Adventure Travel Asia Laos The Nomadic Life Travel

Thakhek, Laos: The Bermuda Triangle of Rock Climbers

Month three of a round the world journey

In November of this year, Liz and I landed in Hanoi to embark on our third month of travel, and we were tired. We had hit a wall, and wanted nothing more than to be somewhere warm, forget about bus schedules and border crossings and stay in the same place for a week. Of course, whiling away the hours with beer on the beach isn’t really our style, and in any case, a cyclone was hurriedly rushing toward the coast of Vietnam at that time, so we decided to hop a train and a bus over to Thakhek, Laos.


monks in laos

Why Thakhek?

Because of the rock climbing.

thakhek climber

Of all the places to visit in Laos, Thakhek isn’t as popular as Luang Prabang or Van Vieng — but that’s part of its charm. Thakhek town has a lazy, river-side vibe, and most often draws visitors for the border crossing between Laos and Thailand, “the loop” — a circuit you can travel by motorbike visiting nearby caves — and trekking. Of course, with these caves come mountains, and with these mountains, rock face. Fortunately for us, a German couple had tapped the climbing potential of the area outside of Thakhek several years ago and not only bolted dozens and dozens of routes (and were still bolting more when we showed up at their door) but had built a hostel for visiting climbers: Green Climber’s Home.

Thakhek cave

Green Climbers Home

For us, Green Climber’s Home was like a dream hostel. A bed in their dorm or a rented tent was affordable. The food was also cheap and featured a ton of fresh, healthy options (we were mildly obsessed with the green salads and mango smoothies). Almost all of the routes were within a five minute walk of where we slept, and the hostel had any and all climbing accessories like climbing harnesses available to rent if you didn’t bring it with you. Best of all, our fellow guests were there to climb, talk climbing, and climb some more. Maybe I’m a bit biased, but I’ve always felt that climbers are some of the most down to earth, friendly people around, so to stay in a hostel full of them just meant extra good vibes. Not to mention, the clever bar games that came out after a few beers: who can coil a rope the fastest; bouldering around benches/tables; or attempting to pick a small box off the floor with our mouths as a tipsy test of flexibility.

Green climbers home tent

It’s probably no surprise then that almost everyone we met there was staying or already had stayed longer than they planned. Even we tacked on an extra three days (minimal compared to a few other personalities who had already logged a month at the place). Basically, it was one of those places you could easily forget about time and stay forever at. It was like a Bermuda Triangle of rock climbers who had disappeared from the rest of the world — especially since no wifi meant deconnecting.

In short, Green Climber’s Home was exactly where we wanted to be to wade out our travel fatigue.

A story of resilience

Green climbers home

At the time we visited, Green Climber’s Home was under some construction. About a year back, a fire that started during some Saint Slyvester celebrations destroyed most of the hostel. However, once word got out to the climbing community, donations came pouring back in to make restoring the place possible. Good thing too, because not only is it a great place for climbers, but a business that cares about giving back to the community and being sustainable. Happily, I noticed on their website that they have finally completed all the restoration since we visited.

Why Thakhek rocks for rock climbers

Thakhek rock climber

Besides this little community of vagabond-rock climbers, one of the reasons why Thakhek rocks as a rock climbing destination is the variety of easy to advanced climbs. There’s something for everyone: 5.7 – 5.9 grade climbs to get comfortable leading on; multi-pitch routes; and some seriously challenging I only managed to watch others ascend. Like most rock climbing in Southeast Asia, it’s also warm and humid for most of the day, but there’s enough routes in the shade to keep climbers out of the sun.

