Saturday, August 05, 2006

Lovely Laos here I come.. can you hear the gibbons?

August 5th. Up early today to leave Shen Tung in Myanmar to get back to Thailand and on to the border town of Chiang Kong for the night before heading off to Laos tomorrow. Only took 3 buses, one tuk tuk, a moto taxi and a wee boat to cross the mighty Mekong to get from Myanmar to Thailand and then on to Laos - 3 countries, in just over 24 hours - not bad eh! Spent the night in Chiang Kong at the Bamboo Guest House.. atmospheric, funky wee place on the water with the hippiest owner who tried to explain jazz fusion to me - hmmmn way above my head but a lovely wee man! Quite sad to say goodbye to Florian, we definitely had a good laugh together during our Myanmar adventures but ahh, the travel must continue, so off to Laos I go!

August 6th. Great sleep in my little bamboo hut, then sat watching the mighty Mekong float past as I looked across at Laos thinking "I'll be there in about 15 minutes"! Packed my bags and then i was off, crossing from Chiang Kong in Thailand to Huay Xai in Laos in a wee wooden boat. Literally took about 5 minutes to be honest! Found BAP guest house, the fabulous Pat and Carolien had told me about, so checked in and then took about 5.2 seconds to explore the town - yup, its pretty tiny! Definitely a one street town - that is still being paved as we speak....Decided to go see the Gibbon folks, as I'd heard so much about them.. oops maybe i should give a bit of background.. on Laos and then the Gibbon Experience.. you know you love it!

OK - Laos! This country has the infamous title of being one of the most bombed nations on earth - none of that bombing of its own making either! So sad! With that said tho', there is definitely something very relaxing about Laos; the guidebooks say both the people and the culture here are very chilled out; Lao people like to let life not exactly pass them by, but they definitely don't sweat the small stuff. It is a beautiful country with emerald mountains, limestone peak and rivers that criss-cross the country. After 30 years of communism, Laos is beginning to play catch up with Vietnam and Thailand regarding tourism and the growth of the almighty economy. It will be interesting to see how the country changes in the next 10-20 years; will it keep its' chilled out charm or succumb to the tourist trap that Thailand has fallen under?? Hmmnn, only time will tell.

Sauntered into the Gibbon Experience offices (had heard about it from a number of people on my travels) and asked Jean-Francois, the founder, if there were any openings for tomorrow's tour. Who knew people book this trip months in advance? But lucky for me there was one space left so yah! I get to go! Essentially, the Gibbon Experience (and we told J-F they should change the name as it leads to too high expectations of at least hearing, if not seeing gibbons!), was developed nearly 10 years ago by J-F in conjunction with the Laos Government to help protect a number of black gibbons found in the Bokeo Nature Reserve (these gibbons had previously been thought extinct in this part of the world). And so a concept emerged; with the local people, J-F and his team, built a number of tree houses and a network of zip lines (the highest is 100m -yup, pretty high folks!) through the canopy of Bokeo Nature Reserve. As part of your three day stay, you get accomodation in the treetops and local guides ‘fly’ you over the forest to meet the wildlife. The funds received are reinvested to protect the forest (Check out more info on the Gibbon Experience at In addition, J-F worked with the Laos Foresty Authorities to establish the Bokeo Nature Reserve (nearly 123,000 hectares of gorgeous rainforest in a mountainous terrain)!!

Anyway, as i'm signing up i met a few of my soon-to-be new found Gibbon friends - Ollie from Scarborough, and Tana and Kathy, from Atlanta, who were on their honeymoon (yup, that's right, their honeymoon - see girls, promised i'd get it in there!), and Adam and Kathryn from Bath. J-F went over what we would need for the next three days, two nights...tiger balm was key as it would keep the leeches away due to it being the rainy season (yuk!). Of course, when i go to buy mine, what do i get but "white monkey holding peach balm" instead. Seriously, that's what it was called - and the lady was like, "Hey, its just as good as that tiger stuff"! So I gave it a whirl! And you know what, it is just as good as the original, I have to say!

After booking my trip, I checked out the local pagoda - very colourful, and had a wee chat with some of the monks. It's weird - technically the monks; whether in Thailand, Laos or Vietnam, are not really supposed to talk to tourists but they all seem quite happy to approach you and say "Hello, where are you from? Can I practice my English with you?". Doesn't bother me - I'm happy to chat to anyone as you all know, so had a wee natter then headed back down town (approx. 7.2 seconds total here from the pagoda at the top of the "hill" to my guest house).

August 7th. Up early as we are all supposed to meet at 7am! As well as the folks i mentioned above, the other reprobates in the gang included Rein and Dennis from Holland (lovely boys!), Josh from Tennessee, Ariel from Israel and Daniel and Adam from London (funnily enough Daniel and I had traveled together in New Zealand as part of my Stray tour.. but didn't have a clue that we were going to do the Gibbon Experience - what are the chances eh!). So it was great to see him and catch up! All in all, yet another brillo group so we knew we were going to have a laugh together.

And oh - what a laugh we had! J-F had explained to us that due to the rainy season, there was a very good chance we might have to walk the 8 miles to the forest and the treehouses once we got to a certain point, as many of the roads were impassable. Hmmnn - well, we were lucky enough for the 4x4 to make it the three hours along the "under construction" road (if you can call it that!) to the change point where we walked across a wobbly river bridge. Tried in vain to get the 4x4 on the other side to make it up the hill, but the ridges in the road were just too big, and there was no way of shifting the jeep. We all pushed and pulled and tried to get it out - no chance.. so off we set with our guides on our 8 mile walk, that took us nearly 6 hours in total, due to the heavy knee high, super slippy, yet at the same time sticky, red mud and constant rain that poured down on all of us! But hey, it was definitely a bonding experience!

