I’m writing this in our hotel room in Hanoi, Vietnam. I didn’t actually manage to get any blog posts about Laos up, so here I find myself playing catch up! Here’s a post about the Gibbon Experience.
Following our stop in Chaing Kong, we were ready to head across the bridge over the Mekong river that takes you from Thailand to Laos. Admittedly, we both didn’t know a lot about Laos (organised as ever.) After a bit of research on the internet, I was left with a sense of foreboding. The government website explains that Laos is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia, there are lots of muggings, and one of the bus routes we were planning on taking was to be avoided at all costs. GREAT.
It’s difficult sometimes when travelling, trying to figure out what to do and remembering to trust your gut about potentially dangerous situations. For example, when we went to Bali, the government website told us not to visit unless absolutely essential due to the threat of terrorist attacks following the bombing in Jakarta. But in the end, we went, we were fine, and Bali has been one of my favourite places so far! Anyway, I digress. We decided to just go for it, and keep our wits about us, and cancel the dodgy bus route where tourists have been bombed and held at gun point. La la la!! (Singing and smiling) !!!
The bridge from Thailand was my first border crossing by land. We queued up and handed over our passports and paid for our visas (in US dollars for some unknown reason) it was easy peasy! We got a tuk tuk to our accommodation, which was deserted. When we eventually found someone, we were sent into a posh hotel across the road, which we weren’t expecting and definitely hadn’t paid for, but it worked out fine, so I’m not complaining! Houi Xay (that’s a fun one to pronounce) is a small town on the edge of the Mekong river and home to the Gibbon Experience. It’s so cool being in Laos and looking across the river to Thailand. We spent the night, and then got up early and headed to the gibbon experience centre for our briefing.
The Gibbon Experience is the top tourist attraction in Laos. It involves trekking in the Nam Kan National Park, zip lining across the canopy and staying over night in the highest tree houses in the world. Plus the added extra that you might get lucky and see gibbons in their natural habitat. We were very excited! We opted to do the “classic” tour – three days and two nights with the minimum amount of walking and maximum chance of seeing the elusive gibbons.
(A photo of the highest treehouse in the world, to whet the appetite!)
We started off with a two and half hour ride in the back of one of my favourite trucks. The last hour was dirt road and incredibly bouncy, and involved a drive through a river, avoiding the ducks. It wasn’t too sicky, and nice to get to know the people in our group. We arrived at the village, had a warm free beer (fabulous) and then began the walk to the first zip line. The walk was a taste of things to come…. Very very hilly and very very hot and very very sweaty!! We reached a resting point where we were given our zip harnesses and split into two groups. One group of seven people, and one of six. We could choose between two tree houses, number one and number seven. Some members of the group were really pushy and said that “there’s more chance of seeing gibbons at hut seven” so we were left with treehouse one. Kind of annoying when we didn’t get a choice in the matter, plus we’d paid a lot for the trip (£200 each) so I was a bit pissed off, but in the end, dear reader, karma is a bitch…..
We fastened ourselves into our harnesses and carefully clipped ourselves onto the wire. The first zip line was really fun, a real adrenaline rush. I was panicking about being able to stop in time, so I pulled my brake early and stopped quite far away from the platform. I was left dangling mid air and thinking “hmm.” In the tutorial video, we watched a smiling lady pulling herself along the wire hand over hand. I though “okay cool, time to pull myself in.” But she made it look SO easy!! Hahaha!!! I have no core or upper body strength, so pulling myself in was really really exhausting for me. Luckily one of the guides came out and hoisted me back in. This happened many, many times over the next three days. God bless those guides!
We enjoyed more hiking in the beautiful jungle, with our guides pointing out the snakes (little ones) and jumping spiders (surprisingly a lot cuter than they sound!) we made a lunch stop, and then after a few more ziplines, we got the one that took us to our tree house. As I was zipping across, I was thinking “woah this looks so tiny!” But when we got there it was actually pretty huge, and the biggest one in the Gibbon Experience.
(The little square at the top of the photo is the bed where Tom and I slept)
Behind a curtain on the bottom floor was our bathroom – a squat toilet (yaaaay) a sink and a shower. Then we walked up some stairs to our kitchen and social area. Up the stairs again was where Tom and I slept, and on the floor above, more sleeping space. I was dreading a dorm layout because I’m so sick of dorm rooms and I don’t sleep well surrounded by people other than Thomas, so I was really pleased with it! We had a double mattress on the floor with seriously heavy duty mosquito net covering it that gives you some privacy.
We had a cup of coffee with the guides and then they said “okay, someone will deliver your evening meal at 5pm, we will see you tomorrow at 8am!” I was laughing and like “haha yeah good one!” Then they zip lined out of the tree house. And I was like “holy shit, were 30 metres above the ground for the night, unattended!” For some reason, I’d assumed that the guides would stay with us…. The health and safety procedures are so different on this side of the world. They basically just said “don’t zip line when it’s dark and don’t light candles.” And that’s it. We later were thinking “what if someone has a heart attack or something, what do we do?!” And it was very discomforting when one of the guides told me that our tree house had actually burnt down a few years ago, when some travellers fell asleep with a candle burning and had to zip line out of the burning house in the dark. Terrifying! Anyway, I’m rambling again..
