For our last hurrah in Laos, we had kept hearing a lot of great things about the Gibbon Experience program. The "experience" is located in western Laos within the Bokeo Primary Forest Reserve. The program was set up by a westerner trying to encourage the preservation of the forests in Laos by getting the villages involved in making a profit through eco-tourism rather than logging. The forest is also home to many families of gibbons and other wildlife. Gibbons are the smallest of all the apes, are the least protected and researched financially, and are the most endangered. The premise of the experience involves zip-lining through the canopy of untouched forest to treehouses where you sleep. The nice thing about it (other than being a really unique idea) is that they limit the number of people and only have 4 treehouses to minimize the impact of the tourism.
We started our "experience" by leaving Luang Nam Tha and heading south on the "new highway". We had heard the road was to be completed in 2006, but considering that 200 out of the 220 miles is still under construction, I don't think they're going to make their goal. Needless to say, we got to spend about 6 hours in the back of a dusty truck to get to the tiny village of Ban Don Chai where we were being picked up the next day.
The "new highway".
Typical Laos transportation.
This is the village of Ban Don Chai, this is about all there was to see.
The following morning we were picked up and whisked away for a hour drive into the surrounding forest to a village where we would begin trekking to the Gibbon Experience's base point. We hiked about an hour to a small base camp where we began the zip-lining. On our way up we passed a few people ending their experience and one of the guys said to us, "you're in for an experience". At the time we were not sure how to take that comment, but after three days with the Gibbon crew, I think we understand what he meant.
I'll spoil the ending now, just in case anyone is reading this blog who may be considering signing up for the "Experience" (if you don't plan on going to Laos and are not considering the Gibbon Experience, skip to the next paragraph). The Gibbon Experience is a great concept, with the zip-lines and tree houses, the forest at night sleeping high above the ground, and the project's goal to show the locals that they can make a good living by protecting the forest and not logging, poaching, etc. And apparently the concept is working as the forest people now carry full wallets to the markets and not bears, gibbons, and other such protected animals that carry a high price tag. However, the program is only about a year old and it shows a bit. For what it costs, a small fortune in Laos kip, the organization of the experience is very weak. We would suggest to anyone going on the Experience to check your accommodation over before your guide leaves, as one night there was only one small candle provided for us (lasting all of 20 minutes or so) and no towels were provided as promised in the brochure. Additionally, if you opt for the waterfall (hiking) option, make sure your guides understand what you want to get out of the hike. We felt quite rushed during the hikes and did not see a reason for the rush.
The main treehouse is the most spectacular, a tri-level structure built high up in the branches of an amazing banyan tree.
The view of the forest from Treehouse 1.
After that, the next zip-lines were wonderfully long and glided you through gorgeous canopy and stretches of open space over looking the region. Just spectacular.
View while zipping over the trees.
We opted for a route around the reserve that would include a night at a treehouse that overlooked a waterfall. However, this option also involved more hiking, but we figured it would be worth it. And as our first night's accommodation did not have water to rinse with, the waterfall proved to be very refreshing on the second night. The first night I (Justin) woke to thunder and lightning in the distance and a slight breeze kicking up. Remembering the safety instructions that read, "If wind, leave the treehouse", I thought, what constitutes "wind". And where do we leave to, we are an hours hike from the next treehouse and about another 1/2 hour of zip-lines from anywhere where there was a shelter on the ground. So, with no one to tell me that the swaying of the tree you are feeling is caused by the "wind" mentioned in the safety instructions, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep a bit. The storm never made it to us and in the morning we were woken by the gibbons singing in the distance. Their high-pitched song sounded like sirens and went on for quite a while.
Sunset from Treehouse3.
The second day we hiked along a river for a couple of hours to a tree that hovered over the surrounding forest and waterfall like it was planted their for the sole purpose of sleeping in. As we zipped to the tree house the sound of the waterfall below got louder and louder. In the tree house, the view was spectacular as we were the highest thing around. After a brief tour of our accommodation we zipped back down to the ground and headed to the waterfall for a swim and wash. Of course the water was cold and of course Justin swam alone, but again, he needed a good washing.
Our guides preparing dinner.
That evening we watched the sunset from our tree house and ate a great dinner cooked by our guides, who stayed in a hut on the ground not far from the base of our tree. The tree house had no facility so any bathroom trips involved putting a harness on and zipping to the ground.
Our hike back to the village the following morning took us through some gorgeous bamboo forests. At times we felt like we were underneath a giant game of pick-up sticks.
That evening (after another flat tire) we got dropped off in Houay Xai, the Laos border town where we would cross the Mekong the following day and enter Thailand. We were pleasantly surprised by the town and had a nice evening and morning before we said goodbye to Laos, until next time...
Last Laos sunset.