Dreamy Limestone from Thailand's Tonsai Beach in the South to Chiang Mai in the North
A year of traveling the world in search of the best climbing and subsequently the best photo opportunities landed me first on Tonsai Beach. In under a month there I'd already increased my climbing abilities by a full grade, met Dan Holz and Emmanuel Lacoste, found myself writing a Climbing.com Reader Blog and had all of my gear coated in a fine veneer of salt-cake and mold. I could have stayed straight through the winter there, but the high season was coming on fast, and though I had to leave my project unfinished I felt the push of rising prices (and unseasonably heavy rains) driving me north.
I knew it as a grueling 30 hour series of connections from Tonsai straight to Chiang Mai, but having climbed in the north before and knowing the quality of rock up there the haul seemed negligible. However, as my new traveling companion and I got waterlogged boarding a longtail boat from the beach in the middle of a monsoon downpour and then spent the next several hours freezing on an AC bus I began to feel some doubt about leaving the comforts of the beach
Chiang Mai rolls in beside our train and stepping out of our car we are met by cool, dry air. Tonsai's notorious white mold has finally won after a month-long battle and I'm pleased to find that our guesthouse not only washes, but also DRIES anything you ask it to. The many cheesy aromas of my rucksack are finally to be defeated. The beach seems like a distant, fungal fantasy now.
Access to the crags is about 30 kilometres or so outside the city and manageable on your own by scooter. Surrendering half a day of climbing to pushing our overloaded Honda Dream 125 back up the hill that flatted out the rear tire has had us reconsider that option though. The comfort of having Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA / www.thailandclimbing.com) drive us out in the morning, feed, water, and return us weighs out the nominal price difference of doing it solo. Life here becomes an easy mix of city amenities, Northern Thai culture and a bounty of bolted limestone. Gone are the overhanging jugs of ocean air dissolved rock. No more do we think, "is this belay station made of abandoned, fraying rope really going to hold all four of us?!" Things here are solid. Moves here are technical in a completely new way, reminiscent more of the karst in Yangshuo, but with less tufa formation and more belabored breathing as you hang precariously from your tips. Being here, climbing a full grade higher than last year, I am in heaven. I am in love.
Reminded of a friend's experience climbing here last year, we discover a homestay outside the city. Consequently, we spend a week secluded in the jungle, filling up on local market curries and burning off the excess on morning hikes to the crag. This is peace, this is bodhicitta, this is the lifestyle I pursue. It's a comforting mix out here; a blend of refreshingly authentic Thai culture and the Western ethics that developed this ecologically conscious crag access. The balance of the two is unlike anything I've seen elsewhere in Asia. Natural beauty is maintained and respected through the efforts of the climbing community be they foreigner, Thai, local-farang or wayward dirtbag backpacker all the same. An atmosphere like this is rare to grow up on its own anywhere, and truly it's due mostly to the efforts of the patriarch, Josh Morris.
Josh came to Thailand in 2000 as a teacher at Payap University but quickly joined the background society of limestone developers in Southeast Asia. Learning from the successes and failures in business and bolting ethics in Krabi he went on to help spearhead the massive development of Crazy Horse Buttress and the surrounding crags with PEAK Adventures (www.thepeakadventure.com) and his own company CMRCA. Even as far out in the jungle as his project walls have been (and as further projects continue to be) he still manages to uphold sustainable standards with bathroom installations, free drinking water to cut down on plastic bottle refuse, terraced belay landings and in-company standardised bolting techniques and materials. Because of his efforts, climbing his crags is safe, clean and uncompromising to the natural beauty in which they stand.
The impression of this short month climbing with the community in Chiang Mai is still freshly with me as we head south. We have a quick stop in Tonsai to revisit some friends we've met along the way and tick off some unfinished projects before we carry on to catch our flight out of Kuala Lumpur. It's only a five hour flight to India from there, and the temperatures are just reaching the right lows to accommodate a long season in Hampi, Badami and, if time allows, some of those mysterious, boulder-strewn valleys north of Manali.