An interview with the author of Rock Climbing Thailand
Before we left Ton Sai we sat down with Elke Schmitz the author of Rock Climbing Thailand for a Q and A about climbing, Ton Sai, and writing the guide book. She also runs Wee’s Rock Climbing School and the deep water soloing trips. You can find her site here and purchase her guidebook through her website or here in the States. Be sure to get the most recent edition as rebolting efforts are ongoing and change year to year.
Q. When did you first come to Ton Sai?
I actually first came to Railay about 10 years ago. There was nothing on Ton Sai then. Freedom bar was a toppled over tree, they just put a board on the top and an ice box behind it and that was Freedom Bar. Back then Railay was like what Ton Sai is now. They just upgraded and upgraded until it became what we see today.
Q. We’ve heard rumors that most of Ton Sai is slated for large resort development, do you know if there is any truth to this?
It’s true that a big company owns the land on the beach but what they are actually going to do with it is uncertain. The first company to own the land went bankrupt because it had something to do with Thaksin. After he got kicked out they went under. Then another company bought that company’s assets, including this land, but it was the company’s land holdings in Bangkok that they were really after. Now they are paying to pump sand on the reef.
[Ton Sai’s beach quickly becomes a whole lot of sharp rocks and a small pumping operation is working out in the water pumping sand up to cover the rocks. From what we saw it looks like pretty slow going.]
Q. Are they trying to cover the whole reef?
I’m not sure. It looks like they just want to spend some money.
Q. Does everyone rent from this land owner?
No the businesses own their own land and the beach is public land. [The company owns the part of the jungle by the soccer field next to Mambo.]
Q. Are you here year round even with the lull in low season?
Yeah, for the most part. It’s been getting busier in the low season as well. August is quite busy now.
Q. We were amazed at how busy February was but then in March it seemed to die down.
Yeah this season it seems like the protests in Bangkok are keeping people away. Usually it is pretty busy all the way up to April. March is usually quite busy but this year it is unusually quiet. There are a lot of travel advisories out on Bangkok right now and many people are going to Bali or somewhere else.
Q. How did you get involved with writing the climbing guide?
There was no guidebook covering Ton Sai at the time. King Climbers has always done a guidebook on Railay and Phra Nang, but from copying other people’s work. After he did his third guidebook there was a lot of new development at the crags on Ton Sai, but it seemed like he was not interested in making a new edition. Since there was no information people just walked around with flyers and stuff, so we decided to do a proper guidebook. All of a sudden King was able to do another guidebook again and in his last edition he copied my topos.
Q. Is there any copyright law in Thailand?
There is copyright in Thailand and I am 95% sure I could win. I went and got a lawyer in Bangkok because I was really pissed off. To fight it I would have to open a case in Bangkok at the copyright court and it means I would have to put on a suit and fly up to Bangkok when the court was running.
Q. Would you be able to get past royalties?
The way it works is I would get to say how much I want for you using my stuff. So you use my maps, every map cost you 500 Baht, then you have this many books so you owe me a lot of Baht. But the difficult part is actually getting the money. If the court determined that he owed money they could go through and seize his land and it’s a big bloody deal in Thailand. Primarily I didn’t want to spend the time going to Bangkok to fight it.
Q. Are you still working to update the guidebook?
Yeah we are, but it really is true what they say—that copying kills creativity. We get a lot of feedback on how to improve our guidebook, but at the end of the day if it makes the book more expensive it will lead to more plagiarism and even if it is that much better I’m still not likely to sell more. When someone takes your work and puts their name on it it really makes you not want to continue updating and improving.
Q. How is the rebolting effort going?
There isn’t really any coordination. I don’t get involved with the bolting because it is too political. A while ago we got a bunch of the bungalow owners involved and they donated anchor rings. That was really nice. This year we just did a small thing for Valentine’s Day with slings and anchor rope replacement. [See Retie the Knot]. I didn’t have any bolts and most anchors had rings that needed new slings. With the bolts, like I said, it’s a little bit political. I try to stay away from it.
We did some rebolting last year and we sold some t-shirts for bolts and we rebolted some stuff on the older Railay crags, but we just did that on our own. If someone wants to do it and they do a good job then great but most of the time it gets too political.
The thing that Sam Lightner did with his guidebook was great idea. He said if you bought his book that 100% of the profits would go to bolts. Basically he had given the idea that if you bought the guidebook you would actually be sponsoring all these bolts. But at the end of the day he bought bolts that are really hard to install and are not really super safe. In practice when people came and said they want to bolt route X Y Z they were supposed to go fill out a form somewhere and it just never made it anywhere. In the end the book basically put new bolts up only on Sam’s routes.
