Belaying barefoot in soft, white sand next to the shore of the picturesque Andaman Sea. A fire sunset competing for your gaze. Multipitch climbs up massive, limestone cliffs jutting out of clear, turquoise water.
Welcome to Tonsai Bay, Thailand: where the dirtbag community vibes are high and the state of mind is even higher.
From deep water soloing to bouldering to sport routes ranging from 5+ to 8c, Tonsai has something juicy for every climber to indulge in.
Now I’m not saying this place is perfect. There’s a disheartening trash problem and the infamous “Tonsai Tummy” which you may have heard about… but more on that later.
Prices in southern Thailand can be significantly higher compared to northern Thailand. But Tonsai Bay won’t do quite as much damage to your wallet as other surrounding beaches and islands.
That being said: Tonsai is a small, laid back, budget friendly, rock climber’s dream. This is the kind of place you can turn up solo and find climbing partners and friends right away.
The small and cozy size of the bay creates a community atmosphere made up of artistic, yogi, and free spirited climbers backpacking their way through Southeast Asia.
The Guide to Tonsai Bay, Thailand
1. How To Get There
2. Best Time To Go
3. Rock Climbing in Tonsai
6. Guides & Courses
7. What To Bring
8. Sustainable Travel
9. Things To Do On Your Rest Day
10. Where To Stay
11. The Infamous Tonsai Tummy
12. What’s Up With This Big Concrete Wall?
13. Tips: Know Before You Go
1. How To Get There
The only way to get there is by boat. There are no roads and thus no road access, my friends. You can catch a five-minute longtail boat from Ao Nang beach.
Getting to Ao Nang
By Plane: The fastest option is to fly into Krabi, Thailand before taking a shuttle or taxi at the airport to Ao Nang Beach Pier.
Next fastest option is to fly into Phuket and take a 2-hour taxi/shuttle to Ao Nang Beach.
By Train: Take an overnight train to Surat Thani from Bangkok before taking a 2-3 hour bus ride to Krabi.
By Bus: The cheapest option is to take a 12-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Don’t forget your earplugs.
Getting to Tonsai
Once you arrive in Ao Nang Beach, catch a longtail boat from Ao Nang to Tonsai. The price should be around 100 baht (~$3) per person (January 2019). Note, prices are higher if you are looking to take a long tail boat on the spooky, savage waters after dark. By the way, I’m being dramatic; it’s a short boat ride but prices do get jacked up after dark if they are even running at all.
2. Best Time To Go
Generally, the best time to visit Thailand would be during the cool season: November- February.
This is also when everyone and their grandma’s old dog Blue is visiting Thailand. As someone who lived in Thailand for eight months, I totally support going during the cool season. It’s not as hot or humid, but still hot enough to kick your ass on the wall. It makes you wonder how the locals manage to wear long sleeves and eat hot, spicy soup in this weather!
That being said, if you do decide to go during the off season it’s cooler being on the beach in Tonsai compared to the land locked cities of Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Tip: If you are thinking of spending Christmas time or New Year’s in Tonsai, be sure to book your accommodation several months in advance. It’s poppin’ off, y’all!
3. Rock Climbing Tonsai
Tonsai and Railay Beach are full of panoramic scenic climbs complete with stalactites, tufas, deeply pocketed overhangs, and epic views of some of the most gorgeous beaches you’ll ever lay your eyes on.
This place is best known for it’s beautiful sport climbs and deep water soloing. With Tonsai being one of the top climbing destinations in all of Asia, the classic routes are pretty polished. But don’t let that scare you away! There’s some serious type-two fun stuff just begging to be climbed.
Here are some of the classic sport climbs in Tonsai Bay, Thailand.
- Groovetube, 5.9, Fire Wall
- Make a Way, 5.10, 1- 2- 3 Wall
- Crystal Flame, 5.10c, Candlestick Wall
- Humanality, 5.10 c/d, Tonsai Beach
- The Wave, 5.10c, Monkey World
- Beauty and the Beast, 5.10 c/d, Monkey World
- Missing Snow, 5.10 c/d, Tyrolean Wall
- Heart of Darkness, 5.11c, Cat Wall
- Lion King, 5.11c, Dum’s Kitchen
- Burnt Offerings, 5.12a, Fire Wall
- Lord of the Thai’s, 5.12b, Thaiwand
- Knights in White Satin, 5.12b/c, 1-2-3 Wall
If you’re looking at these grades thinking, “My climbing skills aren’t quite at this caliber yet… but I really want to climb in Thailand!” then one suggestion for you would be to look into the different climbing schools in the area. Just because you’re not comfortable leading 5.10+’s, doesn’t mean you can’t have an incredible climbing experience on the beautiful beaches in Thailand!
