Author

Nick Bernhardt

About two hours away from Bangkok there is the small town of Kaeng Khoi, off of Highway 2. Just on the edge of the town is one of those small roads that weaves through the countryside full of dogs and of old men puttering along on scooters that should have ended up in a junk heap ages ago. Twenty minutes later you have to strain your eyes to spot the hidden road on your left, tucked behind tall bushes that obscure a small, painted wooden sign. As you bump along the pothole filled road until it turns to dirt, up a rocky incline, down again, and to the end of the forested dirt road, you realise that the fact that this place is so hidden is what makes it so magical. Welcome to Nam Pha Pa Yai; my paradise.

As you step out of the car, the camp’s dogs come up, barking and wagging their tails. You take a deep breath, notice the sun shining through the trees, and suddenly hear the wind. All your senses start to wake up and your vision widens, noticing all the different forms of life around you. Under a beautiful, airy, earthen structure covered with a palm leaf roof Joy, the camp owner, sits. As you set down your bags and take a seat, all the worries you left behind in Bangkok are carried away with the soft breeze and the sounds of nature. Your signal starved phone is turned off and stashed in a bag for the weekend and is replaced in your hand by a coffee or a bag of homemade cookies, and you are at peace. 

Hopefully, you’ve come with a plan, and soon your friends are waiting at the edge of the restaurant with all their climbing gear on, looking more like they’re ready to leave on an expedition than take the easy, 5 minute stroll to the riverside. Until recently the two riverbanks were connected by a zip line and you would grab a pulley, strap yourself on, and fly to the other side with hardly a moment to take in the beauty of the cliff in front of you or the river below. Equipment must be maintained though, so these days you walk down to the sandy beach at the riverbank where a silent, smiling boat man waits to paddle you across to the other side. I’m still not sure which I enjoy more, so I’m glad we’ve had the chance to see the cliff from below lately, where it looks much more impressive. 

The 40 metre high vertical cliff face is marbled with beautiful orange and white limestone and capped with grey karst. The entire cliff face is bolted with climbs ranging from 4 (beginner) to 8b (elite). As you stare from the river or the ground beneath the climbs you can see several prominent limestone tufa’s that have formed over tens of thousands of years, which is exciting enough, but not long after you are standing on top of them, heart pounding and chest heaving, having just danced up 20 metres of vertical cliff face on small edges and pockets. Victory is not yours yet, though, as the ultimate goal in climbing, the ‘send’, means you still can’t fall or rest on the rope as you scale another 15 metres. Of course, the hardest move on the route waits here for you and while telling yourself to be calm and breathe, you must reach high for two pockets only large enough to fit a single finger in each and somehow coax the rest of your body into following. Balance is key here. You move your feet precisely and deliberately and despite all the falls and failed attempts before, you have complete control over your body, and it suddenly feels easy. The elation you feel as you pull past the final move and clip your rope into the chains is unparalleled. You look around at the valley carved by the river, the mountains in the distance, and the vibrant orange of the rock and think that though you know you don’t belong here, that no human does, you can’t help but feel that cliff was made to be climbed. Soak it up. Send days are rare, as they should be. 

Climbing is incredibly addictive. You always have something to challenge yourself with, but you feel constant progression. Even when you can’t finish a route, you find yourself getting higher and higher, sometimes metres, sometimes by just centimetres, but the progress is very real. You see yourself quite literally reaching a new level. Like many sports, it’s more mental than physical, which makes it all the more rewarding when you gain control over your mind, push through the (very rational) fear of falling and find the flow in the movement of your body. 

Climbing has an addictive community, too. You don’t compete with your fellow climbers, but encourage them from the ground to breathe slowly, push hard, and get to the next rest. Your climber is literally putting their life in your hands when you belay, and for the 20 minutes that are connected by that rope when you climb, you can feel their calmness or their anxiety travel through the rope to you. They have the power to calm and relax you, to psych you up, or to make you nervous all by how they handle the rope and without saying a single word. When you send, you celebrate with your belayer, you say “You kept me calm. I couldn’t have done it without you.” Your friends’ achievements are yours and at the end of the day, after exhausting yourselves, getting back in touch with nature, and admiring the beauty of the world, you all share a beer and a laugh together. 

I have so much passion for climbing but it all grew in this place. I love it so much that I’m worried although the climbs that the camp was built for are incredible, maybe you aren’t a climber and feel you aren’t welcome. You are, and you should still come. Perhaps I should convince you by telling you about the hiking, which leads to a stunning view of the river worn valley and, if you time it right, reveals the mountain landscape bathed in the light of dusk or dawn? Maybe you would prefer a more relaxing adventure, and you should kayak down the river and wave to the local fishermen along its banks, take a swim, or just bask in the sun. It’s not unlikely that you already spend enough time running around for work or getting your kids to school and their activities and you just need to glance around the camp on your own long enough to find the hammocks and the yoga mats, and to listen to the creaking bamboo and the breeze rustling the leaves. You can always wander over to the vegetable garden where our friend Natalie is starting to grow Thai cocao for her young and blossoming artisanal chocolate brand, Xoconat. The truth is that you don’t need my help once you arrive. Just get yourself there, and I promise you will fall in love with this little escape.

