I'd sworn off the sport in 1983 after a brush with death in Central California's Pinnacles National Monument. But sometimes travel makes a person take risks, so here I was in southern Thailand, falling backward through space, feeling the rope pull taut, then dangling 60 feet from the ground.
"You OK?" asked Gob, my Thai climbing guide.
"Yeah, I think so," I said, looking down at him and suddenly noticing the view behind me, a swirl of brilliant white-sand beaches, towering limestone spires, lush green jungle and gloriously blue ocean. The kaleidoscope of scenery reminded me why this stretch of Thai coastline just south of the town of Krabi, along the western edge of the country's southern peninsula, is the climbing capital of Southeast Asia.
The area, commonly called Rai Leh, is also popular with non-climbers. The combination of gorgeous beaches, cheap food and accommodations, and easy accessibility put the area on the tourist map in the mid-'80s. Although the hundreds of climbing routes that line Rai Leh's 300-foot-high limestone spires are a huge draw, visitors still come for its other attractions.
Indeed, when I arrived in Rai Leh as part of a five-month solo tour of Asia last winter, I had planned to do nothing more energetic than lie on the beach and take an occasional swim. But as soon as the long-tail taxi boat from Krabi dropped me off at East Hat Rai Leh (hat means beach), the sight of the dramatic monoliths tempted me.
I was 40 years old and had embarked on this extended journey not only to escape an office job in Los Angeles but also to push some limits.
After finding a clean, spacious room for $10 a night — a mid- range price for most of Thailand — at the Diamond Cave Resort, I decided to get a closer look at some of the spires that have captivated climbers from around the world.
I walked south down East Hat Rai Leh, past mangrove thickets and subdued beach resorts that dot the waterfront, toward the cluster of peaks that mark the southern end of Rai Leh headland. At the end of the beach, I followed the only trail I could find into the dense jungle at the base of the spires. It was about 7 p.m. The light had started to fade, and as I stepped under the canopy of trees and vines, I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
I stood there listening to the buzz of insects and the intermittent calls of birds. Suddenly, about 15 feet in front of me I saw something emerge from the tangle of roots and vines. A monkey stopped in the middle of the path and stared. It was the first time I'd seen a monkey outside of a zoo. We stood there watching each other for several seconds. There was an intelligence behind its beady little eyes that unnerved me.
As I resumed my walk, it scrambled up a tree and glared. I half-expected it to throw something at me, but it let me go peacefully.
I walked until I came to a muddy, steep side trail that veered south. An old climbing rope tied to a tree functioned as an ersatz handrail, so I grabbed it, pulling myself up until the trail leveled out, winding deeper into the jungle. After five minutes an opening in the trees gave me a good look at the spires that divide the four beaches of the Rai Leh headland: East Hat Rai Leh, West Hat Rai Leh, Hat Tham Phra Nang and Hat Ton Sai.
West Hat Rai Leh and Hat Tham Phra Nang are the most beautiful, with white sand, excellent swimming and high-end accommodations. The Rayavadee Premier Resort, which has $400 rooms, has a dining room set in a natural limestone cave that looks out over Hat Tham Phra Nang. Hat Ton Sai is the most remote and has the cheapest lodgings. East Hat Rai Leh is the easiest to reach, but it is muddy at low tide, and that keeps hotel prices down.
As I watched the delicate light of the fading sun illuminate the rock spires, I decided to end my two-decade ban on climbing. It just didn't make sense to be surrounded by all this gorgeous rock and not try to climb it. Excited by the thought of climbing again, I scrambled to the beach.
That night I dined on a tasty plate of chicken coconut curry at the Ya Ya Resort, a rambling wooden structure with an open-air dining room just off the beach. The place was packed with noisy British tourists because it had a large-screen TV, and Manchester United was playing Arsenal, and both soccer teams were battling for dominance in England's Premier Football League.
For dessert I stopped at a beachfront stand for a fried pancake covered with sliced bananas and chocolate syrup, a Thai specialty, incredibly greasy and delicious.
The next morning I checked prices at climbing schools and found that all charge about $20 for a half-day of beginning instruction, $38 for a full day and about $125 for three days of guided climbing. There is no accreditation program in Thailand, but major schools boast that their guides have extensive first-aid and mountain rescue training. I chose Tex Rock Climbing School because a friend in Bangkok had recommended it.