The easier grade, craggy fun (like 1, 2, 3 Wall) is usually occupied by the climbing schools during the day. Hire a guide for a day (or two… or four) to take you to the best routes— or take a course. Read Guides & Courses section down below for more.
Deep Water Soloing
You might have been drawn to Tonsai for it’s unique and abundant offer of deep water soloing. In fact, it used to be one of the top destinations in the world for this type of masochistic style of climbing. Unfortunately, most of these areas are no longer accessible to travelers after a fatal belly flop accident. True story.
Talk to the locals at the climbing shops to get the beta on the current legal situation and best locations. Word on the street is that you can rent a kayak and paddle yourself out to an area. Proceed at your own risk and deep water solo during high tide only.
- Tonsai: Check out The Temple for some V2-V11 cave climbing fun. Look for a cave with a rope leading into it right along the path in between the beach and Legacy restaurant. There’s always a hyper squad of monkey hanging around here, you can’t miss it. Speaking of which, leave your snacks at the hostel because the monkeys will jack your bag. I didn’t find any shops that offered crash pad rentals but this cave kindly has a mattress. The folks over at Basecamp can supply you with a printed guide of the Temple bouldering cave.
- Between Tonsai and Railey: You can find another bouldering spot as you’re trekking through the jungle from Tonsai to Railay. There’s a wall that’s great for traversingand a fat boulderwith some juicy problems you can top out on. There’s always some good ol’ low, overhung problems you can hop on over the sand for a pump fest down towards Freedom Bar.
- Railay: There are endless problems on the main wall in Phra Nang Beach with some shallow beach caves nearby. They are technical, overhung, and hard. Wear your big girl panties… or no panties. I’m not the panty police. Just be ready to get after it.
- Eastern, Thailand: The largest bouldering field in Thailand can be found in Khon Kaen at what is known as “Zoolander”… because it’s literally in the zoo. This place has over 300 boulders amongst the bamboo and eucalyptus forrest, offering you problems for days. You can rent crash pads from the Khon Kaen Climbing Club. Expect a 150 baht entrance fee from the zoo which includes access to bathrooms, restaurants, and an epic water park. If bouldering is your jam, then I highly recommend you check this place out. It’s off the beaten path from the usual tourist destinations so brush up on your Thai, khaaa. You can check out some essential Thai phrases at the bottom of this post.
This article is by no means a replacement for a guidebook. I’m simply sharing my experience so you can get an idea of what to expect in Tonsai. Do your research thoroughly and there’s no shame in hiring a guide if you’re not feeling completely confident.
Buy a guide book when you arrive at any of the climbing shops in Tonsai or Railay. They will have the most updated versions and the money goes back into annual re-bolting projects.
The Thaitanium Project is a reputable non-profit currently working hard to provide and establish every route with Titanium glue in Southern Thailand. Check out their site to educate yourself on the bolt situation.
- Do not clip the expansion bolts.
- Look for the titanium glue ins for your clipping pleasure.
- Read more at the Thaitanium Project.
Unfortunately, the beautiful and unique environmental conditions mixed with the minerals contained within the rock itself do not make for a safe long-term situation with the stainless steel bolts. The metal becomes oxidized and worn down at an accelerated rate.
You can support the Thaitanium Project and their efforts buy purchasing their documentary on their site for $20. The $20 donation is enough to fund the removal of one existing deteriorating stainless steel bolt as well as the replacement of a new titanium bolt in it’s place.
The replacement of stainless steel anchor rings with titanium rings is something else they are working hard to revamp in Southern Thailand. This project is working diligently to keep climbers safe in one of the world’s premier winter climbing destinations.
The guidebook will let you know which routes have been rebolted with titanium and which routes are safe; these routes have anchors with two O-rings on 2 or more titanium bolts.
Be cautious of the janky slings; there are a few slings which have been reinforced with tubing. That being said, don’t count on it because most of them have not been reinforced.
Be sure to talk with the folks at the climbing shops and get the beta on the safety of the routes you are thinking about climbing.
The following shops offer gear rentals, guidebooks, guides, climbing courses, and the beta you’ve been looking for to get over that damn crux that’s been consuming your mind for the last three days.
You can get rent or buy gear in Tonsai at:
Renting gear is ridiculously expensive so I highly recommend bringing your own gear! It could set you and your partner back ~$100 total for a full day’s set up.
Shops will usually offer a discount if you are renting for 3 or more days. Just be sure to smile and wai when you greet people. A little friendliness goes a long way in Thailand.
There are also more climbing shop in Railay, like Real Rocks Climbing, if you happen to find yourself over there and in need some supplies.
