Published: October 10th 2006April 27th 2006
Head shot on the speedboat
by our happy smiles you can tell this was taken at the beginning of the trip...
Bus rides, crazy 'speedboat' adventures, World Heritage Cities, night markets, hopes and dreams dashed... read on for the latest instalment...
Ok, prepare for a bit of a ranting tirade here. I'm actually in low spirits right now because we took a gamble that didn't pay off. We heard about the Gibbon Experience in Nam Tha (Bokeo Province, Laos) that sounded amazing. It's only been operating for a year and a half, is remote and is home to a type of gibbon thought to be extinct until they found them there. There is about 70 left in the world. The project is run by a frenchman who set up a few treehouses in the jungle canopy and a network of ziplines to get around. They carry you 150mts off the ground and some go for 400 mts. You spend 3 days there in the tree houses trying to see the gibbons and trekking around as well, which you can choose to do on your own or with a guide. They pretty much leave you to it unless you ask for anything and they supply you with food and water. There is no electricity and there are only ever 8 people in
Show Me the Money!
The kip to dollar conversion is mad! This is about $500 bucks. You felt like a millionaire!!
the area at a time. Its expensive by asian standards ($125US) and they are keeping the price high and the numbers low to keep it as eco friendly as possible. The money is poured back into the protected area, to the villagers and also to pay for rangers to patrol and keep out poachers etc. Its very unique and sounded right up my alley.
We heard about it on our last night in Vang Vieng from other travelers who’d done it. We got on the net immediately, found their website and spun them off an email telling we needed to do this asap. We had one back the next morning saying that it was no problem, they leave on odd numbered days and to email our details and when we wanted to go and be there the day before. After speaking with the guy who'd told us about it in the first place and then talking to some others who'd had friend do it, it seemed as easy as that. After doing the math we realised we were going to have to haul ass to make it due to our visa running out and our flight to Canada looming
Laos is still one of the most unspoiled countries in Asia. However if the rampant illegal logging (and corruption that allows it)continues it may not rank that way for long.
up quick. We left first thing the next morning and bused to Luang Prabang.
The bus ride was quite an excursion, taking 6 hours on very winding, mountaneous roads. The trip was a little frightening, we periodically passed a number of ‘guards’ on the roadside, wearing hoodies and armed with AK47’s which was a little disconcerting to say the least but the scenery was spectacular. Except that in an alarmingly high number of places the aftermath of logging and slash and burn was evident, with huges swaths of mountainside charred and smouldering. Other than that, very scenic.
Luang Prabang was a very charming town and it was a great pity we couldn't stay to explore it and the surrounding areas which has amazing waterfalls. At least I've been told that they’re amazing waterfalls. But we couldn't stay to explore, we had Gibbons to visit. I consoled myself with the notion that the waterfalls probably weren't half as good as they looked seeing how far along in the dry season we are. We raced around like nutters trying to call to confirm our spot on the Gibbon Experience but they weren't answering. We checked our email, but there
At the dock
was nothing there. "Thats ok", we thought, "They didn't say anything about needing confirmation. It would be nice to have before we travel any further but to hell with it. Lets just go, I'm sure it'll be fine" etc, etc, etc.
I'm sure you can see where this is going.
Anyhow, we then raced around in a bit of a panic trying to find some way to get out the massive amount we needed as where we were headed there is no banks to get cash out of and we had to pay in cash. We finally found a place and did it, got the cash, booked the speedboat and then we could relax. All the running around meant we saw quite a bit of Luang Prabang, but couldn't really fully appreciate it. We now took some time to stroll leisurely around the city streets, taking in the ambience and looking around the night market, buying a requisite Beer Lao t-shirt. We had dinner and went back to our guesthouse to get an early night.
Up early the next morning and, after a hurried breakfast by the river, took a tuk tuk to the speed boat pier.
At the 'dock'... waiting for the 'speedboat' (also in the shot)...
The speed boat, as it turns out, is basically a kingsized kayak with a very large, very loud engine that propels you at speeds varying from 60 - 80 km/hour. They give you helmets (mine was broken) and lifejackets and you squeeze in. When stationary the edge of the craft is about 5 inches from the water but while travelling you get roughly a whole foot. It feels very, very fast. It was very, very exciting (sometimes scary) and fun. For the first hour.
