It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since I first climbed in Thailand. Of course back in 1992 Phra-Nang was nothing like it is today. Tonsai was completely undeveloped with just a few rough huts set back in the jungle. Railay had a bunch of basic bungalow systems and it was only the Dusit Rayavadee that was regarded as upmarket (in 1993 we watched Mick Jagger and his entourage arrive by helicopter). Karen and I spent our very first night in Thailand at Sand Sea Bungalows, which, for less than two dollars, provided us with an open bamboo hut that could easily have featured in the movie Apocalypse Now. On nearby Phra-Nang Beach, King and Tex were dragging hapless beginners up The Money Maker (6a+, 18) for 30 baht ($1) a pop and we were busy cranking It’s a Boy 7b (25-26) through the spectacular Princess Cave (and which is now quite rightly closed to climbing). Over the next few years I wrote a small guide to Phra-Nang for Wild Publications (in Australia) and my articles and photographs appeared in a variety of magazines including Climbing, Rock and Ice, Rock, Outdoor Australia and Action Asia. Combined with the efforts of a small group of other climbers (such as Sam Lightner) it wasn’t long before Thailand was seen for what it truly was, that is one of the most remarkable climbing destinations on earth.
Of course all this came at a price. These days climbing at Railay and Tonsai during the peak season can be uncomfortably crowded. Popular cliffs such as the Keep, Fire Wall or Monkey World are often packed and it’s not uncommon to have to wait in queue. Tonsai Wall and Dums Kitchen are overflowing with muscular brown torsos, writhing tattoos, jostling guides and some of the most polished routes you’ll ever have the misfortune to slip off. As for 123 Wall at Railay East, do yourself a favour and get there early (well before 7am) and make sure your off your climb and heading for breakfast by 8.30am. After that it will be wall to wall chaos.
So is there anywhere in Thailand that you can still climb and avoid the crowds? Indeed there is. Koh Yao Noi is an island about an hours long-tail ride west of Railay Beach and is situated smack bang in the middle of Phang-Nga Bay. Koh Yao Noi means Small Long Island and its southern (larger) neighbor is called Koh Yao Yai (or Big Long Island). The two islands are separated by a narrow channel. Koh Yao Noi is home to about 4000 people, mainly Muslim, most of whom earn their living by fishing, farming and agriculture. Unlike nearby Phuket, Koh Yao Noi is a very quiet place and is more like the Thailand I remember from 20 years ago. There are no glitzy resorts, no traffic, no nightclubs and no crowds. Here the locals are much more relaxed, friendly and with smiles as wide as an Andaman sunrise.
There are about ten cliffs currently under development, all of which are located on the northern tip of Koh Yao Noi and its nearby islands. The area has been developed mainly by Mark Miner (and his mates Drew Spalding, Justin Day etc) who co-runs (with his wife, Heather) the Mountain Shop in Tha Khao village. These guys have put in one hell of a lot of hard work, having spent a small fortune in bolts and glue. There are currently about 160 climbs. Most are single pitch but there are some that reach four pitches. Almost all of the routes are protected with titanium bolts combined with Hilti RE-500 glue. To be honest the climbing isn’t anywhere near as convenient as Phra-Nang as all of the crags on Koh Yao Noi require some form of transport to reach them (either by boat or by scooter). Forget about cliffs towering above white sandy beaches, here on Koh Yao Noi the cliffs rise from either the jungle or directly from the sea. The payoff is that you will enjoy some superb climbing, no crowds and barely a polished hold in sight. Here is a quick overview of three of the better cliffs on Koh Yao Noi.
This remarkable orange and gray cliff is arguably one of the best ‘more moderate’ crags in Thailand. Grateful Wall hangs over the sea, which means it requires a boat to reach it. A bamboo ladder provides access to a narrow ledge that runs the length of the cliff about 10m above the water. Grateful Wall is also blessed with shade all day. It doesn’t get much better than this.
There are currently ten routes here, ranging from 6a (17) to 7a (24). Every route is an absolute pocket-pulling classic of between 25m and 60m. Bring along a 70m rope to be safe (and tie a knot in the end of the rope). Standout climbs include Candyman (6b, 20), New Speedway Boogie 6c+ (23), Monkey and the Engineer 6b+ (21) and Franklins Tower 6a+ (19). The two pitch Fire on the Mountain is also well worth ticking, if only to experience the trouser-filling exposure and exquisite moves on the final 6c (22) pitch.
