Day 24 and 25: 28th/29th January: The Gibbon Experience

 Apologies in advance that this is a long read – there is so much to record after a brilliant couple of days.

We woke early, checked out and by 8am we had arrived at the Gibbon Experience office. The Gibbon Experience is described as the best experience in Laos and, as we (jointly) write this after our return from the jungle, it certainly ranks as one of the most amazing couple of days we have had. What is it?  All we really knew in advance was that it was an eco-tourism project that funded conservation of massive areas of jungle, preserving wild areas for gibbons and other animals, by providing jungle experiences for tourists.  We knew the “experience” involved some trekking, a lot of zip wires and staying in a very high tree house in the middle of the Nam Kan national park. As far as we could see this is ecotourism at its best. It is quite an expensive trip but the organisation employs 130 local people on good wages, including park rangers to protect the park, supports local schools in the national park and does a lot of conservation and biodiversity work.

So back to 8am and arriving at the office in the town of Huay Xai.  We saw the slightly scary “safety video” then piled into a small truck where we met the rest of our group – 2 French (one living in Berlin), 1 Italian (living in France), 3 Germans and a German of Lao/Vietnamese family heritage who was born in Germany and considers himself German (except when he is Laos when he is a bit more Lao). Lucky for us the common language was English. We had our first view of the Lao roads and villages that we would be exploring by bike in a few days time. It had a very different feel to Thailand, not least because there were very few private cars and only a handful of lorries.

After an hour and a half on the back of a truck we were dropped off at a roadside shack, and we met our guides.  We were then handed our zip wire harnesses, which would become a permanent fixture on our bodies until the end of the day. We had a lesson on the safe use of the zip wire with a short hop over the river. No one fell into the river off the zip wire and we were all slightly relieved that sitting in a harness going along a zipwire seemed a manageable skill.  Then it was about an hour and a half trek, mostly uphill into the jungle. The path was easy to follow as we tramped along in single file, gently chatting and getting to know each other.  

Then we reached the first proper zip wire. There was anxious laughter as we looked at the wire stretching 400m across the valley, way above the trees and hundreds of feet about the ground.  This was a completely different level to the zipwire over the stream, albeit the same technique.  The lead guide launched himself off as we all watched nervously then lined up for our turn. Our hearts were pounding as our turns came, everything on the harness was checked.  We had seen several people reaching the other side without plunging into the abyss so there was nothing for it but to let the harness take the weight and suddenly we found ourselves going along the wire at a terrifying speed, with astonishing views on each side as we sped above the trees.  Bernie’s eyes were fixed on the platform ahead without daring to look to the side, let along down then before she knew it she was safely on terra firma and then realised how tense her body had been!

David tried to lie back in the harness as instructed and looked around, only to find his whole body starting to go round in circles below the wire.  At this point he could not recall the instructions as to how to correct the twist and ended up facing backwards, and thus came to a premature stop about 15m from the end of the wire.  At that point he was able to pull himself hand over hand along the last 10m or so until he was ignominiously pulled in by one of the guides.  Later David got the hang of the technique and ended up being one of those who approached the landing zone too fast and had to brake.  The “brake” was a piece of bicycle tyre at the back of the rollers from which the harness (and safety line) were attached.  It was a simple, brilliant system.

There were a total of 9 of these zip wires that day and after the first couple we were able to relax, improve our technique and look in wonder at the forest canopy that we were flying over. The guides explained that each 30 or 40 second zip wire saved a 2 hour trek down into the valley and up the other side.  We were therefore able to get deeper and deeper into the jungle….and have great fun too.

Eventually at about 3.30pm we arrived at the last zipwire which took us directly into the treehouse – our residence for the night.  Each treehouse is made of wood from fallen trees and none of the parts are brought in by helicopter as this would disturb the animal life that they want to preserve.  It takes a full year to build a treehouse – which is on 3 levels.  It is basic, but water is pumped up from a nearby stream and there is the most spectacular toilet and shower (cold water) imaginable.

About 10 minutes up the path there is a small settlement with a cook house and accommodation for the staff who support the treehouses, do conservation work, maintain the ziplines and do routine patrols to dissuade poachers or people who want to burn forest to create more agricultural land (which seemed to be a problem in the past). 

We had a lovely afternoon and evening, looking out over the forest (very still – lots of bird calls, fewer birds but no gibbons). The views were simply awe inspiring as day turned to dusk and the sun sank into the hills. The food was delicious and the company was excellent – albeit we were probably 30 years older than anyone else in the group.  They did not seem to mind having a couple of (almost) pensioners as part of the group and Bernie’s medical skills were put to good use (paradoxically for the benefit of a German doctor – one of two other docs in the group).  It would be an exaggeration to say that we inspired them by our cycling exploits but they were slightly fascinated by the trikes, and also by the fact that people of our age (which probably means people more of their parents’ ages) still had the motivation and energy to travel by bike and experience new things.  One of them, Ed (the delightful German/Lao/Vietnamese – and the other doctor) had completed a 5 month cycle trip from home to the Middle East as the start of his year traveling.  He had never cycled before and hilariously described learning to mend a puncture from a Youtube video when, after 3000km, he finally got a flat.  Later he sat on David’s trike and declared himself an instant convert.

As elder stateman and stateswoman (or probably more as the only people prepared to admit to being occasional snorers) we were given the smaller upper floor to sleep on, on our own.  So we had the treehouse penthouse suite for the night – and both had an excellent night.

We were woken about 6.30 by the familiar ‘zip’ of the zip wire as one of the guides went off to the kitchen to get a huge kettle of hot water, also brought back over the zip wire, for early morning tea/coffee as it began to get lighter. The forest was astonishingly quiet all night and in the early morning – there was a bit of a dawn chorus but not the raucous forest noise we had seen on TV.  Perhaps we were too high in the canopy.

Then there was a trip out to see the kitchen area. It was amazing to see that the food produced was cooked on a couple of log fires.  We saw how ‘sticky rice’ is steamed in a rattan basket over a huge pot and there was a little herb garden.  Then on to a circuit of 4 zip wires as the sun came up over the mountains. This was just to help us gain an appetite for a veritable feast of a breakfast back at the tree house with a vast array of delicious Lao dishes – no doubt toned down in chilli content!

With full stomachs we had to bid goodbye to the magical tree house.  Then it was a combination of hiking mostly down hill and 7 zip wires to take us down into a valley where we finally stopped next to a river where we could swim in deliciously cool water. Yet more food for lunch – this time a simpler rice dish – before we piled back into the truck for the journey home.  This was the most terrifying part of the whole trip as we bounced along a very bumpy track for 45 minutes hanging on to the sides for dear life to prevent being thrown out of the back! At one point we saw a large snake slithering across the road.  At last onto smooth tarmac for the last hour back.  The end of an experience of a lifetime. 

1 thought on “Day 24 and 25: 28th/29th January: The Gibbon Experience

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