Tip: Shoes are not rented for deep water soloing. Also, be sure to grab your passport or ID as it will be used as a deposit for rentals.
6. Guides & Courses
Real Rocks is the only establishment in Southern Thailand that offers private certified sport climbing courses held at international standards. Their courses range from basics skills to advanced lead climbing skills.
Basecamp also offers a range of course from technique, to lead climbing, to multi-pitch skills. You even get a “textbook” with your course! Don’t forget your #2 pencil, students.
Also, there are really cute cats here like this little furry friend.
The Rock Shop in Tonsai offers guiding and courses as well.
7. What to Bring
- Climbing Essentails: Harness, shoes, helmet, and belay device
- 12 quick draws and a couple of long draws
- 70m rope
- Chalk: With this kind of humidity, don’t be surprised if your sweaty hands can’t grab onto those holds. Liquid chalk is recommended for deep water soloing.
- Sustainable Tavelers Kit
- Bug Repellant
- Reef-Safe Sunblock
Gear Tip: Remember to assess whether or not something is worth bringing from home or renting once you get there. If it’s only needed for one or two climbs, decide if the weight and volume it adds to your luggage is worth the journey. Luggage weight limits are a real thing that will break your heart and as well as your bank account.
8. Sustainable Travel
Plastic, and waste in general, is a serious problem in Tonsai. There’s no community infrastructure that transports waste for the locals of Tonsai back to the main land go Krabi.
We were told to return our plastic jugs to where we bought them. Not surprisingly, that store refused to take the jugs so we packed them out.
Leave No Trace principles are not just for the mountains my friends. They are just as crucial to our traveling adventures as well.
The locals will do what’s easiest which usually means burning plastic and styrofoam. Be a responsible traveler and don’t contribute to the problem.
Take part in the solution and be an example to other travelers and locals alike. Show them how simple it can be by making a few habit adjustments. It’s not always easy but simple is the key word here.
Water Refill Station
If you want to climb hard in this type of climate ( I mean duh, no one wakes up jonesing for breakfast bowl full of tears covered in gluten-free weak sauce), you’re going to need to drink more water than your 1L hydro flask can contain.
Forget buying 333 plastic water bottles and fill up your water jugs at Basecamp! It’s only going to set you back 10 baht (~$0.30) per liter so be sure to stay hydrated.
- Say no to plastic bags and straws.
- Bring your own food and drink containers to avoid using plastic and styrofoam.
- Be a rockstar and pack out your trash back to the main land. You would only need to hang on to it for a five minute boat ride back to Ao Nang beach.
- Check out the essential gear list every sustainable traveler needs here.
9. Things To Do On Your Rest Day
- Fire Dancing: There’s a great fire show every night at the Chillout Bungalows. Fire spinners are welcomed to perform. Aye Aye Aye Aye Aye!
- Paint a Mural on the Great Wall of Tonsai
- Go Kayaking: Rent a kayak and go find some caves and private beaches.
- Do Yoga: Stretch outthose pumpalicious forearms white making direct eye contact with a cute, but destructive little monkey. This may or may not have actually happened at Flower of Life Yoga.
- Get a Massage: Treat yourself! You’ve been climbing hard and need a quality rest day, right?
- Go Island Hopping: Tonsai is near the famous Koh Phi Phi islands, James Bond Island, and so many more gorgeous little islands that will have your face looking like the heart-eyes emoji.
- Go Diving or Snorkeling at the Nearby Islands
- Enjoy a Mushroom Shake: I hear they are quite magical.
- Slacklining and Highlining: Many hostels have slacklines set up in front of the bars. As for highlining, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Also, check out this guide to highlining in Tonsai.
- Visit a Penis Shrine Cave: You can find a penis shrine in a tucked away cave on Phra Nang Beach in Railey. Locals don’t come here to snap photos for entertaining instagrams posts, but to offer gifts to the fertility goddess in hopes of a fertile womb and the gift of a child. Visit such prolific spaces with caution.
10. Where to stay
It’s only about a 20 minute walk in between Tonsai Bay and Railey Beach so feel free to take your pick at either.
Sorry to my dirtbag campers out there, camping is not allowed. Now with that being said, there may have been some people who discretely pitch their tent near Eagle Wall and the beach. This is purely word on the street. But proceed at your own risk; it’s not only illegal but if someone takes your stuff from your tent, it wouldn’t be the first time.
If you are going during high season (November to March), I recommend booking your place before arriving. They do fill up!
If you are going during the low season, I recommend showing up and walking around to find the best price.
Staying in Tonsai
Most accommodations here are jungle bungalows with fans and no shortage of mosquitos.
Keep in mind that the power turns off in Tonsai daily from 6pm-6am.
