My first morning in the Bokeo Nature Reserve in Laos, I woke to the distant hooting of Gibbons. The monkeys release a high, rising call. As they wake up, their excited calls reverberate across the empty quiet of morning. Although intellectually I knew that the villagers running the Gibbon Experience lived nearby, my tree house felt isolated and closed off from the rest of the world. From our treehouse balcony a canopy of misty forest rippled into the distance. Yes, this is what I had hoped for when I booked myself onto a ziplining adventure in northern Laos.
One of my goals for this round the world trip is to experience the new and interesting. I hope to not only learn delve into the story of a new place, but to also push my own comfort zone with adventure activities. And even more, I had hoped that among the ziplining this trip into the Bokeo Nature Reserve would butt me against nature. Oh boy, did it ever!
But first, yes — I am ziplining in the jungle and living in a treehouse just like any 10-year-old fantasy come to life. Like the Swiss Family Robinson, I am living in the upper jungle canopy. I clip myself onto a zipline, push off from the safety of the treehouse, and then fly into the crisp open air. In the past few days I have I soared more than 100 meters above the ground. I have watched the sunrise as I dangled from a zipline above a wall of dense jungle. It’s been incredible.
These two videos show a tour of the ziplines and views, and the other tours Treehouse One so that you get a feel for the setup! Watch them, then read on for the full details (updated as of summer 2016) of what it’s like to do the Gibbon Experience in Laos, and my thoughts and ideas on if it’s worth the price of admission. :)
What is the Gibbon Experience?
The Gibbon Experience is an innovative project run by locals in an effort to preserve the Bokeo Nature Reserve for generations to come. The social enterprise protects the endangered black-cheeked gibbon, provides a sustainable income for locals, and gives travelers a chance to live in the jungle canopy and zipline across the treetops.
The Gibbon Experience is an innovative project run by locals in an effort to preserve the Bokeo Nature Reserve for generations to come. Running much like a social enterprise, this project combines tourism with a sustainable income for the locals.
Even before the population of black-cheeked gibbons was found inhabiting the area, the Bokeo National Forest was under threat from loggers and poachers. With so many natural resources at their fingertips, locals were using the forest to supply their livelihoods. But as the Reserve gained national protection, another the locals conceived of an innovative tourism project that would supply local jobs that directly contribute to the Reserve’s sustainability. The Gibbon Experience quickly gained traction as tourists eagerly supported a project that sounded both fun and education, and had such a low environmental impact.
Even more, the project has shifted the way the locals perceive their beautiful nature resource. With more money available from tourism, the villages in the region had a reason to protect the animals and trees from poaching. Elephants, tigers, and the gibbons all call this forest home. As such, in the years since the project began, the Gibbon Experience has continued to build a large network of low-impact treehouses and ziplines through the jungle canopy. Locals act as guides, stewards to the forest, and they supply all of the food, repairs, and structure for the experiences in the Nam Kan National Park.
In the early years, Westerners were involved in helping shape the program. Although the Laotians had control over some of the vision, conservationists and development workers helped them design a tourism initiative that would meet the needs of everyone involved. They needed to replace the income locals made from logging and poaching, but also design an experience that met the expectations of the tourists and travelers making their way into the Bokeo Nature Reserve. And through it all, each aspect of the Gibbon Experience needed to preserve the Gibbon habitat and ensure the safety of these endangered monkeys. On my first visit, the program was still in early development. In the years since, as the program grew with the help of the Animo NGO. As it gains steam, the long-term goal is to transition this into a wholly Laotian run program.
Into the Woods: Getting to Our Jungle Canopy Treehouse
The only horror stories come from travelers visiting the Reserve during the rainy season — at that time there are leeches and the hike is both harder and longer. But it was February, which meant cool nights and dry skies.
All this boded well for the trip. Laura and I paid online ahead of time and then just had to get ourselves to a little town called Houay Xai on the Thai-Laos border. This is a popular town because it’s the main northern border crossing between the two countries. Although Laura and I had visited Thailand first on our trip, we had to journey West again — but this time farther north than the Friendship Bridge we used when we left Bangkok.
