Exotic Rock

  By Mike Clendenin

On the Rock

Rock Climbing on Krabi Ao Namg Before setting foot on the rock, expect to be nervous - there's no way around this, so don't try. The best way to find confidence is to take it from the others around you. Notice how the experienced climbers have no qualms about scaling the rock. It's because they understand and trust the equipment. Most accidents in this sport happen because of pilot error, not equipment failure.

So listen intently as the guides thoroughly explain the equipment and the concepts that make the sport safe. Be sure to voice any doubt or confusion. Because they do it everyday, some Thai guides are quick with explanations. Don't accept short shrift.

Thailand's Exhilarating Beach Climbs

It's 6 a.m. The sun just cleared the horizon and already feels warm on my bare chest. It's a comfortable 75 degrees, a coolness that won't last.

About 20 feet below the narrow ledge on which I'm balancing, the Andaman Sea is slipping in to reclaim a blackened, razor-sharp coral reef. In the distance, gibbon wail from their lush jungle sanctuary, a dazzling emerald green. The beauty and serenity of southern Thailand is palpable, relaxing.

But I'm anxious, distracted ... uptight.

So I take a deep breath, drift away from the ledge, and pray.

A First Timer

It was a group of Koreans, whispering to each other, looking impressed, almost astonished, but not by the hesitant man in front of me, miserably trying to live up to the previous night's alcohol-induced boasts of his physical grace.

No, they were craning their necks to see Ms. Lady Who Has Never Climbed Before - But Is Making a Damn Good Attempt.

She pensively reached for a hueco in the rock. Her legs, I noticed, were shaking faster than a sewing machine needle and her face was twisted in grim determination. She wanted to finish. She didn't let go.

"You strong woman. You strong woman," shouted the Thai guide, grinning. "Look right. There a hold there. . . Good."

She made the last move to gain the top, then laughed to herself as the Koreans chuckled and filed away before Mr. Trepidation could start.

She stayed at the top of the climb for a few minutes. From her hard - won vantage point, an expansive turquoise bay rolled away, mingling with one of Krabi's long beaches, a coconut grove and a cloudless sky. The setting sun illuminated the surrounding cliffs and their faces spilled forth a warm, tangerine-colored light.

She smiled one of those toothpaste commercial grins. I knew how she felt. Exactly.

Earlier that same day, at dawn, I fought a similar battle with the rock. Drifting away from the precarious security of a thin ledge, 20 feet high, I reached for a limestone stalactite just beyond my grasp.

Slipping here, I thought, would be bad.

Very bad.

Carrie, a beginner I'd recently met, stood nearby, watching, sensing my nervousness, waiting for her chance to safely follow me after I rigged the top-rope.

My hand found the stalactite and my foot followed, gingerly, feeling for purchase on this ancient, 60-foot tropical icicle. I eased out onto it, seeing and feeling my muscles starting to work. I stood exposed. Sweat ran in tiny rivulets along my skin.

I no longer felt anxious.

I smiled, stopped praying and climbed with the rising sun.

The Cliffs

Recollections of Krabi are most often dominated by the majesty of its imposing, jungle-tipped cliffs. From the Andaman, they surge 800 and 1,000 feet to tickle the sky. Their golden walls are streaked with crimson veins that bleed down from misty green summits; long, dripping stalactites linger at the mouths of deep caverns, giving the sun-blasted rock a melting facade and adding to the exotic persona that is the signature beauty of Thailand.

The allure of scaling these rugged cathedrals, to be part of them for a moment, lures many tourists away from more traditional activities like snorkeling and scuba diving.

Increasingly, the boatloads of bronzed sun worshippers landing at Rai Ley try rock climbing for the first time. Some of them are in shape, but most aren't. They don't have the bodies of Baywatch lifeguards, nor do you need one. Here, some of the climbs, called routes, are almost as easy as running up a flight of stairs.

Mike Clendenin is Correspondent for the Taiwan Bureau of ''Electronic Engineering Times''