Tips on climbing in Thakhek

happy salt shaker

I won’t waste too much time with the how-to aspect of climbing in Thakhek — The Green Climber’s Home website already has thorough details, bus schedules, and maps in both English and German. But some quick tips to know:

    • No gear? No experience? That’s no excuse. Gear rentals and classes are available.
    • Bring tape — the rock is seriously sharp
    • A 60m rope is fine, 70m is better, and 80m is necessary for few climbs. Rentals aren’t too expensive though, so I’d recommend bringing a 60/70m, whatever you have, and renting the 80m if you happen to need it.
    • You can purchase a guidebook with topo maps of all the climbs at Green Climber’s Home. It includes other parts of Laos.
    • Green Climber’s Home and all of the routes are located 16km out of town. A tuk-tuk should cost about 100,000 kip ($12USD). Limited bikes and motorbikes are available for rent at the hostel.
    • There isn’t a whole lot around Green Climber’s Home other than climbing. Even if you’re there just to bag some new routes, pop by Thakhek on a rest day for some fresh fried fish and a Beer Lao Dark by the riverside!


Kenya Travel

Apparently, Hell Has Zebras: A Visit to Hell’s Gate National Park

Hell's gate

“Welcome to hell!” a Kenyan man standing by a row of rental bikes shouted, obviously amused at his joke. “Would you like to buy a map?”

Liz and I had just turned off the main road from our camp ground by Lake Naivasha, headed to the Elsa entrance of Hell’s Gate National Park on rickety bikes that were already beginning to make our bums sore. We decided to take him up on his offer and Liz handed over a dollar for a sorry excuse of a map, a badly drawn, photocopied sketch of the area, that would end up being little use to us when we really did get lost — a second joke on the map-seller’s part — before struggling up a dirt road on a slight incline to the entrance of Hell’s Gate, to the entrance of hell, you might say.

Safari by bike

Hell's Gate Wildlife

We shattered some preconceptions that day: apparently, Hell has zebras. And giraffes, warthogs, gazelle, baboons, and buffalo.

It was beautiful, and probably not the image you’d conjure up if I had just told you “we just visited Hell”. But it also wasn’t the image you’d get if I were to say I had been on safari in Kenya.

To start with, Hell’s Gate doesn’t have any predators, a small dissappointment since they’re a main safari attraction, but at the same time great because it allows for another unique feature of the park to exist.

You can bike and walk — unguided — through the park, instead of traveling by car.

I loved that part. Even if the bike seats had our butts acheing for two days after, it was worth it to stand in the middle of a grassy plain, just a few feet away from the wildlife (if you had managed to walk quietly enough not to startle them), and pretend like we were the only humans around for miles. Going unguided also gave us the feeling of discovering something new and setting out on a true, rugged, adventure. Our discoveries were our own. This was what I had imagined safaris were like, before a long ago trip to South Africa taught me that Safari in Africa was synonymous with looking at far away wildlife with binoculars from a Land Rover.

Scrambling through the canyon

Hell's Gate Canyon

We did, however, have to hire a guide to wander through the serpintine, sand-colored, Hell’s Gate canyon and recent filming site for Tomb Raider II.

As we trodded along, ocassionaly stopping to admire the naturally hot water trickeling from the rocks, my thoughts bounced between wondering what the filming crews had done about the graffiti on the wall, and why exactly inspired the first explorers to visit this place, Fischer and Thompson, to call it “Hell’s Gate”. Did they take the hot water and active volcanoe as signs that a firey underworld sat just beneath the surface? Who knows, but it was fun to think about.

Climbing Fischer’s Tower

Fishers Tower

About one kilometer from the park entrance stands a tall, slender, pyramid-shaped pile of rocks called Fischer’s Tower. Besides being able to bike among the wildlife, this tower was our other main motivation for visiting the park: you could rock climb. Before heading off into the park, we had just noticed a small mention of rock climbing in a guide book (“in Hell’s Gate you can bike, hike, rock climb, and …”) which is pretty typical really. I’ve found that as a nomadic climber, the normal range of guide books won’t do much more than mention the possibility of rock climbing, and to really track down a good climbing spot requires more word-of-mouth and internet research.

