In late November, Aurelien and I spent three days, two nights in the middle of the Laos jungle. Why you might ask? We had signed up for the Waterfall Gibbon Experience to find out if spending our days zip lining over the tree tops and the nights in a tree house 100 feet above the ground was our cup of tea. Aurelien and I had been zip-lining in Mexico five years ago and we enjoyed the adrenaline and feeling of flight as we soared through the jungle. We felt like Tarzan and Jane! When our friend, Joy Joy, told us about a zip-lining experience she had in Laos, we were intrigued. The company is called The Gibbon Experience, it’s part conservation and part “eco-tourism”.
The project was born out of a problem. The jungle in Laos and the surrounding area was being ruined. Many locals are logging, poaching and performing “slash and burn” farming techniques. All of this is destroying the forest. The founders of the Gibbon Experience came up with a way to slow down this destruction; they hired the locals (according to their website 40 of them) to help build tree-houses and zip lines in Bokeo Nature Reserve, on the North Western tip of Laos. They also hired locals to be guides and lead groups of people through two or three-day trekking and zip-lining adventures. The conservation efforts also protect the elusive black gibbon monkeys that inhabit the forest, but are rarely seen (we did not see or hear them).
We signed up for the three day-two night Waterfall Gibbon Experience, not knowing exactly what to expect, but up for an adventure. Well, we did get an adventure, no doubting that! This three-day trip pushed my boundaries and brought me quickly out of my comfort zone. The adventure is very unique, you get to live in actual tree houses, some of which are over 100 feet above the ground! To get to the tree houses you have to hike through the muggy Laos jungle and go on a series of zip-lines. There is nothing like soaring through the jungle, sometimes flying for up to one minute. As I would jump off the ledge and fly out above the treetops, my breath would catch and all I could do was whisper “wow” as I soared over the valley. You feel like an eagle, flying, with the wind rushing in your ears. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of the river meandering below, or you find time to gaze in wonder at the mountains surrounding the area. It all happens so fast and yet time slows down. It really is an incredible feeling.
Spending time in the Laos jungle did come with a price, which is where my boundaries were pushed. I like to think of myself as a nature person as I grew up camping and hiking, but when leeches and creepy crawlies are involved, all bets are off. During the hiking portion of our trip (we hiked around 4-6 hours a day*), tiny little leeches would make their way into my shoe and through my sock (tricky buggers!) and I would either catch them in action or notice them when I took my shoes off. Thankfully, the leeches are not dangerous and it doesn’t even hurt, but it is a strange thing to experience. The leeches release an anti-coagulant that makes it so the puncture hole doesn’t stop bleeding right away, so there was quite a bit of blood. Thinking back at this, it wasn’t a big deal, but at the time it was a little scary!
Living in our tree house with us were a few large spiders. They would hang out on the top of the ceiling and watch us play cards and eat dinner. I named one Charlotte (after “Charlotte’s Web”, hoping it would make me like her more), but I can’t say I didn’t worry about her, or her family coming to visit me in the middle of the night. Thankfully, in each tree house, they provided “mosquito nets” that were actually just a thick blanket that covered your mat like a tent. You can bet that I made sure every corner was tightly tucked.
*The Classic Gibbon Experience has much less hiking and more relaxing, if that is more your style. You will only do about one hour of hiking per day and spend most of it zip-lining or relaxing. However, the Waterfall Experience allows you to visit different parts of the reserve, stay in different tree houses, and enjoy some of the best and longest zip-lines. You also visit a waterfall, but don’t hold your breath, it’s really nothing special.
Another slightly uncomfortable part of the trip was the humidity and heat. Hiking for hours each day created a ton of sweat and was hard work! We had plenty of water, so that was fine, but I can’t even begin to tell you how bad our clothes smelled after three days! We didn’t bring many clothes, so re-wearing stinky clothes was…fun. Lastly, imagine sleeping on a wooden plank 100 feet above the ground, in a tree house. Picture in your mind the boards starting to crumble, or a fire erupting (this happened to one group many years ago when they left a candle lit at night. Don’t play with fire here!). Imagine having to evacuate in the dark or the tree house falling down. These were some of my thoughts as I lay on the mat at night trying to sleep.
Regardless of my fears I had a (mostly) great time. The tree houses were incredible, so amazing! Sleeping in the middle of the jungle, high up in the trees, is an experience you will rarely have. The tree houses had running water (I have no idea how they accomplished that) and the water was even purified so we could drink it. We had a squat toilet that smelled like sewer, and even a nice shower overlooking the jungle. Our meals were delivered by our guides via zip line and were simple but delicious. The cooks were villagers hired by the project. Each meal, including breakfast, was rice and vegetables and once in a while a meat dish. They also provided snacks, coffee and tea.
In terms of safety, the zip lines are well maintained, but I can’t say the same about the equipment. Some of our gear was a little worn and probably should be replaced. It certainly didn’t seem like it was going to break while I used it, but it didn’t inspire 100% confidence either. I was also a little surprised they did not have a first aid kit (at least not where I could see). Another thing is that the guide didn’t sleep with us in our tree house, and we were not given any instructions on what to do in case of an emergency in the middle of night. Thankfully, everyone was safe and we had an enjoyable time.
We really enjoyed our group. There were seven of us. All of us spoke English as our native tongue, which is always nice for communication. Each night we played endless games of cards (there was nothing else to do when you are in a tree house in the dark) and went to bed early. Our main guide was incredible. He spoke excellent English, was fun to talk to and was very knowledgeable. We definitely lucked out getting him compared to some of the other guides we saw and heard about from fellow travelers. Along with him were two very sweet, young apprentices that were learning the job. One of them did the zip-lines for the very first time along with us! It was fun to see her nervously doing it the first day, and getting all comfortable by the end of our trip.
The Gibbon Experience headquarters is in a small border town called Houay Xai in Bokeo Province, Laos. We came from Chiang Mai, taking a bus to Chiang Khong and crossing the river to Laos. The landing and immigration are just a few hundred feet from the Gibbon offices. Note that a visa will cost $30-35. We spent the night in the town to be close by for our 8am departure time. Another way to get to Houay Xai is to take the slow boat from Luang Prabang, which takes two days. We got a tip from a fellow traveler who noted that her boat from Luang Prabang was rather empty and much cheaper than taking the boat to Luang Prabang. Most people start in Houay Xai and take a crowded boat down river. To get to the part where we started hiking took two hours by jeep. During the rainy season you could be required to hike around five hours just to get to our departure spot, so we strongly recommend going during the dry season.
What to Bring
A good flashlight (very important!!), dry-wick clothing (sports clothes with spandex or sweat resistant cloth would be nice), basic first aid kit for leeches and cuts, bug spray!!, long pants and shirts (to protect from mosquitoes), two decks of cards, sneakers that don’t have mesh (unless you don’t mind leeches getting in), long socks, bio-degradable soup (Dr. Bronners is a good choice) and a sense of adventure.
Don’t bother bringing: iPads or books (we never touched ours, though on the classic experience I think there is more downtime), anything white or that you don’t want to get dirty.