The Gibbon Experience

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Two things right off the bat:

  1. I did NOT see any gibbons while I was on the Gibbon Experience.
  2. It was still pretty cool anyways.
I wasn’t at all sure about the Gibbon Experience. It definitely sounded cool – live for two nights in a tree house, navigate around the jungle canopy on a series of zip-lines, and see gibbons. How could you NOT want to go after reading this in the LP?:
“The Gibbon Experience is essentially a series of navigable ‘zip-lines’ criss-crossing the canopy of some of Laos’ most pristine forest…. Guests stay in fantastical tree houses perched 200 ft up in the triple canopy. The communal lodges, admitting a maximum of eight, are complete with cooking facilities and running rainwater showers! In between spotting wildlife, the zipping is life affirming. Your safety harness with a wheel on the end of a cable is attached to a zip-line; all you need is a little faith and an adventurous spirit. It’s a heart-stopping, superhero experience.”

And you don’t just get to zip around the jungle and sleep in a tree house like you’re living out a Boy’s Own fantasy. You get to do all that, and contribute to the preservation of the forest at the same time. So you can be a carefree kid and a responsible grown-up at the same time. I’ll let their own website explain:

The Gibbon Experience works closely with the local people in Bokeo Nature Reserve, to transform their economy from one based on slash-and-burn farming, logging and poaching, to one based on long term, conservation focused activity.

The Gibbon Experience currently employs 40 full time workers from the Lao Loom, Lao Theung and Lao Soung… The funds received are reinvested to protect the forest…Villagers can make a non-destructive living from their unique environment, by protecting the forest and farming the lower altitude flat lands.

All the funds from the participant fees (€180 for three days/two nights) go to continue the project, employ local people, and steward the forest. The Bokeo Nature Reserve receives no money from the Lao government, but now makes enough to fund the employment of enough rangers to patrol about 25% of the Reserve. It’s really a win-win-win thing. Tourists get to experience an exciting environment in a unique way, local people get sustainable employment, and the forest and its inhabitants get some protection.

Getting to the Gibbon Experience is no easy thing. First you have to get to the tiny border town of Huay Xai. Huay Xai doesn’t have much to offer beyond a strip of hotels and guesthouses, interspersed with restaurants, small shops, internet cafés, and one used bookstore with a fantastically crappy selection. It was not a great place to spend three nights, but I think I made the right choice to delay my departure until I was healthier. On my third morning in Huay Xai I packed a few essentials into my day pack and trudged to the Gibbon office down the street where I could leave my main bag in storage.

There were eleven other people in the office waiting to depart. We watched a short safety video about how to use the ziplines, and then piled into two tuk tuks for the long ride to the village where our trek would start. The tuk tuk was not bad – at least it had a canopy to keep off the sun, but it was a bit cramped, and the ride was long. Well, at least it seemed long until we came to a stop because we could go no further. The intense rain the night before had toppled a large tree, which fell right across the road, blocking it completely. This would have been bad, except that there was already a group of people there and there was a chainsaw, and so it seemed like it would all be taken care of in no time.

No way through

Ha! That might be true in some western country, but in Laos things take time. Especially when the chainsaw won’t start properly. Or at all. There was a lot of fiddling around with the chainsaw, but to no avail. Then, alarmingly, the whole thing was disassembled and the motor went west in a black truck, while the blade and chain went east on a motorcycle. We settled in for a long long wait. Luckily, the people in the group were all interesting and friendly, so the conversation was good. And naturally I had my book of crossword puzzles, so it wasn’t too bad.

Eventually the various bits of the chainsaw returned and were reassembled into a functioning device, and we were back on our way. We arrived in a very tiny village not too much later, and started walking from there. The documentation about the Gibbon Experience said we’d have about an hour and a half of walking before we got to the tree houses. The walking was not too bad at first, but there was a lot of uphill and the temperature and humidity so it got very sweaty very fast.

The walk from the village

After about forty minutes we made it to a sort of “base camp” where the volunteers and staff of the project live. Here we were fitted up into harnesses and divided into three groups, to live in three different treehouses. Treehouse 1 was reported to have better access to zip-lines, but Treehouse 7 was supposed to be the nicest of the lot. I ended up in Treehouse 7, with five others – Todd, an American; Christina and Cecilia, more Danes!; Kat, German; and Steve, British. We also had two local guides who were with our group the whole time. What we didn’t really understand was that Treehouse 7 might be pretty, but it was also the most remote of the houses, so we had a lot more trekking to do before we’d make it to our home. A LOT.

