The Gibbon Experience
Adrenaline meets conservation in this ecofriendly adventure in the 106,000-hectare wilderness of Bokeo Nature Reserve. The Gibbon Experience is essentially a series of navigable ‘ziplines’ criss-crossing the canopy of some of Laos’ most pristine forest, home to tiger, clouded leopard, black bear, macaque, migrating wild elephant and the eponymous black crested gibbon […] Guests stay for two nights in fantastic tree houses that are perched 200ft up in the triple canopy[…] In between spotting the wildlife, the zipping is life- affirming; all you require then is just a little faith and some adventurism. It’s a heart-stopping, superhero experience.
-- LonelyPlanet guidebook
I first heard about the Gibbon Experience in Northern Laos from a Dutch backpacker I met in Phuket. He was very excited about it and it sounded like a great time but at that point I thought I will not have time to do it. However, once I decided to push back my departure from south east Asia, this became a must-do on my list. I decided to skip all the me-too copy-cats around Thailand (especially around Chiang Mai) and go for the original Gibbon Experience. I remembered that Kenny, another backpacker from Canada I met in Penang, was going to head up to Laos just before Christmas and after a few Facebook messages we decided to do it together.
The booking of the experience was an experience of its own - I could not reach them via the phone number published on the website and it took them three or four days to respond to my email with trip details and pricing. At 2,350,000 kip/$290 for the three day/two night trip, this was a no-brainer (and yes, that was millions in Lao currency). We had a choice of the 'Classic' and the 'Waterfall' experiences, with later being more hiking-intensive. Even though the email stated that the waterfall experience departs on odd days, we booked for the 19th of December and got the Classic instead. Go figure.
Contrary to the claim on their website of 'groups of eight people departing for the experience daily', we had 25 people boarding the trucks on the morning of the 19th. Each truck had seating for four inside and benches in the back seating another six to eight people (as well as bags with linens and food). Luckily I was able to grab a seat inside as it was chilly and very uncomfortable ride in the back.
It took us about an hour to get to the Baan Toup village (the road was surprisingly very smooth with spots of constructions along the way). After a brief stop, we went off road for about another hour finally reaching our destination around 11:30 in the morning.
From there we hiked up for another hour to the beginning of the Classic course where we were told to split up into groups of 2, 4, 9, and 9 people as that's how many people each treehouse could hold. If you are following along, that would be 24 and there were 25 of us. After realizing that, we were told that (magically) our treehouse #1 (TH1) could now hold 10 people.
It was another uphill hike from the beginning of the course and after about 30 minutes we reached our first zipline. Our guides gave us a brief demo on how to use our gear and off we went. There, another hike awaited to a set of four ziplines which was the main focal point of the course. Luckily, our TH1 was just downhill from there so while the rest of the groups had to continue with their hikes to their treehouses, we enjoyed a few more rounds of ziplining before heading down.
Unlike the treehouse camp I stayed at during my South African safari, these were real treehouses located dozens of meters above the ground at the top of large trees with ziplines being the only ways of going in and out of them.
Our TH1 was the largest and the newest of all, featuring three floors, a large communal area with a long table and full size chairs, as well as a separate shower/toilet area 'downstairs' enclosed in blankets (but open on the sides facing the woods - definitely the most scenic, and the coldest, shower I have ever taken).
As far as conveniences go, we had running (potable) water and even electricity from solar panels! There were four sets of mosquito nets to be spread over thin, but comfortable mattresses. Unfortunately, that is where the magic capacity increase from 9 to 10 people failed - I was left out without a sheet for my mattress, nor did my mattress fully fit under the mosquito net which was obviously sized for three people instead of four. Luckily, there were extra blankets so I was able to use one instead of a sheet.
Our group consisted of four couples around my age - two from Netherlands, one from Australia, and one from England, so Kenny and I were just a bit out of place, but we all hit it off pretty well from the beginning. Two guides that brought us to the treehouse brewed us some coffee and tea and then disappeared with promises of dinner to come later. They did not speak much English but we were able to get our points across every time and they were very accommodating throughout our stay.
Dinner (and food in general)
There was a huge cooler full of fruit (apples, oranges, tangerines, and Asian pear-apple things that we decided to call papples) as well as some coffee supplies and a couple bottles of mediocre wine. This abundance got us excited for the dinner to come, even though we all had read reviews stating that there won't be much.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be true - each meal consisted of a large basket of rice with four small steel bowls of 'stuff'. First night we had some meat in one of the bowls but the rest of the meals the fried egg was the only source of protein accompanied by a bunch of different veggies.
It was definitely not enough food, especially after the hikes we have done each day. As ridiculous as it seems, each treehouse got the same amount of food, regardless of the number of people. That would also explain why most reviews critiqued the food while a few said that it was enough.
Morning Wildlife Walk And the Gibbons
We arranged for one of our guides to come out early and take us on a morning hike to spot some wildlife. Unfortunately, our group was just too big to move silently through the jungle so we were not able to see anything of interest during the two hour walk.
Back at our treehouse, we anxiously waited for breakfast that was supposed to be there by 8 but did not show up until 10:30 (nor was there much of it).
As soon as we devoured the food, we have heard the 'singing' gibbons. In reality, I would be hard pressed to call that singing. It did not even sound like an animal noise, but rather as some sort of electronic siren going off, something I would expect to hear in the sci-fi movies accompanying the UFO landing. But those were the gibbons - we saw their silhouettes far away from our house jumping around in a tree at the top of the hill.
The Hike To The Waterfall
Since a few other people were originally interested in the Waterfall experience, we talked our guide into taking us on a hike there. It turned out to be a pretty brutal one, taking about two and a half hours of walking up and down the hills. At the end, we were rewarded by three nice zipline rides, but the waterfall itself was really small and nothing to write home about. It was definitely a let down and I would not recommend anyone doing additional two hours of hiking for the Waterfall experience.
Some of us made the best of it by going for a swim in a cold pool of water in front of the falls, while others were either too scared of the fishes (Hannah!) or did not want to get our motorbike wounds wet (Kenny and I).
In the meantime, our guide arranged for some late lunch to be prepared at the nearby kitchen and after a bit of the break, we headed back. Even though coming back felt a bit quicker, the last uphill portion was a real bear getting the best of me - I vaguely remember my mind starting to drift away and all I could think of were the words of one of my favorite songs by Vladimir Vysotsky (with my loose English translation):
That was definitely the most challenging hike of my life for which we were rewarded, once we did make it back to the top, by the wonderful views of the valley and the mountains while ziplining hundreds of feet above the forest.
Hike To The Longest Zipline
Instead of taking it easy the last morning, we once again talked one of our guides into coming up at the crack of dawn to take some of us to the longest zipline on the Classic course. As all other things, it was a good hike away which we started by going down the hill that almost knocked us out on our way back from the waterfall the day before (so we knew we will have another tough one on the way back). That made me question our determination, especially since the other groups have checked out the longest zipline the day before and left unimpressed with it.
However, once we got to the zipline, I was sure glad we did it. Since it got really cold during the night, the air was still saturated with moisture so it looked like we were disappearing into the fog soon after leaving the platforms. Similarly, while sliding down the zipline, we could not see the end and it made it even more mysterious.
Slowly, the fog started disappearing in the sun and we could see mountain peaks and tops of trees peaking out of it while we were still surrounded by the mist. That was truly a magical sight and a great ending to my Gibbon Experience.