Railay West, Railay East in back, Ton Sai out of sight on left.
Railay Beach Retro Trip Report.

What could be better than a long trip to the far side of the world with two of your best friends?
It was the epic road trip made possible by the floods of 1997. We were all working in Yosemite when unprecedented floods ravaged the tourist infrastructure and my job was permanently downsized. My job had been to hire those two friends as waiters, and their services wouldn’t be required that winter either…Freedom called.

We were all climbers but only I had been through Thailand before, and then just as a warm stopover while returning from Himalayan trekking. We were starting to hear talk of warm winter climbing in the tropical paradise of Railay and Ton Sai beaches in Thailand. We planned to check it out and then head from there to India and Nepal.

I’ll spare you the travel adventure stories that took three low budget guys from our arrival in Bangkok to a longboat arriving in Railay Bay, but when we hit the beach, we had way more luggage than anyone had ever seen. Yes, we had climbing gear. Yeah, we also were prepared to trek the Himalaya in winter, but we also had a guitar and two big drums. I’m not talking about bongos either, we had a Djembe and a Yashiko.

We managed to find scarce accommodations at Railay Bay Bungalows. I agreed to pay extra to have my own bed as my compatriots were forced to sleep together on the other bed. Their cohabitation was fodder for endless humor at their expense. It was money well spent.

The moment we had our wits about us, we took stock of our situation, and we kicked ourselves that we hadn’t allowed more time in this paradise on the way to more austere destinations. The climbing was wild beyond imagination, the food was delicious, exotic, and beyond cheap, and the ocean was so warm you could hardly cool off in it. We would go on midnight swims with bioluminescent plankton outlining our bodies in ethereal auras.

Out of politeness, I won’t dwell too long on the bonus factor. I’ve never, ever, seen so many beautiful women in one place. Not even in my dreams. For me it was a curse, as I had just agreed to “tie a string” around the finger of a love that agreed to wait for me at home. She was a keeper, but for a lover of beauty such as myself, it required plenty of restraint.

I was lamenting about it, waist deep in warm ocean, surveying a beach filled with the women of many continents, and my friend Jeff, the crow-faced wizard boy, assured me. “Sure, there are women everywhere but everybody is busy traveling. Nothing could really happen. You couldn’t meet somebody like this.” Today Jeff is married to a Swedish woman he met later on the trip on a pass in Nepal. He proposed to her on that very trip!!! Isn’t that a trip? Quite an accomplishment for the true romantic!

Jeff is a complicated enough character that you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that somehow “Crow-Faced Wizard Boy” is an apt nickname. He has endless boyish energy and enthusiasm, while at the same time, possesses the wisdom of an old man. He’s a fabulous player on many stringed instruments, and has an astounding ability to make up amazing and often humorous songs off the top of his head in real time.

My other buddy, Mark, the “Great and Powerful Lummox”, is at least 6’4”. He learned the word for “Tall” in at least three languages on our trip. He’s also an amazing drummer who has since appeared on Cds of music ranging from Folk Rock to Brazilian. I like making music but God gave me other talents instead. Fortunately, I could keep up on the other drum just enough to add to the party.

I was also expected to be the rope gun. I had brought Jeff into climbing and taken Mark on his first multi-pitch. I knew trad climbing from decades of climbing; so many decades of climbing, in fact, that both of these young bucks were much stronger. Jeff was a wiry monkey and could have been left among his brethren in the Thai Jungle if he had enough fur. Lummox was also lean and had the stretch to go for those buckets that ended the crux sections. We called the giant holds “Those Lummox Jugs” and Jeff composed a rousing song about “Lummox Jugs.” In the end, we all shared the leads equally depending on our moods and the need for heroism/shame avoidance. It’s sport climbing; you run out of excuses; we all had spankings.

At night, after a sunset dip, we would head off for a feast of Thai Food and a walk down to an undeveloped stretch of the beach to start our own special party. A couple candles in the sand and we would have a tropical campfire. Jeff would start making up songs, Lummox and I would play drums, and all kinds of folks would come hang out: Thai folks, climber folks, folks from around the world. Jeff, fortunately, has a heart of gold and was a great front man. It wasn’t too many days before we become minor celebrities around the area and played in a bar or two, not to mention a major fire show on the beach.

The music was a great way to share space with the Thais, as often it was the main language we shared.

We would wake up early to climb if the sun and guidebook demanded, or just wake up when the sun made it impossible to do otherwise. We made the rounds to many climbing venues that seemed like pure fantasy. One time, to approach a climb, we had to walk through a monkey infested jungle to traverse a white sand beach, to then tunnel through a limestone cave all the way through an entire mountain, to climb a few pitches on the wall on its far side. We would find ourselves clinging to stalactites. Lummox and I did one fantastic multi-pitch climb that started with a 5.9 tree climb and continued upwards and overhanging from there. When we got to the crux, the wall seemed blank and perplexing. The saving “Lummox Jugs” were far beyond dyno territory. Only after the most desperate hunt for a solution did the key reveal itself. A huge stalactite, so far behind us that we didn’t even notice it being within reach, was suddenly in stemming distance. Only in Thailand.

We had to improvise other solutions as well. On a rest day snorkeling trip to some tiny islands, a traveler girl stepped an urchin. Nobody was sure for certain, but word had it that urine had an enzyme that neutralized the urchin toxin. I was volunteered to be the hero. I supplied the antidote discreetly in a paper cup so that no local sensibilities would be offended. The young lady was cured!

We made friends too numerous to list in this brief account. You are not forgotten. I remember one Dutch guy, Roald, who attained a minor enlightenment from the lyrics of one of Jeff’s classic songs. The hook of the song was “Why don’t you just, shut up and accept!” Roald had been traveling in Asia just long enough to be ripe for that wisdom. He sang it over and over with sometimes maniacal laughter. I managed to find out through a web of email contacts that Roald died not long afterwards in a tragic motorcycle accident. Climb High Roald!

There is no climatic moment to conclude my story with. They were all climactic moments. The epic continues.

Lummox is in demand as a drummer and custom house builder.

Jeff, the crow-faced wizard boy, married Petronella from Sweden (who was pronounced a troll owing to short stature, dread locks, and other troll like eccentricities) who he met later in Nepal. They just had a baby girl Elva, who, you guessed it, will inevitably be called an elf. Between a wizard boy, a Swedish troll and an elf, you have a typical alternative California family.

As for me, I’m living my long repressed dream of photographer, climber, and writer. The string remained tied. Susan and I have been together through thick and thin ever since I returned. For years, we talked about visiting Thailand. After finally surmounting every obstacle to visiting paradise together, we booked our tickets. Two days later, a tsunami hit.

That’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. Stay tuned, or. better yet, come along yourselves. The epic continues…
Jeff and Mark in Bangkok
Mark and Karl in Bangkok
Long Boats entering Railay
Jeff after a Dip
Lummox Rapping off the Steep Stuff
Karl Leading Something He can Barely Pull
Fire Show on Beach
Lummox Leading Tarzan
Karl Sport Climbing
Paying Respects at Cave Temple Near Krabi
Mark on Lead
Longboat on the Sunset Side