Whilst our two day boat journey was an enjoyable trip in itself, heading for Huay Xai did have a purpose. We were to spend two nights at the famous Gibbon Experience in Laos. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of our entire trip. I’ve been genuinely excited about writing about it so I can relive it, THAT’S how much fun we had.
The Gibbon Experience is part of a new(ish) approach to tourism, designed to preserve and cherish the assets of a country rather than unwittingly obliterate them. The Gibbon Experience is set deep in rural Northwest Laos – a two-hour drive and an hours trek from the nearest sizeable town. And that’s in dry season – in wet season a visit can involve a nine-hour trip there and back. Fair to say, it’s pretty remote.
The ancient forest of Bokeo Nature Reserve that we were heading for is home to Black-Crested Gibbons – attentive readers may by now have sussed the reason for the name of the project. These fabulous creatures were teetering on the edge of extinction through loss of habitat and poaching until the Gibbon Experience turned this on its head. Hunters became guides – using their tracking and forest skills to educate visitors rather than kill animals; local villagers became support teams for the project, rather than slash and burn farmers. Gradually, it became more profitable to preserve the forest and its precious inhabitants, which also include clouded leopards, wild cats, sun bears and a host of birds, insects and reptiles.
This alone would have been a laudable achievement. But the Gibbon Experience went one better and erected seven tree houses – each one unique – and a network of zip lines in the outer forest. You could see gibbons and explore the forest from above.
On Day One, we arrived at Gibbon Experience HQ for our 8am check in and obligatory safety and information videos before we piled into the vans for the first hour of the drive. We spent the journey getting to know our fellow Gibbonites and were delighted to find they were all, without exceptions, awesome human beings. It was also a mixed bag of ages and backgrounds, from a retired couple hailing from Montana, USA to solo backpackers to couples about our age.
After a second – much bumpier – ride down a dirt road, we set off on our hike across a flower-filled meadow and up narrow, shaded paths deeper into the forests. After a quick lunch stop (baguettes wrapped in banana leaves, since you asked) and a little more hiking, we arrived at our equipment pick up for harnesses and treehouse assignment. I mean no insult to the rest of our (lovely) companions, but we really lucked out here. There was one small treehouse for four people (the rest are grander, multi-storey affairs which hold more people), and we paired up with another British couple – Matt and Sarah – to claim it as ours. This would turn out to be a great decision.
We took an afternoon hike through the forest to the first zip lines. Gingerly, we clipped on to our first lines and – with some gentle coaxing – let go. Again, this would turn out to be a great decision and, shrieking with delight, I flew across the jungle canopy with the wind in my hair. After the sweaty hike and the humidity of the forest, my 400 metre flight felt amazing.
An hour or so later we arrived at our treehouse. We’d adapted well to zip lining, which was helpful because there was no other way in to our home for the next two nights. Taking a deep breath, we jumped off the firm ground, and a few seconds later planted our feet firmly onto the landing platform of our tree, 38 metres in the air. Climbing up the ladder from the landing platform, I got my first glimpse of the tree house through the trap door that led inside. It was wonderful.
A platform with a thatched roof doesn’t sound like a luxury home, but it was surprisingly cosy and comfortable. The octagonal platform was open air (with a railing to stop all but the most determined Darwin Awards contestants from falling out) and a view over ancient forest that made me incredibly glad Sarah had had the foresight to bag us this cracking little house.
The house was surprisingly well kitted out – filtered drinking water on tap, a kettle and stove, a resident snake and a proper shower! Taking a cool shower amongst the jungle canopy, whilst watching a spectacular sunset, will go down as one of the most decadent things I’ve ever done! You’re entirely welcome for the mental image there, by the way.
As darkness began to fall, we ate the delicious meal that had been left for us, pooled some beers and ate Oreos over a pot of tea. Sarah and Matt turned out to be the best Tree Mates we could have hoped for, and we chatted long into the night before tucking into our snug mosquito-proof mattress-tents for the night.
At just before 7am the next morning, and with admirable self-restraint, Sarah came over and whispered to us that there were gibbons right below our treehouse. We sleepily emerged from our little tent and, sure enough, there was a troupe of Black-Crested Gibbons (black males and the beige females) hooting gently in the trees below. We watched, spellbound, as they leapt from branch to branch. Their morning chorus started as a series of single long, haunting calls that sounded almost mournful before reaching a crescendo from the whole troupe of what I can only describe as laser effects from a 1980’s video game. Most surreal!
The view as dawn broke over the valley, was also incredible.
By 8am the gibbons had swung off into the distant forest, so we focussed on the important task ahead: drinking as many pots of tea as was humanely possible before our breakfast was delivered BY ZIP WIRE. Out here, even the food swings through the trees. You hear that, Ocado?
Fed and harnessed up, we headed out of the front door. By which I mean we threaded ourselves on to a wire and leapt off a platform 38 metres in the air. When I get on Grand Designs (Life Ambition #74), this is totally a feature I’m incorporating into my home.
