Zack Cahill gets a dopamine hit with every lift, scaling the sacred walls of Railay.
Stepping off the plane into the midday heat of Krabi was like a kick in the chest. By the time my feet hit tarmac, my previously crisp shirt looks like the Turin shroud. But I’m not here for a religious experience – I’m here to rock climb. In all honesty, I’m no outdoorsman. For me, rocks are things you order scotch on. I have no excuses, being both Irish and a personal trainer. The country of my birth has no shortage of spectacular landscapes, but growing up in suburban South Dublin, our main hobbies weren’t particularly rustic. We didn’t gambol through meadows, catch fish in the bay or skin our knees clambering around ruined castles. Granted, we spent much of our formative years drinking in fields. But compared to the sun-drenched pastoral utopia my antipodean friends reminisce about, we were sedentary city kids.
Whilst my day job as a personal trainer means I’m fit and strong, I’ve always been more about show than go. Primarily, I exercise so I have something nice to hang a t-shirt on. And call me shallow if you wish, but in my opinion, you can keep your temples, elephants and monks. Thailand appeals to me for different reasons. It’s a glimpse of the good life, a sliver of luxury that, thanks to the vagaries of exchange rates, we can all access. But it’s halfway up a cliff on my first day where I figured out what makes traveling so special.
It dawned on me that this new experience, in what is one of the world’s most beautiful destinations is something that’s potentially a life-changer – the reason in fact, why climbing is addictive. So addictive that in the few days I spend around climbers, the most common piece of autobiographical chit chat I hear is “Well, I’ve just quit my job to come and climb here.”
I’m on a route known as Groove Tube (climbing route names provide a useful insight into the climber mind – ‘Hello Dali’, ‘Fit To Be Thai’d’, ‘The Little Shit’) and I’m stuck. I’m twenty meters up and enclosed on either side by a half-pipe of smoothly curved limestone. The view from here would be breathtaking, blue skies over Tonsai bay, an idyllic inlet framed by monolithic cliffs that explode from the sea, dripping stalactites tapering to a precariously narrow base, if I was actually looking at it. But instead, I’m focused on the wall and where the hell I’m going to put my hands. I’m reaching blind, sliding my fingers along the rock in futile circles feeling for a purchase. Finally, I find it, my right hand slips into a perfect nook and takes my weight as I scramble up another few feet. That’s where it hits me. Humans have evolved to be problem-solving creatures. Figuring things out is what has kept us alive, so when we solve something, our brain rewards us with a sweet little hit of dopamine, one of our “happy” hormones. It’s the reason we like pop songs, our brain predicts how the melody will resolve itself and responds with a burst of delicious chemicals when the song obliges. It’s also the hormone most associated with romantic love. But dopamine is the driver of addiction too. And rock climbing is a perfect dopamine delivery system. It’s problem solving all the way up. Every inch, every foothold, every grip, is another hit. But we know how addiction works. Once we’ve had a little, our brains adapt, we need more and bigger to achieve the same high. Luckily, nature lavishes us with ever more challenging routes, and our bodies adapt in tandem. Our eyes become keener, and tiny depressions in the rock surface, virtually invisible to the beginner, enlarge under the climber’s gaze – when you watch the experts, their arms seem to lengthen unnaturally as they stretch for a crag you had thought was impossibly out of reach.
Tonsai bay teems with experts. When we arrived here on day one for lunch and the afternoon climb, what struck me most was how the bodies changed. Gone are the gym pumped physiques of Koh Phi Phi or the sunburnt beer-bellies of Railay beach just across the bay. This is a place for climbers. Their bodies are uniformly lithe, elegantly muscular and a deep golden brown. The Tonsai man is all forearms, shoulders and upper back. Narrow hips and thighs flaring out into big calves. Abs are defined, but not in a shredded, gym-honed way. It’s a body developed for hauling itself up mountains. No excess baggage, just enough essential parts. He also has a certain swagger, perhaps the tiniest bit smugly aware that, while others get pissed on the Koh San road, he’s in the ‘proper’ Thailand.
I finish the first day elated and exhausted. The skin on my hands is sore, my forearms are pumped and a cold Singha beer watching the very platonic ideal of sunsets feels well earned. In fitness, we talk about the S.A.I.D. principle – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. It means that training does not necessarily transfer to a particular task unless it is specific to that task. I come face to face with this on day two when I realize how poorly 15 years of gym training has prepared me for rock climbing. My upper back is in pieces. It hammers home the flaws in my technique – your hands should secure you to the rock face while your legs do the heavy lifting. I had been trying to chin-up my way to the top.
Climbing is utterly engrossing, to the point of being a meditative act. As much as we talk abstractly of living ‘in the moment’, we rarely do. Too often our minds are occupied with anxieties about the future or regrets of the past. Meditation alone is great, but it’s a challenge to shut off the higher conscious processes, the constant thinking about thinking. Climbing doesn’t give you that option – you’re in the moment, or you fall off. Without conscious effort, you find yourself at peace. For all the physical effort of the sport, rock climbing is a shortcut to serenity.
As a thank you to Ghop and Sue, our climbing instructors, we bring them for lunch at our hotel. Ghop tells us how he got into rock climbing in the early nineties before it exploded as a tourist industry (remember those playful climbing route names? Well the first one was called ‘The Money Maker’ when Thai locals worked out they could charge tourists to climb it). Climbing hooked Ghop utterly. He spent five years living on the beach doing nothing else. Climbing, thinking about climbing, discussing the minutiae of routes, turning them over in his head, solving the puzzle.
After lunch, we tackle our greatest challenge yet, an endurance testing climb-hike-climb with the promise of the best view on the island as our reward. At the summit the greenery falls away, the rock flattens out and our weariness evaporates as the view reveals itself to us. To call it spectacular would be to completely undersell it. Let’s just say the sense of achievement, the perfect blue skies and the kind of tropical landscape you expect King Kong to burst from at any minute create a truly perfect moment. I begin to understand why those climbers quit their jobs to come here.
Travel wouldn’t be travel without at least one moment of existential crisis, where you wonder just what the hell you’re working so hard for back home. I’m not saying I’m ready to hand in my notice, I still love the urban scramble back home. Cabs and cocktails, ambition and avarice. But there are lessons here if I want them and can believe they won’t be eroded when I return home. The lesson is the same as ever – focus on the wall in front of you. On where your hands and feet are right now. Not the summit above or the ground below. When you solve the puzzles, enjoy the dopamine hit, and then reach for the next ledge.
Zack stayed at the beautiful Rayavadee Resort, an exclusive, secluded getaway hidden among tropical foliage in Railay. The trip was in partnership with AdventureTemples.com who specialize in luxury holidays, packed with inspiring experiences, offering something truly inspirational for the body, mind and spirit; accessible whether you’re 25 or 75 and is always based from one of the world’s best boutique hotels or lodges.
Photography by David Edwards
Get out there
… zone out on Tonsai bay. The eye-candy is insane.
… celebrate your climb at the Grotto at the Rayavadee – a unique ‘natural’ bar set in an ancient limestone cliff.
… go for a late-night dip. On dark nights, the brilliant-blue bio-luminescence of the water is breathtaking.
… miss the sunset. You may think it’s a cliche, but thanks to the area’s dramatic limestone backdrops, it is really quite spectacular.
… miss the Phra Nang Shrine housing a collection of phalluses carved by fishermen.
… look down (no seriously, don’t say we didn’t warn you!).