Climbing in Laos: Unexpectedly mind-blowing

When we set out for our trip to South East Asia, we though we would spend most of our time climbing in Southern Thailand, and another large chunk in Vietnam. We were also planning to check out the climbing in Northern Thailand, maybe for a week or so, and Laos and Cambodia were reserved for a short tourist trip. How wrong we were…

Not until getting here did we realise there was even any climbing at all in Laos, and the more we heard about it, the more it sounded like somewhere we should be going for more than just a short week. Having spent three weeks climbing near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand (instead of the one week we had planned), we felt it was finally time to move on and booked ourselves in for two weeks at the Green Climbers Home near Thakhek, Laos, near the Thai border.

The moment we arrived at the camp and saw the cliffs surrounding it, we immediately booked ourselves in for another week. Now that our three-week stay has come to an end we are wishing we had some more time here, and already talking potentially returning next year as volunteers at the camp.

The Green Climbers Camp

The main accommodation for climbers is based around 12km away from Thakhek, a small Laotian town just across the border from Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. The camp was established by a German couple, Tania and Uli Weidner, who developed and bolted a large number of the climbing routes. It lies pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by cliff faces on either side.

Having originally been set up as a single camp, it was expanded as the popularity of the region grew, and now there are two camps around 500 metres away from each other, each with its own kitchen/restaurant area, bungalow accomodation, camp ground with tents for rent, and hot showers.

Arriving at the camp was a little overwhelming at first. Everyone seemed to know each other and everyone seemed to climb pretty strong. At first, we definitely felt a little like the outsiders. But very quickly we ended up talking to one group of climber, then another, and by day two it already felt like we’d been there a week and knew half the people at camp. By week two, it felt like home, complete with our own little frustrations and a little bit of cabin fever.

Spending three weeks in one place without leaving very often is certainly an interesting experience, and not for everyone. The climbing was incredible, and the atmosphere relaxed and welcoming, so for the first 10 days we didn’t bother leaving camp at all, even on rest days. But eventually, we needed to get out, even if just for a few hours, to see the world outside.

Thakhek…

The world outside mostly consists of Thakhek, a sleepy town devoid of attractions. However, it does have a pizza restaurant, run by an eccentric French lady, which was famous amongst the climbing community for having exceptional pizza, and attracted large groups of us on rest days.

There are also a few coffee shops, a small food market, an ATM and a few massage places, where massages are no worse than in Thailand itself, and just as cheap!

…and the climbing!

But the real reason we stayed as long as we did was the climbing. While Chang Mai pleasantly surprised it with the quality of its crags, Thakhek positive blew our minds. If we could spend three weeks climbing at Crazy Horse, we could easily spend three months here and not get bored of the climbing!

Overhanging cliffs, featured limestone with crazy stalactite formations, deep pockets, are just some of the distinctive features of the Laotian rock, although by no means is it an exhaustive list. There’s something here for everyone, often in one route, be it burly starts, delicate technical moves, long runs that are barely possible with a 70m rope, as well as short, bouldery problems.

And there is even a massive roof, with its crazy features at the bottom that call for techniques that are more akin to caving than climbing, and its hard-as-nails top section.

Not my style at all, but I still tried a couple of problems, since all the quickdraws are fixed, taking away the pressure of needing to get to the top of a route. The weirdest one was called Saugeburt, literally meaning “pig birth”, where one had to slither through a small tunnel in the rock 20 metres above ground come out on the other side, like a metaphorical birthing. It was definitely a leap of faith, but worth the experience…

One of our favourite crags was called Hangover, and featured a range of moderately to very overhanging routes, most of them above 6c. Clay sent a bunch of routes there, but I struggled with the angle a bit more, yet it was here that I did my first 7a on this trip, Switzerland, a firm classic that many climbers were queueing to try.

Me on Switzerland – photo courtesy of Kai

Another classic I climbed was a 6c called Mon General, a more vertical and slightly longer route with a definitive pockety crux, which is to date the only 6c I have on-sighted outdoors so far.

Meanwhile, Clay was getting pretty comfortable with on-sighting or flashing 7a’s (his favourite one was called Acid Therapy, though we kept calling it Acid Trip, which seemed like a better and more fitting name; I didn’t even try it as I had a feeling it would result in monumental failure). And on penultimate day he sent a 7b on the roof called Jungle King, also firmly in the list of the classic top picks, at least for those who like climbing in a nearly horizontal position!

One of our main regrets was bringing a short and relatively old rope with us from home. Originally a 60m, we had to trim the ends because it was fraying so much, and ended up with a 55m rope on our first day in Thakhek. In a place where a large selection of the best routes are at least 30m, this severely reduced what we could try, until we eventually bought a used 70m rope off one of our fellow climbers who didn’t want to take it back home.

If we come back, we are bringing an 80m rope, so we can climb on Weiße Wand, a crag with nearly 40m long lines on white limestone. I would also gladly return to Worldtrip, to the 30m-long 6c+ and 7a, Mr Ku and Mr Keo, both classics and both heaps of fun. We didn’t get on these routes until very late in our trip and still have unfinished business with them!

