With my 30 day visa on arrival stamped and cleared through customs, I spent the next month exploring Lao rock climbing. My travels took me through the capital Vientiane to Thakhek, then up north to Vang Vieng.
Scroll on to read the story of my trip, and useful tips for anyone going to Laos for rock climbing. Or skip the story for your next bathroom break and head right for Thakhek tips and Thakhek vs. Vang Vieng
The Journey to Thakhek and GCH
Like most visitors to Thakhek, I arrive at the bus station. Tired and sore from many hours in the bus I yield to the tuk tuk drivers who direct me to their vehicle.
Squeezed between the other tourists I hear French, German, and English in various accents. Only Lao is reserved for the locals. It doesn’t matter though, because the drivers are well versed in bargaining and the English names of all major destinations.
We arrive at the hotel just as darkness descends on the town. I lay down in the room, enjoying what I know will be the last night of AC.
The next morning we arrange for a private tuk tuk to the Green Climbers Home.
The dusty road leads me away from the Mekong, east towards the farmlands and mountain tops that make up the backdrop of the Green Climbers Home.
Home fits well in the name, because it is home to a transient community of climbers with all the facilities necessary to keep you strong and happy.
We get dropped off by tuk tuk into the Laotian heat just beside the main lodge of Camp 2. Slackliners bobble off the ground next to people cartwheeling across the lawn.
I ascend the staircase into the lodge. Looking around at the casual groups eating and sleeping through the hottest part of the day, no one seems in charge. It doesn’t seem that anyone has to be either.
One of the tatted shirtless climbers hops around the front desk. He greets me and takes a look into the computer for my reservation. Camp 1. Just 5 minutes down the road he explains. I chuckle thinking of all the luggage that we must now carry through the heat.
A little more effort on my part to read through the emails the owner sent me and I would have directed the tuk tuk all the way. Either way, the walk is a small feat compared to the hour tuk tuk to the bus station in Vientiane plus five hour bus ride to Thakhek the day before.
We make it to Camp 1 in time for lunch. Another volunteer explains how things work at GCH. One word to describe the place is sustainable. Many of the long term residents volunteer as staff in exchange for free room and board. Backed by a non-climbing but diligent local staff and fine-tuned set of procedures camp life runs smoothly.
Pha Tam Kam Rock Climbing in Thakhek
The lure of Thakhek climbing lies in its ease of access and route quality. Crags in Pha Tam Kam, the local name of this climbing area, are mostly between 5 – 20 minutes walking from accommodations at the Green Climbers Home.
Another thing that makes this place special is that both beginner and experts can enjoy interesting and challenging lines.
Whereas the beginner climbs at many crags around the world are restricted to the chossy edges and forgotten corners, Thakhek has whole crags that feature 5a-5c (5.7-5.9).
For instance, novices can head over to the Beginner’s Block at the Tree Lounge crag for juggy slab lines. I found this an ideal spot to get Ashley on lead!
Meanwhile, strong climbers have routes bolted for them as well. Many go to Canyon for endurance training and Roof for some of the steepest routes.
I met people who were rock climbing for the first time, and guides testing their technique on the toughest climbs available.
Thakhek currently boasts almost 400 sport pitches and 60 boulder problems, with potential for further development around every corner. There are even potential crags closer to the town of Thakhek.
We have Tanja, Uri Weidner, Volker Schöffl and many more to thank for the guidebook!
The non-climber tourists in Thakhek are usually there for the well known motor loop. This loop consists of at least three days of driving with plenty of caves and other sites along the way.
Apparently more cliffs along this route could also be bolted. That’s a possible direction for the growth of Thakhek rock climbing. I’m excited to see how this place develops in 2020 and beyond.
Top Tips for Rock Climbing in Thakhek 2019
1. Hitchhike to Town and Back
It’s difficult to avoid paying a tuk tuk from the Thakhek bus station unless you are willing to carry everything a a couple kilometers on foot to where a friendly stranger will pick you up.
However, once you’re settled in day trips back and forth are easy.
You can certainly organize a tuk tuk for the 12 km journey from GCH to Thakhek, but you can also hitchhike easily throughout Khammouane Province.
Like many places, hotels will book for you but always add a substantial fee on top of the normal price.
However, organizing a ride with others at GCH is the cheapest way to book a tuk tuk. They have a notebook system so you can post a ride to see if others want to join and split the cost.
Regardless, it doesn’t get cheaper than free so I prefer hitchhiking. Stand at the turn-in to GCH on the main road to get to town. Walk east past the intersection of the main road to camp and the road to the Thakek bus station to get picked up going back.
2. Buy the Laos Rock Climbing Guidebook
The 2018 7th edition, Rock Climbing Laos Guidebook is 130 LAK ($16 USD) and worth every penny. It has all the info and beta you need for rock climbing in Thakhek, as well as three other destinations in Laos.
Also it’s written by the developers so your money is going right back into further rock climbing development in Laos. Last tip, write you name on the inside so it doesn’t get accidentally picked up by another climber at the crag.
3. Swim at the Cave and Tha Phalang
One of my favorite things about Thakhek was the swimming. If you’re staying at Camp 2 the refreshing section of the river that runs through Xiengliab Cave is just a stone’s throw away.
I made it a post climb routine to cool off in it’s depths. The sandy area beside it also remains shaded and cool throughout the day if you need a break from the heat.
Meanwhile you can head over to the swimming area called Tha Phalang if you’d like a more lively and local experience. There’s organized events like kayaking, food vendors, and nice riverside seating available.
