Is Green Climbers Home in Thakhek, Laos worth visiting?
Climbing skyrocketed to popularity when Olympics introduced it as an official sport in its lineup. Since then, the popular sport that started in Europe and spread in North America has gained some traction in Asian countries. When planning my trip to Asia, among the biggest factors I was looking for was proximity to climbing crags and this was when Green Climbers Home popped into my radar as one of the top places for sport climbing in Asia. Green Climbers Home or GCH is the only climbing hostel I found in Southeast Asia, and it’s in Thakhek, Laos. Nam Pha Pa Yai in Thailand seemed to have closed down since they’ve been unreachable after contacting them through email and calls. Nonetheless, I was happy with my decision to continue my climbing journey at GCH.
In this guide, I’ll share my experience climbing at Southeast Asia’s new climbing mecca. I’ll talk about the best way to get to the climbing hostel, important considerations when climbing outdoors like crag condition, safety, and availability of rentals and courses, and I’ll also talk about things to do around the area and how comfortable was my stay at Green Climbers Home.
The thing about Laos is it’s difficult to get to there but getting out is easy. I came from Thailand with the intention of finishing my trip in Vietnam so you’d think it would make sense to go Thailand-Laos-Vietnam since these countries go from left to right on the map. This was not the case though because getting to Vietnam from Thakhek is more expensive or would require an unreasonable amount of time of travel. Thakhek is closer to the Thai border compared to the Viet border and the closest airport from Thakhek is Nakhon Phanom in Thailand. Vientiene is almost 7 hours of bus ride compared to the <2 hours bus ride to Nakhon Phanom in Thailand.
If you happen to enter from Vietnam, you’ll need get a flight from Hanoi to Vinh, Laos. From there, you’ll have to endure a 17-hour bus ride to get to Thakhek 💀 If you’re already in Laos, there’s multiple bus options to take but the bus rides are still long.
IMO, it’s best to enter Laos coming from Thailand because there’s more options for transportation. The route I took is as follows:
- Bangkok → Nakhon Phanom via bus or airplane
- Nakhon Phanom → Thakhek via bus
- Thakhek (town) → Green Climbers Home via tuk tuk
⚠️ Word of caution when booking a bus ticket from Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom. Most travelers like myself have used 12go.asia, however, there seemed to be some glitch in their system. On my way to Nakhon Phanom, I booked a ticket to Nakhon Phanom through 12go.asia. I double checked it before fully paying, however, the ticket sent to my email was a ticket to That Phanom. I only realized this 5 minutes before boarding time when I checked my ticket again so I was out CAD 25 that evening. Had I found it out 3 hours earlier, I could have gotten a refund at the bus station. For this mistake, I had to wait for an extra 4 hours for the 8PM bus ride to Nakhon Phanom.
Initially, I thought this was a mistake on my part but, I met three other travelers in the same scenario. Two of them got kicked out at the side of the road at That Phanom and another one realized the mistake midway through her bus ride. She was able to get her driver to drop her off to another station where she took the correct bus to Nakhon Phanom.
Funny enough though that we all managed to meet at the bus heading to Thakhek at the Laos-Thai Friendship II. Check your bus tickets, people.
There are two camps in the climbing hostel—GCH1 and GCH2.
GCH1 or camp 1, and it is where everything started. GCH1 caters specifically to climbers that are wanting to disconnect because of the lack of signal within the camp is. What I appreciate with this camp are the availability of more training equipment for climbers. There’s a variety of hang boards and different types of monkey bars and other training gear. It’s also closer Xiangliab cave where the swimming hole is located. GCH2 is the newest camp and it’s busier compared to GCH because of its proximity to the area and because of the availability of signal for internet. Compared to GHC1, the atmosphere is more lively in the evenings.
Both camps offer bungalows, dormitories, and tenting options. GCH1’s bungalows though all have their own private bathrooms while GCH2 has bungalows with shared bathrooms. You’ll also notice that bungalows or any structure in here are on stilts. This is because the rainy season brings floods that can go on for days and weeks.
Regardless of which camp you stay, it’s easy to find climbing partners because there’s a lot of solo travelers that visit. It’s also fairly easy to just hop in with a group of people if you ask nice enough.
There are around 500 sport climbing routes within the camp’s proximity, and that count keeps on increasing as more spots are getting scouted. During my stay, they were bolting multiple routes so I won’t be surprised if their climbing guidebook gets a new version by my next visit.
