After crossing the border from Thailand to Laos, I was forced to spend a night in the absolute hovel that is Huay Xai (sorry Huay Xai) before being whisked away in the back of a rusty old pick-up truck to The Gibbon Experience. It took three hours of speeding down the bumpiest, most winding dirt road I have ever been on (seriously bouncing around back there was like being on a rollercoaster it was so fun) to finally get us to the Gibbon Experience site.
Essentially, The Gibbon Experience is an eco-tourism forest conservation project that aims to protect the Bokeo Nature Reserve from illegal logging and poaching. The funds generated from tourists are reinvested to protect the forest, and as the project grows, so too does the employment of the local people and by extension, the development of the local area.
The project does this by selling their programs: multi-day adventures into the nature reserve which involving trekking through the jungle, zip-lining above the tree-tops and sleeping overnight in a tree house, all with the hope of spotting one of the famously elusive black gibbons that call the reserve home.
I had signed up for what’s called The Classic Experience, three days and two nights in the jungle, with lots of zip-lining and supposedly only one hour of essential walking at a relaxed pace.
How wonderful, I had thought upon making my booking. It will surely be a nice gentle stroll across a flat plain of lush green grass, followed by a short, non-strenuous ascent to our tree house.
We trekked for at least three hours uphill through the wild overgrown Lao jungle in the blistering heat of the midday sun. My T-shirt was literally saturated in my sweat and tears (okay so I didn’t cry but it was close). At one point we even had to take our shoes off and walk through a river. Thank goodness I made fast friends with two awesome English girls (shout-out to Amelia and Chloe) and we were able to struggle along together.
By far the best part of the entire Gibbon Experience is the zip-lining. I don’t remember exactly how many zip-lines there were, but we went on a few each day. They act as the transport between the kitchens, staff camps and tree houses, and connect different parts of the jungle to break up the trekking.
Remember going on the flying fox at the playground when you were a kid? Awesome, right? Now multiply that feeling by, like, one hundred million and add a view of tree tops for miles and stunning mountain scenery. So. Freaking. Amazing.
After finally making it to the tree house on day one, we were all exhausted. I think our whole group of five went straight for a nap and didn’t wake up until dinnertime. The food was delicious home cooked Lao food, delivered from base camp kitchen directly to our tree house. That evening the group relaxed, played cards and got to know each other while trying not to get malaria.
On the second day we were woken at 6am by our guide (who was creepily flirty and weird with all of us btw but that’s a story for another time), who helped us to spot gibbons in the surrounding trees. We did actually see a couple of them, wayyyyy off in the distance. Apparently it’s super rare to seem them at all though, so that was pretty neat.
The second day was full of more trekking and zip-lining. We were able to visit all of the tree houses and use the highest zip-line. The guide told me it was 500m high. Now that I’m typing this, I’ve realised that that figure is probably ridiculous, but I can’t find anything online that says how high the highest line really is, so for now, I’m just going with it. Humour me.
The second evening played out much the same as the first. Food, talk, sleep.
A tree house in the middle of the Lao jungle is probably one of the worst places on Earth to have explosive diarrhoea. (TMI? Sorry) Hello day three.
The main activities on this day were packing up all our stuff, saying goodbye to the jungle, and making the three-hour trek back to base. For obvious digestive reasons, this was an absolute shit-storm (as Kevin Rudd would say) for me. However, I am proud to say that I made it to base camp without pooing my pants (yay!) and after three hours in the truck heading back down that bumpy road; we made it to Huay Xai, where I was reunited with air-conditioning, the Internet and a sit-down toilet.
And so the wait began for my two day boat journey to Luang Prabang.