A Travellerspoint blog


Gibbon Experience


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.



Looking down.

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.

Leaving Treehouse1.

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.

Posted by rebmamber 06:23 Archived in Laos Comments (14)

Three-Day Trekking

Nam Ha National Protected Area


Well-rested and full of steam, we left the tranquility of the river villages and headed to NE Laos in search of some trekking adventures. We booked a bus to the charmless city of Udomoxai in hopes of catching an afternoon bus out of the city and avoiding a night in the industrial Chinese trade city. However, when we reached the bus station we heard words from the ticket booth that we did not think were in the Laos vocabulary, "Bus full"????? We have been on buses with people sitting on rice bags in the aisles, people on top of the bus, and people standing on the bumper while the driver would stop for more people. Surprised and devastated, we put much effort into hiring a car to get us out of town that afternoon, but it was Sunday and the locals weren't interested. So we stayed the night.

"Speaking" Lao with some local children using our phrasebook.


An early morning alarm, a quick breakfast, a 6-hour crammed bus ride, a re-welded rim, and a spare tire later we made it to Luang Nam Tha in the early afternoon.

One of our bus passengers, a rooster on a string.

Every seat full including the "seats" in the aisles.

Changing the tire took way over 8 minutes.


The bridge made of bamboo baskets in Luang Nam Tha.


Luang Nam Tha's big draw is the surrounding Nam Ha protected area, so we hooked up with three other travelers that we met on the bus north and signed up for a three-day trek with the joint Laos/New Zealand government's Eco-Tourism group.

The next morning, with the 2 Belgians and one Kiwi, and two fairly good English-speaking guides, we headed out into the jungle for a few days. We drove out of the city a little ways before making our first stop at a village where we would begin our hike. We also gained a local guide, who carried our lunch, and we headed up (straight up) into the mountains. After a couple hours of exhausting hiking, we made it to a small bamboo shade structure where we had lunch and a much needed break.


Being followed by the village kids.

Our lunch.

After lunch, the trail leveled out a bit and we got under the canopy of the forest and into the shade.

Our first night we stayed at the Saam Ngord village where we had a fine little structure shaded by the largest mango tree we have ever seen. As soon as we arrived, villagers made their way to us to check us out and bring us a refreshing papaya to munch on while dinner was prepared. We noticed one villager carrying a chicken upside down to the small kitchen in our hut. Low and behold, a few clucks from the bird and a little cleaning from the chef and we were eating (well, not Amber) Chicken Laab, a very typical minced meat dish in Laos (made with basil, green onion, garlic, chili, and mint). The town chief came to talk to us after dinner and we had a nice question and answer session with the help of our guides translating. They managed to rustle up a few beer Laos for us to enjoy and out came the cards and our guides now know how to play Shithead (quite well actually).



Mango Tree.


The village shower/watering hole/laundry/dishwasher, etc.

Some curious village kids.


Feeding time for the pigs.

The small village school.

Inside our hut.

Day two we hiked along the ridge tops for 5-6 hours with stunning views of the forest below. Again we had a local guide come along with us carrying our lunch. At lunch we discovered why we heard a pig making a heck of a racket the following evening. Yep, we got pork stir-fry for lunch (well, Justin did). At one point the local guide stopped, apparently, in the spot where a month ago he had seen a tiger. Maybe a set up to get a tip, well it worked.



The second evening we stayed at the Nam Khone village, again in a pleasant little hut. This village was blessed with a small creek so once again, Justin bathed with the locals, but he needed it.



Our hut.

Our bathroom.



That night we got to meet this village's second chief, which happened to be an attractive woman 48 years of age. She was pleasant to speak with, again through our guides and we were invited to come see her house in the morning. After the 2nd chief left, the beer Laos and cards were busted out as our guides wanted revenge for the whooping they took the previous night.

Our dinner - who knew ferns and garlic would be so tasty.

The next morning we went to see the second chief at her house and got a quick tour of her house where she, her husband, 8 kids, and 1 grandchild lived. She was adorably shy to have us in her modest house. We also got to check out the village and to see the village school in session, however, we distracted them from whatever they were supposed to be learning.



Interesting poster at the school depicting one of the problems kids are faced with here.

A shy village kid.

