"If people can walk, they mostly can climb," says Gop, from King Climbers. "It's natural. When we're born, we crawl around on all fours first, after all." But as I stood at the bottom of the sheer, soaring cliff face, craning my neck in disbelief, his words, like my arms, seemed to lose all their power.
The monumental rocks in Railay are part of a 30 million year old chain of limestone karsts - stretching from China down to Borneo – and formed from compacted shell and coral. As I squinted into the sunlight, the summit was way out of sight, hidden behind jagged outcrops and the odd solitary tree that had managed to get a hold in the grudging rock.
Climbers from all over the world come to Krabi to scale these heights. Many beginners also try their hand here, whether they are looking for an adventurous day out, or are more serious about the sport. I was one of those making my debut.
The romantic image of a solo learning experience, where I could pretend I was the first person ever to ascend the rock, quickly vanished as I turned the corner to find what resembled a small climbing factory. A whole gaggle of first-timers like me with their guides were gathered around the base of the cliff.
Some had already started to climb, after coming to terms with an audience watching their every nervous, straining move. Coloured ropes zigzagged along the cliff face and equipment bags littered the ground. The air was ringing with shouts of encouragement and instructions from the guides: "Move your left foot up a bit! Right hand first!" Though how you were supposed to know which instruction was meant for you, I had no clue.
Most people start at the One-Two-Three climbing area on East Railay Beach as it has many relatively easy routes (as well as some finger-crunchingly hard ones) and also it's the closest to the climbing schools. Ton Sai beach, adjacent to Railay and also popular with climbers, is another good spot to learn.
What with all the commotion and the shock of finally being up close to the imposing mass of limestone, it was difficult to take in the techniques of belaying (holding and releasing the rope for the climber), tying knots and making a harness that Wang, my guide, was patiently trying to explain.
Nervousness is part and parcel of the climbing game. "You don't need to be physically strong to climb," says Luang from the Hot Rock school, "I've seen people with one leg do a great job. It depends more on what's inside of you, how mentally tough you are. It's all about fighting your fear."
This fear, I soon realised, diminishes greatly if you both understand and trust the few pieces of equipment used. I tried to concentrate on what Wang was telling me. In Krabi, the reasonably safe sport climbing technique is usually used. Sport climbing is a form of roped climbing where metal bolts, placed close together permanently in the rock, are used for protection. With the danger element removed, emphasis can be placed on technique and doing hard moves. If you slip, your harness and rope will arrest the fall after 50 centimetres at the most.
The rope is run up to a fixed end point (an 'anchor bolt') and back down again, by the guide who climbs first (or 'leads'). You stay on the ground, pulling and cutting slack on the rope as he climbs and descends, keeping it taut enough to stop any fall (also known as 'belaying'). This setup is called a top-rope. And once in place, which takes a matter of minutes, you are ready to climb.
Dipping furiously into my chalk bag to absorb the moisture from my palms, I was both eager and hesitant to start. "The attraction of climbing for me," Gop had said, "is that your whole being is concentrated on only two hands and two feet on the rock. Everything else disappears. It's about self-control and trust."
True enough, it suddenly seemed to make no difference how many people were around and who was watching. Now it was just me and the cliff face.
The ascent, at first easy, quickly becomes hard. Arms tire surprisingly fast but a quick glance down gives you the adrenaline to push your shaking muscles that little bit further. It becomes a sort of primitive challenge: you or the rock – who is going to win? Sheer will, rather than my meagre muscle power, kept me going. Eventually, I made it to the top of the rope, with help from my partner and guide, who allowed me to hang and recover strength before making my final assault.
The view from the narrow ledge where I rested was thrilling: the full, sweeping expanse of East Railay bay at low tide, the marooned longtail boats basking in the warm afternoon sun. Behind stretched the dense, impenetrable jungle that cuts Railay off from the mainland roads.
It doesn't take a long time to become a competent climber. "After a three-day course, most people should be confident and able enough to lead a beginners' route," says Gop. Because you don't need any special skills, other than the will to climb, Robin – the owner of King's Climbers – is keen to promote the sport to families: "The message we're trying to get across is that anyone can climb, young or old. It's the perfect group activity and kids especially love it."
Climbers are certainly a mixed crowd, and it's a friendly scene. During the course of the afternoon, plans were made for drinks that evening. Even the seasoned climbers, who had been loudly talking technical and looking pitifully at the "Ooh, my arms really hurt!" brigade, softened after a while. "Some experienced climbers tend to look down on the beginners, who they think are only doing it because it's trendy or to take a break from the beach," says Luang. "But most climbers have a good heart and can remember when they first started. They say 'welcome to climbing'."
With more than 600 bolted routes graded from F4 (beginners) to F8c (pros, based on the French grading system), there is in any case little need for the two to get in each other's way. Experienced climbers can just turn up here and get on with it. The climbing schools sell equipment and route books and also provide guides for those that need one. If you've come alone, the schools can often put you in touch with a partner; the message board outside Cliffsman Climbing is also a useful resource.
In order to preserve this climbing paradise, several associations have been formed by the climbing schools. A percentage of their income goes towards the upkeep of the bolts, safety rescue training and environmental clean-ups. They also send Thai climbers to competitions like the Asian X-Games.
The associations' role is vital in combating occasional negative publicity about climbers damaging the world-famous cliffs. "From time to time there are moves to stop climbing in Krabi," says Gop. "But that would be wrong. This is a world-class destination, being managed properly and the people who come here love it." It's safe to say that most of the climbers, old and new, who troop back to the bars of Railay each evening, exhausted and happy, would drink to that.
Although Railay is not an island, it's only accessible from the sea. Longtail boats leave regularly from Krabi Town (100 baht), Ao Nam Mao (50 baht) and Ao Nang (60 baht). For Ton Sai beach, take a longtail boat from Ao Nang (60 baht).
Rock climbing is also available on Phi Phi Island in Krabi Province; ferries leave from Krabi Town and Phuket daily.
All the climbing schools offer broadly similar programmes (1/2 day, one day and three day courses), including instructor, insurance, all equipment and refreshments, at similar prices (from 800-5,000 baht).
Instructors are not certified (the schools are currently lobbying for the creation of a Thai Climbing Association, which could provide teaching certification), but they’re all experienced climbers of many years and all have training in first aid. Their standard of English is good.