Sport climbing in Thakhek, Laos

13 February, 2017
Angus Kille fighting to Keep on Smiling (8a), Thakhek, Laos. © scott@thetravelingclimber

Previously Angus Kille had sent us a dispatch from Yangshuo but unusually chilly and damp weather meant it wasn’t long before he was heading to Laos. Here, among the tufas, stalactites and caves of Thakhek, his sport climbing tour of South East Asia finished on a blissful note, without a care in the world. Here's a short report he sent us for anyone looking for an idyllic sounding climbing destination:

The sleepy, green former French colony of Laos is easily overlooked, especially in the climbing world, where its reputation lags modestly behind its potential. Anyone chasing the sun or seeking their winter sport climbing utopia in South East Asia will easily be drawn to Ton Sai in Krabi, but Pha Tham Kam in central Laos has been hiding a secluded sport climbing sanctuary.

Various climbing areas have been developed in Laos in the 30 years since it opened its borders to tourism, but the biggest of these, 12 km away from the town of Thakhek, is rapidly growing into the climbing hub of Indochina.

Nestled in a cul-de-sac of karst limestone, this warm retreat boasts sectors of all aspects and gradients. Most routes wind their way up vertical walls strewn with swollen tufas. But with slabs, caves, overhangs, a canyon and the Big Roof available there is enough variety to entertain climbers operating from 4+ to 8a+.

The stunning Big Roof is both impressive and strange enough to deserve a visit on its own. The spectacular combination of stalactites, caves, tufas and threads forms an elaborate spider’s web of solid limestone. Routes ranging from 6b upwards weave in three dimensions through these peculiar features, all fully equipped with in-situ draws. Climbers will be found wrapped around stalactites, bat-hanging from huecos or entangled in their own webs of rope and slings as they navigate the overhanging labyrinth.

Guest houses and hotels are only a twenty-minute motorbike ride away in the town of Thakhek, although the majority of climbers settle into the ideally located Green Climbers Home. This idyllic resort is populated by a family of friendly goats and a community of climbers either taking refuge from working life or escaping the northern hemisphere winter. Whether you opt for a bamboo bungalow or a tent, prices lie comfortably below the western standard and earn you a spot in a climbers’ haven only a few minutes walk from 350 climbs, among 30 sectors, that are worth a long-haul flight.

Thakhek crags.
Everything is provided for in the camp, creating a stress-free resort with local and western food, gear rental and plenty of climbing partners available. Routes are well bolted and cleaned although climbers should make sure they are familiar with the anchor systems in place before climbing. The climbing area is continuously expanding as more routes are established, but Pha Tham Kam retains its seclusive status despite a growing reputation.

Rest days can be spent reclining in the sun, swimming through caves, hitchhiking to town to explore local markets or simply relaxing in a cafe beside the Mekong River. Alternatively, motorbikes are available to rent and ride ‘The Loop’, a three-day journey around Khammouane province to see the rural villages, dense jungle and charming smiles of ‘real Laos’.

Peak season runs from November to March, when booking is essential. The season spills over into the warmer months of April and May until the monsoon arrives and incessant rains flood the resort. Climbing resumes in October thanks to extensive clearing and cleaning by the Green Climbers Home team.

Thakhek’s climbing is unmissable for any climbers travelling to South East Asia, luring increasing numbers of climbers from the heat, polish and poor bellies of Ton Sai Beach and even drawing people back for repeat visits year upon year. Climbing tales replace sun-faded concerns of the outside world, as everyone here has a story to tell you but no-one knows what day of the week it is. Come to Laos, let time fly and leave with fond memories of this forgotten country.

Angus Kille figuring out the 3-D terrain of the Big Roof, Thakhek.
Susanne Vuori, 'Nid Toi,Nid Moi' (7a), Thakhek.