After breakfast we were off to make our way down through the beautiful jungle for a 5-6 hour hike. The hike took us through many lush bamboo valleys, up over peaks and back down to small river streams. It was very beautiful, the only downfall was that we had to keep checking ourselves for leeches, which all of us had hitch-hiking on our shoes at one point and time.

Our 3rd lunch consisting of sticky rice, bamboo shoots and rattan mixed with garlic.

Our guide Xeng and Amber.

Our local guide smoking the traditional way.

"And then I said 'Hi' like a spider to a fly"

After a pleasant day we made it back to town in the early evening. That evening, after some much needed showers, we met our guides for dinner and came up with a plan to rent motorbikes the following day and go to Muang Xing, a small town about 2 hours north of Lunag Nam Tha. We were pleased to have one of our trekking guides, Xeng, coming along. Either he thought we were really great people, or he had a crush on the single blonde New Zealand girl that was with us?

The next morning we hopped on some motorbikes and headed north. We rode another beautiful protected area, taking occasional breaks to stop and rest our bums and take in the scenery.



Xeng and Leah.

Some village girls wearing our helmets.

Don't ask me how he tied this bird to his stick, but it didn't seem to mind.


Muang Xing is about 10 km from the Chinese border, so the town is quite influenced by Chinese culture, food, etc. We found the town with more charm than Luang Nam Tha and definitely less touristy. Amber and I decided to stay the night just outside of Muang Xing at a small lodge overlooking the rice fields, so we said goodbye to our friends and relaxed with our nice view from our balcony.

The Muang Xing nightclub, unfortunately we didn't get to go back and check it out, but I'm sure it would have been hopping.




Posted by rebmamber 23:31 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Northern Laos

We realize that we have had some delays in the recent blogs; it's not that we don't care anymore; it's just that Laos is not quite as technologically advanced as the other countries in SE Asia. However, that's part of its charm and we have been embracing it! Besides, who cares how and what we are doing, HOW ABOUT THOSE GATORS!!!!!!!!!!! We will leave the country come football season for good luck.


Having relaxed in the tranquility and relative moderness of Luang Prabang for 5 nights, we decided to take a slow boat north to a less-traveled and more remote area of Laos. The “6-hour” boat ride as expected took 8-hours, but the scenery was amazing and the occasional splash of cool mountain water was refreshing. It being the dry season in Laos, the river was a bit low in places and going up river there were numerous rapids we had to traverse, practically reaching a stand still on a few of the bigger ones. At one point the boat stopped along shore and the captain made hand motions which either meant to get out of the boat and walk up river or he was being annoyed by a very persistent fly. So we stretched our legs a bit while the captain and first mate pushed the boat up river (and I say boat loosely, we're talking a wooden canoe with a engine). But, two sore butts later, one new propeller, and a bunch of pictures, we made it to the small town of Nong Khiaw.







A view of the first mate in his skivvies.


Nong Khiaw


View from the bridge over the Ou River.

The alleyway to our guesthouse.

We spent one night in Nong Khiaw and then headed up river the following day another hour to the village of Muang Ngoi.

Packed in like sardines, no inch is wasted.


The mountains that surround the small village of about 500 people are impassible by motor vehicles, so there is not a car, motor bike, tractor, etc anywhere to be found or heard! The coconut tree-lined dirt footpaths and the tropical jungle right down to the clear river give this town a real "south pacific" feel, although we haven't been to the south pacific, but we're guessing it's pretty nice.




We stayed in a small bamboo bungalow on the bank overlooking the Ou River. A basic place, but what a view (I should mention it cost a whopping 1 USD!) Every night, the geckos chirped us to sleep while the roosters gave us our morning wake up call, which is quite typical throughout all of Laos.


Hammock Time.JPG

This is literally our view from our bungalow.

The village only has power, via generators, from 7 pm - 10 pm and very little running water. All day, kids played in the river, most buck-naked, as all kids love to be. Every evening before sunset, most of the villagers would make their way down to the river to clean themselves, their clothes, or whatever else in the river. I (Justin) partook in this bathing ritual and got many a strange look when I bared my pasty white chest.

We went on a nice hike into the surrounding mountains and villages one day and did a bit of tubing and canoeing as well another day. But our three days in Muang Noi pretty much involved relaxing and reading.



