You can learn to rock climb on a gym wall made of plywood and polyurethane, or you can learn in one of the most beautiful places on Earth. On Railay Beach in southern Thailand, the limestone cliffs are covered with hundreds of beginner routes that rise from powder-white sand and hang over a crystalline, azure sea. And friendly local instructors specialize in getting newbies to the top of their first climb.
It was actually a search for the perfect beach that first brought Western backpackers to Thailand's Krabi peninsula in the late eighties. They found what they were looking for (the 2000 film The Beach was filmed on an island just off this coast) but rumors of those tantalizing cliffs made their way to climbers around the world. Within a few years, routes had been mapped and schools started popping up. Today there are more than a thousand different climbs.
While a steady stream of the sport's biggest names come here to escape winter and tackle serious projects, many Railay climbers turn up never having tied into a harness. And that's mostly because of how easy it is to get started – no previous experience, reservations, or gear required. In fact, a lot of first timers who come for the sunbathing are tempted by the rocks just a few feet away and sign themselves up for class the following day. What they find are tons of sturdy jugholds and stout ledges (which offer rests during the ascent), as well as instructors who are laid-back and encouraging. Then, from high above the jungle canopy, the view stretches out over the Andaman Sea, with rock pillars rising hundreds of feet from the water.
Thanks to calm seas surrounding those rock islands, Railay also offers a rare opportunity for deep-water soloing: ropeless ascents of severely overhanging cliffs, in which the consequence of a fall is little more than a soaking. Guides park their boat at the base, and you set off straight from the bow and climb as high as your nerves will allow. After a few exhilarating splashdowns, you may discover you like falling even more than climbing.