How to climb a limestone cliff in Thailand

Our featured blogger, Katherine Belamino, dons a harness and climbs a limestone karst towering over Thailand's Phang Nga Bay

7 mins

When we decided to travel to Thailand there was one thing we had to do. Actually, there was one thing I had to do, and I forced Romeo to do it too (he has a fear of falling, which he has explained is quite different from a fear of heights). That one thing was rock climbing Ko Panyi (also Koh Panyi, Ko Panyee, and Koh Panyee). 

Do you watch The Amazing Race? One of the challenges during season 19 was rock climbing this huge limestone cliff jutting out of the water, which is part of a small island with a Muslim fishing village built on stilts. Let’s just ignore the fact that I had never, ever rock climbed in my life, not even one of those indoor courses, and the other fact that I have absolutely no upper body strength. 

Going into our trip planning I had no idea of the name of this tiny island, but I knew it was near Phuket and I knew it was on The Amazing Race. There was no mention of this place in either of my guidebooks. Thank goodness for Google! First I figured out the name of the island, which was easy enough. But then I had to find a company that offered rock climbing trips to Ko Panyi. Again, with the help of Google, I found Gecko Thailand. 

Of course Gecko Thailand was also not in any of my guidebooks, nor was it anywhere to be found on Trip Advisor. But since I had my heart set on climbing Ko Panyi, I decided to try Gecko Thailand anyway. This turned out to be one of the best decisions of our Thailand trip, and led to one of our most memorable travel days ever; a day with new experiences and a new friend.

Gecko Thailand is not a large tour company. It is a small business owned by one person, Narongsak Pochana (but you can call him Aon). Aon picked us up in the morning in his four-door pickup truck at our hotel in Phuket. We first visited Wat Suwan Kuha (Wat Tham), which is a cave temple in Phang Nga. A number of Buddha images are enshrined in the temple, including a Reclining Buddha. There is also a wall with the initials of many of Thailand’s royalty, including King Rama V. Outside of the cave temple is a tribe of monkeys running around waiting to be fed. We didn’t feed them, but we did watch them for a little while and they were pretty cute.

We then took a ride in our very first long-tail boat. A long-tail boat is a large covered ponga-type boat which uses a car engine with a long driveshaft with a propeller at the end. We rode through the bay surrounded by beautiful scenery, and then we saw it looming ahead of us, Ko Panyi! We disembarked and headed to the roofed outdoor restaurant so we could suit up in our harnesses and try on our climbing shoes.We then headed out, walking along the raised sidewalks of the town and hiking up the side of the cliff to reach the location of our first climb.

 The first climb was the higher of the two climbs of the day. Aon will tailor your climbs to your ability. If you are a seasoned rock climber, you may climb more locations and reach higher heights. Since we were both novices, he chose the higher climb first in case we were unable to do the second climb. Aon taught us how to hold and feed the rope, and then he climbed first to set the course. The climb is top-rope climbing, which is best for beginners. There are pins already set in the rocks, and Aon climbed first to anchor the rope at the top of the route. He then came down and I got to go first (which I’m sure was because my husband is so chivalrous, ladies first and all). 

I started my very first rock climb ever. As I shimmied my way up the cliff I felt really empowered, saying over and over in my head, “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m really doing this. I am able to do this!” Aon was encouraging the entire way, calling out instructions for where to place my feet and hands and telling me I could do it. I then reached the halfway point, which is a tiny space of rock that juts out so you can stand, turn around, take in the view, and snap a few pictures.

And then I turned around to finish the rest of the climb. I had no problems getting to the first ledge. Turning around and taking pictures and looking at the view was exhilarating. But when I turned back around, the unwelcome fear crept in. All of a sudden I was frozen to the face of the rock with one arm outstretched like a gangly spider. I had made it this far and there was no reason for me to be afraid now, but I was. I took a few seconds to calm myself down and then I forced myself to start up the side of the cliff again. 

Once I got going I felt better, with Aon providing more encouragement. I was nearing the pinnacle of the set route and the climb became a little more difficult. I had a hard time finding the right holds. I was so afraid of falling, even though I knew Aon had the rope and it wouldn’t be a problem. He even told me I could. I finally succumbed and fell. It was at this point that I really knew how safe I was. 

When I say I fell, what I really mean is I lost my grip and came away from the face of the rock, but I did not actually lose any altitude. I was completely safe with Aon holding the rope below. He even told me I could rest awhile in the air if I wanted. I pulled myself back against the rock face and made it the rest of the way up. Then came the really fun part; repelling back down. Then it was Romeo’s turn, which was successful (except after looking at the view for two seconds, he said he was done and ready to come down).

We hiked back down the cliff and went to the outdoor restaurant for lunch. We let Aon order a delicious feast.

After lunch we walked back through the village to the start of our second climb. This one was not as high, and did not require hiking up the cliff, but it was more difficult because the rock face actually slanted outwards. I am sorry to admit that neither one of us made it to the top of this climb. We were both so close. There was one part that required a huge side step up, and even with my long legs, I couldn’t do it. I attempted multiple times, and when I finally figured out what I needed to do, I had lost the strength to accomplish it. While I was a little disappointed with myself, I still felt quite proud I had made it up the first climb.

To console myself we walked back through the village for a little retail therapy, and I purchased some sarongs and pearl jewellery. I also let Aon take my camera and do a little photography. He takes excellent pictures, so let him have your camera.

By the time Aon dropped us back off at our hotel at the end of the day, we had made a new friend.

Katherine Belarmino | Travel The World

Hello! I'm Katherine, and travel is my passion. I have been creating vacation itineraries and traveling for over ten years. Thank you for letting me share my experiences with you, and I hope that I can inspire you to travel the world.

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