Travel Destinations

Monday, August 5, 2013

Rock Climbing Ko Panyi in Phang Nga Bay

View from Ko Panyi Rock Climb
The gorgeous view of Ko Panyi village and Phang Nga Bay which can only be seen by rock climbing.
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.  

Ko Panyi
Ko Panyi
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. 

Wat Suwan Kuha (Wat Tham)
Wat Suwan Kuha (Wat Tham)
Monkeys at Wat Suwan Kuha (Wat Tham)
Monkeys at Wat Suwan Kuha (Wat Tham)
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. 

First Long-Tail Boat Ride in Phang Nga Bay
Our first long-tail boat ride!
Hiking to the First Climb of Ko Panyi
This is just the hike to the first climb.  Probably not the best choice of footwear.
At this point I'm pretty sure Romeo was not very happy with me for what I was forcing him to do.
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.  

View from the First Ledge of Ko Panyi Rock Climb
This is the view from the first ledge of the climb.
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).

Tough Guys After the First Ko Panyi Climb
Once Romeo completed his first climb, he became a tough guy.
These guys are like two peas in a pod.
We hiked back down the cliff and went to the outdoor restaurant for lunch.  We let Aon order a delicious feast.  This is when we saw our first glimpse of tourists on the island.  Apparently a number of boat trips through Phang Nga Bay stop at the restaurant for lunch. 

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.

Second Ko Panyi Climb
Look at my mad rock climbing skills! 
Unfortunately I didn't make it much farther, even though I was so close.
To console myself we walked back through the village for a little retail therapy, and I purchased some sarongs and pearl jewelry.  I also let Aon take my camera and do a little photography.  He takes excellent pictures, so let him have your camera. 

Ko Panyi Village
Village life and a little shopping.
Aon took the two pictures on the right with my camera.
We boarded another long-tail boat and headed back to the pier in Phang Nga Bay, passing some pre-historic rock art on the way.  When we had first visited the pier that morning, I spied some durian loaded in motorcycle carts and told Aon I had not yet tried durian and was hoping to during our time in Thailand.  When we returned to the pier, there was a group of locals standing around and eating durian, and Aon purchased one for me to try.  One of the men had a knife and pried it open for me, while everyone stood around and watched, waiting to see my reaction to my first taste of durian.  Thailand’s durian has a less offensive odor than durian in other countries, though I don’t know why.  I pulled a piece of the slimy fruit out and took my first bite.  It was kind of pudding-like, with a sweet flavor that wasn’t unpleasant, but then there was an aftertaste that took me by surprise.  I tried to eat a little more, but between the texture and the aftertaste, I was done.  Luckily the others were happy to finish my leftovers.  While the fruit itself didn’t smell very much, my fingers smelled like trash the rest of the day.

Trying Durian in Phang Nga
Trying durian for the first time.
Aon took all of these pictures with my camera.
By the time Aon dropped us back off at our hotel at the end of the day, we had made a new friend.  We even made plans to meet up again for breakfast on our last day in Phuket, which I will share later.  Our first rock climb, our first ride in a long-tail boat, our first taste of durian, and a new friend made for a really good travel day.

Return Long-Tail Boat Ride from Ko Panyi
Aon thought my pink phone case was hilarious. 
I kind of think it fits right in with the colorful surroundings.
Book your rock climbing trip with Aon of Gecko Thailand in advance.  Many different trips are offered in addition to the one we took, including rock climbing in Railay, an overnight rock climbing trip for hardcore rock climbers, and also non-rock climbing activities such as biking, kayaking and bird watching.  Aon can also put together customized tours, such as an “unseen Thailand” trip highlighting the local, real Thai culture.  When corresponding with Aon by email to plan your trip, you will be asked to provide your shoe size and waist size so he can bring the correct rock climbing shoes and harness.  Also, since there is some hiking and modified rock climbing before you get to the actual rock climbing and you will only be wearing the rock climbing shoes for the actual rock climbing, Keens or similar, such as what Romeo wore, might be a better choice than flip flops, which I wore, though Aon was a pro in his flip flops and I actually did pretty well since mine were thin and flexible.  If possible, bring a camera that can withstand being knocked around so you can capture the spectacular view from the top of your climb.  I purchased an Olympus Tough for this trip, which is an underwater camera, but also can withstand dropping and crushing.  I wore it on a lanyard around my neck and tucked it under my shirt while I climbed.  Also, when you are rock climbing, do not use your knees.  Aon will remind you of this, and if you are like me, you will ignore him because you know it is the only way you will make it up the rock, and then your knees will be purple the next day.  It was worth it.

Bruised Knees from Rock Climbing Ko Panyi
Not a pretty sight, but so worth it.
(Disclaimer: I am not a rock climber, so if I have used incorrect rock climbing terminology in this post, please forgive me.  I have done my best to not use terms such as “the rock climbing thingy.”)

Have you ever been rock climbing or had some other exciting new adventure during your travels?  What were your favorite experiences? 

This post was chosen by Wanderlust travel magazine as Blog of the Week!  Blog of the Week: How to climb a limestone cliff in Thailand

Travel the World: Rock climbing is a popular activity in Thailand. Rock climbing Ko Panyi in Phang Nga Bay also provides great views of the Muslim fishing village below.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.