Other than that, I’d like to come back here when I’m climbing stronger, because there is so much more I want to try which I didn’t feel ready for this time around. But there was no lack of inspiration, with lots of strong climbers and mind-blowing rock surrounding us! Definitely a must for a climbing trip to South East Asia! You just have to book well in advance, as it gets pretty busy here in December.

A very Thai Thanksgiving

Who said you can’t celebrate Thanksgiving all the way on the other side of the world? When you make American friends in Thailand, you make the magic happen.

Last Thursday it was Thanksgiving in America, and we decided there was nothing stopping us from having a family style celebration over in Thailand. Luckily, the homestay we were staying at was incredibly accomodating and got on board with our need for all the food to arrive at the same time, sharing style.

Over the couple of weeks we had spent climbing at Crazy Horse and living at Jira Homestay, Clay and I had made friends with an American, Canadian and a kiwi couple. The Canadians unfortunately left before Thanksgiving, but another American couple arrived a few of days beforehand, so on the special day we were eight. And we made sure we ordered enough for eight to feast on!

The honourable place of the turkey was taken by a deep fried fish in sweet and sour sauce. It was delightful! We also had some deep fried chicken wings, which were probably some of tastiest ones I’ve ever had (quite a statement, I know!).

Most of the friends we had made at Crazy Horse are vegetarians, which made us take the step to eating more vegetarian food, something we have been planning on doing for a while. I was worried the lack of meat would make me feel lethargic or lack energy, or affect me in some other negative way, but I have honestly felt a whole load better for choosing the vegetarian options 90% of the time over the past few weeks.

So the rest of our feast consisted of vegetarian dishes: fried rice, green curry with veggies, yellow curry, a Northern style chilli dip with vegetables and French fries.

And for dessert: the ultimate winner. Thai pancakes. I had no idea they were so good!! Think deep fried circles of dough, doused in condensed milk, that just melt in your mouth. We paired them with tons of ice cream and tropical fruit – dragon fruit and passion fruit.

It felt exactly like Thanksgiving should – too much food, way too much dessert, great company, and a wonderful homely atmosphere.

Staying at Jira’s was such an amazing start to our climbing adventure that we stayed there for three weeks instead of the one that we had planned, but eventually it was time to leave. And I swear, that was the hardest thing we’ve had to deal with on our travels to far, even though we were mega excited about moving on to Laos.

Wewill really miss that place, and our Thai Thanksgiving family!

Climbing in Thailand: Longing for rain

I’ve never longed for rain this much in my life. A few days ago, temperatures reached a toasty 34 degrees Celsius, with Google telling me it “feels like 37”, and I could feel every single damn degree of it. My head was pounding, my body refused to move, I was starting to get pretty irritable. The weather forecast promised a 60% chance of rain, and I could sense it hanging heavy in the air (even heavier that the usual humidity in Thailand), but it just wasn’t coming.

After two or three days of this, the humidity reached such astronomical levels that I was sweating so much I couldn’t hold onto my makeshift walking stick (manufactured out of a clip-stick, so as not to waste a good piece of equipment while not in use) on the approach to the crag. It was slipping out of my hand.

Then, finally, that day, when the 20 minute approach up a steep hill nearly made me vomit, the rain finally came. Not a massive, satisfying downpour, like you get during the tropical monsoon season; but still a huge relief after the days of building tension.

The rain in Thailand seems so much more serious about its job than the rains we often get back in the UK. Every drop is more substantial and heavy, and it only last for a short period of time, instead of dragging on for long, exhausting hours.

It’s amazing how quickly one gets used to his or her current situation and begins complaining about the very same things they wanted desperately only a short while before. A month ago, I couldn’t wait for the heat of South East Asia. I wanted desperately to escape the drizzly, damp and miserable British winter. Now look at me, complaining about how hot I am!

I remind myself of this on a regular basis, then promptly feel ashamed about complaining and focus instead on looking forward to a cold shower.

That’s another thing that has been rather novel in my life here – the joy I get from a cold shower. To the point that, despite the existence of slightly temperamental, but functional hot showers, for well over a week now we have chosen to wash ourselves in the shower we luckily have in our room, despite it being cold. Partly for convenience, but to a large extent because it just feels so good to let the cold water wash over you after a day of slithering our sweaty way up rock faces and perspiring profusely after accidentally putting that little bit too much chilli on our food.

Today we are resting, which mostly involves hiding in our room with two fans on. Despite it being a much more overcast day than we have had recently, the humidity is still relentless, and the indoors is so inviting. I never thought I would choose to stay inside when it’s warm enough to lie around and read my book outdoors, but that’s precisely what we’re doing. And I’ve almost learnt not to feel guilty about it.

Tomorrow is a big climbing day. We are going to a crag called the Heart Wall – the furthest  one away from where we are staying (that’s the 20 minute approach I enjoyed so much a few days ago), but also the most impressive, and coincidentally the most energy intensive and tiring.

Tomorrow also happens to be Thanksgiving, and given we have made some lovely American friends over here, tomorrow will also be a big eating day, so we have to prepare our bodies for both!