Luckily, first we got onto some ziplines! The zipping was really great. You’d come to a zipline where a heavy wire rope had been wrapped around a tree and you’d clip on your safety line and roller, sit down and let go. The lines were all slightly angled down so gravity carried you the whole way, and the rollers had a rudimentary brake to help you slow down if you needed to, in case you were going to crash into the platform at the other end.

The roller device. The chunk of bicycle tire on top is the “brake”. Squeeze that with your hand and it clamps down on the cable, slowing you down.

It was INCREDIBLY FUN. Some lines went from one side of a valley to another, and some went from ground level to a tree house or a platform, where you’d connect right to another zip-line. In fact, the only way in our out of the tree houses was by the zip-lines. We had four or five zips to do on the way to Tree House 7, and it was fantastic the whole time.

Here’s me, on the zip-line. F.U.N.

The walk to the tree house was long, and involved at least one long long hill, so by the time we got there we were all exhausted. Luckily, the place was great.

Tree House 7, home sweet home

There were three different levels. The lowest level had the platform you’d zip into or out of. (There were two different lines – one angled slightly down from the house, for exiting, and one angled slightly up, for entering). That level also had the bathroom, including the best shower EVER.

Video! And talking! I’ve figured out a better method for getting video onto the blog, so this post is video-mania!

The main level had folding chairs and a table and sleeping mats and a kitchen, including a sink with potable water, a burner for making coffee and tea, and… a refrigerator! That’s the big advantage of Tree House 7 – the fridge. No other tree house had one. And though it was not the most enthusiastic fridge I’ve encountered (run on solar power with a battery that died every night it didn’t have much chance to achieve optimum coldness) but it was total bliss in the middle of the jungle to be able to pull a cold bottle of water out of the fridge after a long day of trekking.

A view of a bit of the tree house main level

The upper level of the tree house was small, and had just enough room for a hammock and two sleeping mats. All in all, the tree house was perfectly excellent. The view was amazing, there was lots of room to spread out, and, you know, it was a TREE HOUSE. It was like living the fantasy you have when you’re a kid, all “Swiss Family Robinson” and stuff. Great.

And the food was pretty good too. There was a separate kitchen on land, not far from where the tree house zip-lines ended. At every meal a couple of Lao women would cook us up a big vat of sticky rice and four different hot dishes, which they packed up into one of those stacking towers. Then they’d hook onto the zip-line and deliver our meal. Later, they’d come back, pick up the dishes, straighten things up and zip away again. I admit I got a bit sick of sticky rice by the middle of day two, but others in the group couldn’t get enough.

The sleeping arrangements in the tree house were basic – big mats that were meant to sleep two or three people. The mats each had a large tent-like canopy over them to keep out the mosquitoes. We just shared the sleeping space, and it seemed to work out fine.

On our first morning in the the tree house our guide, Tjia Lee (pronounced sort of like “Charlie”) zipped over early to wake us up so we could hear the gibbons singing. It was about 6:00 am, and very misty, so there wasn’t much to see. But there was definitely something to hear. The gibbons sounded like… I don’t know… they started out softly, but then the sound grew into a real chorus of weird, almost alien sounds. Luckily, I have video! There’s not much to see here, but turn up your speakers and have a listen.

The gibbons singing

After the singing, and a nice hot breakfast (including more sticky rice…) we set off for a day of zipping. It’s a really agreeable way to start the day – zip-lining. If everyone got to commute to work by zip-line instead of stuck in a car in traffic, or jammed into a crowded metro car, we’d probably all be a lot happier. We trekked back up the damned hill and then got into some serious zipping, including a trip on the longest line – about 400m. And yes, I have MORE video!

The long zipline. The video ends before the zip-line did, because this was one of the lines where I didn’t quite make it to the end and had to pull myself, hand over hand, to get to the platform.

