Climbing Like a Local at Nam Pha Pa Yai, Thailand

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Thai climber Kane Lorn on the Phasak River Wall. Photo: Porntep Sateantippawan 

Thai climber Kane Lorn on the Phasak River Wall. Photo: Porntep Sateantippawan 

Objectively I was in Thailand to teach high school art, but my weekends were dedicated to exploring. I was halfway around the world from my Colorado home, deprived of American conveniences, and I was on a mission: to find a climbing area I could get to on weekends without spending over $50. Well-known areas like Tonsai Beach and Chaing Mai were out of the question. Either would require a plane ticket. Still, I could not deny my climbing shoes, hanging in the corner of my room, taunting me, begging me to take them anywhere.

Mountain Project led me to a remote crag called Nam Pha Pa Yai, a couple hours north of Bangkok on the Phasak River. Even better, the crag had accommodations. The Nam Pha Pa Yai Climber’s Home had it all—tent rentals, bathrooms, food, and topo maps. A tent and a bamboo platform would cost only seven dollars a night, and only two dollars if I had my own tent. Guests willing to spend a little more can even rent a tree house. It was perfect for my teacher-salary budget.

After four hours of chaotic and delayed vans, buses, and finally a motorbike taxi, my driver dumped me at the top of a dirt road. He motioned “climbing” with charades and pointed onward, assuring me that the Nam Pha Pai Yai Climber’s Home was within walking distance. I appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. While wandering around like a lost dog, I spotted a cluster of tents and found Joy, the owner of the Climbers’ Home. Joy is a lovely Thai woman who runs the camp with help from her family and a local staff.

Photo: Mikaela Curaza

Photo: Mikaela Curaza

At this point my hands were sweating with anticipation to get on some rock. I'd been thinking about climbing all morning. Joy said I could meet her friends at the crag, which was an easy approach via zipline. Uh, hold up—zip line? Pleasantly yet apprehensively surprised, I threw on my harness and scuttled up to the platform that overlooked the Phasak River.

Joy had assumed I that I knew how to use a zipline. I absolutely did not. She got up on the platform and yanked my harness into the Petzl pulley which was attached to two rusted lockers that may have been made in 1995. Off I zipped across the mud-green river. This is the only way to reach the crag. If you have to use the bathroom or if you forget your chalk bag, you have to use the zipline. It added to the adventure, and I loved it.

Crossing the Phasak River by zipline to reach the Phasak River Wall. Photo: Mikaela Curaza

Crossing the Phasak River by zipline to reach the Phasak River Wall. Photo: Mikaela Curaza

About five feet from the zipline exit was the Phasak River Wall, an expansive limestone cliff marked with diagonal slices, like and upside-down slanted staircase. It made for interesting roof climbing. The limestone is typical for Thailand. Rifle, Colorado climbers would feel at home. However, this rock is unique in it’s own way. The wall is dotted with pockets of all sizes, some big enough to sit in. It also has tufas and lips that look like strange, bumpy, deformations. I'd been worried I wouldn't be able to find a partner, but my fears were quicky put to rest. I joined a big group of friendly climbers right away. They were mostly Thai and spoke very good English. I learned that Nam Pha Pa Yai is an easy weekend trip for Bangkok locals. Large groups from different climbing gyms in the city get together and visit the crag frequently. And just as in any other local spots, the local climbers know the area like their own backyard. Everyone had a project they were working on.

Two locals goof off on the featured limestone. Photo: Kane Lorn

Two locals goof off on the featured limestone. Photo: Kane Lorn

As a tourist climber myself, I wasn’t focused on one specific route. I was interested in trying as many as I could. There were plenty of fantastic and versatile lines to choose from—a handful of superb moderate climbs and challenging routes as difficult as 8b (5.13d), and some great 5a (5.7) warm ups.

Owner of Nam Pha Pa Yai Climber's Home, Joy Sirilak. Photo: Suraporn Menn Koetsawang

Owner of Nam Pha Pa Yai Climber's Home, Joy Sirilak. Photo: Suraporn Menn Koetsawang

My favorite route on the Phasak River Wall was Verdon Paradise (6b+/5.10d), 14 bolts total, and one of the best climbs I’ve ever done. It had a mix of crimpy-balancy moves, reachy jugs, overhangs, and a move where you use a tufa for a drop knee. It was a excellent.

What I found most challenging about climbing at Nam Pha Pa Yai was maintaining endurance in the heat and humidity. Exercise is difficult in Thailand's climate, and especially difficult if you don’t train in it. Hand jamming just didn’t work—even the tops of my fingers would sweat. I'd be completely drenched after every route, as though I had swam across the river to reach the cliff instead of gliding above it. The Thai climbers appeared to be accustomed to it. I, however, was not used to being immeresed in air coated with moisture. Thai people joke the country just has one season: hot.

Photo: Kane Lorn

Photo: Kane Lorn

I had been living and teaching in Thailand for a while before this trip, so it was no surprise that Thai climbers’ are some of the most humble and generous people I’ve ever met. What was surprising, however, was to learn how passionate they are about climbing and living a sustainable lifestyle. In addition to the accommodation Nam Pha Pa Yai provides, they also have a small-scale organic farm, dedicated to self-sufficiency. Anyone that has traveled to Bangkok knows that sustainability is hard to come by. Thailand remains severely troubled in that department. Getting away for a weekend to go climbing is a special refuge that the city-dwellers really value. I was stoked and no longer alone in Thailand, climbing in the midst of an enlightening cross-cultural experience.

For detailed information about Nam Pha Pai Yai, climbing beta, accommodation and travel information visit namphapayai.camp