Living High in the Treetops

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Asia » Laos » West » Bokèo Nature Reserve
January 15th 2012
Published: February 7th 2012
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Feedback from friends who had done this trip before us and suggestions from our guidebook told us that the Gibbon Experience in northern Laos was a ‘must-do’. We had been attempting to book a tour through email, but having had to spend one more day than planned in Chiang Mai in order to experience the Elephant Nature Park ended up throwing our plans out of whack. Because of this, our travel day taking us north from Chiang Mai to the Laos border had an air of glumness as we were fixated on a missed opportunity. We arrived in the border town of Huay Xai at 5pm and decided to check at the Gibbon office to see if any spots had opened up. Because Huay Xai is a somewhat difficult spot to reach due to the border and its distance from major cities, it is requested that those registered to partake in the Gibbon trek sign in at the office the day before. We were told that although 3 people had not yet checked in, they had all paid the $300 USD fee for the trip, giving them plenty incentive to show up. We checked back in at closing time and there were still two no-shows. Our desires to fill those two spots were tapered with anxiety over our contingency plan. If unable to go trekking, we would attempt to take a two-day slow boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. With no ticket booked and the tuk tuk leaving for the pier at 9:30 am, we did not have much time to spare the following morning waiting to see if the spots would remain unclaimed. We showed up at the Gibbon office at 8 am as instructed and waited patiently as one group slowly arrives, watched a safety video, packed into trucks and then left for the jungle. Clearly not wanting to give away the spots and face an awkward confrontation with the two people who had paid, should they arrive, we were told to wait 10 minutes, then 15 more, then ‘just another 10 minutes’. Finally, at 8:45 we were handed the waivers and told we could go. With all of the procrastination we were left with very little preparation time. In less than 20 minutes we raided the only ATM in town of 5,000,000 kip, booked a guesthouse room for the night of our return, bought a
Making FriendsMaking FriendsMaking Friends

Liza getting to know Jess from Colorado in our tree house.
boat trip ticket, bought breakfast to go, packed our bags our bags for 3 days in the jungle, and ran to the truck. Without having time to fully realer what had happened, we were on our way.

We drove 1.5 hours south (we think) along the highway through stunning mountain landscape. Once we had arrived at the entrance to the Bokeo nature Reserve it was time for some serious off-road action. Our jeep took us through a river and then up and down steep, bumpy mud roads for another hour. On rainy or wet days, including the days prior to our trip, the road becomes too much for even these 4WD monsters and trekkers are required to hike the 4 hours just to get in to the starting point. Luckily for us the sun had done enough to allow the trucks to transport us to the Hmong hill tribe village that served as our beginning. It was here that we were split into two groups. Our next three days would be spent with a couple from Sydney, Australia, two girls from Colorado, a girl from Manchester, UK, and a girl from Germany. Our guides, Kamphi and Jiang led us
Our HomeOur HomeOur Home

Not overly spacious but we weren't complaining.
along a path into the jungle. We walked for about an hour before reaching our first stop. Matt spent the entire time at the front of the pack getting to know Kamphi. He is from a tiny hill tribe village made up of Liang people. It is so tiny, he said, that other Lao people would likely not recognize the Liang name. It takes him 3 days and 2 nights on foot to make the trip between home and work, so it doesn’t do it very often. He makes about 20,00 kip a day ($2.66 CD) which he uses to buy clothes on occasion for himself, his wife or his 3 kids, or to buy rice to plant when the seasons allow it. When asked what his village eats, he said ‘everything we need can be found in the jungle’.

The gibbon Experience was started as a conservation project. In order to stop the poaching of animals in the Bokeo Reserve, the founders convinced the hill tribe villagers that they could make more money as guides and security guards than they could as poachers. Thus, animals are safer and people like Kamphi have a consistent income. Although we were
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This is the view we awoke to.
appalled at how little of our fees went to the guides, their salaries are not insulting when compared to the level of wealth in the country and considering the minimal opportunity they have to spend it, perhaps higher salaries would be fruitless. The first stop we made was a small hut in the middle of nowhere, where we were given our harnesses and shown how to properly put them on. Despite watching the safety briefing in Huay Xai, it was refreshing to know that our guides were making sure our safety devices for the next 3 days were intact. Once sporting our harnesses we walked another 10 minutes before reaching the 1st zipline. The Gibbon Experience is a trekking/ziplining trip, intended to show you all aspects of the jungle, and from all angles. Approaching the 1st zipline we were unaware that we would not be zipping through tree-laden pathways in the jungle. It was not until halfway through the 1st line that we realized we would be soaring well above the canopy. We waited patiently listening to the instructions of how to clip in the harness to the cable, how to take off, and how to brake – although apparently
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Liza arriving at our treehouse on the second day.
there was no need of that on this line. Jiang went first across the lines and we were instructed to follow. One by one we clipped into the line, walked off the platform and began soaring over the jungle. Unfortunately for the German girl in our group, there WAS a need to use the brakes. Upon making it to the end of the line, it was evident that we were approaching far too quickly so we tightly grasped the piece of rubber tire that acted as our brake to slow down. Perhaps a mixture of being told there was no need to brake and a heavy language barrier, the German girl came flying into the end platform and straight into a tree. She smashed her knee fairly hard but avoiding contact to her head, likely prevented a very serious injury. In too much pain to see the silver lining, she was told by the guides that she most likely would not be able to handle the strain of the trekking. She was escorted to a nearby treehouse and we later found out that we was taken back to town for the medical attention the next day, but that she was
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Locals can do anything with bamboo.
going to be fine. We continued along as a group of seven, however it would take more than a day for us to shake the frightening image of the accident and become completely comfortable on the zip lines. We walked for about two more hours with several breathtaking zips along the way before being told we were one steel cable away from where we would be spending our first night. We were completely unaware and unprepared for the splendour that awaited us at the end of the zip line. A single tree stood alone in the middle of a clearing between several larger surrounding peaks. Built about 200 ft above the ground in that tree was a two-storey dwelling that looked miles into the valley and to the mountains beyond . One by one we strapped onto the cable and made our way to our home for the night. With no stairs, the zip lines were the only way in and out of the treehouse. We took several minutes as a group to marvel at the beauty of it al. It had running water, a shower, and lighting powered by the sun. It had 8 single mattresses paired up under
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Kamphi did a wonderful job of pointing out all the crops and plants we saw along the way. This is opium.
4 separate mosquito nets. Everyone picked their beds (we lucked out with the penthouse suite) and being told we had some time before dinner we zipped back into the jungle to explore some paths on our own. When the time came, Kamphi zipped into the treehouse from the kitchen, with dinner in hand. Four different cabbage-based dishes accompanied with steamed rice. More impressive than his entrance with our dinner, several hours later Kamphi returned, hanging from the zip line with a scalding hot kettle of water so we could enjoy tea and coffee. We spent the evening getting to know one another and as the sun set over the hills we were graced with more stars than either of us can ever remember seeing. Despite our best efforts to stay awake, the arduous nature of the day caught up with us and we were unable to make it past 9 pm. We fell asleep in the enveloping darkness listening to the crickets singing.

