Visiting Tonsai in Low Season
After saying goodbye to Allison at Railay, I headed to the next beach over—Tonsai.
Tonsai is one of the top climbing destinations in the world, and its vibe certainly reflected it. It’s fairly easy to get to during high season (you can simply charter a boat or walk over from Railay via the beach or jungle paths). However, it was well into low season while I was there, so no boats were headed in that direction.
Since it was low tide, I took the beach path through the rocks. It was a fairly short walk (about 15 minutes), though a bit cumbersome as I was climbing over limestone with my pack.
Welcome to Tonsai
As I emerged through the rocks, a desolate beach and isolated storefronts greeted me. Low season also meant most places were closed for the year. The central part of the beach was blocked off as private property, and as I walked around a cement wall to the other side, I ran across a woman shooting at monkeys with an airsoft gun. What had I gotten myself into?
I checked into my hostel and realized I had no cash and the nearest ATM was back on Railay Beach. No problem, the hike back to Railay would be easier without my pack and I needed to find a place to do laundry anyway (laundry facilities were in short supply on Tonsai during low season).
I dropped my stuff off and a Thai climber who was hanging out by the bar said he was headed to Railay to meet some friends, so he’d walk with me. We walked through the beach path, and during the hike I learned a little bit more about the wall situation in Tonsai.
Apparently 4-5 years ago, all of the hostels and bungalows were situated right on the beach. Then some bigwig developer came through and bought off all the land, forcing all the other businesses to move up the beach.
The developer had also only seen the beach during high tide and assumed it was just like Railay West. However, when they came back later that year, they saw it during the low tide and realized the beach was completely unswimmable.
So then they built a cement wall around the property and spent the next two years trying to “fix” the beach. The ocean does what the ocean does, however, so the beach remained gross and unswimmable. Tonsai was never a beach destination—it was always a place for climbers to hang out.
The climber showed me a few shortcuts (the climbing community built a ladder to go over the wall) and gave me the lay of the land with climbing routes. Most of the beginner climbing routes were back on Railay East, so I ended up signing up for a climb there.
After running errands at Railay, I attempted to take the jungle path back to Tonsai. The jungle path was about a 45 minute climb through the trees and over the limestone. However, it was beginning to rain and close to sunset, and after getting turned around several times 10 minutes into the hike (the trail isn’t very well marked), I decided to play it safe and take the beach trail.
Chilling Out at Chill Out Bar and Bungalow
Chill Out Bar and Bungalow pretty much had everything you needed as a backpacker on site. A few family owned restaurants, a convenience store, and of course, a bar. The climbers started to fill the area around 8pm, so I got to talking with a few of them. One German guy told me he had been coming to Tonsai for one month every year for the past decade for the sole purpose of climbing. Climbers frequently met up in groups and just jumped on routes together for weeks on end.
I’ve done indoor bouldering on and off for the past several years, but I’ve never been much of a top roper. Since I couldn’t belay, I wasn’t able to join any of the groups. Ah well.
Since a lot of the climbers had been going to Tonsai for years, they had a lot to say about the wall situation. They’re very mad about it and worried that the developer will turn it into another Railay Beach (more touristy, more corporate, no hostels, all resorts).
At about 9pm, one of the guys working at the bar broke out the firedancing tools. He performed a quick show and then invited other people to try. No surprise, the climbing community was also a group of firespinning, tightrope walking hippies, so we had ourselves a good ol’ fire show. Of course, I joined in. Can’t let those colorguard skills go to waste.
Climbing at Railay
The next morning, I headed over to Railay for some climbing and made a classic newb mistake: I tried to cross the beach path during high tide. There was knee deep water to get through on the Tonsai side, which wasn’t too difficult. After 10 minutes of walking up into the jungle, I crossed down to the Railay side, and found it completely submerged in water. We’re talking waves beating against rocks water. Well, shit. I didn’t have time to go back around the other way and wasn’t about to miss climbing, so I did what any other stubborn traveler would do: I strapped my fanny pack to my person, made the call to keep my Tevas on (because sharp rock), and swam. The distance to shore was about 20 meters, so it was doable.
Damn, were the waves angry that morning. I worked my way slowly across the water; my first priority was to not get stabbed in the head by jagged limestone. After the water knocked me into the rocks a few times, I managed to get across without the undercurrent taking me, albiet soaked and a bit bloodied. My battery pack and wallet didn’t make it, but my phone survived!
I got to the climbing shop on time and patched myself up with their first aid kit, then we hit the crags.
We had a group of four, including a German woman, a Dutch woman, and a Uruguayan man. Our guide let me belay him as he lead climbed (turns out I CAN belay!) and we spent the next four hours on the rocks. I’m actually pretty proud of our group. Most other groups stopped by the second hour, but we stayed out there until our time was up.
I’m especially proud of myself because I successfully completed all four climbs! At first, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it because I exhausted the strength in my arms and legs by the last climb, but I found that being short has its advantages; I just nestled myself between the rocks when I needed to rest!
After climbing, I headed back to Tonsai in the afternoon while it was still low tide and then lied in bed until 10am the next day.
The Joy of Dormmates
At some point in between when I lied down and when I woke up, I treated my cuts (the water here is filled with bacteria, as you may have guessed. One of the climbers was showing off an infected cut in his foot the other evening and I was not about to join the infected joints club). My dormmate wandered in at about 11pm tripping on shrooms, so I stayed up talking to him for a few hours about human trafficking and travel experiences.
He’s a therapist from New York City who’s currently living in Beijing on a tourist visa. Because he needs to leave China every 60 days, he was vacationing in Tonsai for a week. Anyway, he was telling me about his time in Kenya when he was traveling with a female friend, and they hitchhiked their way through Kenya and ended up staying with a hilltribe for a few days during a highly contested election. When they announced the results, the tribesmen all piled into their jeeps and chopped down trees with their machetes in celebration.
The next morning, I packed my things and tackled the issue of getting back to Railay to catch a boat back to the mainland. It was high tide, so crossing the beach with my things was out of the question. I thought about taking the jungle path again, but the climbers had talked about wild monkeys ganging up on people and stealing things. Plus, I didn’t feel like trekking through the mud and bugs at that point.
Luckily, during breakfast, I overheard another traveler searching for people to charter a boat with to the mainland. She gathered a group of eight, and off we went!
Our boatmates consisted of a couple, three other solo travelers, and two locals. I’ve been attracting long-haired reggae musicians like white on rice (or is it the other way around?) so of course we ended up in a conversation about the reggae bar he and his friend were opening. I learned the dude was originally from Cebu, and he invited me to see him play back in Railay, but alas, I had a bus ticket back to Bangkok. Plus, I was legitimately dreaming about a haircut, aloe vera, coconut oil, and reliable electricity.
The boat dropped us off at Ao Nang Pier and we all said our goodbyes, and then I realized that the bus was leaving from Ao Nam Mo Pier, which was 5 km away. I got financially gutted by the tuk tuk driver (seriously, 300 baht for a tuk tuk???). After paying her, I realized I had exactly 50 baht to my name and no ATMs in sight.
It’s always an adventure when you travel.