We spent the day rather like Victorian society ladies – calling on our neighbours (and quietly tutting between the four of us about what a MESS the others had left their tree houses in) and comparing and admiring our homes.
Each treehouse is adapted to the tree hosting it; ours was the equivalent of a little bungalow while others were three-storey townhouses. But we had The View.
In between our visits to houses, we spent a lot of time hiking the jungle trails, and doing this:
Happy, sweaty and exhausted, we arrived back at our treehouse about 3pm ready for a welcome Decadent Shower. After dinner, we had some visitors! Our guides were back, bearing a bottle of home-made rice whisky. Despite tasting exactly like (I imagine) paint stripper does, we powered through and finished the bottle between six of us. By the end, I was promising to set my guide up with my younger sister. Holly, if you are reading this… good news! You’re moving to Laos!
It was a lovely touch by the guys – they didn’t have to come over and see us once they’d finished work – but it was lovely to hang out with them and find out a bit more about life in Laos.
The next morning the gibbons stayed away (maybe our whisky breath put them off?!) and teased us with their mornings calls from afar. Begrudgingly, we packed our bags and – after spirited pleas to be allowed to live in the treehouse for ever and ever – we were back on the zip lines and heading back to our village drop off and the uncomfortable ride back to civilisation.
We arrived back in Huay Xai, tired but elated at our wonderful few days and really excited for the Gibbons of Bokeo Nature Reserve. Thanks to this wonderful project, their future looks rosy again.
Should I go to the Gibbon Experience?
Oh god yes. Immediately, if not sooner. Not only is it great fun, but this is eco-tourism at its best. It is actually more easily reached from North Thailand than within Laos – Huay Xai is the town nearest to the Chiang Kong border crossing as well as being Gibbon Experience HQ.
When should I do the Gibbon Experience?
We went in dry season (January), which was cool mornings and evenings with warm days. The only bad reports of the Gibbon Experience we read seemed to be during (or straight after) wet season when muddy trails, leeches and more foliage near the zip lines makes for longer hikes and a less comfortable trip.
Other tips for planning your Gibbon Experience trip
- Particularly during peak season, it’s sensible to book ahead. You can contact the Gibbon Experience here; they are quick to respond generally but we faffed around a bit agreeing a date with them, so do contact them a few weeks in advance to find out availability for your preferred trip or dates.
- There are three trip types – a 2 day, 1 night “express”, which is more orientated to the zip lines, and then two types of 3 day 2 night experiences, which depart on alternate days as follows:
- We really enjoyed the Classic experience – the focus was on zip lining and the tree houses; we didn’t feel we missed out by doing shorter forest hikes as animals rest during the day.
- The Gibbon Experience Classic (or Waterfall) costs $310 (£244) per person; the Express experience is cheaper. You can pay via PayPal (a minimum of 2 weeks ahead) or by cash or credit card on the day. This was our only negative about the Gibbon Experience; as happens from time to time in rural Laos, the credit card machine was down and it was strongly “encouraged” that we make multiple cash withdrawals from the local ATM to pay. This simply wasn’t an option for us (Santander demonstrated in Fiji that they will block our card for the slightest reason!) – thankfully the credit card machine was fixed before we left.
- You’ll be hiking for an hour, so pack light. Your bag also has to come on some of the zip lines, so bring the absolute minimum with you. We managed to fit everything into a single 15L rucksack and camera bag.
- The tree houses vary in size and can cater for largish groups and couples. We stayed in Treehouse 3 (sleeps 4 people) which was a laid back experience with stunning views. If you are (or can make up) a foursome this is a great option.
- All the houses are reasonably isolated from each other so you’ll feel like the only campers in the forest! Guides don’t stay with you overnight but stay fairly close.
What should I pack/ wear for the Gibbon Experience?
- Comfy hiking shoes (trainers would be fine in dry season) and sweat-wicking socks
- Two/three tops – sweat wicking ones such as specialist running tops are great for hiking (and can be reworn on multiple days with slightly less offensive smells than normal clothes!), plus one to wear post-shower in the evening
- 2 x bottoms – I took cropped leggings for hiking, then changed in to long warm linen trousers for the cool evenings
- Toothbrush, soap, sunscreen, deodorant
- Cards (or something else social for the evening)
- Camera and/or GoPro – freshly charged as there are no power points!
- Bug repellant
- Non-essential valuables
- Kindles – we were too busy by day and social by night!
- Towels (provided)
A quick note on booze – we got given a single can of beer each when we set off (not sure why!) which we saved for the evening. If you want to take more, you’ll need to carry it all the way there yourself. Drinking isn’t really encouraged (treehouse+intoxicated = splat) aside from some homemade rice whiskey (if you are lucky!) – we’d recommend leaving it at home and enjoying the views and tranquility with a clear head.