It’s not everyday that you get to wake up, peer over the edge of your bed, and see the tops of trees fifty feet below. It’s also not every day that your emergency evacuation route from said bed is a zipline. But, when in the jungle of northern Laos, this is the accommodation of choice.
The town of Huay Xai is not much – a small border town with one main street facing the Mekong river and Thailand beyond. The only reason to stop here at all is to take part in a program called the Gibbon Experience. So, after clearing the border crossing and getting some sleep at an otherwise empty guesthouse, I was in the back of a pickup truck with three other tourists, a few local guides, a zipline safety expert, and a cook who seemed to be dressed more for a night out than for a jungle kitchen.
Our destination was the Nam Kan National Park, a protected jungle in the Bokeo province of northern Laos. The 136,000-hectare park was created in 2008 under the initiative of the Gibbon Experience, and outside access is restricted to guests of the Gibbon Experience. The primary purpose of the organization is to protect the forest from threats such as illegal logging, poaching, and land development. As a means to achieve this, they employ local people in an eco-tourism program designed to give visitors the opportunity to see the jungle up close while simultaneously drawing local people away from illegal industries.
We sped down a decent highway for about an hour, then suddenly turned off onto a dirt road that almost immediately disappeared under a rushing river. Undeterred, our driver proceeded straight down into the river, made a forty-five degree turn, and headed for the road on the other side. Safely across in a still-functioning vehicle, we began a long, steep drive to a tiny village deep in the jungle. Once there, we began our trek even deeper into the jungle, and almost immediately found ourselves wading through another rushing river. Shortly thereafter, we were passed by a donkey carrying sacks of supplies and a large carton of eggs on its back – our food for the next three days.
Led by two Lao guides, La and Pha Law, the four of us made our way up steep muddy trails through thick undergrowth and forests of bamboo. None of us was mentally prepared for how challenging the trekking was going to be, but La, walking in rubber flip flops, kept us entertained with his sarcastic humor and knowledge about everything edible in the forest.
Every so often, our expedition came to a stop for an important jungle task: “leech check”. The forest is filled with them, and while the Southeast Asian mosquitoes don’t seem to prefer my blood, the Lao leeches definitely do!
Eventually, the sound of running water began to grow louder untill we came to a little clearing with … a sink! There was also a picnic table and a cute orange cat to greet us. The running water, actually, was not from the sink, but from a waterfall hidden from view behind the clearing. Even when we hiked down to the edge of the small lake created by the waterfall, it was difficult to see – the perfect excuse to go for a refreshing swim right up to the moss-covered rocks in the waterfall’s spray!
The swim at the waterfall, though, was just a relaxing diversion, a respite from the excitement (and nerves) of what was to come. Shortly after we left the clearing, we came to the first zipline – a thick metal wire wrapped several times around a healthy-looking tree and following the slope of the forest floor until it plunged into a deep valley. La, our main guide, quickly reviewed the procedure with us, then clipped his harness to the wire. “I’ll see you when you see me,” he quipped, and ran down the hill. As he took off over the valley, his shouts reached us over the sound of the vibrating wire: “I believe I can fly!”
When my turn came, I clipped onto the wire and turned to Pha Law for confirmation that I was securely fastened. Then I looked down the wire, hesitated, checked my safety line one last time, and finally ran off the hillside. As I remembered from a previous zipline experience, it is only the first few seconds of the first zip that are nerve-wracking; by the time I was several hundred feet above the valley floor, I was thoroughly enjoying the ride. But, I still had to focus on not spinning and on sticking the landing, so I forgot to look around – that would have to wait until the next line.
As it turned out, I didn’t even make it to the end of the wire, and ended up pulling myself hand-over-hand like a monkey for the last several feet until I could feel the ground beneath me – you could say I was getting the “experience of being a gibbon”!
With the first zipline under our belts – or rather, harnesses – La led us through a series of other ziplines. With some lines reaching lengths of five hundred meters and passing high over rivers and tree-tops, the scenery was simply amazing. The best part (so long as you didn’t spin out of control) was to turn your head to the side and catch a glimpse down the valley at the mountains, blanketed in jungle and wrapped in mist, rolling out toward the horizon.
Exhausted, we arrived at the entrance to our accommodation sometime in the mid-afternoon. A zipline led out into a valley, but instead of reaching the other side, it terminated at a massive tree stretching high above the surrounding forest canopy. Coming in fast, we touched down on a landing platform, where a short ladder led up to a much larger platform enclosed by a railing and a thatched roof. Welcome to one of the coolest treehouses in the world!
