You might have learnt about my love for bouldering outdoors by now. and you’d be right to guess that I’ve long fawned over the classic rock-scapes of Europe and South Africa. Still, I’ve always wished that there was something similar in Southeast Asia. Somewhere a little closer to home so that I could make more frequent and convenient trips (imagine, maybe even for a long weekend) out for some precious rock therapy.
So you can imagine my excitement when I first heard about a place that had just opened up – with good quality rock and huge potential for bouldering called Khon Kaen.
I knew I had to go and explore it for myself. Oh, how I wish this location had been available to me back in my youth! I’ve explored bouldering in far-flung places like Hampi (India) and Fontainbleu (France), and never once thought that we would have such potential in Northern Thailand, right in our regional backyard too!
Where is Khon Kaen?
Khon Kaen is located in North-Eastern Thailand, near its border with Laos. From Singapore, you’ll simply need to take a 2.5-hour international flight to Bangkok, then transfer on a 45-minute domestic flight to Khon Kaen. Established and accessible bouldering areas are sited within a large zoo complex, about an hour’s drive north of Khon Kaen city. This region is aptly named the Zoolander bouldering area.
Zoolander was discovered in late 2017 by a member of the Khon Kaen Climbing Club (KKCC). Hundreds of sandstone boulders have been sighted and reported – the potential is said to be endless. First ascents are around every corner, waiting for anyone who cares to uncover it and dares to try.
KKCC has since been working tirelessly to mark out the designated footpaths, keep boulders and their landing zones clean, establish new problems and publish topos. They deserve huge props for their efforts here. Because of their hard work, climbers like you and I can now conveniently experience the magic of outdoor bouldering.
I first explored Zoolander on February 2019 and was immediately blown away by how amazing it was. I invested a week of climbing time between the Power Station (North and South) crags and Central Park crags, barely scratching the surface of the area had to offer. Get this – in 7 days, I’ve only managed to try about 10% of the climbs in 3 out of 10 crags. Just imagine the potential!
Zoolander has a lot of boulders, with a range of difficulties for everyone – from V0 to V11 (and harder), there is something for everyone. Whether you’re climbing on a Boulder Movement Grade 5 or Grade 30, you’ll find plenty of engagement and challenge.
While the access to each crag is marked by clean and comfortable dirt footpaths, I enjoyed romping around the crag because it feels great to be out of doors exploring nature, experiencing Thailand’s flora and fauna to the accompaniment of local birdsong. For me, this was a therapeutic experience.
What did we bring with us?
We loaned some crash pads from KKCC and brought our personal climbing gear (climbing shoes, chalk and other essentials). To ensure that everyone on the trip stays safe, I’d recommend that you learn how to spot a climber well, including how to guide him/her to the safety of the crash pads.
Beyond equipment, we also found that we needed some basic navigational skills to understand local maps in order to find the boulders and crags. Well, if you enjoy getting lost (which for me is an enjoyable part of the process), you’ll want to skip on asking someone with experience and knowledge to guide you. For the rest of us, getting an experienced local to guide you could help make the experience a lot more convenient.
Rest & Relax (Rock & Roam)
Besides climbing, there are also plenty of opportunities for fun and exploration at the nearby Khon Kaen city. I personally enjoyed the morning markets tremendously – they brought me back to my childhood in Singapore. The local night markets are also full of buzz and excitement – roaming the streets and stalls really filled me with a sense of wonder and joy that’s hard to describe.
One of my favourite dining experiences came from visiting an al-fresco restaurant with a live band. The music was very good, the food was tasted great after a day of climbing and my travel companions offered awesome company. What more could I ask for?
Back to the trail again
The pace of life in Khon Kaen is markedly different from our hectic urban grind here in sunny Singapore. Each time I think on my experiences, they gently remind me that I should stop once in a while to smell the roses, no matter how busy I get.
Climbing, local food, lovely people, the chill vibes… Khon Kaen was a very enjoyable experience for me. In fact, I loved it so much that I’m heading back up again this November.
Local guides pin November to February as the best period for climbing there, because the weather turns dry and cool. Less humid conditions also mean less sweat and insects, which helps to make climbing trips so much more comfortable.