Yes, the water was a little chilly.


The water buffalo enjoying a dip at sunset.


View of the town from the river.


Et Noi.JPG
An adorable baby, called "Et Noi", which literally means "baby". We were told that the children are not given official names until they can walk.

Some of the many bomb casings used around town. You'll see them as decoration, used as flowerpots, animal feeders and even supports for houses.

Taking the local boat back to Nong Khiaw.

Posted by rebmamber 05:21 Archived in Laos Comments (7)

Luang Prabang



The road to Luang Prabang used to be considered unsafe, due to rebel activities, however, it has been over three years since the last bus was hijacked and a few tourists killed. Plus, the road is now heavily patrolled by machine gun-touting Laos Army men. Now, the only risk one can expect on this stretch of highway is loosing their lunch, as the road is ridiculously curvy, but luckily for us (kind of), our driver averaged a snail’s pace of 30 km/hr (~20 mph), so we just ended up with sore butts and a two hour longer than expected bus ride. However, who can really complain when the scenery is this beautiful!




Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage site selected for it's outstanding traditional architecture, still intact, which is rare in SE Asia with all the wars and bombs that have been dropped over the decades.

The town is exceptionally charming with brick-lined footpaths that criss-cross small alleyways. It is located on the banks of the Mekong River and we got to see some nice sunsets over the waters of the mighty Mekong (although it's pretty low now during the dry season).






There are over 30 temples in the small town and everywhere you turn novice monks are crossing the street or inviting you into their temple in order to practice their English. Luang Prabang strongly upholds the tradition of giving daily alms to the monks and every morning at 6:30 am, people line the streets to hand rice, fruit, etc to passing by monks. Amber managed to get out of bed for this, not only to take some photos, but also to participate.



gold buddha.JPG






While in Laos, we have accepted the slow-paced attitude and decided to go with the "less is more" mentality, so we ended up spending 5 nights in Luang Prabang. Some people we met said, "What are you going to do in Luang Prabang for 5 days?", well, we ended up filling the time easily with walks around the town, many stops in cafés and temples, and a couple of really good massages. There are also some great markets where you can pass your time (and money).

riverside restaurant.JPG



veggie food.JPG
A great vegetarian buffet, you could fill your plate for 50 cents! We enjoyed this place several nights!

We hooked up with a few other travelers one day and headed to a beautiful waterfalls, Kwang Sy, about an hour outside of town, where we killed a day hiking to the different falls and swimming in several pools (well Amber didn't venture in the crisp water, but I couldn't resist).

amber waterfall.JPG


justin waterfall.JPG

The waterfall even had a tiger onsite. We had heard of sites in Asia where they use animals as mere tourist attractions, and have seen a few, but we were very pleasantly surprised to find "Phet" in a huge "natural" caged area, complete with a small creek and many large trees. Apparently she had been rescued from poachers when she was a baby and has been taken care of ever since. We were there for feeding time, where Amber got to pet Phet, while she chowed on some buffalo meat.


pet tiger.JPG

Posted by rebmamber 03:13 Archived in Laos Comments (10)

Lovely Laos

Back to the world of Buddhas, tuk-tuks and flip-flops!

32 °C


We heard several hellish stories about the overland trip from Hanoi to Vientiane, involving people relieving themselves on toilet-less buses; buses not departing until every square inch of space is filled with a person, an animal, or thing; getting to your destination days behind scheduled arrival, and the ever common puking Asians. So, we opted for the 1.5-hour flight. But, in true Vietnamese-style, Vietnam wished us a fond farewell which goes a little something like this...

We decided to fly with Vietnam Airlines, even though it is a little more expensive than Lao Airlines, as every guide book and travel agency does not recommend flying Lao Airlines (they don't release their safety records and some of their planes have a fond attraction to the ground). So, we dropped a little more cash at the VIETNAM AIRLINES office, booked our flight, and headed to the airport. At the airport, we checked in at the VIETNAM AIRLINES desk, went to the VIETNAM AIRLINES gate, were led by VIETNAM AIRLINES staff to a LAO AIRLINE plane! I (Justin) being the semi-nervous flier, kindly asked the VIETNAM AIRLINES women at the stairs to the plane, what was going on. She said, "We sold the flight to Lao Airlines a couple of hours ago". No need to rant and rave anymore, we made it unscaved, but we were treated to a nice 180-degree turn at a 45-angle as we approached the airport in Vientiane.




