The Gibbon Experience in Laos
When we were in Nepal, we met a Dutch couple (hello to Reinhold and Daniela!) a few times on the road; one of us would always overtake the others, then wait up for them and be overtaken again. This happened on at least two of the days that I remember: from Tatopani to Ghorepani, and on the way down from Ghorepani to Nayapul, where both of us took a taxi to Pokhara (we met there a couple of times as well). Anyways, we had proper time to enquire about their last year’s travels to South East Asia, since we were a bit clueless on what to do there, and they first told us about the Gibbon Experience on the border from Thailand to Laos.
The Gibbon Experience (more information on www.gibbonexperience.com) is a project founded in 1996 to prevent further destruction of the Nam Kan National Park in Laos. The local tribes there were overhunting and overlogging the local Bokeo rainforest, so the Gibbon Experience turned all the men from the villages from poachers into workmen, and later guides. They built up treehouses (which are up to 60m high in the trees) and an extensive network of ziplines, and made a tourist attraction out of it.
You can book 1-night or 2-night tours, and different options, which are basically located on two different sides of the rainforest. Since I read a lot of creepy stuff (spiders, rats, leeches etc.) I convinced Rudolf to book the Classic tour, which is a 3-day, 2-night experience that involves a very little bit of hiking, a lot of ziplining, the biggest number of people (shared suffering is better than alone suffering) and – apparently – the better treehouses. There is also the Express tour, which is located on the same side as the Classic tour, but is only 2-days, 1-night, and the Waterfall tour, which gets you to another site in the rain forest.
Our Classic Experience
We started out on our first day – as already told in my last blog post – by being at the Gibbon Experience office at 8am sharp to try to get our spot, since we were waitlisted as we hadn’t booked in advance. After we got confirmation that we could go, we hopped onto the deck of an SUV with a few other people and had an approximately 2 – 3 hours drive to the rainforest. It was pretty cold, but at least the second part on the “bumpy” road (seen a lot more bumpy in Nepal) was dry and not muddy; in the rainy season it might be that streets in the rainforest are not accessible, and people taking the Gibbon Experience have to walk the whole way in!
Then we arrived at the starting point of the tour, which is a small village at the edge of the rainforest. From there, we started walking with a lot of people until we had lunch and received our gear at another place / village in the jungle. There, we were also divided up into groups according to the treehouses. For the Classic experience, there were 4 tree houses available: two that fit 7 to 8 people, 1 for 4 people (which was taken by a family with 2 kids – really cool that the Gibbon experience is also available for children), and 1 very private treehouse for 2. For reasons mentioned before, I got us into the first and biggest treehouse (number 7), and during our next day we would visit all of the tree houses and find out that ours was by far the most luxurious.
The rest of the day we spent zip lining. It really is an incredible feeling. You get your gear, which consists of a harness with a roller attached to it, that you can walk around in and click into the ziplines whenever you need to. Then it’s just clicking it in and soaring above the jungle! It is so cool. Someone accurately described it as a huge playground for adults.
All tree houses are only accessible via zipline, so at the end of the day we zipped into our house and made the first tour of it. It had 3 levels (!!!) on which to sleep, and the beds there are basically just mattresses on the floor and a mosquito net around them. These are all double beds so if you are a lone traveller you might have to share depending on the size of the group. Then there was a bathroom near the entry and a kitchen / seating area on the ground floor. So all in all it was pretty nice. The food got delivered by some girls from the village (via zipline, of course), and our guides (every group has 2 guides with them) made us snacks and tea in the afternoons.
At some point of time shortly before dinner, which was around 6pm I guess, our guides just completely vanished with a “see you tomorrow”, and we were alone in our treehouse, which was kinda scary at first I have to say 😀 But our evening program stretched on and on with funny talks with our group, playing games, sharing beer and snacks, so time flew by until it was time to go to bed.
So there we were, in our little tent, alone and unsavedle should anything happen. I didn’t use my earplugs the first night, and that was a really BAD IDEA. You lay awake listening to all the creepy sounds around and below you. I heard the rats scuttling along the floor and tree stems next to us and making a mess out of our bin. I was also thinking for a very long time about if there are tigers in Laos, or not, and Mowgli from the jungle book, and if maybe a gibbon would save us. In the end I think I slept for not more than 3 hours… but the second night I used earplugs, and oh what a bliss, that silence! That got me a good night’s sleep at last.
Also, on the second evening, we coaxed our guide into bringing us (overpriced, but fair enough) beer and local whiskey (or whatever it was, it was a rather clear liquid), and played drinking games long into the night… many secrets were revealed, but what happens in the jungle, .. you know the rest 🙂
We had a really nice group of people together (2 Australians, a couple from the Netherlands, 1 Swiss guy and 1 Puerto Rican American living in Vietnam), with some of whom we have been spending time afterwards in Laos as well.
So overall, the Gibbon Experience was really worth the time and money for us. It is rather expensive at around 300 USD (I can’t remember the exact price now) per person for the Classic or Waterfall tour), but it’s a cool thing to do and not rated as SEA’s number 1 attraction for nothing.
Maybe a few points that I was considering/panicking about before going there:
- I am really afraid of spiders, and my method of just not looking up anytime the light was on left me seeing not one single spider in the treehouse in the 3 days (success!!!). I saw one on the second morning when watching the sunrise, but very far away in a tree. I saw (and heard) quite many rats though!
- The first evening two guys in our treehouse left some shampoo in their backpacks, and the rats chewed through the backpacks and the shampoo bottles! There is a safe box available in every treehouse, into which we just packed almost everything (toothpaste, shampoo, snacks, everything that smells good)
- Gibbons are apparently very shy, but the best time to see them is during sunrise and in the very early morning. We didn’t see any from the treehouse, but one while walking, the sounds they make to communicate with each other are amazing, and we saw a huge bunch of some other monkeys.
- The food – about which some of the people writing similar blogposts complained – is actually quite good. It’s rice with veggie stir-fries and sometimes a bit of meat, in the morning we always got scrambled egg in a local fashion, and on the second day we even got french fries for lunch 😀
- Bring beer!
So if you head into Laos, we would highly recommend you the Gibbon Experience!
Here are a few (really bad) pictures to convince you some more, but if you want to see a really nice video of zip lining into the highest tree house (which I will maybe add later) head to Rudolfs Facebook page…