|I had heard about the Gibbon Experience quite early on in my travelling while still in Thailand, and I was determined to do it even though it cost 1,900,000 kip (AUD$320) for 3 days and 2 nights. The Gibbon Experience basically involves spending 3 days going on giant flying foxes through the jungle, sleeping in tree houses and trying to spot gibbons... in other words, a place where grown-ups can be kids again!
Thinking I was super organised I emailed the Gibbon Experience about a week before I wanted to attend, and although I received a few preliminary emails, I didn't receive the all important one that would enable me to pay. So I arrived in Huay Xai ("way sigh") feeling a little bit of trepidation about whether or not there would be a spot free for me. I definitely didn't want to spend more time in Huay Xai than necessary, because there is nothing to do there!
Luckily there was still a place free and I was surprised at how easy it was so sign up, just handed over the money and signed a very broad disclaimer which basically absolved the company of any injury I might incur from zip-lining. The next morning after a 10 minute "safety video", which turned out to be the only instruction we received, we embarked on a 3 hour drive out to the Gibbon Experience. Ten of us were crammed into the back of a van that I really think is designed to seat a lot less people and consequently I became very carsick, and was very glad when we arrived. An hour's trek through the jungle and we arrived, quickly getting kitted up with harnesses and being given a basic run-down by an Aussie chick who was involved in the project as a volunteer. When asked if the zip-lining was safe, she basically said "Well, you know the standards that you would expect in Australia, England, America and other Western countries in terms of regulation and checking and all that? Well, it's nothing like that here, but it's still perfectly safe." This didn't exactly instill us with confidence, but I was sure that the safety must be at least adequate, which it turned out to be.
After a bit of wrangling about how our group of 14 would be divided between the three different treehouses, I and two other couples volunteered to be in treehouse 3, which was an extra 40 minute walk away in the jungle. While this may sound like a drag, it was actually great because we were deep in the jungle near the longest zip-lines, and we had to catch a lot more zip-lines to get back for meals, so we ended up having a lot of fun. A definite plus of staying in treehouse 3 as opposed to number one was also the fact that a massive, and I'm talking 2 metre in diametre, semi-circular wasp nest was attached to one of the branches in treehouse 1. Treehouse 3 only had a snake, which keeps the rats down apparently, and whom we never saw, so I thought we got the better end of the bargin.
After a few exhilerating zip-lines, that were also a little nerve-wracking at first, we arrived at treehouse 3, which was reached by another zip-line. I was a little disappointed with the accommodation, which was an open air structure with only a roof which was built into the fork of a tree. The beds were foam mattresses on the floor, with none-too-clean sheets and thick calico mosquito nets to keep out the bugs, which were riddled with holes. I wondered what would happen if it rained, or if there was a lot of wind, but just crossed my fingers the weather would be fine. I was also a little concerned that there were only two double beds made up, but figured I would just make up the single bed when it came time to sleep as it was in a bit of an awkward position near the bathroom.
The first afternoon was basically spent relaxing, chatting and playing cards with the other people in my treehouse, Steve and Lindsey, a couple from America, and Sabrina and Adrian, a couple from Switzerland. Of course before too long we were discussing bowel movements and food poisoning episodes, as they're two things that bond all travellers together! I decided to have a shower around 6pm, but to my horror about halfway through I heard the noise of someone coming across to the treehouse, and realised that I was in full view of the zip-line. I'm pretty sure the guide bringing our dinner had copped an eyeful, but I literally had no where to hide!
Soon after dinner our guide, whose English was very limited, started preparing the single bed, which I thought was strange. I then realised he intended to sleep in it, and despite my protests that I didn't have a bed and he was supposed to sleep in the shelter for the guides at the other end of the zip-line, he insisted on sleeping in our treehouse. This of course meant that suddenly 5 people needed to fit on 2 double beds, me being the third wheel. Everyone was really nice about it though, and I kipped down with the Austrian couple, thinking to address the issue in the morning with management as I hadn't paid $320 to have to share a bed with two other people!
Around 3.30am I woke to the sound of thunder and the mosquito net blowing around quite vigorously in the wind. We had been told that in the event we needed to be evacuated from our treehouse that our guide would come and wake us, and we'd make the trip together. So I just lay there, glad at this point that the guide was close and could make the call as he saw fit. The storm got closer and closer, the wind stronger and the heavens open, and still no word from our guide. So I got up to ask him if we should leave, and he was already 85% through his preparations to leave, shaking like a leaf, and definitely looking like he was planning on just scarpering and leaving us to our fate. At this point we all quickly got up and dressed, into our harness, thanking our luckily stars that three of us had head lamps, otherwise there would have been no light at all. Our beds were completely soaked and so were we, frozen to the bone with the cold and trying not to fall down the trapdoor to the zip-line where one wrong move could see us plunge 150feet to the jungle floor.
With lightening flashing and the rain coming down like the second flood, one by one we attached ourselves to the zip-line and plunged into the dark. I was the last to leave which made me pretty nervous, but my trusty headlamp lit the way and saved me from smashing into a tree, and the platform at the end. My treehouse-mates had waited for me in the pouring rain, bless their souls, and we all scrambled up the slope to the guides shelter, which was a bamboo platform and small patch of dirt partially enclosed by walls and a roof. As we stood shivering in our sopping wet clothes, we had a bit of a chuckle, relieved that the worst of our ordeal was over, but wondering where we were going to sleep, and under what, given our bedding had been completely saturated through by the storm. As it turned out, we were to sleep in the guides shelter, this time all of us huddled under the only two semi-dry doonas. By this time we had all bonded pretty well with each other, especially given the circumstances, and fell asleep, practically spooning each other because of the cold.
The next day was spend trekking and zip-lining, which just got better and better as the lines got higher and higher, longer and longer. The sensation of flying through the air for 350 metres, 200 feet up in the air attached only by a couple of caribiners was just exhilarating! After having to harass our guides to bring us lunch and point out the fact several times that having wet bedding was an unacceptable situation, we finally received both lunch and clean sheets. Laotian work ethic really leaves something to be desired!
Luckily all the other people in my group were feeling as energetic as me, so we trekked all over the jungle going on zip-line after zip-line, taking videos, fooling around, taking pictures for each other and basically having a blast. I was also pleased to find that I had my own bed that night, as it turned out the night before the guide had been too scared to sleep on his own out in the shelter because of the Laos belief in ghosts.
A very early wake-up call the next morning was entirely worth it as we zip-lined out to one of the highest platforms to try and snatch a glimpse of some gibbons in the wild. And sure enough, after a wait of about 45 minutes, they came swinging through the bamboo, calling to each other, jumping into the tress and basically running amok. We were very fortunate to witness such a show, as we saw approximately 15 gibbons, including a baby which is orange, not black like the adults, and they hung around for close to an hour. It was just so exhilarating to be in the same environment with the gibbons and to see them totally wild and free, clearly enjoying their ability to roam at will through such a large swathe of jungle.
A little more zip-lining and then it was unfortunately time to go home. Where did the last 3 days go?