The draw to staying in Tonsai is being immersed into an international dirtbag community with like-minded folks all united under the love of climbing on this beautiful, dirty little beach in Southern Thailand.
If you are looking for something a little more nice, a little more cush, there is one resort: Tonsai Bay resort. They offer electricity, air conditioning, breakfast, and wifi 24/7.
Staying in Railay
Railey Beach offers more resorts and nicer accommodations if you’re not about that no-power, no air conditioning kind of life.
They have nicer resorts, beaches, restuarants, and access to ATM’s.
But this does draw in much larger and very different crowd of tourists.
11. The Infamous Tonsai Tummy
OKAY, FULL DISCLOSURE HERE: IT’S REAL Y’ALL.
Here’s a teeny, little detail most travel sites, blogs, and climbing social media influencers aren’t going to tell you about.
When we first got there, there were people all around us that were either sick or recovering from being sick. No one really knows exactly how one contracts said Tonsai Tummy.
There’s speculation it’s in the curry. But it’s Thailand? What else does a non-noodle enthusiast eat? I think it’s in the water that the local restaurants use to cook the curry. The masaman curry was super freaking delicious but this is definitely what did us in.
It was an intense two days of sleeping and being velcro’ed to the bed, with the exception of making some oncoming black-out journeys to the toilet.
Needless to say, there was no getting sendy during those two days. Would I still go back and do it all again? In. A. Heartbeat.
It was a worthy price to pay for climbing in one of the most beautiful beach front climbing destinations in the world.
12. What’s up with this big concrete wall?
It wasn’t too long ago that the Tonsai village was actually on the beach.
In 2014, the village was grudgingly pushed back into the jungle after plans of a mega-resort were made to occupy the beach facing land.
Word on the street is that this big corporation, Sheraton, bought the land after exclusively seeing pictures of the beach during high tide. They started construction, realized that the beach at low tide was simply unresortable (definition: when a resort literally can’t even), and bailed leaving behind an elongated concrete wall that stretches from one side of the bay to the other.
The cement wall now serves as a community canvas for people wanting to express their artsy, poetic, spiritual, and divergent truths.
If it wasn’t for the low tide, then the dirtbaggin’, hippy town of Tonsai would’ve been turned into another overcrowded, sky-high resort packed full of tourists. I’m so grateful for this low tide!
13. Tips: Know Before You Go
Unlike it’s neighboring beaches Ao Nang and Railay Beach, Tonsai is a little rough around the edges. Know before you go so you can be prepared to make the most of your time here.
1. Power is out between 6pm-6am. So make sure you have enough juice in your phone or camera battery to capture your epic shots the next day. Also, call your mom sometime. Just don’t give her all the details of what you are up to. This applies to most of Tonsai, with the exception of Tonsai Bay Resort. If you need power during those hours or require hot water for your showers than staying on Railay Beach is going to be where you want to stay.
2. There are no ATMs on Tonsai so pull out your bahts at Ao Nang or Railay Beach. There is an ATM located inside of Bobo’s Market and another one located in from of the Viewpoint Resort on the East Beach.
3. For about 10 days every month, the low tide makes the ocean a rocky and not-so-hot swimming spot. You can always kayak or or take a long tail boat to Ao Nang or trek to Railey if you want to get your Little Mermaid on.
4. You’re on the beach so expect sand to get everywhere. You can buy a Thai style straw mat to lay all your gear on like your precious little gear babies.
5. Crash pads are not available and climbing shoes are not rented for deep water soloing at the climbing shops.
6. Don’t have food or pick up trash around the monkeys. I learned my lesson the hard way by picking up some food containers off the beach coming back from Fire Wall. Instant monkey ambush! They monkeys can be aggressive. If you do find yourself at the mercy of hostile gibbons, pretend like you are pulling back a slingshot and they’ll run away.
7. Bring your brushes and paints to add your creative contribution to the wall.
8. There are plenty of vegetarian options, so no worries veg heads!
9. Embark on the curry at your own risk.
10. Disposing of trash is a serious problem here for the community so be mindful of how much waste you create. Pack out what you can back to the main land.
11. Mosquito repellent is your friend. You’ve been warned.
12. Add mineral salts to your water. Most of the drinking water is treated by UV light or reverse osmosis. This is fine for the average person lounging on a beach sipping on a cold Chang beer. But if you are going to be sweating and exerting yourself in the heat and humidity, you’ll need supplementary electrolytes. Pick some up at the 7-11 on Ao Nang beach or at the small shops in Tonsai.
13. Between Dengue Fever outbreaks, Tonsai Tummy, and the inherent risk taking nature of climbing, investing in travel and/or health insurance is a smart precautionary step.