Thailand’s wonderful weather, friendly people, beautiful landscapes, and delicious food make it a desirable destination for any traveler. And with options for all skill levels, some of the world’s best climbs, and picturesque summit views, it’s a no-brainer for climbers. Rock climbing in Thailand comes with an adventurous culture and welcoming community that is sure to rope you in for the long haul.
There are few people with a greater impact on Thailand’s rock climbing scene than Josh Morris. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, he started climbing with his brother at 16 years old and never looked back. He first moved to Thailand in 1999 to take up a teaching placement in Chiang Mai and spent his spare time traveling to the south of the country to climb. Since then, he has been growing a climbing community back in Chiang Mai, with a focus on ethics and environment at its heart. As founder and director of Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures, he encourages enthusiasts to think about contributing to the development of the sport, while also taking part in the amazing experience it has to offer. He says, “Climbing is already really fun. If you can do it in a place that exposes you to a new culture and landscape, it’s even better.”
Morris published A Guide to Rock Climbing in Northern Thailand in 2004. That book inspired fellow climber and collaborator Kati Hetrick to visit Thailand for the first time as a 20-year-old from Virginia with a travel bug and a passion for climbing. Of that visit, Hetrick recalls: “When I first arrived there, they asked me how long I was staying and I told them ‘Five days’. They said, ‘Cool, we’ll talk to you in two weeks’. I wound up staying for a month.” She now runs an agency managing athletes in the climbing world and returns to Thailand as often as she can.
We tapped into Morris and Hetrick’s expertise to find out how you can enjoy your climbing trip while staying conscious of your impact on the surroundings and how you can give back to the local community. Here are their recommendations.
1. Leave No Trace
Leave No Trace is an important mantra in the climbing community. Climbers understand that any time they are practicing their sport, they are on someone else’s land. Continued access to the land they climb on is contingent on each participant’s following a code of ethics they take seriously. Committing to responsible climbing is especially important for travelers. One way to do your part is to travel with a reusable water bottle. Find out where you can buy five-gallon jugs of water or places you can fill your bottle for free to avoid putting too much trash into the environment while you’re there. Consider traveling with a reusable container for food and a reusable shopping bag to bring to the store. Other ways to keep your climbing footprint light: Walk on existing trails; pick up all your lunch scraps; and avoid climbing on cliff edges, cracks, or ledges that are prone to erosion.
For a climbing trip with an ethical mission, we recommend Nam Pha Pa Yai, a remote climbing site on the Pasak River just a couple hours north of Bangkok. A popular weekend trip for city locals, it is dedicated to sustainability as much as climbing. Along with treehouses, bathrooms, and zip line access to a challenging crag, the camp has its own small-scale organic farm dedicated to self-sufficiency.
2. Support the Local Economy
Whether it’s booking a climbing guide, taking lessons, or renting gear, there are so many ways you can contribute to Thailand’s rock climbing economy. “It’s important to remember when you show up to a place like Thailand to climb, somebody has done the work to get things in place so we can participate,” Morris says. “It’s really important for climbers and travelers to adopt a mindset where they think about how they can contribute and what they can do to ensure that the resource is continually being developed sustainably so that it exists for a long time.” Simply buying chalk locally rather than bringing your own is supportive; it’s an enormous effort for local shops to get chalk into the country, which drives the price up. But your efforts in buying local will help bring those prices down and keep the local community thriving.
3. Be Prepared
Bring proper approach shoes. Morris notices a lot of climbers approach the crag—a term used in rock climbing to refer to a climbable cliff—in casual flip-flops. Not only are open-toe shoes poor for hiking steep mountains, they leave your toes exposed to cuts. Bring proper trail running or light approach shoes. For climbing shoes, Hetrick suggests bringing one pair each for deep-water soloing and climbing.
If you’re going down south and planning to stay for more than two weeks, bring a rope that you’re not attached to (no pun intended!). Hetrick warns that your rope won’t last in the south of Thailand’s salty air near the beach and sand. “It’s going to get trashed, but it will be worth giving up for the climb,” she says.
4. Safety First
Life is relaxed in Thailand, and sometimes that can translate over to climbing behavior. Morris reminds many tourists—especially Americans—that Thailand is a foreign country and wilderness rescue there is not what it is in the United States. Even if you don’t climb with a helmet at home, you should wear one abroad. Climbing is a dangerous sport and accidents happen. First aid is not as sophisticated here, so precautions should be taken.
You should think about safety when you’re not climbing too. One of the best ways to get around Thailand’s cities is by motorbike. Travelers have been known to rent them out and ride helmetless, still in their beach clothes. For safety, it is advised to wear long pants, closed-toe shoes, and gloves to protect your skin when riding in case of a spill, and, of course, a helmet. Proper dress is also something to consider as a sign of respect, which brings us to #5…
5. Learn the Cultural Dos and Don’ts
Thailand is a popular travel destination, but tourists can sometimes give foreigners, in general, a bad reputation. Thais interact more gently and have different views on personal space than North Americans do. In order to avoid offending anyone, it’s important to learn and respect the behavior that is unique to their culture.
Dress appropriately; identify when it’s OK to wear tank tops and shorts (at the beach, during hikes, and while climbing) and when you should wear long pants and cover your shoulders (in temples and rural areas). Thais are neat and keep their things in an orderly and compact way. They don’t appreciate people taking up more space than is needed; something to keep in mind when you’re lugging around all your climbing gear.
6. Eat the Local Food
From high-end restaurants to roadside food stalls, Thailand has a lot to offer in the way of eats. The dish both Hetrick and Morris rave about from Thailand is called Khao soi. It’s a curry and coconut based noodle soup you can only get in the north, especially in Chiang Mai, where there are lots of great spots serving Khao soi from which to choose. Khao Soi Wulai is a local hot spot relatively unknown to tourists, while longtime favorite Huen Phen Restaurant serves a family recipe and has a romantic ambiance in the evenings. Finally, Lamduon Fahrm is a Chiang Mai institution that has been nailing this delicious dish for more than 70 years.
Thailand has been long called the Land of Smiles, thanks to welcoming locals sporting almost permanent grins. Traveling to Thailand for rock climbing is an enriching experience to be enjoyed and appreciated. “Everyone that lives here or travels to Thailand to climb recognizes its history and tries to hold true to the spirit of the place. It’s a really cool destination within the world of climbing, where you can go and pay homage to some great people who created the sport here so all of us can enjoy it now.”
“Climbing is a life-changing activity,” Morris says. “For those that have never done it before, there are tremendous opportunities in Thailand to challenge yourself and get up and over obstacles you didn’t think were possible. The more you can connect with the local community and contribute, the more opportunities you create for people in those communities.”