LAOS KARST

Asia’s New Sport Climb­ing Des­ti­na­tion

Gripped - - FEATURE - Story by Dy­lan Wyer

Uli Wei­d­ner gun­ning it on the crux move of Than Njai 8b (5.13d) in Thakhek

Steep, pow­er­ful, three-di­men­sional, ad­ven­tur­ous and ex­otic are the best ways to de­scribe the climb­ing in Thakhek, an off-the­beaten-track des­ti­na­tion in Laos. Thakhek stands for ‘vis­i­tor’s land­ing,’ and is the cap­i­tal of Kham­mouane prov­ince. In 1987 Laos opened its bor­ders to tourism and climb­ing be­gan in 2002.

A Ger­man cou­ple, Volker and Is­abelle Schoffl, dis­cov­ered the climb­ing po­ten­tial around Thakhek, in 2010, and Volker bolted the first 50 routes. Uli and Tanja Wei­d­ner, also from Ger­many, opened Green Climbers Home, where climbers can camp. It burned down in Jan­uary 2013; it has since been re­built and is open.

Routes as easy as 7a climb out the sig­na­ture cave that over­hangs 18 m, cre­atively named “Roof. ”The only words I could muster when look­ing back to­wards my be­layer while be­ing low­ered from the area’s must-do 7b, called Jun­gle King, were “how can this route, this steep, and this long, only be 7b?

This place is absolutely in­sane, I’m so pumped.” Routes up to 8b on pock­ets and tu­fas. End­less po­ten­tial sur­rounds the area, from tech­ni­cal face climb­ing to sta­lac­tite stem­ming.

At time of writ­ing there were 140 routes within a 10- minute walk of Green Climbers Home. The long­est ap­proach is ten min­utes and most cliffs are three min­utes away from camp. A few projects re­main un­sent, and are ru­moured to be as hard as 9a.

Climb­ing sea­son is from Oc­to­ber through May with climb­ing temps of­ten in the high teens.The evenings can be chilly so br ing a few warm lay­ers. In mon­soon sea­son when it’s rain­ing ev­ery day the cliffs will be wet but dur­ing the climb­ing sea­son rain will not af­fect the climb­ing. The best climb­ing con­di­tions are in the morn­ing and evening.

Green Climbers Home is the best place for climbers to stay and is lo­cated 12 km east of Thakhek. It’s full-size restau­rant of­fers meals start­ing at $ 2.50. Also, they of­fer a se­lec­tion of dr inks, desserts and snacks.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion starts at $ 2 if you bring a tent or $ 4 if you rent one. Dorms are avail­able at $ 7 a night and can be a great step up from a tent dur­ing the shoul­der sea­son when it rains heav­ily or can be too hot. Dou­ble-bed bun­ga­lows cost $ 20 a night.

Climb­ing in­struc­tion is avail­able and es­sen­tials such as tape or chalk are for sale. Dollars, Baht, along with the Laos cur­rency Kip, are all ac­cepted at Green Climbers Home. For every­where else, us­ing the lo­cal cur­rency will get you the best rates.

Wi-Fi is ac­ces­si­ble in Thakhek, but not at Green Climbers Home where other forms of en­ter­tain­ment are avail­able such as bad­minton, slack-lin­ing and darts.

On rest days, head to a lo­cal mar­ket and ex­per ience what Laos has to of­fer away from the crag. The Laos cul­ture is in­flu­enced by Ther­avada Bud­dhism which is ev­i­dent in the peo­ple and en­vi­ron­ment. Also on rest days go for a hike, swim in the r iver or ex­plore the caves.

Round trip flights to Bangkok from the U.S. can of­ten be found from $ 800 to $ 1,200. Once in Bangkok, it’s pos­si­ble to catch an­other flight to half-an-hour out­side of Thakhek in the nearby Thai city Nakhon

Phanom, or a night bus for the bud­get trav­eller. From here take a bus to Thakhek which runs hourly dur­ing the day (cost­ing $ 2.50 and ap­prox. 2.5 hours). In Thakhek, grab a Tuk Tuk (South East Asia’s ver­sion of a taxi) to Green Climbers Home.

In the fu­ture, Thakhek could be­come one of Asia’s epi­cen­tres for sport climb­ing. It’s big­ger, steeper and cheaper than nearby Ton­sai Bay. This should have climbers flock­ing across the Laos bor­der. It is sus­pected that soon there will be 250 routes within a 15- minute walk of camp. With un-touched walls as far as the eye can see the area has lots of po­ten­tial.

Laos has 400 sport and multi-pitch routes. Nearby tourist hotspot Vang Vieng has 200 of th­ese routes and slightly more than 100 of them are within a 45- minute walk from town. The other routes are a 22 km Tuk Tuk

In the fu­ture, Thakhek could be­come one of Asia’s epi­cen­tres for sport climb­ing. It’s big­ger, steeper and cheaper than nearby Ton­sai Bay.

r ide to the north. Rest day ac­tiv­i­ties in­clude tub­ing, zip-lin­ing, kayak­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and atv tours. Pri­vate rooms as low as $ 4 and meals as cheap as a dol­lar are easy to find. The town has four climb­ing shops of­fer­ing in­struc­tion, gear and guide books.

A few hours north is the unesco Her­itage site Luang Pra­bang where more climb­ing can be found. Chi­ang Mai in North Thai­land of­fers some of the area’s best climb­ing and is a two-day boat jour­ney from Vang Vieng.

The climb­ing in Luang Pra­bang is dif­fi­cult to ac­cess as it is a 30 km Tuk Tuk r ide to the north, then a short boat r ide across the r iver from the pe­tite vil­lage Pak Ou. Make the tr ip and you’ll find your­selves alone at the crag, look­ing across the Mekong River into Pak Ou cave. Routes range from 5c-7c+ and af­ter a day of climb­ing head to Pak Ou cave where hun­dreds of tiny wooden Bud­dhas sit on shelves.

Climb­ing in Laos, un­like the nearby tour ist phe­nom­e­non of Ton­sai Bay, won’t in­volve queu­ing for routes or fight­ing for a bed to sleep in. It’s more than pos­si­ble to have an en­tire area to your­self. Look­ing across the r ice fields to the moun­tain­ous sky­line, one can’t help but feel far from wester n cul­ture.

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