After that it got increasingly painful, but we did get 3 stops at floating huts to stretch and get a drink or food. You'd get back into your square foot of personal space, get as comfy as possible - which isn’t very - and sit like that until you went numb from the knees down. Then you struggle to move and get into another position, suffer excruciating pins and needles and stay like that until you went numb from the knees down again. And repeat. And repeat again. And again... and again. You'd do this for 7 hours. However, it is exceptionally stunning scenery along the river and as you whiz by you see
herds of water buffalo languishing in the river or sunning themselves on the banks and flocks of water birds taking flight or picking for bugs in the shallows. There are also plenty of villagers bathing, washing there clothes, fishing and so on. This aspect was very enjoyable however I found the enjoyablness (not a real word, I know) wore off a bit and was overtaken by nagging back pain. And the back continued to nag louder and louder. Let me explain a little about more about the boat so you can imagine it better.
As I said, its an oversized kayak type craft. All the baggage is strapped in the front and behind that there are four rows of long cushions set across ways on the floor of the craft to serve as seats. Each row has a back rest made out of a plank of hard wood about 5 or 6 inches wide. You sit 2 by 2 with about a square foot of space for you personally. WARNING: This is NOT an exaggeration. You sit with your knees around your ears and after 7 bone crunching, muscle renching hours you are deposited in Hauy Xai (pronounced 'way
Most of the logging in Laos is done illegally.
sigh'), where the Gibbon Experience office is located. We could have taken the slow boat that takes you up the river in 2 days but I hear that isn't the most comfy either, although it is sociable and they serve beer. These are the only 2 transport options available. We didn't have 2 days to spare, so speedboat it was. I have to say that unpleasant as parts of it was I am glad we did it. Where else can you get a ride like that?
Hauy Xai is also the border town for crossing into Thailand and, like most border towns, offers little of interest or aesthetic charm. Happy to be alive, we made our way into town and found the office. It was 4:30pm, we'd made it with half an hour to spare. I walked in triumphantly and, mustering all the energy and jubilation I could after the boat ride, proclaimed myself to be Leigh Swenson and my partner to be one Jim Macpherson, bookees of the Gibbon Experience, adventurers, setting off tomorrow, come to pay the fee and prepare for, well, adventure.
The long and the short of it: We aren't booked on. They were
full. Next trip was leaving in a couple of days, which is too late for us. I leave the office before I rupture into a wave of tears like a dissapointed 4yr old.
After we get on to the street I rupture into a wave of tears like a dissapointed 4yr old. Jim looks at me, terrified (a common boy reaction to such overly emotional female outbursts), then puts a feeble arm around me, giving me a little squeeze and comforting me with words of "It's alright, honey. It's alright."
It wasn't alright. I knew it. He knew it. We knew it. I knew he knew it. He knew I knew he knew it. All my excitment, anticpation and jubulation was gone. My hopes dashed. I stood there, overcome by a sudden exhaustion, my grand plans in tatters.
"Let's get a beer." says Jim.
Sniffle, sniffle, sniffle. "Okay" I mumble.
Then we get squirted with a hose and a giant bucket of water dumped on us. Pi Mai Laos is apparently still going strong at the border (not much else interesting going on I suppose). Tears gone, washed away by the grubby contents of a bucket,
we stopped at the first place with a beer sign and started drowning our sorrows.
And so it is that I am sitting in an internet cafe in Chiang Kong, the Thai border town across the river from Hauy Xai, nursing a brutal hangover instead of trekking and watching endangered species frolic in the trees. Oh, cruel world.
After looking into other trekking options etc we found that it was going to involve a lot of travelling and wouldn't leave us much time to enjoy Laos. So, sad to say we have left Laos prematurely and we are going to Chiang Mai and do something there. We have to go there anyway to get a train back to Bangkok to fly out of Asia so we may as well do it now and not have to rush. I am feeling dejected. Laos is my favourite country of our trip and it is a shame we messed up the last bit of being there and ended up spending so little time there. But Jim and I have agreed that we will come back to Laos for a month next time we are traveling from Canada to Australia and will
view from the dock
organize it better so as to do the Gibbon Experience.
Anyway, I should just bloody cheer up and enjoy the last few days in Asia, rather dwelling on what has gone askew. It was a bit of a gamble and I thought it a good gamble, but it didn't pay off. So that’s it, I'm gonna cheer up. And I'm not even going to mention wasting a whole day in a crappy, dusty ghost town at the border, waiting for a mini bus at 6:30pm to Chaing Mai because we overslept due to our boozing and sorrow drowning and missed the morning ones. I know. I suck.
Not the end of the world, still having the time of our lives, so I’ll sign off now and come back to you with happy news soon..
There are more photos below