The ten things I wish I’d known before climbing in Northern Thailand

No advice can really prepare you for rock climbing in a tropical country when you’re used to the mild European climate, but I wish I’d done a little more research about what it’s like to climb in Thailand.

We’ve been climbing at Crazy Horse for six days now (with a two-day break when we went back to Chiang Mai for the weekend).

To be honest, it’s been a whole lot better than I expected. The rock is beautiful and not too polished, the routes are interesting and incredibly well-bolted. The grades are maybe a little soft, but the heat and humidity makes everything seem so much harder.

There is a good variety of relatively burly, short routes, and long sweat-fests with technical cruxes interspersed with easier face climbing. And we haven’t even been to the Heart Wall yet, which is meant to be spectacular!

But it certainty takes a bit of research to have the best time here and to be comfortable at the crag. Here are a few things I wish I’d known before we came here.

1. It’s really easy to get to the crag on public transport. We only found this out when we spoke to other climbers at the homestay where we are living, and I only found one blog about this after a bit of searching. Most of the information online is produced by Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA), which can organise return transfers to and from the crag, but these cost 525 baht per person (around £12, which I know doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is by Thai standards). Public transport costs 40 baht one way!

2. It is absolutely essential to bring a lighter and anti-mosquito coils to burn at the crag. It gets pretty mosquito-heavy among all the vegetation, and the coils seem to be the only thing they are afraid of. I had actually thought of bringing the coils, but stupidly we didn’t have a lighter for the first few days, and you kind of need both! We finally got one back in Chiang Mai.

3. Bring more quickdraws with you than you think you could ever use. Many routes are up to 30 metres long and extremely well-bolted. We had 18 with us, and we’ve used almost all of them on some routes, and there are apparently some longer ones that may even require more.

4. Chiang Mai is not worth spending a weekend in. It has become far too Westernised and touristy, and one day would have been plenty. It was worth going back to do some laundry and to get some Thai massages (which are amazing!!), and for the weekend food markets. But it isn’t a great rest day. It’s quite busy and more expensive, and it’s hard to find a nice room at short notice as there is so much demand.

5. The heat and humidity take a LOT of getting used to, so choose your crag wisely. Some of them get much hotter than others, and climbing in 30 degree heat and mad humidity is not for the faint of heart. Expect to sweat as much as you would in a hot yoga class, but all day long.

6. Bring a towel to the crag. Or two. For reasons see my point above…

7. Bring a lot of extra chalk. See point 5.

8. It’s worth buying some fruit back in Chiang Mai or at the market down the road from the homestay, because the place itself, though it does great food, doesn’t sell any fruit. And if you’re like me, you will want nothing but fruit and cold drinks in this heat!

9. It’s worth bringing head torches with you when going out to the crags. There are a lot of caves around, some of which have bolted routes inside them, but it’s quite dark in there.

10. November is a very busy time here, as it’s high season, but the longer you stay at the homestay the more likely you are to get a nice room, as one of the longer-term customers. We stayed in a tent for the first 4 nights, and then had to sleep in a dorm for a night when we returned from Chiang Mai. But the next day, someone left, so we got a huge double room, with a toilet, a (cold) shower and a fridge, for not much more money than we were paying for a tent!

Thailand: Climbing in Chiang Mai

After a few days of eating everything Thailand has to offer and accumulating some substantial podge around our mid areas, we finally made it to the climbing area in Chiang Mai.

Situated in the North of the country, Chiang Mai has unfortunately become far more touristy than when I last visited Thailand a decade ago. The climbing has also now been discovered by more than just a handful of foreigners, but it is still nowhere near as popular as some of the more well known destinations, such as Krabi in the South of the country.

And as the first place to begin our rock climbing adventure, it is absolutely perfect, with a huge range of easier climbs, and a wonderful change from the hustle and bustle of the cities.

The climbing area, called Crazy Horse, sits around 45 mins drive outside of Chiang Mai. We couldn’t get our hands on a guidebook in England, so we bought it when we got here from a company called Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA), which looks after the crags.

CMRCA shop
CMRCA shop

They run a gym in the city, through which people can book climbing courses or transport to and from the crag. We used their service to get out to Crazy Horse, though by Thai standards it’s pretty expensive – around £12 each (525 baht), return.

We were also recommended to stay at a place near the crag called Jira Homestay, but it turned out November is a busy month and they had run out of rooms. Instead, we were offered a tent, which was completely set up for us when we arrived and turned out to be a really nice place to spend the night. And we paid…just 250 baht per night for this. A whopping £6 for the two of us!

They also do amazing food. It comes at slightly  higher  prices  than some  of the food markets, but the portions  are huge! And they prepare  lunches  to take away to the crag  too, which is  awesome!

We’ve mostly done very easy climbing so far, but that is exactly the start we needed. Even the easy routes are very interesting, with lots of features, and extremely well bolted!

The heat and humidity have got to us though, and we have struggled a bit with stamina, and general breathing throughout the day. But apparently it’s actually pretty cool now, so we better acclimatise fast for when it gets hotter again…

Can’t wait to check out more areas over the next few days. We have recommendations from a few people for an easy multi-pitch with breathtaking views, so that’s definitely on the bucket list.