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Published: April 17th 2012
"The Gibbon Experience" will fall into the category of things I’ll probably remember forever. I got into Huay Xai around 5pm exhausted and hungry after my trip up from Chiang Mai and I knew that The Gibbon Experience office closed at 7pm so I spent no time messing around looking for a guest house and just headed for the first one at the top of the list in the guide book - Friendship Guest House - 70,000KIP (7 Euros) for a private room and access to the great view of the Mekong River from its rooftop terrace. I pretty much just threw my things down on the floor and went straight to the Animo Office - the tour group that organises The Gibbon Experience. There are two tours available - Classic or Waterfall and they set off on alternate days. I wanted to do the Classic trip and I got a little slice of luck to find out that the next Classic group would leave on Friday, giving me the whole day Thursday to relax and recover from the trip over from Thailand and also time to buy the necessary bits 'n' pieces required for the tour. As far as border
towns go, Huay Xai actually wasn't too bad a place to hang around for a day despite the fact that there really is bugger all to do there!
I had my reservations about The Gibbon Experience. It's expensive. The two-year-old guide book says 200USD but once again there's been more than just a slight
increase. Both tours (Classic & Waterfall) now cost a hefty 290USD - 2,350,000 KIP. Of course Laos cash points only allow withdrawals of 1,000,000 KIP meaning you gotta stick your card in three times and getting charged a few dollars each time you do it. Did I mention I hate
banks?! That said, this was something that I'd wanted to do since I read about it in the guide book months ago and I'd set aside a decent amount of money especially to do it. Even so, it still hurt handing over a wad of cash about half an inch thick thinking about all of the other cool stuff I could do with that amount of money. And then there's the "bits 'n' pieces" I had to buy on Thursday - long football socks to protect against the leeches, gloves for
the zipping and a head torch for those late night toilet visits! It's true that each item was relatively inexpensive but I still felt slightly peeved about having to purchase anything
the day after paying almost 300USD. Surely gloves and torches at least could be included??
The Classic Trip involved spending two nights camped up in seriously awesome tree houses a couple of hundred feet about the beautiful Bokeo Nature Reserve canopy. We left in the morning from the Animo office and made our way in the back of a pick-up truck to the nature reserve. The first hour and a half was over a fine, paved road but the last hour was a seriously bone-shaking experience driving down a dirt track heading deeper and deeper into the reserve. After a short wait at the "village" we all began the hour-long trek up to 'Base Camp' where all the groups would be made for each of the tree houses. It was a tough trek with the glaring heat beating down and a Beer Lao hangover that almost killed me. I made it to base camp - but I was in a state! The groups were
made and I ended up in Tree House 7 with the people I'd met on Wednesday at the Animo office - a French dude, English guy and a group of 6 highly unsociable Danes. So there was 9 of us in total - don't believe them when they say it'll be a maximum of 8!
The Classic trip tree houses (1,2,3,5&7) are all dotted around the nature reserve and to get from one to the other and to get around in general, is via a series of ziplines of varying different lengths with the longest being around 500 metres. At base camp, with the tree house groups all made, we donned our safety harnesses and headed out with our guides to our respective homes for the next two nights. The first zipline came shortly after leaving base camp. We hooked ourselves onto the cable trying desperately to remember everything from the safety video we'd been shown that same morning back in Huay Xai. I was happy enough. I let myself go and for the first few seconds I was sailing through the trees not too far from the ground. But then it all changed. The
trees opened up and the ground plummeted 200 metres below me and I was looking out over the Bokeo Nature Reserve at a sea of trees as far as the eye could see. It was exhilarating.
We arrived to our tree house after a couple more lines including the final one to zip into the house itself. And when they say tree houses,
they really weren't kidding. Ours (number 7) was set over three floors with the "landing" area and bathroom downstairs, a lookout area on the top and the communal eating/sleeping area in the middle complete with mattresses, pillows, towels, mosquito nets, sink with drinkable water, plates, glasses and cutlery and a working (the only house to have one) fridge. On the lower floor, the bathroom came with a sink, squat toilet and rain water shower that will go down as the shower with the greatest view I've even seen! There were no walls and no windows... just a shower and 106,000 hectares of pristine forest to look out on whilst soaping up. The great thing about the houses is that they're all a fair distance from each other meaning we couldn't hear or
see any of the other groups. No voices, no cars or trains or TVs or radios or internet. We felt alone.
On the second day (Saturday) we were woken up by our ever-so-punctual guide at around 6:30am. He brought us breakfast, lunch and dinner always at the time he said he would and the food, cooked locally in a nearby kitchen, was surprisingly good. We spent the morning hiking and zipping around in search of any signs of wildlife. We didn't see any however and made our way back to the tree house around noon for some lunch. I'd read that spotting a Gibbon was actually pretty rare and only the fortunate few get to see them, so we got a huge slice of luck when, just after finishing our lunch, the guide spotted some gibbons swinging around about 150 metres from our own tree house. There was a whole family and they gave us a show swinging about for a good 40 minutes or so before buggering off. Unfortunately my camera chose exactly the worst
time possible to break and I didn't get any pics. My camera had been doing strange things as can
be seen from the discolouration of some of my photos/videos.
As I said, we were lucky. The guide book does make it sound as though there would be a whole host of animals running about the forest - tigers, leopards, bears and macaques. However, I would advise anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of these animals on this trip to seriously revise their expectations. If you're lucky you'll see some gibbons and if you're unlucky you'll see some big fat rats and spiders that like to come out at night! We heard the rats scratching away on the first night we were there. No one was brave enough to stick their heads out from beneath the mosquito nets! I sense that the other animals may have been scared away by the continual sound of people zipping and then screaming "OK" at the other end to signal that it's safe for the next person to go.
The afternoon of the second day and the morning of the third were taken up by plenty more zipping and visiting the other tree houses - tree house 7 was my favourite. It never seemed to get tiring. On Sunday we all regrouped at base camp and made the walk back to the village - considerably easier downhill and not hungover! From the village it was the same pick-up that took us back to Huay Xai. I was quite sad to leave but it felt like a good time to head back. The whole thing was an experience to remember.
I spent Sunday night back at Friendship Guest House in the exact same room I was in before. The following day, after a while bumming around town, I went to the bus station and jumped on an overnight bus leaving at 6pm. My destination - Luang Prabang.
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