We took the two-day slow boat to Houay Xai, arriving the night before our 8am departure for the Bokeo Nature Reserve. Because of my severe illness the previous week, and due to going off-the-path to visit a rural town, we had timed it all very poorly. We ended up being bribed for a fat stack of cash and took the speedboat part of the way up the river to ensure we arrived on time. With the evening to stock recommended supplies, we scoured Houay Xai for the essentials: flashlights (someone relieved me of my headlamp in Australia), gloves, and chocolate bars (ok, this is an essential probably just for me, but I did find three delicious Snickers bars to pack in my bag).
The organization had storage in their office for our large packs; we only needed daypacks with a change of clothes and the essentials for our two-night, three-day adventure. After watching a quick safety video, our guide drove 2.5 hours to the edge of the Bokeo Reserve. A small village at the edge of the Reserve houses all of the guides and their families, this is the last spot our van could reach. From that point, we hiked for an hour, first along the edge of the jungle, and then straight up into the upper canopy.
Dry season hiking is supposedly much easier than hiking in the wet season, and I still struggled. Although I was still weak from my illness, even the healthy backpackers were huffing and puffing as we hiked the trails in the wet heat. But we all made it, with the last stop a small hut perched in the middle of a clearing. This is where we would suit up for the ziplining portion of our trip!
The guides fitted everyone in our group with harnesses and taught us how to securely strap ourselves into the leg and waist cinches. These harnesses are just like the ones used by rock climbers, so I knew the drill after learning to rock climb in Vang Vieng last month. Then we had a much shorter uphill hike to the first zipline.
That first moment you secure your harness to the zipline is terrifying. But it all happens in a flash. At one moment the guide was checking my clips, then the next moment I was launching from the edge and soaring over the jungle floor. I sped along and lost myself in the joy of the moment and didn’t even pay much attention to how I was going to stop and land at the next treehouse.
Yep, I totally ran into the tree the first time. But, that massive bruise was all it took before I learned precisely how and when to apply the rubber brake. We each zipped into Treehouse One, and the six of us living in that Treehouse for the night said goodbye to the others. Within a flash they had zipped out of the house and continued through the jungle to the other ones.
With a quick glance around our open-air bungalow treehouse, we all then dropped our bags and geared up for more ziplining. We followed the safety rules, clipping our safety and double checking everything. Then we made like monkeys and soared over treetops. No other experience in the world has matched feeling the cool wind rush through my hair on the zipline at dawn. As I flew along the jungle canopy the misty dew hit my face, the morning light strong and full on my face as I looked out into a distance so far I wondered if China lay beyond those trees.
Reveling in the Adventure of Ziplining in the Jungle
Our first day on the tour largely centered on getting to our treehouse and getting settled. Laura and I had booked for the three-day, two-night Classic trip. This one has a good bit of downtime and a chance to play on the ziplines. It’s also one of the best chances to see the Gibbons since they usually sing and come out in the early morning hours of dawn.
That first day, the guide gave us free reign to zip through the jungle to our heart’s desire. And in the early evening the guides zipped into our hut canisters of food for dinner. It was simple fare, veggies, rice, and meat, but enough for everyone to feel full.
There’s not much supervision for the whole thing, we were given our safety talk and then that’s about it. The only other instruction was a warning not to use the ziplines at night. Um, yeah right. All of the people on our trips were backpackers and they definitely didn’t heed that warning. I was a bit of a scaredy-cat and only really used the zipline so that I could go to the mid-way point and stare at the stars overhead. But my treehouse was so into it that they nicknamed us the night-gliders!
Once it was pitch black in the forest, our group took the easy 30-minute loop around the jungle. Each time we were on the long zipline we stopped in the middle and stared into the inky black sky dense with twinkling stars. The nearest cities are far, far from the Reserve. The villagers mostly don’t use power. The night was so clear you could cut the sky with a cake knife. Shooting stars jetted across the dark. I ached with how breathtaking and pretty it was to hang over the forest canopy and watch the heavens.