By jungle standards, this is five-star: there is running water (pressurized by a tank atop a nearby mountain), a toilet, a cooler for storing food, and a solar-charged battery for powering the lights. Peering carefully over the railing, the view is just as amazing as the view from the ziplines – except you get to enjoy it for more than a few short seconds! With the capacity to sleep eight people, this is just one of nine treehouses that the Gibbon Experience currently maintains (some are smaller, while the largest can sleep up to sixteen people!).
While we were admiring our home for the day, Pha Law came zipping into the treehouse with a kettle of boiling water fresh off the stove. La, always ready with supplies from the “jungle market”, pulled out some leaves he had picked along the way and made us “jungle tea”. I’m not sure what exactly “jungle tea” is, but it went well with the fresh mangoes that La cut up for us as an afternoon snack!
Having settled into our treetop villa and rehearsed the emergency evacuation procedure (zipline, of course – it’s a long fall otherwise), we went on a few joy rides on the ziplines in the surrounding area. When we returned to the treehouse, our dinner had already arrived. In the vicinity of each treehouse, there is a small camp with a kitchen where the food for the treehouse is prepared by local people. Packaged up in a set of interlocking containers, it only takes one trip down the zipline to deliver the entire meal! The food, to say the least, was excellent. Every meal was unique, but they all featured a variety of local vegetables and plenty of the Lao staple, sticky rice. To round off the evening, La brought out his bottle of “lào-Láo”, a painfully-strong rice wine liquor whose name, appropriately enough, simply means “Lao alcohol”.
Over the following two days, we continued our trek through the jungle, alternating between long stretches of strenuous, mostly-uphill hiking and series of exhilarating ziplines. On the afternoon of the second day, we arrived at the next treehouse. The approach from the “front door” access line is exciting, but this treehouse also has a “back door”. From the start of the line all the way on the other side of the valley, the treehouse is not even visible. As you glide over the valley, enjoying the view on either side, an enormous tree looms into view, cradling a three-story mansion in its upper boughs. At forty meters (about 130 feet) above the forest floor, this is the highest treehouse in Laos (and perhaps the world). How’s that for a room with a view?
The opportunity to see such vast expanses of pristine jungle is a privilege that the Gibbon Experience is actively working to maintain for future generations. Laos has been suffering from rapid deforestation over recent decades, due to demand for hardwood in neighboring countries. Partly because of weak regulation, much of the logging occurs illegally. Part of the profit from the Gibbon Experience goes toward reforestation programs, and also programs to develop sustainable timber plantations to reduce the strain on the natural forest.
Another threat to the forest is poaching; as Laos is one of the poorest countries in the region, many villagers earn extra money by hunting rare and endangered animals to sell. The popularity of the Gibbon Experience has been effective at drawing local people away from these illegal activities to more profitable jobs in the tourism industry.
Finally, many farmers in the region have traditionally used environmentally harmful practices such as shash-and-burn farming. The Gibbon Experience uses some of its proceeds to train farmers in more sustainable farming practices, and also helps to make the necessary changes to irrigation systems.
The western black-crested gibbon is the animal that gives its name to the Gibbon Experience, and is also one of the biggest beneficiaries of the program. These gibbons, which are known for the songs they sing early in the morning, are considered to be critically endangered. One particular subspecies can only be found in the Nam Kan National Park, where there are only about eleven families remaining.
While there was somewhat of an expectation to see gibbons on the Gibbon Experience, we were neither surprised nor disappointed that we didn’t see any. After all, the forest is large and the gibbons are few, and the experience was exciting enough even without seeing gibbons. With the increased awareness and conservation efforts promoted by the Gibbon Experience, though, the real expectation is that these gibbon families will have a home in the forest for generations to come!
Exhausted but satisfied, we trudged out of the jungle on the third day and waded back through the river near the village. I paused for a few moments to enjoy the flow of the cool water and to let some of the mud run off of my shoes. Then, we got back in the pickup truck bed and were joined by a group of children on their way to school. The little kids promptly fell asleep on each other’s shoulders, and if I had the ability to sleep on such a violently bumpy road, I’m sure I would have.
Before reaching Huay Xai, we said goodbye to our guides La and Pha Law, but the four of us in our group didn’t say goodbye just yet. We were all heading in the same direction, and would end up becoming friends and “Laos travel buddies” for the next week. So far my trip to Laos is off to a great start!