Posted by: Tommy | June 8, 2011

Flying through the jungle with the greatest of ease

Our initial plan to come to Laos only included 5 days, so we (and by we, I mean Anna – I never do any trip research) hadn’t done much research into Laos activities.  Once we decided that we loved it and had to stay longer, we started reading about things to do in Laos.  We debated several different routes – Southern Laos has a place called 4000 islands that was highly recommended.  The middle of Laos has a very popular backpacker spot called Vang Vieng that we’ve been hearing legends about for months (the short version: it’s a place where 19-23 year old backpackers come to float the river in innertubes, drink copious amounts of booze and do tons of illegal drugs. Shockingly, the hospital there is very busy).  The northern part of Laos has something called the Gibbon Experience, which has its own safety concerns and among the largest disparity in TripAdvisor reviews we’ve seen.  Half the reviews say it’s the best experience they’ve ever had, while the other half found it to be completely miserable and horribly expensive. We decided to go because it would either turn out to be a great experience or a great story.

The Gibbon Experience involves going into the jungle on the Laos-Thailand border, to the only place in the world where you can see gibbon monkeys in the wild.  Not only can you look for the very-rare gibbon, but the way you get around in the jungle is by ziplining from tree to tree.  And for accommodation – treehouses, built 100+ feet in the air.  Looking for rare animals combined with adventure sports? Sign me up!  It was expensive, especially for SE Asia, but we decided to give it a shot.  If you broke out what you’d pay for 3 days of ziplining in the jungle and what you’d pay for sleeping in an awesome treehouse, plus transportation and meals, it was actually below-market. Probably.

After two days riding the slow boat to Huey Xai and 1 day waiting in Huey Xai (we got bad information from the Gibbon Experience office about the starting dates…bad management is one of the negatives that we’d been warned about via TripAdvisor), we met our group at the office at 8:30 in the morning.  As anyone who’s ever been on a group tour knows, the random strangers can make or break your experience.  If you all get along, meeting new people enhances the experience.  If the group doesn’t get along, it makes for a long 3 days.  In this case, we were extremely lucky.

We all piled in the back of the small Gibbon Experience pickup truck for the roughly 3 hour trip to the Bokeo Nature Reserve.  Three people (PD and his lady friend (Dutch) and Howard (Australian)) got in the backseat of the double cab truck, while Anna and I climbed in the covered truckbed, along with James and Laura (22 year old Brits) and Bob and Irene, 32 and 31, from….Austin! (well, originally from the DC area, but they got to Texas as soon as they could)  And that’s when I knew we were in good shape with our group.  We spent the three hours getting to know each other and I think we were all in agreement – we liked each other.  Things were looking up.

One warning the Gibbon Experience website gives you before you go is that, if the road is too wet, you have to walk 5 hours from the paved road to your treehouse.  If the truck can make the drive, it’s only 90 minutes of hiking.  Luckily, the driver was a pro and he navigated the muddy roads (similar to what we got stuck in in the Kalahari) with skill.  We arrived at the village, from which we’d walk in to the Reserve.  When we got there, the previous group was waiting there for our truck. They’d had a blast and were full of tips for us – them being experts now, having lived in the jungle for two days.  They told us that Treehouse 7 was by far the best and if we got a choice to take that one.  They gave us other tips on good ziplines, what the guides were like and leach prevention (leaches were a major fear for Anna.  She is inexplicably afraid of worms, so blood-sucking worms…. She even bought hilarious-looking long gloves and used them as extra-tall socks to keep them off her legs).

Anna, wearing her harness and her super-cool leach-protecting gloves (the stripey things on her legs).

After a grueling hour-long hike, we arrived at the “kitchen”.  This would be where the local staff prepared the meals that they would tote through the jungle three times per day by muddy hiking trail and zipline in order to deliver our food to our treehouse.  This is also when we were informed that, since there were 9 of us, 7 of us would stay in Treehouse 7 and 2 would stay in Treehouse 2.  The guide asked us to decide who would stay where, which put us in an awkward spot.  The only thing any of us knew was that we definitely wanted to stay in Treehouse 7.  And we all liked each other – whoever had to stay in Treehouse 2 would be on their own.

Howard was alone, so he was exempt from the Treehouse 2 discussion.  No one wanted to go, but Treehouse 7 only holds 8 people – we’d have to choose.  We finally decided to let Howard pick a number between 1 and 100.  At first, the criteria was whoever got closest to the number would have to be in Treehouse 2.  I would guess first, so I logically picked 99, as that was unlikely to be closest.  After I had guessed, everyone realized that whoever was furthest away should be the “loser” and stay in Treehouse 2.  So they chose 44, 45 and 46.  The number was 66 – and with 99, we were suddenly the ones on the way to Treehouse 2.  Well, not exactly fair, but it was a tough spot – no one wanted to go.  And there were perks – we’d read on TripAdvisor that each treehouse gets the same amount of food for meals, so Anna and I would be eating for 7!