This steep white wall looks vaguely like the side of a collapsing wedding cake, rising straight out of the jungle and literally dripping with massive stalactites. The Mitt has around 30 climbs ranging from 6a to 7c. Here you will be confronted with the most concentrated collection of harder routes on Koh Yao Noi. Most climbs require at least a 60m rope with some routes requiring 70m and 80m ropes. Remember to tie a knot in the end of your rope.
Of the easier routes Daddy Long Legs (6b, 20) is a standout classic. The route overhangs 8m in 25m as you swing from stalactite to stalactite. Watch out for nearby Black Widow, which is a sandbag at 6c! Spiderman 6c+ (23) is a 30m endurance marathon at the grade. You have to approach the Mitt via a very rough 30min scooter ride up the spine of the island to the Paradise Koh Yao Resort. From the resort it is a 15min walk up through the jungle. To avoid the scooter ride (which can be dangerous in wet weather) you should consider renting a long-tail boat for the day.
Big Tree Wall
In some ways this is Koh Yao Noi’s answer to Thaiwand Wall over at Railay. True, Big Tree Wall isn’t quite as impressive, but what it does have is a dozen or so mega-classic routes of between two and four pitches at grades that are generally more ‘tickable’ for the majority of climbers. Big Tree Wall is accessed as for the Mitt and requires a 25min jungle walk. You can also approach Big Tree Wall from the sea via a long-tail boat, which is generally much quicker and easier.
There are plenty of bungalows and resorts on the island, most of which are concentrated along the southeastern coast. A lot of climbers seem to stay at Namtok Bungalows, which charge between 450 and 1300 baht ($15 and $43) per night. For those looking for a bit more comfort you could check out Lom Lae Beach Resort or Sabai Corner Bungalows. For the last two seasons Karen and I have stayed at the rather more upmarket Koyao Island Resort, which (like many resorts) have good deals before the start of high season on 01 November. Rooms here are upwards of 5500 baht ($180) per night.
Get yourself a Thai sim card for your phone. We have had great results with the local carrier AIS, which has a surprisingly good service throughout the Andaman islands including Phra-Nang and Koh Yao Noi. You can purchase a 3G sim card from the arrivals hall at Bangkok Airport and top it up at any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. I usually go for a 669 baht ($22) card which allows for 1GB of internet data as well as plenty of free local calls. If you just want local phone calls (no internet) then purchase a sim card from any Seven Eleven or Mini Mart. Note that there are different sizes of sim cards depending upon your smart phone model.
Rent a scooter for your entire stay on the island. Scooters cost around 200 – 300 baht ($7 to $10) per day. You will need a scooter to access some of the crags (if you don’t decide to rent a long-tail) and you will need it to get to cafes, restaurants and visit nearby villages.
Some of the best cliffs are accessible only via a long-tail boat. The daily rental of a long-tail will set you back about 1800 baht (about $60) per day. The Mountain Shop can arrange everything and will also help organise other climbers that may want to share the cost.
The Koh Yao Noi Rock Climbing guide is available only from the Mountain Shop. To be honest I’ve so far been unable to purchase a copy as they always seem to be out of print. Luckily, during my last two visits to the island, I’ve been able to borrow a copy (on both occasions we left a donation for the use of the guide, which will go towards more titanium bolts and glue). If you’re heading over this season I’d suggest dropping the folks at the Mountain Shop an email and asking if the guide is currently available. If you have the King Climbers Thailand Route Guide Book then you at least have the descriptions for The Mitt and for Grateful Wall.
Take a few spare ‘leaver biners’ and slings. Quite a few of the lower-offs at Koh Yao Noi are just opposing carabiners, many which are showing signs of advanced wear. Do the right thing and replace any biners or slings when necessary.
There are lots of cafes and restaurants on the island. A few of the better places that I’ve eaten include La Luna Pizzeria (the owner, Romano, is a climber and his pizzas and pastas are simply amazing), Je T’aime restaurant (sort of a Thai, French and Danish fusion!), Good View Restaurant (great sunsets, tasty Thai seafood) and the Para Bar (super Thai food, fantastic atmosphere).
You can reach either Manoh or Tha Khao Piers (both on Koh Yao Noi) via speed boat directly from Tha Lane Pier on the mainland, which will cost you about 250 baht ($8). A taxi between Krabi and Tha Lane Pier will cost you about 800 baht ($27). Boats also leave from Ao Nang (near Railay), which can be more convenient for climbers. This trip via speed boat will take about 50min and cost you maybe 500 baht ($17). The most convenient option though (if you’re coming from Railay) is to simply rent your own long-tail boat for 4000 baht ($130), which will take you directly to Tha Khao Pier on Koh Yao Noi.