Upon arrival, we learned that this tower was mostly trad climbing — which we didn’t have gear for — but had a solid 5.7, 5.8, and 5.9 sport climb routes that we were able to hop on to and get our fix (thanks to the Kenyan rock climbing guide who spends his days posted up at the bottom of the tower, renting out equipment for tourists who want to go vertical, who took pity on our rope-less situation). The tall rock walls surrounding the valley also offered a variety of more challenging climbs, but again, not bolted. Our new friend told us that he had been working in the valley for over 6 years and knew all the routes. For anyone who wants more beta, showing up at the tower and interrogating him might not be a bad way to do so.

Some practical boring stuff…

Kenyan Town

  • We camped at Fisherman’s camp, about 5km from the Elsa entrance to the park. Camping in our own tent was 500 KSH per person, per night (so unfair, shouldn’t we get a discount for squishing?!).

  • Entrance to the park for non-East African residents was $25 USD, and a 100 KSH fee for each bike. Our bikes were 500 KSH to rent from our hotel, but if you rent a bike at the park entrance, you don’t have to pay the bike fee.

  • Busses from the town Naivasha to Fishermans camp were about 80 KSH
  • Two good cafes in town (Acacia and one next to the butcher) serve cheap local options.
  • Multiple people said it was best for us to set out early and aim to be at the park around 7, so we could have the roads to ourselves before cars came through and kicked up dust (and it’s better photography lighting anyway), and after getting there not-so-early, I’d agree.

Adventure Travel Africa Madagascar The Nomadic Life

Old Friends and Epic Rock Climbing in Andringitra, Madagascar

Like my last post, this too comes to you a bit late.


Back in July/August I spent a month just outside of Andringitra National Park, helping another PCV , Liz, teach English to the park guides during the off-season for farming, but when the chance came to revisit the park after Thanksgiving in Fianaratsoa, I leapt on it. Even though I had accomplished the difficult, three-day trek to the top of Pic Boby, the tallest accessible peak in Madagascar, I still had yet to scale the rock faces that dominate the valley’s landscape.

Even before we entered the park, I felt as though I was following a trail of memories. In Ambalavao, the town where travelers stock up on food and supplies before catching the final bus to the edge of the valley, one of the guides, his wife, and two year old son waved me down while I was walking to market. The two-year-old didn’t remember me but talking to the guide and his wife, both of whom had been enthusiastic and cheerful students, I suddenly got an impression of what this trip would be: warm, welcoming, and an unexpected return to familiar faces and surroundings. At the bus station, the trail of familiar faces continued. The driver recognized me, asked me how school was going, how my friend Liz was doing. When we passed through a toll that tourists have to pay at the edge of the village where the bus stops, Vohitsoaka, he defended me and insisted that I was not a tourist and shouldn’t pay the toll.

From Vohitsoaka to the three camp sites in the valley, it’s about a two and a half hour walk on a wide, dirt road through rice fields, mountains, and the occasional compound of huts almost too small to be called a village. On that day, we had arrived on the cusp of a thunderstorm, giving the valley an almost sinister feel. One of my friends joked that we were headed towards Mordor. As we hiked over hills, we watched the clouds roll in, anxiously pondered a wall of rain in the distance, blocking mountains I knew we would have been able to see had it been clear. Whenever we have a large storm, I am constantly worried about the seamless guttering on the back side of our house. Some storms are powerful enough to tear it out of the side of the house, and it would be expensive to repair it. The shift in weather suddenly made it difficult to believe it was just four in the afternoon when we finally put down our heavy packs in the dining room at Tsara Camp, the cheapest of the three-camp site cluster at the foot of the rocks we had set out to climb.

That night, we headed to Camp Catta, the nicest of the three camps and also a popular hang out spot for ring-tailed lemurs known as maki, to drink beers from their terrace while watching the maki jump from roof to boulder to tree. I entered awkwardly, but was happy to be recognized by the staff who almost immediately asked me how my fictional tour-guide-in-India husband was doing, then offered my friends and I some non-menu rice and beans for dinner instead of the pricey vahazah wood-fired pizzas (delicious as they are).

