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Published: December 16th 2005
Upon crossing the border from Chiang Kong in Thailand to Huay Xai in Laos, you immediately feel that you are in a different country. A simple long tail boat ferries you across a section of the Mekong River you could easily swim yourself, but the difference is palpable. One of the first differences becomes apparent when you change money- the Laos Kip is virtually useless. 10,000 kip = $1. Change $50 and you come away with a stack of kip looking like you just hit the slots in Vegas. The next thing you notice is the French influence- baguettes everywhere! We hadn't had any good bread since we left San Francisco, so this was a welcome sight. However, our first adventure in Laos would not be centered around food. We were off to the Bokeo Nature Preserve for two nights, what would become probably the most exciting thing we've ever done.
Called "The Gibbon Experience" (though no gibbons would be involved), our tour picked us up at 7:30 the next morning from a cafe in Huay Xai. Ten of us would be heading into the preserve- A German couple, an older German man, two Dutch girls, two Americans and us, plus a Dutch guide. The 11 of us, plus three locals, piled into a modified pickup truck (called a "jumbo") for a 3 hour dusty, bumpy ride up to the preserve. Laos is mostly mountains, and the scenery was beautiful. We arrived at a local hill tribe, which was the starting point for the hike into the preserve. The concept of the "Gibbon Experience" is to help protect the preserve from poachers and loggers, using local tribes to lead expeditions into the preserve. Our funds (about $100/each for three days, two nights, everything included) would help expand the program and help the locals fight off poachers. From this village, we began our hike, starting through the vegetable fields, then entering the jungle itself. The hike was about an hour to just outside our lodging for the night.
It was at this point that the adventure really began. From here we were handed harnesses, and we would "glide" into our treehouse, about 50 meters above the ground. The organization has put about 14 or so cables throughout the treetops in the preserve, and we would be gliding on them, soaring over vast valleys, looking out over the preserve from above. Have you ever sat on a mountain top, looking across a valley and thought "I wish I could just hook up to a zip line and shoot across"? Well, that's pretty much what we got to do. Some of the cables were only about 50 meters or so long, while others were 200-300 meters long and 100 or so meters above the ground. Our harnesses were similar to those used for climbing, outfitted with a rolling wheel that hooked onto the cable with a carabineer. Our "instructions" basically consisted of one of our Laos guides, who spoke little English, explaining "put on your harness, clip onto the rope, and go". It was somewhat nerve racking, but the moment you step off the board and are rolling down the cable, the adrenaline takes over and the feeling of exhiliration tops almost anything else we'd ever done.
Our treehouse loding for the night was remarkable- about 50 or so meters above the ground, with four levels, running water, full sleeping setups, and a view looking out over a beautiful, vast valley in the preserve. We all got some water and relaxed a bit from the hike, exploring the treehouse. Suddenly someone at the top level says "um, there's a snake in the ceiling". One of the local guides takes a quick look and says "dangerous- get down- poison" and starts screaming across to one of the other guides. We scurry away, and the other guide arrives with a long pole and a machette, and in about a minute there is a rather sizeable, dead, poisonous snake on the floor of the top level, still rithing. Home sweet home for the night.
We then explored the rest of the cables, gliding along in the treetops, spotting wildlife, hiking and visting the other treehouse, where some people would stay that night. We returned to treehouse one around sunset, where a guide glided in with dinner for the night, all ingredients grown in the area by the hilltribe. A shot of Lao-Lao to end the night (Lao whiskey, basically moonshine), and we went to sleep thinking this was absolutely the most amazing thing ever.
The next morning we awoke a bit after sunrise, and one of the Lao guides took us on a morning hike looking for gibbons. We didn't spot any, but did see some great hornbills, civets and other small wildlife. This day we had the option to go for what was described as a two hour hike to a waterfall. Most of us went, beginning with a few glides on the cables and then heading into the thick of the jungle. Up, down, up, down- this would be one of the toughest hikes we'd ever had. Steep, slick slopes, and most of the things we went to grab for balance were either covered in spikes or red ants. We finally arrived at the waterfall- about 4 hours after we left. The spot was beautiful, but it was now mid-afternoon and we still had to get back before dark. After a swim and some lunch, we started back, when it occurred to us (and the two other Americans) that we would be spending the night in the other treehouse, which was four long cables and a 3/4 mile hike from the first treehouse. Back we went, out of water, various cuts bleeding, knowing that even when we finished we still had more to do. We love to hike, but this was an altogether new level.
We finally arrived back at treehouse one at dusk. As we got back our Dutch guide said to us "you're staying in treehouse 3 tonight, right? You really should get going, it's going to be dark soon. You know the way, right? Sorry, no one can go with you. Oh, and here's your dinner to carry with you". Exhausted, sweaty and covered in dirty, we barely had enough time for a cup of water before we grabbed our things and cabled out of treehouse one into the quickly approaching night. Never before were we so glad to have good LED headlamps. The other Americans were ahead of us, leaving just the two of us alone at night, in the Laos jungle, to navigate the trail and the cables in the dark.
After the first cable out of treehouse one, there was a small hike, and by the time we got to the second platform it was pitch black. Moths began buzzing our headlamps, and the sounds of the forest at night grew louder. China clipped into the cable and we looked at each other, both of us looking for reassurance from our growing fear. "We can do this" we said to each other, the exhaustion from the day's hike gone from the mix of adrenaline and nerves. We kissed, and then China took off on the cable, her headlamp disappearing into the blackness of night. I heard her reach the end, pulling herself on the cable the last 10 feet or so, and waited for her "ok". When she shouted, I took off, launching into complete blackness with only the small light of her headlamp several hundred feet away to focus on. Gliding along in total darkness, I remembered a thought I'd had the day before, about how cool it would be to cable at night. I tried to focus on this, rather than the thought that here we were, in strange, thick Lao jungle at night, alone, gliding along somewhat unfamiliar routes and hiking around carrrying cooked food! Reaching the end of the second cable, there was still fear in both our eyes, but determination was taking over. "We can do this" we kept repeating in various fashions, believing it more and more.
After another long cable and hike, we finally arrived at the final cable heading into our treehouse for the night. The relief at arriving was incredible- we had done it, survived, accomplished this task. We both needed water badly, and we turned on the tap.....and no water. Ugh! Sweaty, covered in bug spray, after an entire day and some of the night spent hiking in the jungle, and no chance for a drink, let alone a shower. We left the tap dripping and filled a cup in about a half hour, luckily devouring some papaya for moisture. At this point the massive spiders in the rafters were an afterthought. We skipped most of dinner, the four of us fairly pissed off and talking dreamily of cold beers. We finally headed into bed for a fitful night of sleep in our mosquito nets, shared with tons of ants.
The next morning we headed out of our treehouse back to treehouse one- dirty, thirsty and at this point just wanting to be done with it. We arrived at treehouse one after the same hike and cables we had done the night before, in reverse. We found out that they too ran out of water, but the problem had been solved that morning. We took a much-deserved shower and drank a ton of water, and the anger dissipated, replaced by the full feeling of accomplishment and awed again by the beauty of the forest. As we hiked out later that morning, we knew that of all the ways we could try to describe what our experience had been like, only one word truly did it justice- unforgettable. After the first day, we thought how cool it all was, living in the trees, gliding on cables, eating indiginious foods. By the time we were back in Huay Xai, the experience had become so much more than just a cool thing to have done.
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