Q. Did you find the turnout for Valentine’s Day was as big as you expected?
I thought there would be more people interested. A lot of people walk in the shop and tell me “You know I climbed this and this route today and on the third sling it’s like this and this.” And I’m like “So grab a sling and replace it.” Then they just look at me like that’s supposed to be my job. I don’t really fault them. I think it’s because here you have different cultures and different people that have different ideas about what their responsibility is. There are many people who just come and consume. They come for two or three weeks and they just don’t really think about it. If it was your weekend crag you would be more inclined to get involved. I think a lot of people underestimate the cost of bolts and glue and time. I think they overestimate how much everybody makes. They just think all the climbing schools should pay for crag upkeep. That’s not the way it works in Europe, why should the climbing schools pay for this here? In other places you have an alpine club that coordinates taking care of the crags. They don’t have any real organization in Thailand coordinating anything like that. There is no certification for guides or any crag guidelines.
Q. Would it be possible to coordinate and have better outreach efforts for the people who visit so they can be educated and know that the route safety is their responsibility?
I think it depends on what type of a climber you are. Some people are gym climbers and just climb a little bit. Then you have old fashioned climbers who know that if you go climb somewhere your life is in your own hands and you need to take care of yourself if you want to climb again. These climbers take care of the routes. It really depends on the background of the climber. You do see a lot more young kids that just climb in gyms and think it’s someone else’s responsibility to make sure that it’s safe. In a gym you can sue someone if it’s not safe but out here it’s different.
Q. How long have you been running the Deep water solo trips? I’m surprised that there is nobody else trying to do that.
There are some other people that try to do it but we are registered with the national park because we have to. Some people just rent boats but we have some issues with that. Technically the national parks can charge each person200 Baht if they go there. Also, if you don’t have accident insurance you’re not allowed to take people climbing. A boatman doesn’t have accident insurance he just has a boat.
Q. Do all the climbing schools have accident insurance?
Yeah. Even though the quality of the guides really varies, there has never really been a bad accident from a climbing guide. All the bad accidents happen when someone goes out on their own with rented gear and doesn’t have a clue.
Q. Does anyone keep track of accidents or injuries related to climbing?
Not officially, we hear about them but I’ve never written it down. There aren’t too many people who die. Probably on average one a season but not every season. This season no one has died. There have been some bad accidents but always related to climber stupidity. It has never been with a climbing school.
Q. What is the quality of gear that is rented out? We have seen some really suspect rental gear out there.
Sometimes it’s hard you know because you have people come in and just treat your gear like shit. You get what you pay for. A while back we had a few accidents where people had just rented gear and didn’t really know what they were doing. So all the schools had a meeting and decided to raise the price for the rentals. Now a half day rental is as much as hiring a guide. I can’t be sure that people don’t come in and say I’ll give you X instead of the full price and just give me your junk gear in the corner.
Q. Do you see a lot of bad environmental impacts resulting from the climbing?
Well it’s not from the climbing, it’s from living here. But again it’s also because people come and they are here for two weeks and they don’t care. How many people go down to the chicken lady and get stuff packed in Styrofoam and don’t even think about it? I mean in my country it’s not allowed anymore and in the States you hardly see it but here nobody thinks about it.
Q. What are a few things climbers should know about Ton Sai before they arrive?
I would just like to see everyone behave the same way that they do at home. If you don’t do it at home why would you do it here? It’s a vicious circle. Once the place is trashed then people throw trash, but if a place is clean then they don’t. You see that there are a lot of plastic bottles and cigarettes, and I suppose in some cultures it OK to use the first hold as your ashtray. I hear that’s how they operate in Europe so it’s not surprising.
[Briana] It’s true if I see one bottle on the ground I’ll probably pick it up but if I see 20 I’m less likely to.
Exactly! And I think the bungalow owners just aren’t getting that feedback. Usually the people that you say something to are just the workers. They might not understand enough English and they just end up burning everything. It used to be like that on Railay too, but once they upgraded everything it stopped. There are no more trash fires on Railay, they understand that people don’t like it. But actually it wouldn’t matter because all these people are sitting in their air con rooms. For the rest of us on Ton Sai, you’re sitting there trying to watch the sunset and you have a garbage fire burning right in front of you. Thai people know that tourists don’t like smoke. They get that part. They don’t understand why. They just think you’re too preppy to be sitting in smoke. Really this season the big problem is the toilet at Freedom bar it just smells horrible most of the time. It hasn’t been that bad in the past, but behind there the old sewage overflows broke and it’s just a standing pool there when the tide comes in it runs out onto the beach.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.