Just like out of a storybook. I was flying among the trees of the rainforest during the day and seeking shelter in our tree house at canopy level come night. Even the images I saw before embarking on this experience couldn’t do it justice. It was an experience I will forever try to match. An experience I don’t know if I can ever quite match. A journey they call, “The Gibbon Experience.”
It takes place in the Bokeo Nam Kan National Park, located in Northern Laos. Equipped with local guides you are given access to an extensive network of zip line cables allowing you to explore the rainforest in the most raw and personal way. At night you retreat back to your tree house hundreds of feet in the air, fall asleep to a soundtrack of mysterious and enthralling noises coming from neighborouring trees and wake at dawn hoping to catch a glimpse of the gibbons.
The gibbons were once thought to be extinct and in 1997 were discovered to be living in Northern Laos for many generations. It is not guaranteed that you will spot one while visiting their home but my group was lucky enough to see a small family of them on our last day there.
The funds received by the Gibbon Experience are to be reinvested to protect the rainforest, replacing an industry once fueled by poaching, logging and slash and burn farming.
It is in groups of about eight that you are taken to the Bokeo reserve, but only two other people joined us on our adventure — a young couple from Australia who we met the morning of departure at the main office. Registration for the Gibbon experience can be done online or like we did, at their office in Houayxay (pronounced “way sigh”). It is a small town with the office located on the main road, just north of the immigration checkpoint on the side of the street closest to the Mekong River.
This office is where you leave your main luggage, which for us consisted of our two backpacks. So as we hesitantly parted ways with the only possessions we had known for the past month we embarked on the three hour drive to our next point with just a small bag large enough to carry a toothbrush, flashlight, a light change of clothes and had we had known better… toilet paper.
The three-hour truck drive brought us to the village of Baan Toup. It was a difficult 83 km trip and I think all of us were surprised that the truck had made it through the windy, muddy terrain. From there it was an hour or so uphill on foot to reach the canopy infrastructure. We went in May and although fairly dry, the almost vertical walk to the zip line was extremely difficult and left me feeling sorry for my frail, exhausted self. I laughed and almost cried as I read, “In rainy season our tree houses are hard to reach! Depending on weather our cars may not be able to take guests the full way into the reserve. In bad weather, please be prepared for a five hour walk to reach the canopy infrastructure!” I read this on their website when I had arrived back home to Canada. I’m quite grateful I hadn’t seen it before our trip.
I’m embarrassed to say the climb was one of the most difficult psychical ventures I’ve ever had to do, and I’m a fit 20 something year old (or so I thought).
Our two guides, Thay Shun and Pia spoke little English but seemed so eager and excited to show us around our new home for the next three days. Our tree house was probably the most basic home I’ve ever lived in yet the richest at the same time. The only way in was zip line. The only way out was zip line. So if you’re scared of heights, I advise you to either get over it fast or close your eyes because nobody should miss out on this.
For the next two nights we slept on the middle level (there were three). We attempted the top one at first thinking the higher the better, but then I spotted my first spider as big as my hand. Our guides seemed to enjoy sleeping on the top level too so I figured, hey it’s all yours.
We slept on mattresses with mosquito nets draped over us — it was all we needed really. The bathroom, although a squat toilet with a simple sink was really quite luxurious when you think about how often you get to shower in the open, with rainwater. Not to mention the spectacular sunrise/sunset views. We decided to take advantage of the toilet around these times too, as to avoid the swarms of wasps that seemed to claim it during the day.
Excited to explore the other tree houses, that first day of venturing out by ourselves felt almost made up. So I’m glad we have the pictures to prove ourselves otherwise. Although a little intimidated as the forest was known to be home to bears, tigers and elephants as well as the cute faced gibbons that entice you in, we went for it full throttle — taking everything we could from the experience with every jump and leap.
It seemed as though we were invincible and nothing has ever given me such a rush. It seems like this sort of thing would be for adrenalin junkies only, but I found that to be untrue. Anybody can take anything they want away from this experience, and while seemingly falling under the category of “adventure travel” it could also be seen as a relaxing retreat away. Away from the people, pollution, noise and overall craziness of everyday life.
Things just become simple. You are left to your own devices in this playground of a jungle. We found ourselves laying on hammocks in between zips or playing a game of cards. Travelers from other tree houses would swing by ours and greet us as neighbours. We even had a house cat. There seemed to be a sense of normalcy in a situation that was far from normal. We took turns washing the dishes in the sink attached to the massive tree trunk sprouting up the middle of our kitchen and living room.
Each day there were meals delivered to us in three small tin compartments consisting of rice and some sort of meat. There were also some brittle-like snacks and tea available too. All taste just fine and there is definitely enough to go around, but I suggest you bring some of your own snacks if you’re looking for more than the basics.
Just like the toilet paper, there was no stock of juice, pop or alcohol to dip into. So if you need something strong to keep your mind off the thunderstorms at night, perhaps pack a bottle or two of something. But keep in mind you’ll be lugging it every step of the way to the tree house.
They also advise you to bring a flashlight, and after our midnight escape from the tree house one night during a massive thunderstorm, I definitely know why. We had just settled into our beds when the rain started coming down pretty hard. All we could hear were pellets of rain slapping off the branches, the wind howling through our small, now seemingly unstable home in the trees and the snoring of our Australian roomies. Oh how I envied their naivety at that point. They were soon awoken by the shouts of our guides, yelling and motioning for us to leave the tree house, as it was not safe to be up here during a storm. It was a crazy scene as we all fumbled around suiting up in our zip line gear in the pitch black, ready to fly down a metal wire through flashes of lightening. The sounds and chaos from that night, although terrifying, will stick in my mind forever. It almost seemed staged, looking back and realizing how hilarious yet scary that night was. It’s one that we’ll surely never forget.
What to pack:
- A small backpack: leave your main luggage at the main office
- A bottle of water: for the walk into the forest and you’ll need it
- Toilet paper: so you don’t have to resort to leaves
- Hiking boots/shoes: you’ll be using these a lot and will also protect you from leeches
- Mosquito repellent: there are a lot of bugs in that jungle and a long-sleeved shirt is also recommended for avoiding bites and stings
- A camera: you’ll want to remember this forever
- A flashlight: your only light source at night
- Alcohol: heck, why not
Words and photography by Stephanie Foden and Shauna Muir