No matter what your motivations are in going, you should absolutely try your hand at climbing. Climbers are a friendly crowd and are happy to share their knowledge. The camp offers harnesses, climbing shoes, and other gear for rental, as well as guides available for hire. There are routes for all levels of difficulty and please trust me when I say that you do not need to be a skinny athlete to try this amazing sport out. I was a complete beginner when I first came to Nam Pha and I have fallen on every route there. Climbing rock, just like climbing a ladder, is not about strength, but balance, body positioning, and how you use your feet. Try it out and you just might fall in love with it!

Contact information

Bookings at the camp can be made with Joy Sirilak, she is reachable on the Nam Pha Pa Yai Climber’s Camp facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/nppycamp). She speaks English well enough to assist you with any enquiry. Camp information is located on the page as well, such as the location, and she can also provide information and contact for anyone who wishes to visit the camp without their own transportation, such as by train, bus, or taxi. Xoconat by Natalie is also best contacted through Facebook and I strongly recommend her artisanal chocolate: https://www.facebook.com/xoconat/

If you have any other questions about the climbing camp or anything in this article, you are welcome to contact me directly at the email address listed below.

**Since the writing of this article, the river wall has been temporarily closed. Nam Pha is an amazing place with many other wonderful things to experience and I strongly urge all of you to go, but please respect the temporary closure of this part of the camp.

Nick Bernhardt is an American who has been living in Thailand for 9 years. He owns a consultancy firm that performs market research and due diligence work and enjoys climbing, motorcycles, and exploring Thailand’s paths less travelled. He can be reached at [email protected]

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It took me three trips to Mae Hong Son to get to the bottom of the sinkhole. The first trip was just reconnaissance. I bought 120m of brand new rope on the second trip, but after throwing it in, very quickly realised that we needed more rope to reach the bottom. You don’t plan an open air rappel into a 200m deep sinkhole in an afternoon. You need to do some prep work, and you need a good partner. 

I met Kelsey while climbing at Nam Pha Pa Yai, one of Thailand’s hidden gems. He has bolted hundreds of his own routes all over the world. I thought this seems like the right kind of guy. I asked him, “Hey Kelsey, do you want to rappel 200m down, all hanging in the open air, into a sinkhole that has no other access, camp at the bottom, and try to climb out of it the next day?” Of course, he was. This guy was born for adventure. That’s what I love about Thailand; it attracts the right type of people. He even had the rope!

At one point while packing for the trip, Kelsey said offhandedly, “We should probably bring a knife, just in case…” So we loaded up Kelsey’s haul bag with 400m of rope (and one knife) and set off towards Mae Hong Son. When we arrived at Ban Luk Khao Lam we sought out the village head immediately. In nine years in Thailand I have never actually needed my Thai. I needed it that day. 

We were shuffled around a few times before finally finding the village head and learned that we actually needed to talk to the forestry service, who had an office back in Bang Ma Pha, a town about 40 minutes away. Amazingly, we managed to get the permits inside an hour. We snapped photos, joked around, and we were good to visit, and good to descend, and good to climb out. We even had time to set up ropes on the hotel’s rafters and practice passing a knot on rappel, which we had have to do the next day. Thank God for that.

We woke up early and convinced one of the villagers to let us rent two of their motorbikes to get up the steep hill, and I do mean steep. This thing was a struggle on the way up, but it was pure terror on the way down, especially with 40kg of gear on your back. Somehow, we made it to the top of the mountain and pulled out the machete to find the descent point. It took a lot of bushwhacking, but we found the right spot and, we think, the same four trees that I used to anchor the ropes on the first attempt. It took 60m of rope and about 3 hours just to make the anchor, but we felt confident about it when it was all said and done. We had to be after all, lives depending on them and all that.

I went first and Kelsey went around to take photos. The initial part of the descent went smoothly, though my heart was beating out of my chest when I first went over the edge. The giant tufa’s had not changed since my first visit, and they had not become any less impressive. The sinkhole formed when a cave collapsed onto its largest chamber, which would have been around 200m high at that point. At one point the cave had access through the mountain and prehistoric civilisations used it. The first descentionists found artefacts in the 100m cavern beyond the arch that formed after the collapse. Our descent point was at the highest part of the arch, straight down in front of the large cavern. As I dangled in space I couldn’t see the end of my two ropes, but I could admire the huge limestone formations which looked both close enough to touch and yet as far away as the opposite wall of the sinkhole, some 150m across. The sinkhole itself was nearly completely round, though the depth varied from about 150m at our point to 100m on the opposite wall. Every wall was a sheer drop, except for the roof of the cave I was hanging in front of.

