “flashing” the first ascent with a big fight.

Caroline followed with the second in a much more relaxed manner – I’m always amazed about how comfortable she looks on overhanging collo’s.  I called the route Monty Pythons Flying Circus, and at 8b, is one of the hardest rotes in Thailand, outside of Krabi.  The name is not only a reference to the upside down acrobatics, but also the giant python who watched me whilst I drilled, cosily curled up in a hole just a few meters away.  You don’t see that every day!

Tonsai

I guess the good luck and permanent smiles could not last forever!

This trip to South East Asia was always going to be more about exploration, but after a few weeks of jungle bashing and bolting, the idea of plentiful convenient cragging, and the chance to try some harder routes started to appeal.

We left Bangkok early one morning on a flight to Krabi, and by 10am were searching out a place to stay on a very crowded and smelly Ton Sai beach.  I had spent a few weeks here in 2007 during my first SEA trips, and I was sad to see how rapidly things have changed, and not for the better.

Ton Sai was never going to win any hygiene awards, but now things are getting pretty horrendous!  As you walk around the forest loop and down to the beach, past the festering piles of garbage and over the streams of sewerage trickling their way down to the ocean, you pass several, sorry-looking “Keep Ton Sai Clean” signs.  Shaking your head as you pass various beach side restaurants and  wonder what has gone wrong, the message is driven home as the wind changes direction, and you catch a breath of the foulest smell you can imagine.  I think I’ll skip lunch!

I could begin to understand these living conditions, if the budget was really a shoestring, but prices here have rocketed over the last few years, with some of the upper scale places asking for over 70€ per night!  Ok, I admit, that is a bit of an extreme example, but we could find nothing cheaper than 10€ for our fan cooled prison cell, and 25€ for the A/C variety.  The most expensive place we have stayed so far!

The worst thing however is the poor bored locals and their bland empty greeting to just another Falang.  The thing I enjoy the most about travelling in Asia is the friendliness of the local people you meet along the way.  It’s always amusing to see the slightly puzzled look on their face as you try to explain what is climbing, and why you are there.  The care and hospitality they hand out without a second thought never ceases to amaze me, and is something we could all learn from.  Most of all, I love connecting with other people whom on first glance could be from a different world, realising you are actually just the same, and taking pleasure in making the other smile.  I fear in Ton Sai we have come to their world in too large a number, with too little respect, and must now pay the price.  The door has been closed, for their protection, and now it is difficult to find the key.

On to the climbing… It’s common knowledge that the climbing in Ton Sai will be hot and slippery.  I had been here before, knew the score, and didn’t expect anything less.  Polish from the thousands of visitors, and humidity and salt from the sea make for “interesting” climbing conditions, ranging from awkward to terrible, but give it a few days and things start to feel surprisingly ok.

I really wanted to try the harder routes in Dumm’s Kitchen, especially Greed, a 30m, gently overhanging 8c, but sadly, after my first try, I accepted the 22 drilled 1 and 2 finger pockets would not be a good idea for the finger injuries I was carrying.  There will be more hard routes to try in our next location in Malaysia, live to fight another day!  Instead, we focused on topping up our power in the wildly overhanging roof, and escaping the hustle and bustle of the beach with a few of the near-by multi-pitch routes.

a class IMG_0712

Our friend Tom in a mulipitch above Tonsaï

One route in particular that stands out from the crowd, is the magnificent Lord of the Thai’s, a 5 pitch 7b on Thiwand Wall.  The first 2 pitches can be linked together to make a great 50m 6c+, leading to the 3rd pitch, at 7a+, that is nothing short of incredible – climbing through a steep overhang on little juggy mushrooms, nothing but air between your feet and the turquoise ocean 100m below.

After 5 days in Ton Sai, our feet were itching and it was time to move.  The next stop will be the steep and funky looking Bukit Keteri in Malaysia, home to South East Asia’s hardest route, Nix Fuer Lutscher, 8c+.  I don’t really know how to get there, when we will arrive, or where we will sleep… but that is part of the beauty.

The adventure continues…

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