10/06/2009 - 10/09/2009 86 °F
I'll get right to the point on this one. The Gibbon Experience will surely be one of the highlights of my five months abroad. The story of how I ended up living in a treehouse in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in northern Laos is deserving of its own blogpost. But basically, after crossing the border into the Laos town of Huay Xai, I wandered up to the Gibbon Experience office and after a few odds and ends were ironed out, I was en route in a pickup truck for an hour's ride north to a river crossing. At the river crossing we changed vehicles to an all-terrain vehicle that navigated through the two feet of river water and proceeded for about an hour on a 'road' that was more suited for donkeys than automated cars; it was bumpy and steep. The end point is a village, which I think is called Lao Loom. It consists of a few thatched huts and a vendor or two selling drinks. This was the last I would see of civilization for 72 hours. A quick note on the village - in Thailand or in other over-visited areas villages try to exploit the fact that a western tour goes through their village, you see native garb, or children begging for food and candy, the 'long necked' women in northern Thailand come to mind.
In Laos, you do not see this. The villagers acknowledge you, but there is no rush to beg or hawk crappy items in your face. There is no attempt to guilt trip you into offering children candy or money. It is a welcome change from what you occasionally see in Thailand and, from what I hear, in Cambodia.
From the village we walked for about an hour through rice paddies and into the native jungle. The weather was humid with overcast sun. I was drenched in sweat after a few minutes on the trail, but at this point, the sheer curiosity of what awaited us was more than enough to propel our group to the base camp. At base camp you find the guides' accomodation and a kitchen where the daily meals are prepared, thats about it. We were given our harness and glider systems for use on the ziplines and proceeded to break up our group of nine into two groups of 5 and 4.
The Gibbon Experience is a very simple concept. Two Frenchman began the project about 7 years ago. The basic idea was to find away to curb the local 'slash and burning' of the jungle and the endangerment of the local species by giving the local villages an alternative way to profit from the jungles existence. The concept of forest conservation through eco-tourism is not that original, but I must say that I think this may be the best example of this strategy that I have ever witnessed. You speak to the guides and hear how they are basically the biggest earners in the entire area. Other villages want to get help build tree houses and extend the project. And even with expansion, the project does not bring in more than about 12 people per day.
Today what was once one treehouse and a few ziplines is now 7 treehouses that span 7 kilometers, interconnected by an array of jungle tracks and about two dozen ziplines. Tree House 1 was the first tree house built, and its where I stayed. It is a trilevel complex set about 175 feet up on a 300 foot high Ficus tree. The only way in and out is through ziplines. The tree house had a living room/kitchen area on the second floor, two 'bedrooms' and a bathroom with outdoor shower on the first floor and a third bedroom in the third floor. I felt completely safe and secure in the tree house as it seemed very sturdy. After dropping our bags off upon our arrival, our guide took us out for an afternoon of learning the safety precautions for the zip lines.
The whole zip line thing is absurdly easy. After a standard climbing harness, you are given a safety rope that you always attach to the line followed by your roller which is also attached to the line. One hand goes on top of the roller to push down on it if you need to break. For the other four people and myself who constituted our gang and zipping partners, I would say it took about 10 minutes for us all to be very comfortable with the system. By day two we were filming each other and going off on solo missions to find the newly built tree houses which were about a 2-3 hour zipping and trekking journey away.
The ziplines vary in length and height but figure the average length is about 200-400 meters with a height of about 100-200 meters. Crazy. You are literally soaring above the jungle as most of the lines are positioned to guide you over a ravine and connect you with two equally high points above lower jungle. The vistas are unbelievable. In the mornings, you zipline through mist and fog, disappearing into nothingness and re-emerging at the landing areas.
The entire experience is completely hands off. After the first day, you return to the tree house for dinner. The sunsets, candles are lit, cards are played and eventually the noises of the jungle at night take over. We had some visitors at night. Giant spiders, giant grasshoppers, and giant squirrels which look like lemurs, and fortunately very few mosquitoes. In the morning, our guide came at 6 am sharp to lead a gibbon spotting expedition. Gibbons are only active in the mornings and usually only for a short period after 7 am. On both mornings we heard their extremely loud cries, but only on the second did we get a fleeting glimpse of one. After this planned activity, you have the entire day to yourselves. The Gibbon Experience is not educational, scientific, or cultural. It is simply a program that allows you to pay to live in the jungle canopy, view the native species that are hopping and swinging around and hang out with fellow travelers. If you have the good fortune of lodging with interesting and motivated people, you end up zip lining as much as possible and trekking deep into the jungle.
In the other tree house one of the guys could not handle living so high up and had to spend most of his time at base camp with the guides. The remaining three guys were all under the age of 22 and two of them were whiny Americans. I can say that because I am an American. On our second day we saw a new group head past us for some of the more distant tree houses. One of the ladies was over weight and got stuck in the middle of the zipline (you do need a small amount of physical strength as sometimes you do not make it to the end and have to pull yourself a few feet to the landing platform). She was clearly traumatized and had to go back to the base camp to do nothing for two days. Her husband continued on. My point is that the experience depends on having a good group as you have the jungle at your fingertips and do not need to have fellow travelers pointing out how lumpy the pillows are. Our group consisted of myself, two Canadian girls and a German and Austrian guy. Everyone was flexible, athletic and relaxed enough to embrace the zip lines and aged similarly 27-33. It was just a great group and our card games turned into nightly competitions.
The program is not fine tuned. Its still a work in progress, there are things that can be improved and from what I read about the program from a few years ago, you can tell things are getting a bit more organized. Food was not exactly deluxe, guides were far from informative, and the lack of any organized itinerary could piss off people who expect to learn things. I personally would have liked some more maps of the zip lines and trekking trails, but on the whole I loved the experience. Rough around the edges and complete freedom to choose your own adventure. If you are in Laos and you think this sounds interesting, just go, hope for sun, good people, and gibbons!
Ive been terrible about adding pics as I just cant make the time. But this guy's pics more or less show the story