4. Find Good Wifi
As you’ll see on the Green Climbers Home website, there’s no wifi. You can get by with a local SIM that they sell there. But if you’re like me and need to get work done or plan on using significant data for a video chat, you’re better off in town.
There are multiple cafes, restaurants, and hotels with wifi in Thakhek. I found the fastest connection at Cafe Amazon. It’s not hard to find, you’ll see the sign with a big red parrot on the right hand side on the main road from GCH all the way to the Mekong River.
5. Stock Up At The ATMs
Thakhek has plenty of ATMs, but not all of them work. And even when you see people using one, it may not work for your card.
I made the mistake of relying on the bus station ATM to get cash for bus tickets, and ended up having to tuk tuk back into town just for a few thousand kip.
6. Get Pizza at Patalai
Honestly, I sometimes found it a challenge to find food I was psyched about in Laos. Thakhek was no exception. Patalai, an Italian bar/restaurant not far from the Mekong came as a pleasant surprise. When you’ve had enough rice and noodles, get your hands on a nice slice.
The Road from Thakhek to Vang Vieng
Over 3 hours north of the capital a minivan trods down the dirt roads. It bumbles through potholes and divots. Signs in Chinese for a new highway seem to smirk on the side.
We pass the occasional lights of a guesthouse or convenience store. Eventually, we make a pitstop at one. The music’s blaring. No one’s dancing but they’re listening for miles.
A cold beer lao and downloaded netflix gets us through the final leg of the journey to Vang Vieng. A tuk tuk takes us over the toll bridge to our bungaloo west of town. The guesthouse is charming. Dogs, cat, and cows complement the spiders and mosquitos. Wifi in our room is an issue but we move a couple rooms closer to the modem.
Equipped with my laptop and coming off full days of Thakhek climbing I work hard through the first day. The next we hit the blue lagoon. A bit of a misnomer, it’s more of a river with some fish and asian tourists. The water cools us off and the cave above offers a short but intriguing exploration.
We bike into town for supplies and information. We stop by Adam’s Climbing School to meet the man himself. I’m a bit disappointed when he explains the situation there.
All the local climbers are guides and guide only. Rock climbing for recreation just isn’t something they do. I’m lucky though, a Swiss climber is there twiddling his thumbs. He also needs a partner. We arrange to meet the next day.
The Climbing Begins
Given the proximity to our bungalow, I take a morning walk up to Pha Daeng Mountain,the nearest crag. The directions in the Laos Climbing Guidebook are far from perfect, but we manage to find an overgrown path up to the cliff after sufficient wandering.
The sun already lights up some of the first routes. We head over to the left and find some shady sections at the Hangover Wall. The first line is a nice tufa warmup with some mental work to get the send.
I reach to clip the anchor, happy to start with an onsight. The next routes prove more difficult, but I’m happy to leave some projects for another day.
The left of the first wall has a wide pillar of stone behind it, just enough to keep you shaded midday. Jacob tries a gnarly 7a that starts with two finger pockets. We finish on my favorite climb of the day, a longer 7a that moves up, under, and behind several stalactites.
The lines at this crag have signs of neglect, some dirt and spiderwebs. The easiest route here is 6a, so it’s unlikely many guided groups go there.
Content with our vertical mileage for the day, we agree to meet the following morning. This time Ashley and I rent bikes to ride out of town.
We pedal a couple kilometers out of town to a hotspot for tourists by the river. Ziplining, kayaking, and tubing go full blast. We navigate past the activities to the Sleeping Wall.
The corridor of conglomerate offers cool temperatures and easy warmups. We are met by a few tourists accompanied by local guides. The routes are easy, but we find them polished by the groups that must top rope here for days on end.
A large school group shows up and we exit the polished corridor as soon as possible. I’m happy to find the harder and steeper routes free of traffic.
These routes are short, so I have an easy time onsighting everything up to a 6b+. Jacob has his eyes on Snakeskin, a 7a roof climb. His first burn makes it look difficult, but I’m able to get some shots anchored to the 6b just right of him.
The day continues to heat up so we break for lunch. I enjoy making a small fire for Jacob’s lunch and a dip in the river to cool off. Jacob cooks his eggs while Ashley paints the cliff. As I finish a round of Taiji lunch wraps up and I can tell what Jacob’s thinking. Redpoint.
The jungle seems to settle down for Jacob’s attempt. With the draws up and crux beta worked out Jacob ascends slowly but smoothly. He pauses before the roof section for a shake out. Arms stretch across the roof, then feet gingerly hook the tufas. He soon has the final ledge gripped firm. The final moves up to the anchor are juggy but spaced.
With a grunt and a grasp I see the last section of leg disappear overhead. I reply with a yelp of victory to the click of the chain clipped secure. Jacob seems less psyched than me. He projects 7c.
Rock Climbing in Thakhek vs. Vang Vieng
Thakhek has over twice the routes with potential for many more but Vang Vieng is still a worthwhile stop for 6a and up climbers.
The crags around Vang Vieng are more spread out but you could easily climb within walking distance of your accommodations. Thus Vang Vieng has better climbing access from accommodations with wifi.
If you prefer camping and a break from technology though then Thakhek is your best bet.
Better yet check out both and let me know what you think!
Other Rock Climbing Areas in Laos
Areas with Topos in the Rock Climbing Laos guidebook
- Na Pha Daeng in Pha Tang Village
- Nam Hinboun
Areas with beta on Mountain Project
- Luang Prabang
- Thanks to Nick Weicht for the 2019 update!
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