Once we got to the treehouse, we were taught about how to put our harnesses on (OK at this point i thought, why am i doing this, did i forget I'm scared of heights!)....and then zip across to our treehouse! Amazing place. Three stories high - with a toilet (ok it didnt flush just fell 40m below but still, it was a ceramic toilet!) and shower! Did all this in the dark - but felt worse for some of the gang, who had signed up for the "waterfall" trip so had to zip and walk another 20 minutes in the pitch black to treehouse 3...glad i didnt have to! I was sooooooo tired! After we dumped our bags, we heard the ole zipline going, and the guides arrived with our dinner..pretty cool stuff! Had a great meal, chatted my candlelight in this giant treehouse for a while, then we all headed off to bed. Wow - im sleeping in a tree house!

August 8th. Up early today to monsoon conditions! Total bummer as we all wanted to jump on the ziplines right away but it was miserable. We hung out and chatted for a while and then the rain started letting up! I have to admit - i was a bit of a nervous wreck thinking, "ïf my main zipline breaks, and my safety breaks, then i'm dead!"....but after a few zips, i began to feel more confident and really enjoy the incredible views around me.. soooo beautiful. Hard to describe but you really were in the middle of nowhere and there was nothing but forest, trees, blue skies (once the rain stopped) and white clouds around you! Fantastic!

There are a total of 12 zip lines, that you take in and out of the four different tree houses. We zipped all over - thanks to Tana and Kathy for staying with me and talking me through when i got a wee bitty shaky (i know im pathetic!)...and boy did you get dirty. The oil sprayed from the rollers on the harnesses - i have never been so filthy in my life - well, apart from yesterday and the mud. Yuk!! Oh yes, my balance has really gotten better (not)... while walking yesterday, there were some obstacle-like crossinges e.g. trees across rivers. Yes of course i fell in - twice! Was more worried about the leeches getting me that getting wet, but pretty gross all round!

Zipped to tree house three to check it out and heard about the others near-escape from death! OK slight exaggeration but during the night, a giant tree had fallen on their tree house, shaking it significantly enough to wake everyone up and freak them out.. then it fell and caused quite a large gap in the forest below! Hmmn pretty glad we were in the larger, tree house number one !!! Saw the tree that fell and it was pretty big so Adam and Kathryn made the smart decision to come stay with us for the second night in case it happened again! Good call i say!

After lunch, Tana, Kathy and I decided to zip some more. As Tana had become quite attached to "Somsee", a resident monkey that was being cared for by the camp as it had been orphaned....she decided to take the monkey with us zipping 100m in the air. Kinda scary but Somsee did just great, holding on to Tana as if she was her mother..too funny to go zipping through the air - with a monkey on your back! Literally! There was also a baby black bear at the camp, that would soon be getting released back into the wild. Kind of crazy seeing it so close .. very cute but very strong too - nearly knocked Ariel off his feet at one point! Ahhh the joys of nature! Dinner time came and we all sat around and shared the infamous "lao-lao" whisky with Marion, one of the senior volunteers from Holland who has been working at the reserve for a year now.Hmmn - three days is enough for me - maybe im not quite as outdoorsy as id like to think i want to be!! I admit it!!!!

August 9th. Woke up to more rain! Stinkers - we were all hoping it would be dry for our 8 mile walk out of the forest and back to the pick up point!Oh well, what can you do? Had our last zips around the tree house then headed off at 9am.... Walked through the forest with two lovely girl guides; lovely to hear them singing away as we walked through the local villages and past the proverbial rice fields (everywhere you look in South East Asia, there are rice fields.. so pretty and green!). We all took a break at the second village then made a decision to keep walking as we didnt know if the 4x4 would make it to pick us up... we had the crowning glory of being the first group EVER to walk both ways on the trek.. hmmnn big whoops!! The good news - the rain had stopped. The slightly less great news - the sun was baking hot, i mean hot hot hot! But we couldnt really complain - it was much better than rain! About 2 1/2 hours into our walk, we heard - and then saw - the truck bringing people to the tree houses! Yah - we were all so excited (ok you had to be there!) and yelled and shouted at the driver as we jumped up and down in the middle of the road... "you made it. Thank God you are here". Yes, you would think we had been in the Sahara for about 6 weeks, but hey, it was hard going, sort of!!!

Kept walking waiting for the truck to return to get us.. and it did! Yah. However, pretty quickly into our trip, we got stuck and as the "alpha-males" (as we liked to call the uber-athlete boys in the gang!) had walked ahead, the rest of us had to all push to get the truck out... i have never been splatted with so much mud in my life! We were all laughing so much, we were pretty useless at first in getting out of the ruts but eventually we did and what a laugh we had! Finally made it to the restaurant where the boys had already reached, had lunch and then headed back to town. For some reason we only had the one jeep (had 2 on the way up) so all 12 of us were squished in, plus two forest rangers who for some amazing reason, managed to fall asleep as we were being bounced from one side of the truck to the other! Amazing!

Anyway made it back safely and we all felt we had earned a jolly good beer or ten and dinner so planned to meet up in a few hours. Funny story - we asked if we could all sit back by the river on the porch and have dinner! No problem said the wee lady who ran the restaurant. So off we walk down there. No lights on so Rien ran back to tell her. Two minutes later, the lights go on and about 20 (no exaggeration) men jump up in complete shock and surprise.. all in their undies, minding their own business, sleeping under their mosquito nets. Poor things... they pulled on their trousers quick smart, smiled at us and walked off into the sunset! A tad surreal and we did say, stay, stay, there's tons of room, but think we might have cramped their style.....anyway it was a funny scene to behold! Had a great night - lotsa chat, beer and of course the proverbial lao-lao whisky came out to cap off a great evening and fabby Gibbon trip!!!


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