The mountains that surround GCH are made of karst, a type of limestone that is great for climbing. You’ll not only get exposed to face climbing in the valley (goes up to 6c), but also to tufas, and massive roofs that can range from 6b+ up to 8a+. I personally grew a lot as a climber because I had to climb in 3D on a lot of routes with tufas. There were plenty of no-fall zones so I had to very sure the moment I lead climb above the bolt. Fear was a great motivator during those times.
Because there are plenty of routes to climb, the further you go, the dirtier and the more rugged the rocks are. It’s not unusual to end the day with bleeding fingers and lots of tape. I’ve climbed in both Thailand and Vietnam and rocks in Laos are still significantly sharper compared to the most rugged climbing spots in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, that should not deter you from enjoying the ruggedness. If anything, that’s the reason I’d keep on coming back to Laos. You get to experience climbing in its rawest form.
The anchor system in the Thakhek region is unusually minimal. It’s decent and safe but it’s minimal compared to the anchor setup at crags in Vietnam and Thailand. Routes are fixed with 10mm expansion bolts with one of them having a fixed screw gate carabiner or malion for belaying or repelling. These two bolts are connected by a sling for redundancy, so that when one bolt fails, the climber should theoretically still be supported by the other bolt through the rope.
While climbing there, we noticed how some slings connecting the expansion bolts are badly rope burnt. We can only guess that a beginner climber fixed their rope on the sling that connects the bolts, and this resulted to a rope on rope scenario that burnt the sling. Sam and Melissa, the owners, are quick to replace these slings. Unfortunately, policing the area is close to impossible because it’s open to the public. I think that some safety improvements can be made by requiring climbers to at least do a quick test on clipping and cleaning if they’re borrowing equipment and they’re not climbing with an experienced climber.
Equipment and Rentals
You’ll need at least 15 quickdraws and a 60-80m rope depending on the route. You can rent all the equipment you’ll need from them. The helmets I’ve rented can use a bit TLC but it did the job.
If you’re planning to learn lead climbing or any climbing skill in Asia, I would highly recommended to get it from GCH. I took a course from them on creating anchors and fall management, and it did not disappoint. The lead climbing course I took in Thailand is nowhere near as close. In Thailand, the course I had at Krabi had questionable safety standards and instruction. At GCH, instructors are trained with North American and European standards in mind. Prices of instruction between courses in Thailand and Laos are comparable.
Aside from sport climbing, there’s plenty of other activities within the camp.
- Those intending to avoid the high walls can focus on technical skill through bouldering. They have set up over 60 boulders with grade ranging from V1 to V8
- There is a dedicated yoga hut that can fit over 15 people inside. Yoga sessions offered at the camp are sporadic because it depends on the availability of instructor. People staying at GCH can use the facility when they wish though. It’s a nice area for reading and relaxing
- Beach volleyball is also available. There is a volleyball court and you can borrow the ball from the staff.
- There are some slack lines and high lines that have been set up for those wanting to take a break from climbing but still wish to work on their balance. These slack lines are closer to camp 1, and it’s about a 10 minute walk from camp 2.
- Pétanque is similar to lawn bowling but you have to throw the ball or boule. The equipment for Pétanque is just in front of camp 2’s Layback bar
- Dart boards and the darts themselves are available in both camp 1 and 2
- Both camps also have dedicated training areas, although camp 1 is better equipped
- There’s plenty of caves to explore near GCH. Just within the week of my stay, they discovered two new caves with one of them connected to the next village. There’s something fun about following someone’s directions to an unknown destination. During one of my rest days, we made a hike to the said cave and we got so close but did not reach it because of some miscommunication
- If the caves near GCH does not impress you, there are three other caves that are more popular for tourists. What makes Konglor cave popular is the tragic local folklore involving two lovers. Meanwhile, Tham Nang Aen cave and Pha Nya In Cave are well-known for buddhist statues found inside.
- Swimming is very popular during the hot months in Laos. The best swimming spot is behind camp 1 near the Xiangliab cave. There’s also a small stream just behind camp 2, but it looked muddy. People that have stayed longer than I have also told me that there’s also river called Tha Falang that is supposedly good for swimming too.