It was a good morning. We visited a few of the other tree houses and confirmed that, in fact, Tree House 7 is the nicest of the lot. We also did a lot of walking. This is something that I wish I’d been more prepared for. The information you get going into the Gibbon Experience is scant. I was expecting a very different ratio between walking and zipping (more zipping, less walking) so there were times when I got a bit cranky about how much sweaty trudging there was to be done. To be fair, if we’d been in Tree House 1 things would have been different, but that’s just another example of the lack of information available. It also would have been really nice to see some kind of map of the area so we knew where each tree house was, and where the paths and zip-lines were between them all.

The other thing I wasn’t prepared for was the lack of beer. When we first arrived at TH7 I asked Tjia Lee if there was beer and when he said no I thought he was kidding. I mean they could charge triple the market rate for a bottle of cold Beerlao in a tree house and no one would bat an eye. It turned out they used to stock beer in the houses, but of course some jerks abused it, got pissed up, got on the zip-lines, and got hurt (Note: no one fell to his/her death or anything, but I heard that there was a broken leg, probably from slamming into an arrival platform without lifting up the legs). So no more beer is provided. However, that did not stop the intrepid residents of TH7, because on the afternoon of day two, after a nice lunch and a suitable interval of napping in hammocks, we went on a beer run. Our guides couldn’t quite believe we were really going to do it, but they came along to show us the way anyways.

It was insanity. The guides told us it would be 40 minutes to the village, and 40 minutes back, which didn’t seem to tally with what we’d experienced on the trek in, but they were the guides… so off we went – me, Todd, Steve and Christina. Well of course you know what happened. It was a hot and sweaty 40 minutes just to get to the volunteer base, then another 35 minutes to get to the village. By this time we arrived we were all exhausted, but had little choice but to load up on vaguely chilled bottles of Beerlao and turn right around for the trek back. Three hours and fifteen minutes after we set out, we finally made it back to the tree house. Sweaty, stumbling, and almost delirious, it was certainly the most demanding beer run I’m ever done. Then again, there was the world’s best shower as a reward, not to mention a few bottles of Beerlao to make it all better. Tjia Lee told us that sometimes people in Tree House 1 will walk to the village for beer, but no one from Tree House 7 had ever done it before. So yay for us!

The next morning we had the option of getting up at 5:00 am, trekking back up the hill and heading to a spot where we might see gibbons. However by this time I was so sick of walking that even if I had been promised that the gibbons would perform excerpts from “Hamlet” I could not have been convinced to join in. Steve went, and he did end up seeing some gibbons very far in the distance. And people in the other tree houses reported seeing gibbons too, often quite close. I simply had to content myself with hearing them sing, zip-ling a lot, and being part of the only team of idiots ever to make a beer run from Tree House 7.

So, if I were to make a few suggestions to anyone planning to go on the Gibbon Experience, it would be these:

  1. Try to get into Tree House 1, unless lack of refrigeration is intolerable for you. TH7 may have been picturesque and well-equipped, but the trek in and out was daunting.
  2. If you’re going to Tree House 7, take beer with you when you leave the village.

And that was the Gibbon Experience. Despite the lack of gibbons, I had a great time, mostly because I was with a wonderful group of people. I’ve come to realize that the odds are that anyone you meet who’s out traveling the more far-flung corners of the world and who signs up for something like the Gibbon Experience (or white water rafting, or cruising Halong Bay or blah blah blah) is almost certainly going to be interesting, easy-going and fun to be with. It’s just really hard to be fussy and stuck-up in a tuk tuk or a tree house. So thank you to the gang of TH7, and to the rest of the group. It was great gibboning with you.

Christina, Kat, me, Cecelia, Steve and Todd, after the last sweaty trudge up the hill from TH7


Kathryn said...

Oh my god - so amazing to watch the videos and hear your commentary!! Loved it. i can't believe you didn't see any gibbons though!

Phonella said...

Wonderful multimedia post! It was good to hear your voice again.

Unknown said...

Wow, very cool! Loved the videos!

Colleen said...

Hey Pam: Really enjoyed the videos and the sound of the gibbons "singing." Ziplining looks great! We have spring snow, crocuses, geese and pelicans here -- no gibbons! Cheers! Colleen

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

Just adding my vote to the "love the videos" chorus. Fantastic to hear you commenting on the view and the choice to get some zip line footage was inspired.

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