Famed for its beautiful beaches, towering tufa-ridden limestone cliffs, and incredible setting, Tonsai Bay and nearby Railay Beach are usually high on the destination list of anyone who’s serious about sport climbing. Tonsai is the original climbing destination in Thailand, and people have been coming here for decades to enjoy this climber’s playground. Unfortunately, the years of wear and tear from climbers and tourists in general are beginning to show a bit in the form of trash and mysterious black ooze making its way down into the ocean from the resorts, and slick, polished footholds are the norm on all the popular routes. Despite this, Tonsai is still an incredible place to visit, and you’ll quickly forget about these things as you clamber up above the Andaman sea on overhanging tufas.
To get to Tonsai, the easiest way is to fly to Bangkok, then take a cheap domestic flight from Bangkok to Krabi airport. There are cheap buses from here to Ao Nang, the beach town from which all the long-tail boats depart. A quick and scenic long-tail ride (100 baht to Tonsai as of 2017) will take you to Tonsai or Railay beach from there.
Tonsai is a pure sport climbing destination, with mostly single pitch routes but also including a smattering of high-quality multi-pitch climbing. Some would argue that the multi-pitch is the real reason to visit here. The climbing grades here are a bit higher on average than that of northern Thailand, with good climbs starting in the 5.10 range, and a concentration of 5.11-5.12 routes that’s hard to beat anywhere. Most routes are not super long, but you’ll be glad to have a 70m for some of the uber-classic routes on Thaiwand and Fire wall.
All of the cliffs are within about a 20 minute walk of any of the accommodations in Tonsai or Railay. Of note, Tonsai and Railay are different beaches, separated only by a small stretch of jungle that takes about 5 minutes to walk though on a good trail. You might have to wade through some knee-deep water on the Railay side if the tide is high. The other option is to take the jungle trail that goes up the hill at the Northeast corner of the Tonsai resort area, past Mama’s kitchen, and back down to the area behind the resorts at Railay. This way takes about 20 minutes total.
This whole area has undergone a huge re-bolting effort over the past several years using titanium glue-in bolts after even stainless steel glue-ins proved to be surprisingly temporary in the sea-side environment. Most of the popular routes are now equipped with all titanium gear, tough you’ll find a few remaining stainless bolts here and there. Don’t trust anything that still has expansion bolts or rusty-looking stainless bolts, as these historical relics might not even hold your body weight anymore!
Deep-water soloing used to be a popular activity around Tonsai, but was somewhat recently (2016 or so) banned, and it’s not recommended to try to attempt it yourself without knowledge of the tides and water depths.
There are some interesting climbing approaches in Tonsai for climbs on the Ao Nang tower and Happy Island. At the beginning of the road on the west side of Tonsai Bay, you can rent a kayak for about 400 baht/day and paddle out to the tower, tying up the kayak at the bolts and starting to climb right out of the boat. A pretty unique experience! Try not to get saltwater all over your climbing gear, or rinse it off later if you do.
- The Wave 5.10c
- Humanality 5.10d
- Orange Chandeliers 5.11b
- Heart of Darkness 5.11c
- Tonsai Playboy 5.12a
- Lord of the Thais 5.12b
- Cross Eyed 5.12b
The best time to visit is, as for all places in Thailand, between about November to February. It gets hot after than, then rainy until the end of the summer.
Because of the heat, most people chase the shade when climbing here. The Freedom Bar area and Dum’s kitchen have shade for a few hours in the morning, then the Fire wall goes into the shade later in the afternoon. Take a nap or go swimming in between!
There are a ton of cheap, dilapidated bungalow “resorts” in Tonsai Bay that run around 300 baht/night. These are quite basic, usually with just a bed covered in a mosquito net and a bathroom with manual-flush toilet. The newer Tonsai Bay Resort is a more comfortable option if you have the money to spend. Railay beach also has a larger number of hotels and guesthouses, though the prices will definitely be higher.
It’s recommended to buy bottled water at one of the convenience stores in Tonsai Bay to avoid getting food poisoning.
There are restaurants all around Tonsai Bay that offer pretty good quality Thai and other food. Mama’s kitchen is famous for their awesome fried chicken sandwiches and other dishes. We stayed at Andaman resort for about 14 days total and ate here often – the food was consistently good and we never got sick.
The infamous “Tonsai Tummy” is definitely a valid concern when staying in Tonsai, as nothing will ruin your prospects of sending your project like a couple days of feverish vomiting and/or diarrhea. But who knows, maybe you’ll lose a few pounds and be able to send once you recover!
The bungalows usually have a cold-water only showed in the bathroom. You probably won’t even want hot water anyway with how hot it gets during the days here.
There are a few interesting things to do here if your muscles or skin are worn from too many days climbing. Renting a kayak and paddling out to Poda or even Chicken island is a good adventure that takes about 1-1.5 hours each way. Kayaks can be found on the west side of Tonsai Bay near the beach.
If you’re going to spend a day at the beach, Phra Nang beach is probably the best one in the area, and further from the nasty black ooze continuously filtering down into Tonsai Bay. It’s fun to visit the penis shrine, swim out to Happy Island, watch the monkeys, or hike up to the viewpoint on this part of the peninsula.
Railay beach also has some of the most beautiful sunsets anywhere, and pretty much every day. Grabbing a fruit shake at the shack on the beach and watching the incredible colors and Thaiwand wall looming above the beach is tough to beat as a way to end your climbing days.
By Tyler Wellman