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We go and get the adrenalin pumping with a rock climbing break in the north’s tangled jungles

The view across the Mae On Valley is spectacular, even for northern Thailand, where waves of lush tropical jungle rising into misty hills are an everyday sight. But there’s something about this vista that is especially knee-trembling: the fact that I am 40ft up, clinging to a sheer rock face with nothing but a rope for reassurance should my fingertips fail me.

More significant than the rope, it suddenly occurs to me, is the knot, which begins to gnaw at my mind – did I fasten it tightly enough? Will it hold me if I fall? 

Truth be told, at the beginning of the day I had not expected to be supported at such heights by a rope I had tied myself. Enrolling for a day’s beginner rock climbing course in the northern city of Chiang Mai, I anticipated much in the way of balancing exercises and rope-tying practice, with a little climbing in the afternoon, if I was good and impressed the instructor with my figure-of-eights.

In fact, once we’d been shown our way around a rope and harness and taught how to belay a climber, we found ourselves at the foot of what appeared to be a mighty tall cliff, squinting against the sun at the faraway summit.

This brevity is essential, I later realise: there’s very little you can learn about rock climbing from ground level. To progress at all, there’s nothing for it but to put feet and hands on solid rock and start upwards. 

And so, after stepping forward (well, being shoved by my husband when the instructor asked who wants to go first), I gingerly grasp an outlying lump of rock that appears to be firmly attached to the rest of the cliff face. Jabbing the opposite foot at a narrow shelf about three inches high, I step off the ground.

Our instructor, Mario, shouts words of encouragement as I scramble for purchase on the craggy rock. “Good job!” he calls up enthusiastically when I stretch beyond my comfort zone to clip in a carabiner. 

As I reach higher, and the hand-holds become shallower and seemingly invisible to the naked eye, he calls out potential places where I can re-position my fingers and feet: like magic, ledges and small protuberances emerge from the cliff, which I grab gratefully. 

I’m just starting to think I’m getting the hang of it when, after about 20 minutes’ climbing, I realise I’m at the top of the route. Satisfaction soaks in and I pause for a minute, hugging the rock with my forearms for balance, and turn my head to look down. I can see two small blobs at the foot of the rock – the turquoise one holding the end of the rope must be my husband. I silently thank him for not letting go. 

I’m also grateful for the season: coming to Thailand in August – their monsoon season – means fewer tourists. Instead of up to six people per course, there is just the two of us, which feels more like private tuition. 

It’s not the first time this trip I’ve been glad to have missed peak season. In the south, we’d stayed on an island called Koh Hai where, for most of the week, we’d been the only visitors to a quiet resort on the western coast. As a result, the beach was deserted and our bungalow was hugely discounted. Although the sun sets earlier and there were periodic tropical storms, it was a price we were more than happy to pay for the relative peace and quiet.

Coming to the north, the weather is less dramatic than in the south, or in Bangkok, where mid-afternoon brought torrential rainstorms that thundered down suddenly between bouts of glorious sunshine. With its mountainous topography, the north is fresher, greener, and generally cooler. 

This is one of the things that makes Mae On such a perfect spot for climbing. While many enthusiasts head to the south – to Railay or Tonsai in Krabi, where white karsts rise out of a clear aquamarine sea – for me, the vast expanse of untamed forest is unbeatable. 


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Cliff hanger: Forget relaxing on Thailand's beaches, head to Chang Mai for jungle adventures
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