When we finally got our shit together and set out to climb the next morning, it was another one of the many people I had met and talked with in my previous stay who ended up guiding us to the base of a vertical multi-pitch route and helping us through our first ever multi-pitch attempt. With someone I had known from months before, the stiff client-guide relationship easily dissolved into an amicable friendship. “It’s so great being able to climb and speak Malagasy with you guys,” he said at one point, making me believe it wasn’t just a one-sided sentiment.

At the end of the day, tired and more than happy to pay too much for a cold Coke, I slipped away from my two friends to where our climbing guide and several of the bartenders were chatting. Our climbing guide asked me if I was dating the boy in our trio. “Nope, I’ve got that husband in India, remember?” Of course, he said, and then asked about the girl. “Sorry, she’s got a fiancé. But, that boy out there… he’s single,” I retorted, sending the staff into uproarious laughter and satisfyingly embarrassing the (married) climbing guide. By the way, am climbing barefoot, but strongly suggest this guide on the best shoes for rock climbing



Indiana Jones StyleThe First Pitch

Camp Catta Lemurs

Photos: (1) A cow herder and his livestock (2) A local porter and his slingshot at the top of “the Chameleon” (3) The rock face from afar (4) Barefoot, vine-climbing while waiting for a belay (5) The first pitch (6) Camp Catta lemurs

The Nomadic Life

Goats, Tajine, and Rock Climbing in Toudra, Gorge, Morocco

Old, familiar muscles in my forearms begin to wake from a long hibernation as I wrap my fingers around the porous, red limestone of Morocco’s Todra Gorge. I never realized limestone could feel so rough, but relish the satisfaction of letting it carve calluses in my fingers and the sticky ease with which I move 60 feet above the valley. My body remembers the movements but nothing about the stinging smell of smoke and the day’s first shouted greetings between souvenir shop owners fits my registrar of what-it’s-like-to-rock climb.

I am a dot on the wall of the massive, towering, rock face that all but engulfs the gurgling Dades River that long ago dominated the landscape before cutting the gorge into existance. It feels unconquerable, yet each year hordes of climbers gather to clip in to the ancient stone. Gracefully, they balance, crimp, and grip their way thousands of feet upwards to where the rock meets the sky. I set my goal lower.

My feet find refuge on a wide ledge while I scan for my next move, but call and response bleats among a herd of sheep interrupt my focus. They lethargically envelop my partner Mohammad, like an army of invading clouds, led by an elderly Berber wrapped in the traditional, hooded, djellaba, and an uncanny resemblance to a Jedi master. Before climbers began trekking here for steep ascensions, nomadic pastoralists like the Jedi followed the natural eating patterns of their livestock throughout the High Atlas Mountains. I pause to watch these representatives of modern and tradition collide before yelling, “Take!” and continue along the vertical route millennia of weather has constructed and only recently humans have attempted to conquer.

The bleating fades out, the rush of water becomes a meditative rhythm, and intuitively my body sends me higher and higher until… “Fin!” I shout to Mohammad. Immediately, a burst of claps and shouted applause from a group of urban Moroccan teenagers shatter my peaceful sense of accomplishment and I snap to attention. It isn’t just the rock and me today – it’s me and the rock above a whole microcosm of life; the quiet gurgle of glacier water competing with young children splashing each other and the muffled hum of tourist vans. He slackens the rope while I try to pretend it’s totally normal to repel down from a climb to the congratulatory soundtrack of picnicking youth who gather here each Sunday. My expression, unsurprisingly, gives me away.

My arms, pulsating strained energy, prevent my fists from closing and urge an end to the climb. I coil up the rope and my partner tosses the heavy load of gear on his shoulder to prepare for a slow shuffle down the black tarmac that runs through the gorge; the river demoted to a curbside attraction. Off the wall, we re-immerse into the activity brought on by the mid-afternoon sun; the gorge has awoken.