Living like a gibbon in the jungle of Northern Laos.
28.02.2012 - 02.03.2012 26 °C
Our adventure to Laos begins at the border in the small river town of Chang Kong, Thailand. Our evening was supposed to be slow and uneventful, we had survived a long bus ride from Chiang Mai and all we wanted was some food and a bed to rest. What started out as an invitation to join a couple from New York for one drink transformed into a feast of Thai dishes and an endless river of wine, all courtesy of the restaurant owner, Pui. As the establishment closed its shutters, we sat unaware that the owner was prepping for a late night party of her own, and we were the honored guests. Pui approached our table and innocently asked if she could join us. We were delighted to invite her into our conversation. As she poured us glass after glass of wine, she would also disappear into the kitchen and return with freshly prepared Thai dishes. We enjoyed stir fried vegetables, a coconut spicy curry dish, and fried Mekong fish. Each dish was exquisite and we happily gobbled up every bite. The night quickly spun out of control and before we knew it was closer to sunrise than midnight. The next day Scott was left to ponder why he ever let that night get away from him.
Despite the consequences of drinking late into the night, it was one of the most memorable nights we have had on this trip. We learned a lot about Pui and her life in Thailand. Pui works hard to provide for her two sons. Her spirit and energy are tremendously high, and she could charm anyone in to staying after hours for delightful conversation and food. If you find yourself with a night to spare in Chiang Kong have some tasty food and stay at her guesthouse. Just watch out for the never ending jugs of wine!
The next morning started abruptly with the sounds of our alarms. An unwelcome early checkout time forced us to get going far quicker than we wanted to. We slowly drug ourselves to the immigration office near the edge of the river. McKenna made sure we were both presentable before smiling in front of the officers to receive our exit stamps. We hopped a boat across the mighty Mekong and after a short wait at customs we had arrived in Laos. Our first order of business was to check in at The Gibbon Experience. For those of you unfamiliar with the Gibbon Experience imagine being Tarzan for a few days zipping through the canopy of the jungle and sleeping in the trees. That should give an idea of why we ventured so far north into Laos. For the rest of the day we rested to make sure we were ready for adventure into the jungle.
Bright and early the next day we were loaded into the back of pick up truck ready for the jungle adventure we had heard so much about. The Gibbon Experience is an innovative project with the main goal of preserving wildlife and their natural habitat. The idea was to work with the village to save the forest and wildlife from poaching, logging, and slash-and-burn farming. To accomplish this goal a group called Animo teamed up with the local villagers to build tree houses and a series of zip lines in the Bokeo Nature Reserve. The end product was an eco-tourist adventure like no other. All of the proceeds are reinvested to protect the forest and the project has been handed over to the villagers to run. You can check out the website for more information: www.gibbonexperience.org.
Before we could enjoy the adventure, we had to get there. We sat on lightly padded seats and cruised out of Huay Xai (Hoksay) headed for the Bokeo Nature Reserve. We spent about an hour traveling down a newly paved road making friends with the three Swedish backpackers crammed in the back with us. We arrived at a small roadside village with only a few shops where we took a short walk around and stretched our legs. Little did we know we were only half way there. The next leg of this journey left our rear ends bruised and our arms exhausted from gripping the roll bars. The last hour of the truck ride serpentined through the jungle on a dirt road that has been repeatedly washed out by the rainy seasons. Every hill required a big rev from the engine to climb and quick down shifts to avoid curtailing out of control on the downward decent. All in all it was moderately terrifying.
We finally arrived in the village where we would disembark the truck and said goodbye to any signs of civilization. Many villages support The Gibbon Experience and this particular village provides several of the guides including our guides Ja Lee and Tzong Leu. We were quickly herded along on to the hiking section of this journey. We hiked into the jungle for only an hour or so before arriving at the first kitchen camp. Here we picked up our zip lining gear, which consisted of a harness, the zip clip, and part of a bicycle tire for our brake. It wasn’t long now before we would be zipping through the jungle.
