Maria clings desperately to the wall, hanging 30 feet in the air holding on by only her hands and feet.
Her knuckles begin to turn white as she searches the rock face above, trying to find a suitable hold for her hands to reach for. Her eyes lock on a small crack above, no more than several inches across but just enough room to jam her fingers in. She slows her breathing, takes a deep breath and leaps, her fingers reaching desperately for purchase in the crack above. Unable to get a hold, she plummets to the ground with a shout, but not before coming to a sudden stop by the rope attached to her climbing harness around her wast.
To the casual onlooker, the sport of rock climbing may seem ludicrous; climbing high above the ground, secured only by a single rope, finding grip on flat rock where it would seem otherwise impossible to do, but for a small group in Northern Thailand, it’s a lifestyle.
Rock climbing, while popular in southern Thailand, is just starting to grow in the north. Wat Tham Pla, or ‘Monkey Temple’ is a popular tourist location in the northern part of Chiang Rai known for the legions of monkeys that inhabit the surrounding jungle, a large Buddhist temple and massive cave that tourists can explore. However, unbeknownst to most visitors, this beautiful area is also the most popular rock-climbing spot in all of the Chiang Rai province. The crag contains over 25 different TRAD and sport climbing routes ranging in difficulty from 5a to7b across three different walls.
While the area is near the temple grounds, it is obscured by thick foliage and tall grass. It is not kept up by the anyone at the temple so climbers have taken the responsibility upon themselves to clear and clean this area before climbing. The weeds grow back so fast however, that clearing the area becomes a routine part of any climb. Trash also accumulates from other visitors to the temple which the climbers bag up and throw away.
Brandon and Ashleigh Armstrong, and their 3 year old daughter Avalyn, are very familiar with the area. Having been climbing at the crag for almost 3 years since moving to Chiang Rai, it has simply become routine for Brandon to pack a weed whacker and machete along with his rope and other climbing gear.
When they arrive at the crag, he begins clearing out a path through the tall weeds, cutting out all the old overgrowth with slow methodical sweeps of the whacker. Meanwhile Ashleigh slips on gloves to pick up all the bottles and trash in the area
Even Avalyn helps out, picking up a few leaves here and there. For them, climbing there is a privilege, one that they want to honor by taking care of the environment. “We simply love being allowed to play at Tham Pla. We love the rocks obviously, but also the people who come and stare at the weird shaped monkeys with ropes too. One of the best parts of Tham Pla is its natural beauty. We continue to pick up trash and keep the weeds at bay because we value the gift of this beauty and being allowed to be part of it.”
For hours the group sits around at the base of the crag, laughing and chatting together, sharing the latest news, and exchanging stories from the past week. Climbers take turns trying different routes, some ‘warming up’ on older easier routes while others attempt to tackle more difficult new ones. Some of the older more experienced climbers watch from the ground, discussing different routes and calling out suggestions to those climbing above. People here come from all different walks of life, each with a different background and story, but all come together for a similar love and passion, climbing.
For many of the climbers here, rock climbing at the crag it is more than just an adrenaline rush (opportunity to climb rocks and exercise), but also a bonding experience that brings them together. Nearly every weekend they each get together to carpool or meet at the crag and spend the day together climbing, hanging out and talking about life.
MediaLight Asia Broadcasting & media production company in Chiang Rai, Thailand,
MediaLight Asia is a media missions program that trains emerging leaders to creatively share the gospel through the power of media.