- If you’re interested to go further away from camp, you can certainly rent a motorbike and do the Thakhek motorbike loop or the Bolaven Plateau Loop. Be careful though because some spots are in poor condition. You can go as long as three days doing these loops so plan your clothing, cash, and gas reserve. You may need to also allocate some bribe money or baksheesh for policemen. You can usually just ignore them when they try to stop you, but just in case.
- A slower option to explore the nearby neighbourhoods is through bicycling. Rentals are available nearby GCH.
- Take a daytrip at Thakhek and walk around town where you can find colonial buildings from the time when the French occupied Laos. In this part of town, you can sample local and unusual food items like snakes, frogs, and bats.
- Visit the local market and try local food. You’ll notice the prominent Thai influence because their street food looks so much like Thai food.
Restaurant & Food
Each camp has their own restaurant with the same menu. Camp 1 has Kneebar and camp 2 has Layback bar (the Germans who named these have a sense of humor). Food is reasonably priced and they source it as locally as they possibly could. Only some dairy items like milk, cheese, and other meats are imported. I can also tell that they’re very fresh because there were days when they ran out of bananas and they had to check every morning for supplies. Between the two restaurants, camp 2 has better food by a long shot. Portions are larger and the food tastes better and less spicy. If you do visit, I highly recommend that you get the papaya salad. It’s among the best ones I’ve had in my entire Southeast Asian trip.
I found it to be impressive that both restaurants cater to those with food restrictions. They have options even for those that are on vegan diet and are celiac. What I appreciate the most is their commitment to sustainability. Most places in Southeast Asia sell water by the bottle, but GCH recommends climbers to have their own bottles and they only have water refills for 15,000 KIP.
Experience working remotely from Green Climbers Home
As you may have guessed, working remotely from GCH was not optimal. I knew that coming in because they warned about the weak internet signal even if you hook yourself up with the recommended internet provider. I also have an eSIM backup from Airlo, but it was a useless backup plan.
Internet speed average at 3Mbps from camp 2. It’s sufficient to browse, and you can get lucky because sometimes the speed is good enough for a low bandwidth Google Meets call. If you’re really lucky, internet speeds can go up to 13Mbps. In my weeklong stay at GCH, I was able to do my calls although it required roaming around with my laptop.
Aside from the internet problems, there’s also the problem of soundproofing. Despite booking a private bungalow, it does not mean that I get all the privacy I need to do my work. Because there’s virtually no soundproofing with huts, everyone can hear you when you have conversations and especially when you’re on a work call. In my second day of working from my hut, I had my AirPods on noise cancellation while on call 15 minutes before 10pm. I did not realize that someone was asking me to lower my voice. Before I knew it, someone was angrily knocking on my door telling me to work at the cave. You can bet that I did not open that door. It would have been embarrassing to see him the next day since I can tell who he is with his voice.
Before I left, Melissa said that they’re planning to build a coworking space for people working remotely from the camp. There’s a handful of us working from the camp, so it did make sense to have this space. Crossing my fingers that it’s built when I return.
Things to Know
- The area where the crags are located are open to public so you’ll find some climbers that do not actually stay at GCH. The good thing about staying at GCH is the ease of finding a climbing partner.
- There is no ATM within the camp, you need to go to town, which you can do by hitch hiking, getting a tuk tuk, or renting either a bicycle or motorbike
- There is a specific mannerism for you to hitch hike without offending the locals. The way we do it in the west is offensive in the local culture, so you’ll need to modify how you do it by putting your arms straight and have your palm facing the ground. Now start waving or cupping those hands up and down
- Check your clothes and make a list before having them do your laundry at GCH. I lost my newest pair of climbing pants during my stay. They sun dry clothes so the possibility of it flying away or my clothes getting mixed up with someone else’s high. Unfortunately, the most they can do is deduct the cost of laundry which does not equate to the price of your prized possession
- You can volunteer and work there, even if you don’t have any climbing experience
- If you only plan to stay at GCH while in Lao, you can get away with just using Thai Baht or USD. However, if you plan to go around Laos, better to have Laotian Kip
It’s worth going through the long travel times to climb at Green Climbers Home. The quality of the climbs, the set up of the climbing hostel, and the crew of climbers that stay at GCH make it a worthwhile stay for climbers looking to up their sport climbing game. However, don’t expect high internet bandwidths to get your work done. I would highly recommend staying there during your vacation days. Although Melissa from GCH hinted that they may be building a coworking space soon, so maybe that will change things around and make it more suitable for digital nomads.