Anna and I waited 10 minutes for the other group to depart, then we set off with the Treehouse 2 guide, Pia.  Each treehouse also gets their own guides, so we had Pia and Tong to ourselves, while the other 7 had their own 2 guides.  We put on our harnesses, received approximately 3 minutes of safety instruction (basically, make sure that your main rope or your safety rope are connected to the cable at all times), and then we were off.  It was a little terrifying (but even more amazing and exhilarating) the first time we clipped the small “roller” to the cable and leapt off the platform, watching the jungle canopy 200 feet down soar beneath our feet.

We took 3 ziplines to get to our treehouse.  When we got there, Pia took us straight up.  It turns out the two ziplines (the enter and exit lines) running from our treehouse are the fastest, scariest ones in the whole place.  The exit line requires you to start off by jumping around a tree, then brake almost as soon as you start going to keep you from crashing into the tree at the bottom.  From our treehouse, we could see out over a huge swath of forest.  We could also see the rest of the group, making a circle on the 4 (two out, two back) longish ziplines right outside of our treehouse.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but these ziplines made treehouse 2 the best place to be.

The other group made a few circles before heading out for another muddy 20 minute walk on to treehouse 7.  Anna and I sat in our treehouse while Pia zipped out with the water kettle and zipped back in a few minutes later with hot water.  There is only solar power (not enough to run a kettle) in the treehouse, and for obvious reasons, no fires are allowed. We just enjoyed the scenery while he made us some tea and put out some fresh fruit.  This is the life!  Check out the view.

Tea time

The view from our bedroom. And living room. And kitchen.

After the other group left, Pia took us around the circle once to show us the way, then departed for his home in the village, telling us that Tong would be by at 5 with our dinner.  Anna and I zipped, alone, for about an hour.  We were on the middle platform when a small guy with a food canister strapped to his chest showed up.  It was Tong, bringing our dinner.  We had been heading out, so we finished the loop and met him back at the treehouse.  He met us at the bottom, so we had to figure out how to hold the food container and zip back into the treehouse.   It wasn’t too hard (Anna did it) and soon we were dining in style, eating rice, chicken, vegetables and drinking Laotian papaya wine.

After dinner, we explored the bathroom of the treehouse.  While not being very private, it was unique and very cool.  You climb down a trapdoor onto a lower platform.  In one corner, there’s a squatter toilet.  Across the platform, there’s a slatted floor, a shower head and a sink.  No water heater, but that was ok – it was ridiculously hot, even at night, so an icy shower felt pretty good.  What’s missing? Walls.  Standing naked in the jungle, 100 feet off the ground – one of the more interesting showers I’ve ever taken.

Treehouse shower

 

Treehouse bathroom

After showering, we lowered our giant mosquito net (very necessary – even with the net I finished the Gibbon Experience with 30+ bites) and went to bed.  To bed, not to sleep.  One thing I learned about sleeping in the jungle – it’s loud.  Between the birds and the crickets, the treehouse was fairly loud.  But as soon as the sun went down, a huge flying cockroach got trapped in a big spiderweb and freaked out.  For several hours, this 3 inch flying roach did battle with a giant spider (we poked our heads out to see what all the fuss was, then quickly retreated back to the safety of the net when we figured it out).  We both drifted in an out of sleep that first night – it was loud, it was hot (no A/C, no fans), and the rubber mats on the floor weren’t exactly first-class accommodation.

Pia had made plans to meet us at 6am the next day to go out looking for gibbons.  They are most active in the morning – and sure enough, when the alarm went of at 5:30 we could hear them singing – gibbons make a high-pitched hooting noise, rather like a 13 year old at a Bieber concert.  Pia showed up right on time and called up for us to get down, he’s seen the gibbons on his way in.  Anna had already opted to go back to sleep, but I was harnessed up and I quickly jumped out the door and zipped to the ground.  What a way to start the morning!  It was exhilarating, made more so by the fact that it had rained all night and left the exit platform slippery.

Pia and I took 1 zip across to the platform, then he informed me that the gibbons were in the trees near one of the incoming lines.  All I had to do was zip backwards, the wrong way, down one of the lines, stop midway through and hang, suspended by my harness, and look at them.  Piece of cake, right?  It turns out, it was.  The stopping was the only challenging part.  No one else showed up to find me blocking their way, so I just hung out for 20 minutes, watching the fluffy gibbons swing from tree branch to tree branch.  I got one picture (not great, I know) but it was hard enough to sit still on the roller, much less take my hands away to use the camera.  I quickly put it away and just enjoyed watching the monkeys.

If you look closely, there's a gibbon in there.

After 20 minutes, the last of the gibbons disappeared into the trees and I had to pull myself, hand over hand, back to the platform.  Pia and I took a quick loop around the circle and returned to the treehouse.  Tong was going to bring breakfast at 8, so I still had 90 minutes or so that I could get some sleep.  But Pia had other plans – he wanted to follow me up to the treehouse.  I knew Anna was sleeping, so I told Pia we needed to do something else.  He chose to go hiking and led me on a muddy, sweaty, leach-filled walk around the grounds.  Luckily, the jungle was beautiful – we walked for about an hour, then returned to the treehouse.  Pia was willing to walk more and let Anna keep sleeping, but I was out of gas by that time.  He followed me up, grabbed the kettle and took off again.  He came back in time to make breakfast tea and left again a little before 8.