The next morning we awoke at 6:30 am not to an alarm, but to the unmistakable sound of someone approaching on a zipline. Yet again Kamphi came flying into the treehouse with a boiling kettle. On
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Kamphi posing with Matt in the Hmong village at the conclusion of our trip.
emerging from our mosquito net cocoon, in front of us lay the breathtaking sight of a valley blanketed in mist. It was too much to turn away from so we stared and took photos, unable to fully capture the beauty. We had our tea and coffee and set out on a short morning trek in hopes of seeing some wildlife before breakfast . With no gibbons in sight, but Kamphi’s extreme enthusiasm for some birds that we could hear and occasionally see, we spent the next hour being as stealth-like through the jungle as possible. We zipped back to the treehouse to find a breakfast of cabbage cooked 4 ways and rice waiting for us. After eating and packing up our stuff we zipped out and began our second day of adventures. Much like the day before, we zipped and trekked our way through the jungle for the morning. After our 4th zip of the day we stopped for lunch near a waterfall. We clambered down the rocks and donned our swim trunks. The waterfall was nothing spectacular, but the entirely secluded lagoon into which is cascaded was something else! The cold water was a chilly yet refreshing way to
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Just like kids anywhere else. Always having fun.
escape the mid-day heat. The sun illuminated the rocks and glistened off the surface of the water, making this swimming experience exceptional. After drying off we sat down for lunch. A delicious array of red, yellow, green, and more green cabbage sat in front of us with the never ending companion of rice. Post lunch we walked for about half an hour before hopping on 3 consecutive cables leading to our treehouse for the second night. Although somewhat to expect, we were still in awe as we stood 150 ft high on a wooden platform well above the canopy. We enjoyed a snack of fresh fruit and coffee and were given the time to explore some of the zip lines on our own. The group split up during the free time, so we head out on our own. There was a 20 minute circuit in which we zipped from the treehouse to one side of the valley. The second zip spanned the valley and brought us to the other side, which set us up at the start of the longest zip line that the Gibbon Experience has to offer. At 600m long we needed every ounce of speed and aerodynamics possible to make it all the way across. With our freedom and confidence on the lines, it was remarkably liberating to soar over the jungle, feel the sun on our faces, and to just lean back and let go. We finished the circuit with the 5th line leading back to the treehouse, but with ample sunlight left, us zipline junkies gave the circuit another go. Dinner arrived by zipline again that evening and we were awed to find 4 containers filled with...Cabbage! – and lots of steamed rice. As a group we had realized that three of us (Matt, the Aussie guy, and the British girl) were turning 30 in March, so we sat around the table enjoying each others company, playing cards and drinking the few cold beer that we were surprised with along the route that day (for a steep price of course). Sleep crept up on us and as we climbed into our mosquito nets we said goodnight to yet another amazing day in the Bokeo Nature Park.

We had a lazy morning, rising around 9 am to breakfast waiting. I bet you can guess what we had for breakfast.... EGGS! A much welcomed break from cabbage, we scarffed down breakfast, packed our bags, slipped into our harnesses and reluctantly left the treehouse. We did 3 zips and then parted ways with our harnesses for good, before walking the remaining two hours back to where we began the trip to wait for the trucks to take us back to Huay Xai. We made it to the village a bit before the trucks were reading to go, so we spent our time drinking overprice but absolutely necessary ice cold beer and watched the Hmong children play an adaptation of soccer. No rules seemed to be in place but their smiles were enormous. The trucks pulled up, we piled into the open air cab on the bed of the truck and endured the 2 hour incredibly bumpy, but stunning drive back to town.

With the Gibbon Experience complete, our new love of zipping and the friends we made over the last three days, it didn’t seem to matter that our wallets were much, much lighter. We had a quiet night in town and packed up our belongings readying ourselves for the 2 day slow-boat trip down the Mekong River that awaited us the following morning.


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