Before we could launch into the jungle we had to divide our large group of 20 into 4 houses. Each tree house can hold between two and seven people. We had to make some quick judgements on the group and find the most compatible people. Looking back on this moment, it was the single most important choice we made on this journey. We chose wisely and ended up in Tree House 7 with the three Swedish backpackers (Johan, Marie, Lineea) and a nice couple from Portland (Jason and Michelle). Looking around at the other groups that formed we all felt confident that we had made a good choice. We all hit it off immediately, and it made the entire trip more amazing than we could have ever imagined.
Now that our tree house was set we ventured further into the jungle of bamboo, following our guides like excited puppy dogs anxious for our first zip experience. As we clipped onto the line for our first zip, it was nerve racking. Here we are, in the middle of Northern Laos, hours away from medical care about hurl ourselves across the canopy of the jungle hanging by a slightly used harness. While the guides casually launched themselves across the line, there was an initial trepidation in all of us. As we zipped along the first line we soon came shooting out of the thick jungle and found ourselves gliding across the valley about 60 meters above ground. To say the feeling was incredible doesn’t do it justice. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the most amazing way to see the jungle.
We zipped across four lines on our way to tree house 7. The last one took us right into to our home for the next two nights. We had no idea what to expect of these tree houses, but what we found exceeded our wildest imaginations. We a had a three story tree house complete with bathroom, shower, running water, small kitchen, solar powered lights, and one incredible view of the jungle. Every child dreams of living like the Swiss Family Robinson and here we were getting a slice of that dream.
The first night we settled in to our new digs, setting up surprisingly comfortable mattresses and enjoying a freshly cooked Laos dish brought to us by our guides. The evening turned dark quickly and we all ventured to bed very early, tired after a long day of travel. As we attempted to get some shut eye a scurry of foot steps began scratching across our tree house floor. The tree rats were descending upon our left overs. With only a few pieces of food in the garbage these furry creatures made their presence known. They spent all night rustling in the thatched roof, engaging in battle, and loudly nibbling food right by our netting. It was very unsettling and our first night of sleep wasn’t exactly restful.
We finally ventured out of our net the next morning at around 5:30. We sat on the edge of the tree looking out over the jungle listening to the sounds of birds, bugs, and other morning goers. About an hour went by until we started to hear a loud crashing through the trees. The trees just below our house started to shake and two gibbons shot through a brief opening. Our first gibbon sighting and it was about to get more exciting!
We directed our sights to the right of the tree house and in perfect view was a gibbon perched high above the jungle sitting on an enormous bare branch. He started to conduct the rest of the family in the most peculiar animal call we have ever heard. It started out sounding like a car alarm and evolved in to a chorus of high pitched calls similar to the sound of a Star Wars laser. We listened to several renditions of their song as well as other families of gibbons off in the distance.
After an hour of singing the gibbons started to move. They are considered the gymnast of the jungle and we got to see why. Their arms stretch almost their entire body length and they were swinging wildly from branch to branch without effort or concern. They make it look so graceful as they floated across the canopy and fell from the trees. It was an amazing sight and any doubts about this trip quickly left out minds.
We chatted over breakfast about what we had just seen and heard. Each of us were amazed and felt fortunate that we were able to see these creatures performing their morning ritual. We gobbled up some rice, eggs, and vegetables before stepping into our harness for a day of zipping. We spent our morning traveling to two tree houses, 3 and 5. Tree house 3 was near by, so it was just a short hike before we were zipping into another house in the canopy. There was a nice view and the house only slept four so it was slightly more cozy than ours.
Our next destination took us deeper into the bamboo. We spent about an hour hiking through the jungle before coming to our first long zip of the day. We climbed a wooden platform, clipped on, checked our safety points, and then launched ourselves out into the canopy. Like most of the zips here, we started in the dense jungle but quickly shot out into the open, high above the ground and looking across the mountains. As we glided along we were able to enjoy the scenery, the views were amazing. As we neared the end of this first long zip the inevitable happens, you run out of speed and come to a stop well short of touching your feet to mother earth. When this happens you have to climb along the zip doing what we call the “monkey crawl.” This takes some arm strength. You flip over on your back so that you are looking up at the zip line and then pull your self hand over hand to your destination. At first it doesn’t seem so bad, but after several you begin to feel the work out burn.
