I reached for something that was not there and fell. I could see the sky move away. I could sense the ground coming closer, and I cursed myself for breaking my 20-year-old promise to give up climbing.
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.
The class didn't start until 1 p.m., so I spent the morning on Hat Tham Phra Nang, getting a sunburn while reading a Jackie Collins novel. It was the perfect read for a beach sprinkled with topless women and middle-aged European men with bellies bulging over bikini briefs.
After slurping a bowl of tom yung soup (prawns with lemon grass) for lunch, I checked in at the climbing school. Only Vidar, a Norwegian stockbroker, had signed up for the class. The markets were in a downturn at the time, and he was trying to forget in southern Thailand.
"When I get home, I'll see if I have any money left," he said. "Now I lie in the sun, eat, sleep and maybe climb a little."
Our guide, Gob, was in his early 20s and had short hair and two tattoos: an eagle across his back and the Tex Rock logo on his shoulder. As he fitted us with shoes and climbing harnesses, I pointed to his shoulder and said, "That's good. Dedication."
"What is dedication?" he asked.
He wasn't fluent in English, so I tried to think of as many synonyms as I could -- loyal, committed, hard-working.
But he just looked at me quizzically, smiled, pointed to the tattoo and said, "We are gang."
I laughed, thankful for the humor. I was nervous, even though I knew we would be secured by a rope anchored above us in a practice called top-roping. When the standard precautions are taken, a top-rope secured climber never falls far. Still, the prospect of climbing again had put me on edge.
Gob took us to "1-2-3," the most popular climbing spot in Rai Leh because of its proximity to the beach and resorts and because it is shaded in the afternoon, important for a place where temperatures and humidity regularly reach the 90s.
He started us on an easy route. Vidar climbed first. For a large man, he moved with surprising grace. After Gob lowered him down, it was my turn.
I tied the rope onto my harness, Gob checked the knot and I headed up the cliff.
It felt strange to be climbing again after so many years -- the ground and the sense of security it provided moving farther and farther away, the texture of the rock under my hands. I remembered these sensations well. I moved up the rock face awkwardly, feeling muscles being worked in ways they hadn't for 20 years, feeling the thrill of being so far off the ground. It felt good. I was glad to be climbing again.
We did three more climbs that afternoon, making the hardest one last. The lower part of the route was easy enough, with obvious handholds and footholds, but at 50 feet up, I couldn't find anything to grab.
"Feet," Gob said. "Use feet."
I couldn't find anywhere to put my feet. I looked up above and saw a tiny nubbin, just out of reach, that might work. I crouched down, made a jump and as my hand grazed for what should have been a hold, I realized with a sinking heart that it was nothing more than a discoloration in the rock. I fell.
The rope caught me after several feet, and I was dangling with the incredible view unfolding behind me. Gob asked me if I was OK, and I expected him to lower me to the ground.
"You stay. Enjoy scenery," he said instead.
I laughed and thanked him as I hung there, drinking in the sweetness of the tropical scenery.
When I returned safely back to Earth, Gob patted me on the back. "Good job," he said. "When you go home U.S.A., maybe you climb some more?"
"Maybe," I said. "Maybe."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Rocky routes to Krabi and Rai Leh
From LAX, Thai Airways has connecting flights (change of plane) to Krabi through Bangkok. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $700 to Bangkok. Restricted round-trip fares from Bangkok to Krabi begin at $110.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 66 (country code for Thailand) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The cheapest way to find accommodations in the Rai Leh area is to shop after arrival. Room rates can be twice as high for reservations made from the U.S. If you want to make reservations, try these hotels:
Rayavadee Resort, 67 Moo 5, Sai Thai, Susan Hoy Road, Amphur Muang, Krabi; 75-620740, www.rayavadee.com. One of Rai Leh's most luxurious resorts, with tennis courts, squash courts, sauna and a fitness room. The beach setting on Hat Tham Phra Nang is as beautiful as you'll find anywhere in Thailand. Doubles from $425, including breakfast.
Diamond Cave Resort, 36 Moo 1, Ao Nang Muang, Krabi; 75-6217289, www.diamondcaveresort.com. The dining room has an incredible view of the beach at East Hat Rai Leh and the surrounding limestone peaks. Doubles from $63, with air-conditioning.
Sand and Sea Railay Bay Bungalows, 39 Moo 2, Ao Nang Muang, Krabi; 75-622330, www.krabi-hotels.com/sandsea. Bungalows sit on the edge of West Hat Rai Leh. Doubles $30-$98.
Ya Ya Resort, 1 Moo 2, T. Ao Nang, Muang, Krabi; 2-6730966, www.thaitour.com/thai-tour/South/Krabi/hotel/yaya. A rambling wood resort that's an excellent value. The rooms are clean and spacious. Doubles from $15-$25.
WHERE TO EAT:
The best deals are at the beach-side stands, where you can get fresh seafood, pad thai, fried pancakes and other Thai specialties. Pad thai starts at $1, pancake desserts start at 50 cents. Fresh seafood entrees start at $5.
Rayavadee Resort (see above). This is the place to go for a splurge. The dining room, made from a natural limestone cave, has an exquisite beach view of Hat Tham Phra Nang. Entrees from $20.
Diamond Cave Resort, (see above). The dining room view is superb. Western and Thai dishes, with entrees from $4.
The schools in Rai Leh offer similar services, especially for beginners. There is no accreditation process, and the best way to choose a school is to talk to the owners and guides in person. Ask questions about safety, first-aid training and equipment to make sure it meets your standards.
Tex Rock Climbing School, 252 Uttarakit Road, Amphur Muang, Krabi, 81000; mobile 18-911-528, www.texrock.com. This is one of Rai Leh's first climbing schools. The owner, Tex, is a major figure in the local climbing scene and enjoys a good reputation. Half-day beginning courses start at $20; full-day course $38 and three-day course $125.
King Climbers; 75-637125, www.railay.com. Half-day classes are $20, full-day $38 and three full days of guided climbing are $125.
TO LEARN MORE:
Royal Thai Consulate General's Office, 611 N. Larchmont Blvd., 2nd Floor, Los Angeles, CA 90004; (323) 962-9574, www.thai-la.net.
-- Eric Rorer