The formations beneath had formed underground for tens of thousands of years from the rainwater seeping through the cracks in the mountain, forming shapes that boggled the mind, and were larger than any individual rock formations I had seen before. Inside nested sparrows which flew in huge flocks near dusk, swooping and turning above trees that reached 50m high and shot straight up as arrows, but were still dizzyingly far below.

I inched down the rope and the ground did not seem to grow larger for quite a while. The two ropes I was on were actually made of three, with one that was 200m and reached from the top straight to the bottom uninterrupted, and the second made up of a 100m and 60m rope tied together. When I reached the knot, I was only just above the trees and finally realised just how massive they were. 

The author descending into the sinkhole, still about 150m above the ground
Photo by Kelsey Gray

This is when it got interesting. The condensed process of how to pass a knot on one of your ropes involves securing your harness above the rappel device with a small cord called a prusik, taking then your weight off the rappel device, move the device below the knot, re weight the device, and take the prusik cord off from above. The carabiner connecting my prusik cord to the rope above the knot jammed during this process, meaning I could not move up or down. It was in this moment that Kelsey called me on the radio:

“Hey uh… Nick… there are some guys up here, and they seem pretty upset. Uhhh (nervous laugh) they have guns, haha.”

“What?? I’m stuck. My carabiner’s jammed.”

“Oh, that’s not good. But yeah… I think they’re asking about the permits… “

“Shit. We don’t have the actual permits, they just sent us photos… they’re on my phone.”

“Well uh… maybe you should talk to them?”

“Ok, ok, put them on.”

Luckily, though I didn’t realise it at the time, I had left my phone in a bag at the top of another vantage point. Apparently these were soldiers and I’m still not exactly sure why they were patrolling the area, but dangling on that rope above the treetops that didn’t really matter. I explained that we had the permits, saying everything was fine. Then they explained to me that everything was not fine, that I needed to show them the permits, and that I needed to get out of the sinkhole right that second. They weren’t very sympathetic to the fact that I had gotten myself stuck, either. It was a stressful time, but once Kelsey tracked down my phone and found the photos, the patrol became a lot nicer and even hung out for a few minutes to watch as I continued to struggle with my knot in vain. 

Luckily, after Kelsey’s offhand comment, I had my knife on my harness. I cut the prusik cord that secured me above the knot and continued my descent with that damn carabiner still stuck to my leg loop. I couldn’t get it off until I got back to Bangkok and sat down with two pairs of pliers to unscrew the locking sleeve. Finally, after about an hour since starting, I reached the bottom and radioed to Kelsey. His descent went smoothly, and I explored the huge space beneath while waiting for him to make his way down.

The plant life down there was incredible. Truly Jurassic. There were ferns the size of living rooms and vine systems covering areas the size of football fields. A huge chunk of the roof had collapsed and formed a small canyon with walls 20m high on each side. A 20m tall stalagmite under the main arch looked like something out of Alice and Wonderland with its otherworldly platforms, mushrooms and pedestals. The dirt was loose and the ground steep, but in the centre was a more or less flat area where we ended up setting up the tent for the night and trying to start a fire. Never have two men tried so hard and accomplished so little as the two of us tried to start a fire by hand.

The next day we hiked to our ropes hanging down, rigged ourselves up, and began the long, hard task of climbing out. When we reached the top, we were exhausted, and after the harrowing trip down we finally made our way back to Pai and enjoyed the greatest bowl of Khao Soi I have ever had in my life, checked the news, and found that during our night in the cave with thousands of bats, the last three days saw an explosion of virus cases and the Covid pandemic began.

The main arch, viewed from the opposite side of the sinkhole
Photo by Kelsey Gray

Contact information

If you would like to attempt the rappel into the sinkhole, please hire a professional guide. It is an extremely dangerous activity and should not be undertaken by anyone without extensive climbing or caving experience.  When speaking with the villagers I was told that only one or two trips are organised per year, and they did not know the name of the company. 

If you would only like to visit the viewpoint at the sinkhole, please still remember to stop by the forest service office in Pai. I do not have the location as we went to a different office in Bang Ma Pha, but were told that they were only making an exception for our case. 

If you have any other questions about the sinkhole, you are welcome to contact me directly at the email address listed below.

Nick Bernhardt is an American who has been living in Thailand for 9 years. He owns a consultancy firm that performs market research and due diligence work and enjoys climbing, motorcycles, and exploring Thailand’s paths less travelled. He can be reached at [email protected].

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