Derek Cheng drops by Tonsai – Thailand’s most popular climbing area – clears up rumours of its demise and finds new mega routes are still going down.
As baseless rumours of a giant resort stoke fears of the End of Tonsai, two Australian climbers have been at the forefront of developing a new crag at Thailand’s sport climbing paradise – a huge roof with potential for a wild, 50m-long horizontal traverse.
‘It’s the best find in Tonsai in years. I was totally blown away when I first saw it,’ says Blue Mountains-based climber Glenn Smith.
A Tonsai regular, Smith and fellow Aussie Andrew Anderson helped Swedish climber Simon Talltorp develop the sector – called The Gibbon Roof – after Talltorp discovered it in February 2014. Bolting started a month later.
There are now 13 routes in the area, most of them climbing through the 12m-wide roof. The climbs start with Infected Mushroom, a slightly overhanging 6a+/19, and then jump to NWA, a 6c+/22 that traverses six bolts of horizontal climbing on huge holds. Ninjas With Lasers is currently the hardest route at 8b/31, which Smith freed in February 2015.
‘I think there is room for at least 30 great routes in the area,’ Smith says.
There is some excited talk about a spectacular traverse linking many of the existing climbs. Talltorp says it is a project he would like to bolt for the 2015/16 season.
‘It’s going to be epic. It could be 40m to 50m of full-on roof climbing. We’re going to call it The Chuck Norris Traverse.’
Meanwhile climber numbers were noticeably down for the 2014/15 season, largely due to fears of Tonsai – in Krabi province, Thailand – changing for the worse. Tonsai has been one of the world’s most popular climbing spots since the early 1990s. Dozens of climbers return every winter, attracted to the carefree vibe, beach, and hedonistic lifestyle amid basic, rustic bungalows.
In September 2014, the Bangkok-based company that owns the 21.7-acre beachfront property ended the leases for the bars and restaurants on the property. Only Tonsai Bay Resort and Kruie Thai Restaurant – which are outside the property boundaries – remain on the beach, while others relocated into the jungle.
Workers are erecting an ominous 2m-high concrete brick wall around the property except for the beachfront, which remains accessible to all.
‘Nobody likes the wall,’ says Elke Schmitz, owner of Basecamp Tonsai.
‘You’re living in a place, and the next thing someone buys the land in front of you and builds a wall in your face. It’s very aggressive.’
But Julamanee Subhate, owner of the Jungle Hut and Paasook bungalows, believes the company is being ‘fair’.
She says the company – which she declines to name – has allowed the road access bordering the property to remain, even though it is on company land. The road is 440m long and is the main public walkway leading from the beach to the bars and bungalows in the jungle.
She says the company wants to build bungalows similar to the ones in the jungle, and keep the property as ‘Tonsai as possible’.
‘They came to see, and love Tonsai so much,’ Subhate says.
She says the company is also discussing installing a proper sewage system for the whole area and bringing 24-hour electricity to Tonsai, which would make the loud generators redundant.
‘We cannot get everything from the company, but we accept that what they give us is fair,’ Subhate says. ‘They already lose money to give us space for the road.’
She believes the building laws for Krabi prevent the building of a large resort. The laws say there can be no construction up to 20m from the high-water mark. Between 20m to 50m from the high-tide mark, buildings can only be a maximum of 6m tall. The height limit extends to 12m for buildings 50m to 150m from the beach.
‘They have the plan to do bungalows, because they already know they cannot make a big resort,’ Subhate says.
Schmitz also believes a resort-style development is unlikely.
‘It’s very expensive because they have to bring in everything by boat. It may end up looking like something we want to see, or it might end up being garish. But I don’t think it will be a huge condo by the sea, because it will be so expensive, even if they bribe someone to get the permit.
‘It’s all speculation. Obviously it will be nice if it’s more backpacker-friendly. Lots of people didn’t come back this year because of the changes – but Tonsai is always changing.’
A silver lining is that the beach will be cleaner, and with less rubbish, Schmitz says.
‘They don’t own the rock and they don’t own the beach. Whatever is going to happen on that land cannot affect what Tonsai is famous for: world-class climbing and an incredible, open and international community which managed, and still manages, to pull off a huge effort in time and money to re-bolt routes with (corrosion-resistant) titanium bolts.
‘Tonsai has just moved up into the jungle, but it’s still here.’
Subhate also stresses that Tonsai is still very much alive and humming. Most of the bars are still there, the beach and water look cleaner since the beach has been cleared, and the climbing is still fantastic.
‘Tonsai is changing, but it is still Tonsai.’