I had a shower. It was completely open air with awesome view of the jungle. I felt slightly exposed, but there is no one there to see you, just the odd gibbon, snake (!) bear (!!) or leopard (!!!)
In the shower you are stood on floorboards with gaps between them. I’m fine with big heights, but I must admit watching the water droplets from my shower snake down the thirty metre drop before hitting the ground below took my breath away and I found myself clinging onto the railing and doing some deep breaths.
There were seven of us in our treehouse; an American couple – Dani and Kevin, Anita from Switzerland, and David from Scotland with his Polish girlfriend Daria. So it was a good mix of people! We watched the sun go down over the jungle, listening to bugs that were deafening, and sounded like someone using an angle grinder, geckos singing and squeaking, an ominous humming that sounded like flies over a body, and all sorts of birds and unidentifiable animals singing. It was SO loud and fascinating!
When it got dark we played cards by the single solar powered hanging LED light, and a few bugs came to join us. It started off with every five minutes of so, someone flinching and brushing off a mosquito or fly, then we saw small grasshoppers then bigger praying mantis, then moths, then huge moths, and then huge spiders and cockroaches. It was hilarious! We got to a point when we weren’t even scared, just waiting for the bigger and more funny bug to greet us. The grand finale was when an fucking ENORMOUS (about the size of my hand) bug descended from the ceiling in a twirl like a dramatic ballerina towards our table. It had a cape on. It had muscles. It had huge wiggling antenna and about ten wings. We were so giddy and scared and jumpy I’m certain we woke up and scared away every single sleeping gibbon in the jungle. We decided that we should probably go to bed before Godzilla or something arrived for the party.
We lifted our mosquito net to discover the mattress was absolutely crawling with ants. We brushed as many off as possible and got in. After a few minutes something huge began to flap around the net. It was absolutely pitch black but we didn’t dare put the torch on to decide if it was in the net or outside. I think it’s best not to know sometimes. I put my earplugs in and fell asleep.
I woke up early to the sounds of the jungle and had another crazy shower. Our guides ziplined in with some coffee and rice for breakfast. It turns out the carbs would really come in handy!
The second day was just awesome. The uphill walks were incredibly hard for me. It’s a lot of very steep uphill climbs in 35 degree heat, so it felt like walking in a sauna. My chest was tightening and I very nearly cried at one point! I’m not the lithe fit hill walker I was post fruit picking (Ho Ho Ho!) we ziplined into treehouse seven (where the other group had stayed.) it was empty but we could hear the gibbons singing. It was an extremely loud, and almost mournful wailing sound that accelerated into sounding like a car alarm. There were about four or five we could hear, which helped to pinpoint the direction. We crept up to the very top of the treehouse and waited….. Then we saw them. Black and beige gibbons swinging around the trees with their long arms. They were also shaking the branches to defend their territory. It was magical.
(This extra big gibbon keeps following me around)
Our next stop on the zipline was the tallest tree house in the world. It was mental stepping into the air and hurtling above the trees watching the beautiful view across the canopy. The national park just seems to go on forever. The treehouse came into view and I just felt like I was in Avatar or a Harry Potter film. It doesn’t look real. The treehouse gave me some vertigo, as it was so high up! It was amazing!!
For the rest of the day we were hiking, jelly legged and zipping. It was ace. The guides were really kind. They made me giggle when I asked if the walking was easy for them. They were like “YES!”
That evening at our treehouse we experienced a massive thunder storm. It was awesome. At the same time I had to stop myself from thinking “a treehouse thirty metres above the ground with a metal roof is possibly the last place I want to be right now.”
There was a ridiculous moment when Dani said, “it’s fine! You can tell when a storm is serious when all the wildlife goes quiet!” And at that very moment silence descended across the jungle. It was like something off a film!
The next day we discovered that the other group had been evacuated from their treehouse due to safety. I’m glad it wasn’t us who had to zipline in pitch blackness!
(A photo of the toilet in the tallest tree house in the world!)
Anyway, we made it through the second night and in the morning I woke up and I could hear the gibbons singing. I shook Tom awake and we looked out from underneath our mosquito net. Mist had covered the whole jungle whilst we were sleeping and it was so spooky and atmospheric. We had very little visibility, so it wasn’t possible to see the gibbons again, which was sad. But I can’t think of a better wake up call. After a couple of hours our guides showed up with breakfast, and then pointed out the langur monkeys in the trees. They were small, grey in colour monkeys that looked a bit like lemurs but without the stripes tail. They started off quite far away but then got closer and closer, until we could watch them swinging from tree to tree and having their breakfast. Occasionally one would freeze and stare at us, then almost shrug and continue eating. There was about forty of them in total. Just magic.
The gibbon experience is a truly wonderful government run scheme. Poachers were damaging the wildlife and vegetation in the national park, so the government created the gibbon experience and trained the poachers to become guides. They’re incredibly knowledgable about the jungle, they showed us all sorts of herbal medicines, and they just fucking love the zip lines. Half the time they zip across upside down with a huge smile across their faces. Our guides had grown up in the village at the start of the trail, and it was fascinating for me to imagine growing up in somewhere so cool. The money from the gibbon experience pays the guides much more than their earnings as poachers, and ploughs money back into the local community and schools. Although it’s not cheap, I’d highly recommend the Gibbon Experience to anyone visiting Laos.