Tong was due at 8 with breakfast…so we were a little surprised at 9:30 when he actually showed up.  And sat there, waiting for us to eat.  Tong spoke even less English than Pia (which is saying something), so he just sat in the corner and watched us hungrily devour the eggs, rice and potato chips he’d brought.  We offered him some of our food, but he declined.  He did decide to help himself to a glass of our papaya wine, however.

Tong, delivering breakfast

After we ate, he motioned for us to put on our harnesses.  During breakfast it had started to rain, so we were a little hesitant to go zipping about in the rain.  Tong assured us it would be fine and didn’t understand (again, because he doesn’t speak English) when we tried to question the intelligence of tromping about in the mud.  We were all harnessed up and were just heading down the exit line when the sky really opened up.  “Wait 5 minutes,” he said.  After 5 minutes, the rain hadn’t let up at all.  I sat down on the mattress, still in my harness, put my feet up and promptly fell asleep, trusting Tong to wake me up when we could leave.  Anna did the same.  He finally woke us up, 2 hours later, to let us know that it was still raining and he was leaving but he’d be back with dinner at 5.  I guess he’d just been sitting there, silently waiting for us to wake up or for the rain to stop.  I’m kind of surprised we still had the papaya wine when he left.

On our own, Anna and I decided that we’d go exploring if it stopped raining but that we could also be content to hang out, alone, in our cozy treehouse and watch the clouds envelop the jungle around us.  So we did, until about 1 when Pia showed up with our lunch.  The rain cleared while we ate and we told Pia we wanted to do more zipping and possibly find our group at treehouse 7.  We set out but it was slow going.  It had rained for 16 of the previous 18 hours (stopping only for 2 hours while I saw the gibbons) so the trail was extremely slick.  This jungle is also very mountainous, so there was a lot of climbing up and down.  After 20 minutes of mostly downhill climbing and several near-falls into the slimy, leach-y mud, we arrived at treehouse 7, only to find that the group wasn’t there.  So we climbed back out of their valley and continued on toward some of the other ziplines and other parts of the jungle we hadn’t seen yet.

Queen of the jungle!

At my request, Pia took us to the longest set of ziplines in the reserve, measuring about 500 meters and taking more than 30 seconds to speed across.  We crossed and recrossed the valley on these lines for about 45 minutes (3 roundtrips) before heading back.  We’d passed the group on our way out and made plans with them to stop by Treehouse 7 when we finished, so we tried to get Pia to head that way on the way back.  It was only 10 minutes each way off the trail we were already taking, but he was hesitant.  When we insisted, he gave us directions (there was only 1 turn to make) and he headed to the village, telling us he’d see us the next morning. (We found out later that he’d been married for 20 days and was headed home to see his new bride – we forgave him)

Upon arriving at Treehouse 7 (which was half an hour from the long lines and 20 minutes from our treehouse) we found the group getting ready to leave.  They were heading over to Treehouse 2 to meet up with us.  So we turned right around and headed out with them, making the uphill walk for the second time.  The 9 of us spent about 2 hours zipping around the loop that we knew so well.  And that’s when we figured out how lucky we’d gotten by getting “stuck” with Treehouse 2.  With 9 people, you have to wait a few minutes at every rope.  With just Anna and I, we could make the circle in 20 minutes.  With the big group, it took 45.  With one-on-one help from Pia, we’d picked up a ton of useful tips (lean back to go faster, flip upside down and look behind you when you have to pull yourself) that the larger group just didn’t know.

After a couple of hours together, the group wanted to see treehouse 2 (and experience the crazy in and out lines that were much faster than the ones to get in/out of 7.  We took them up quickly and it was time for them to go back before dark.  We ate our dinner and headed to bed early, exhausted from little sleep and lots of climbing through the mud.

The next morning, Tong showed up to take us out at 6am.  But we were tired (didn’t sleep well, again) and he hadn’t seen any gibbons, so we opted to sleep.  We were awakened by voices outside the treehouse a couple of hours later.  The group had brought all of their stuff and were getting a few loops in before it was time for the hike out.  We were nervous – It hadn’t rained since stopping the day before, but everything was still pretty muddy.  If the truck couldn’t make it, our hike out would go from 1 hour to 5 hours.  Not good.

After the hour-long walk out, someone told us that the truck was late but it was coming.  We sat down to wait, talking with the rest of the group about our experiences.  I think everyone was in agreement – the Gibbon Experience was enjoyable, certainly, but with a little more effort and better management, it could be phenomenal.  I don’t think anyone thought it was an amazing, life-changing experience but we enjoyed it.  Certainly you could find more enjoyable ways to spend that much money in SE Asia.

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Responses

  1. Fascinating!

  2. Wow, this is one of my favorite posts so I am surprised you didn’t find it one of your favorite experiences. It sounds so unique and the pictures confirm that. Jerry would have troubles though — heights.


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