We cruised across two more zip lines taking us to the highest tree house of them all, tree house 5. Standing in this particular tree house you get the sense of how high up you are and it can be uneasy. The tree sways with the wind and we all have that thought in the back of our head, what if? But as all good adventures do we sucked it up and kept cool. Getting to tree house 5 was a breeze, exiting the house however, was the most adrenaline pumping jump of them all. First, we clipped on to the line and sat on our butts. We scooted across the floor to the door and made our way to the tiny step that acts as the launch point. Looking down all you can see are tiny trees on the ground and your heart starts to beat rapidly. It was easily the most exciting start to a zip. With a deep breath we each allowed ourselves to fall out of the tree and trust our harness to catch us and zip on to the next platform. The guides got a kick out of our nervousness and they enjoyed a good laugh at our expense.
We continued to trek through the jungle and zipping on long lines high in the air. After a long morning turned into the afternoon we finally made a return to our wonderful tree house 7. We devoured a lunch of rice, vegetables, and beef brought to us by our guides. The guides work tirelessly to make this experience as comfortable as possible and ours were especially great! After eating there was only time for a short nap before we ventured back out to see the last few tree houses. We hiked up a long hill to tree house 2, the smallest one of the bunch and also the most awkward exit of any of them. After that we ventured to the largest tree house, tree house 1. The three level tree house 1 is the crown jewel of the experience and has a great view. It took almost 6 months to build and was completed just 5 months before we arrived. The original tree house 1 burned down not long ago from a candle left unattended. We spent some time at the house looking around and talking with our guides about the construction process before heading back.
We ventured back to our tree house but not before taking some time to do a few extra zips along the way. Johan showed us all up by staying out an extra hour bagging 8 more zips. We were all a little jealous of his youthful energy! When we returned to the house we were all in need of a refreshing shower. It just so happens that the tree house had a rainfall shower head and a view of the entire jungle from 40 m above. It was the best shower in all of Southeast Asia, the water was cool and refreshing and the view couldn’t be beat. The only issue, was that you had to battle the thirsty wasps that buzzed around you as you showered. Nevertheless, it was great.
That night we again dined on a steady diet of rice and vegetables. We spent some time playing cards and sipping on apple wine before heading off to bed. To avoid a repeat of the previous nights rat attack we decided to bate them. We placed the garbage with a few offerings of left overs in the top floor of the house. It worked well and to our relief they stayed up in the top of the tree house for most of the night and we didn’t have to listen to them noshing food right outside our net. That night we all slept a little bit better.
The next morning we all woke up early ready to listen to the gibbons once more. Although we couldn’t see them this time, they did not disappoint in singing their hearts out for us one more time. After a breakfast of eggs and toasted baguettes we packed up and started the hike back out. We were able to zip a few more times before heading back to the village. We patiently waited for our trucks to pick us up and watched the children of the village run around playing and teasing one another.
We boarded the truck and geared up for the long ride back to Huay Xia. The road was no less bumpy on the way back and seats still lightly padded. It was all worth it. We got to see gibbons in the wild, zip across the canopy, and sleep in tree houses. It was the ultimate Swiss Family Robinson adventure!
Best of all were the lasting friendships we made with our tree house 7 bunk mates. Remember how we said that the choice of roommates would turn out to be the most important part? We all got along so well, we exchanged emails at the end and even posed for some group photos. Upon our return we said our goodbyes to the Swedes as they headed out on a bus and then we joined Jason and Michelle for dinner on the banks of the Mekong. A nice way to end our Gibbon Experience and a great way to begin our adventure in Laos!
We head to Luang Prabang next, but we have a two day trip down the Mekong by boat first.