Oh Hai Tonsai

Tonsai is unlike any other place I’ve been.

Imagine the kind of community that would be created if you gave climbers the reigns. It’s easy to picture but also a bit hard to grasp, and that’s exactly what Tonsai is like. 90% of the population is there for the beautiful limestone cliffs that blanket the entire peninsula with top-notch climbing routes, and the remaining crowd mistakenly thought it’s an extension of Railay.

Whether you’re a climber or not, you are bound to feel immediately at home in Tonsai, because climbers the world over exude a sense of relaxed friendliness and welcome. For some reason, it just seems to be a sport of amiable folks. In most cases, climbing is non-competitive, and even when it is competitive, your biggest opponent is yourself and not the next guy. Frankly, I think to strive to be “the best” at anything is a little silly; I much prefer to be “my best” at everything I do instead. Maybe that’s why I find climbing so appealing, it rewards you in proportion to the effort you put into it.

“When I first arrived I thought I had died and gone to heaven for the insanely hot.”

Faustine wasn’t the first novice climber to land at Tonsai with stars in her eyes. It might as well be an olympic village for climbers, full of athletes at peak physical condition. Well, for climbers, that often means overdeveloped backs and concave chests, but every so often you get a well rounded specimen, like the deadlocked Adonis who will be playing a rasta supervillian in the next Spiderman movie. Having barely climbed in the past year, I felt woefully pale and out of shape. I boldy made the decision to tough out the next couple weeks without a shirt to become less self-conscious about my appearance, and if that fails, to shame myself into better shape and a base tan. Maybe I just didn’t want to have to do laundry. A slackline at every bar is a good start, my thighs and abs were burning the whole first week there. Given enough time, this place could turn me into a beast.

Tonsai is a remarkable microcosm of the climbing world, and has a bit of everything for everybody, but really it’s a sport climber’s paradise. Newbies, top-ropers, leads, follows, multi-pitchers, deep water soloists and even boulderers have projects to send, and all the time in the world if you haven’t yet paid for your boat ride out.

But I would learn that paradise comes with its prices, in more than one sense of the word.

The price of paradise

When you come to a place like Tonsai, it’s easy to forget your limits and push yourself beyond them, and in an unwashed isolated beach-town lined with sharp rocks, uneven walking paths and a plethora of invitations to overdo it, it’s easy to guess what some of the costs of this paradise are.

My feet still hadn’t fully recovered from my injuries in the Philippines, and I was already amassing new ones. The soles of my feet are apparently made of rice paper, for I was discovering new cuts and punctures on a daily basis. Liberal application of antiseptic cream aside, each step I took was minor torture. Keeping these cuts clean was a full-time job, and the poor job I did led the cuts to linger, keeping my feet tender as an aged steak. This also made slacklining hard, but every night at the bar, it was even harder to stay off the line. The slackline itself is not without its inherent injuries, and so my legs quickly got covered with shiny new bruises and abrasions. Still, I considered myself lucky, several people had infected cuts that kept them grounded for over a week at a time; these stories kept me reapplying that neosporin and calendula cream frequently (and liberally).

Of course, being at the bars every night, you had to order drinks. Slackline and alcohol are rarely a good mix. Although I can gratefully say I never got so drunk as to hurt myself on the line, the drinking I WAS doing probably wasn’t helping me improve, or my overall health for that matter.

I haven’t even gotten to climbing yet! My hands were constantly red and raw, dotted with flappers trying to form into calluses. The spirit was willing but the flesh was spongy and soft, leaving me to take more than one forced rest day. Everyone, in an attempt to get all the best climbing into their limited time, pushes themselves way too hard, which leads to all sorts of injuries large and small. I saw one guy hobbling around on crutches with wicked rope burn on the back of his knee. Others were sporting their arms in slings. Casualties of war.

Food poisoning is, to many, an inevitable fact of life when traveling the developing world, and it really seemed to be a crapshoot in Tonsai. Everyone would eat at the same place, then the next day one or two people would be on forced rest, and by that I mean clinging desperately to their toilets. I managed to evade the bug somehow, possibly because I avoided uncooked vegetables and tap water whenever possible.

Tonsai is not an island unto itself, but it might as well be. It’s just around the corner from Ao Nang, but the corner is made of impassable cliffs, which means everything needs to be shipped in by boat. This naturally drives the cost of everything up. Accommodation is reasonable, but the cost of food and other goods makes it a rather pricey place to stay. Internet is hoarded at 3 baht per minute, although if you’re willing to brave the jungle hike to Railay there’s 1 baht internet to be had (still outrageous, it’s 20-30 baht per hour in Chiang Mai). Considering it was my first destination in Thailand, I had nothing to compare it to, so I barely felt the sting of how badly I was getting ripped off until I actually left Tonsai and visited other parts of the country.

Lastly, Tonsai can cost you a lot of time if you aren’t careful. All that makes it such a delight makes it like a black hole into which your vacation disappears. It’s so easy to lose track of time and otherwise forget just how long you’ve spent there. While my original stay was planned at “about one week,” I ended up staying close to two. If I hadn’t set my foot down and bought my tickets, I could have easily stayed much longer. If it weren’t for my plans to meet up with a friend in Chiang Mai, I might have stayed MUCH longer.

So I guess the lesson is that no place is perfect, and no matter where you go, there’s a price to pay for the benefits a place offers. Still, I can’t wait to go back.