We stepped off the plane to be smacked in the face with a blast of hot, humid air, something we haven't felt in awhile. We arrived in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, which could easily be described as the most laid-back capital in the world (we were soon to learn this was true of the entire country). Maybe we had actually gotten used to the incessant honking of horns, risking your life to cross a street, and being asked constantly to purchase things or go somewhere. We found none of these in Laos, a very relaxing change of pace. There is a saying in SE Asia that the Vietnamese grow rice, the Cambodians watch rice grow, and the Laotians listen to rice grow. We believe it and we like it.

Even though Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia, this town seemed to be booming (more new cars and trucks than all of Vietnam). We later learned that the City is a magnet for foreign aid workers (NGO projects seem to have nice vehicles).


Sticky Rice baskets, a Laos staple.

Given that it was ridiculously hot in Vientiane, we thought riding bicycles around town would alleviate some of the heat. We checked out the Putaxai Arch, sometimes known as the Vertical Runway because this concrete monster was built with US concrete that was supposed to be used to enhance the local runway for our big planes. During the war in Vietnam, the US secretly had airbases in Laos (which went against the Geneva Accord, but so did the Vietnamese) and performed secret bombing missions in North Vietnam and in Laos. In fact, to this day, the CIA's presence in Laos is the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation in US history (as far as we know that is!). Also, the US dropped so many bombs on Laos in the 9-year-period, that per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the history of warfare. I never learned that in history class, damn Largo High!

Vertical Runway.


DSC00328.JPGView from the top.

There are numerous temples in this primarily Buddhist country, so we wandered about town checking them out. One of them even had a sauna and massage, and for $3, who can pass that up!




Wat Pha That Luang, the most revered temple in Laos and also their national symbol.




Temple kitten. ''Dad, can I have it!!''



The winding bus ride up to the town of Vang Vieng was a lot better than we had anticipated, although it did leave 2 hours late and took two hours longer than expected (231 km in 8 hours). Limestone mountains border Vang Vieng to the west providing magnificent views along the Nam Song river. We splurged on a $10 room with a view of the river and the mountains. Every night we "listened to the river sing sweet songs to rock our souls", literally! Anyways, it was amazing.



Interesting warning.


We decided to accept the Laos’ laid-back lifestyle and pretty much just wandered the town for a couple of days doing pretty much nothing, but loving it all along the way. The town is pretty much set up for backpackers, and unfortunately, it lacked a lot (or any) Laos culture (unless I’m unaware of the ancient Laos version of Friends, which plays incessantly in half of the restaurants). Also, the town was currently getting a sewer system installed, so it was a bit torn apart (though I deemed that the construction was not up to code). We did rent bicycles one day where we rode them outside of town to have lunch at an organic farm by the river.



Getting a button sewed back on by the side of the road.



We did hop on a kayak/tubing/caving tour one day, which turned out to be a good time. We visited Elephant Cave, where there is a stalagmite-like structure shaped as a, you guessed it, an Elephant and Buddha's "footprint". Unfortunately, not all of us made it as the cave was guarded by the rabbit of Caerbannog, but it was worth the casualties.




Next we headed to a water cave, where we tubed in the darkness for about 45 minutes to the source of a fresh water spring. Amber needed a little bit of persuasion to get into the freezing water, to say the least.

Don't look directly at Justin's chest without protective eyewear!


The rest of the day was spent kayaking approximately 15 km back to town, despite a much dreaded stop at one of the ubiquitous river bars as we made our way back to Vang Vieng by kayak in the afternoon. These bars should be stopped, or at least no more allowed, as they will surely get out-of-hand in a few years. Picture kayaking a crystal clear river, with limestone cliffs hovering over you and a few swift moving rapids, after a pleasant hour or so, you turn a bend and you hear Shaggy and Maroon 5 songs performed by some cover band being blared from huge speakers. Ahhhhh, nature.






We ended most days as they should be ended, watching the sunset, drinking a beer, and hanging out with some new friends. We may not return!




Posted by rebmamber 20:55 Archived in Laos Comments (9)

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