The first few days of Laos were tough ones for me. I had left Thailand after an amazing two months, leaving behind my friend Hannah and my now-boyfriend Dom who was flying home to Ireland for 3 months. Funnily enough it was the first time on my ‘solo’ trip that I had actually been entirely alone. And I felt lonely. After navigating my way through my first ever border crossing I checked into a dingy guesthouse, cried to my mum and dad on Skype, comfort ate an entire packet of Oreos and went to sleep.
When I woke the next morning I felt a bit more refreshed and excited to be heading off to the Gibbon Experience. It was one of the things I had been most looking forward to on my whole trip.
The Gibbon Experience
The Gibbon Experience is situated in the Nam Kan National Park near Huay Xai in Laos, which conveniently happens to be the border town with Thailand and the start point for the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
Its basically a three day long trek (two days if you choose the ‘Express’ option) using a mixture of both ziplines and trekking. Despite being a bit out of my price range at $300 for 3 days it was one of my bucket list experiences and well worth the money.
There are countless zipline experiences scattered throughout Asia but this has got to be the mother of them all. It was conceived as a way of tackling illegal poaching and logging by building a sustainable industry for the people living in the area. I actually heard that a number of the guides are ex-poachers, hired for their extensive knowledge of the forests and to give them a way to make money to support their families without having to poach. I’m not sure how true that is but I hope so.
Aside from the fact that it serves a great cause, the Gibbon Experience is just a lot of fun. And of course there is the possibility of spotting Gibbons in the wild. Unfortunately, we saw a grand total of zero, but we were all having such a great time anyway it didn’t really seem to matter.
There were eight people in our group. Three couples, a Dutch guy called Stephan and me. Stephan would end up being a friend and one of those people I regularly bumped into throughout my travels in Southeast Asia.
After a brief introductory meeting we were piled onto the back of two vans and commenced a two hour journey with us clinging on for dear lives as we sped round corners in what felt like gale-force winds.
It was my first real glimpse of Laos. It seemed to be much more rural and less developed than Thailand, the smog from the crop burning was ten times worse and there were cows everywhere! I can’t even count the times we had to swerve around cows stood in the middle of the road.
After a couple of hours we turned off the main road onto a rough, steep dirt track towards a little village that sits at the start of the route. We were told that in rainy season it can be impossible to drive up the road (which I can fully believe) so tour groups have to walk that bit too.
We reached the village which consisted of a cluster of wooden huts on stilts with pigs and chickens running around and, after meeting our guides, set off on the trek. The first hour of the journey was pretty easy, walking through valleys, flat open spaces and past beautiful lakes.
But as soon as we entered the rainforest the track started to slope steeply upwards. It would be a challenging climb at the best of times but add to that the humidity and the heavy harnesses around our waists and it became really tough. We were warned beforehand that some of the trekking would be challenging but, with the exception of a few steep hills, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Perfectly do-able for anybody who is reasonably fit.
When we got to the first zip line we were given a lesson in safety and technique. It turns out there’s an art to this ziplining business. When I stepped up for my turn I was terrified. I kept almost lifting my feet off the ground to set off and then planting them firmly back down again. But after a bit of persuasion from the rest of the Group I finally let myself go.
I moved slowly at first but began to pick up speed after a few metres and a second later the ground fell away beneath me and I was out of the trees speeding through the air high above the forest canopy. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time and the views were just spectacular.
Its actually quite hard at first to make it the full way to the landing platform, sometimes we were sat too upright in our harnesses and other times we panicked and braked too hard – yep…these ziplines had brakes. The one time I forgot to use mine I slammed straight into the tree at the end at full speed.
So for the entire first day pretty much all of us struggled to reach the end, instead having to pull ourselves in or be pulled in by the guides. But by days two and three we were like seasoned pros – whizzing through the air and landing perfectly on the platform (for the most part).
The second zipline we did was the highest in the whole park (30 metres) and I ground to a halt about 10 metres from the platform.
Now I realise why everybody tells you not to look down when you are at a great height because that’s exactly what I did. I was dangling over a huge drop above the rainforest canopy and all of a sudden my harness didn’t feel so sturdy anymore. My head started spinning and I thought I might be sick. So I closed my eyes, spun round onto my back as we had been told to do and started to pull myself in. Thankfully the guide came out the fetch me (he could probably see the sheer terror on my face).
Two days later I went to do that same zipline. By then I was fearless having spent the previous two days ziplining around and I glided effortlessly along, landing perfectly at the end. I never wanted to leave!
At night we slept in treehouses high up in the forest canopy (they claim to be some of the highest treehouses in the World at around 30 to 40 metres). Each treehouse had an amazing view over the national park and I could literally spend hours just sat staring out at it.
For some insane reason, before I went on the trip I had envisaged luxury treehouses with private rooms and a comfortable living area. What planet was I on?
The treehouses were basically covered wooden platforms. Each one had a set of mattresses, bedsheets and tents (which we would rig up and sleep under at night). It felt like being at a giant sleepover.
My favourite part was the outdoor bathroom. Built in such a way that you couldn’t be seen from the rest of the treehouse, the bathrooms are basically wooden platforms with 180 degree views of the whole rainforest. You feel as though you are actually showering in the rainforest. But be warned – you do have to share the bathroom with huge wasps which seem to be attracted to the toilet and seem equally keen to get under your feet whilst you are showering.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked in a kitchen in the rainforest, packed into tiffin tins and delivered to us by zipline. The food was always tasty – rice, vegetables, stews and curries. In the morning we would get freshly baked baguettes (a Laos speciality) with mango jam and coffee as strong as rocket fuel.
Throughout the day we would stop and the guides would produce all manner of strange snacks (some tasty, others not so much). The first day it was jelly coconut sweets. None of us could make our minds up whether we liked them up not but they came in very useful as makeshift poker chips that night. The second day it was sweet rice cakes and those we were practically fighting over.
Despite all the trekking and ziplining it was actually a relaxing (if a bit tiring) few days. One of the few times during my whole trip that I was able to completely disconnect from the World. No wifi, laptops or phones. Just trees all around.
Before I knew it we were on day three and on our way back down to the village, ready to join the real world. Sad to leave but excited for some different food and a couple of beers.
It was by far my best experience in the whole of Laos and I would recommend it to anyone. The ziplines felt safe, I had fun and got to know some really great people. Definitely well worth the money!