Our second day involved a hike to the farthest ziplines. The ziplines form circular patterns in the jungle. That way it’s easy to navigate to and from the various huts, treehouses, and hiking spots. The ziplines into the houses are a decent length, but it’s the farthest ones that really allowed us to pick up speed! The longest zipline clocks in at 570 m — that’s more than 1,800 feet of soaring over the trees. It was so long that you start the trip without being able to see the spot where you finish in the distant treetops.
After a morning of zipping through the far treehouses, we headed back to our base for lunch. Our group fortified ourselves with rice and veggies and then everyone geared up into our harnesses and gloves prepped for the “Golden Triangle Olympics.”
What, might you ask, are the Golden Triangle Olympics? Well, Treehouse One’s guestbook had a heap of tips and comments from previous travelers. According to the comments, the GTO is one of the ongoing games for those fortunate enough to land in Treehouse One for their stay. We could see pages of scores from those who came before us.
Naturally, we needed to compete too. Basically, the GTO is a triangle of three zip-lines that surround our tree house. The ziplines take less than four minutes to complete at a walking pace. For the Olympics you have to go at a dead run to compete for the best time. Someone in the book recorded a time of 1:56 — we all think he was a liar though. One of the patches is uphill, and you have to make sure you’re properly snapped onto the line. The best time in our group was 2:13, and that was by one of the Swiss guys. Laura clocked in at roughly three minutes, and my time was so pathetic I can’t even write it. To be fair though, I’m still 2o pounds underweight and recovering from dysentery so I refuse to feel badly about my time.
Besides zipping at night, we passed the hours after sunset with hot Ovaltine and a deck of cards by candlelight. Our treehouse group was so much fun. The two women from Canada, Maya and Shelby, brought a lot of life to the group, they had a fun sense of humor. And the Swiss guys were our heroes — they saved us from the rats.
Yep, there are rats. And while they aren’t the vile sewer rats scurrying around New York City, these tree rats are big and gnarly. And there’s nothing much the guides can do about the rats, we’re living in the jungle, after all. The rats chewed through Shelby’s bag the first night, and one of the guys in Treehouse Three woke up with one of the huge suckers on his face! They give us sheets to tuck around the beds at night, so the guy in the other treehouse must have kicked it open in the night. Hearing the stories from the guestbook, as well as from the other treehouses, the Swiss guys armed their slingshot with tamarind seeds at night to fend off the rats crawling on their nets. Luckily, Laura and I didn’t have a rat problem either night (and my Snickers bars were safely locked in a tin in the treehouse.
Like any situation, it’s all about how you handle it. We decided to make it all a game (a gross game to be fair), and tried to stay positive throughout the rat war. In fact, we all vogued for a rat-themed photo-shoot on our last night. It was hilarious right up until the moment Laura dropped her camera from the treehouse ledge. It feel for a few seconds later and then we heard a clunk as it landed on the forest floor. The next morning, our guide hiked to the base of the tree and recovered the camera. Though it’s a bit broken, we salvage the pictures.
Throughout all of this ziplining fun was this overlying desire to see the endangered Gibbon monkeys. There’s no guarantee of a spotting, we’re in the forest, afterall. And unfortunately my treehouse missed the sighting. The other treehouse, however, spotted the monkeys in the near distance. We contented ourselves with hearing the monkeys sing in the early morning hours and, you know, that was magical enough. I am sure there are Gibbons in zoos out there in the world, but I chose to head into nature and the Gibbons just didn’t feel like coming out to play while I was there. Perhaps on a future visit to Laos I’ll look up and see one nearby. Hey, a girl can hope. :)
We left right after breakfast on the third day, and there wasn’t a person in the group who hadn’t had an amazing experience. As I reflect on weeks and years later, it still stands out as a beautiful way to spend a weekend of my life. From the fun adventure of ziplining to the chance to listen to Gibbons in the wild. And through it all, my tourism choices are helping support a local Laotian community build a sustainable business.
Should You Visit the Gibbon Experience in Laos?
I count this Gibbon Experience among my favorite activities from my more than eight years of travel. And it’s family-friendly too. In terms of should you book the Gibbon Experience too? It comes down to your preferences and what you’re expecting. The ziplines are among the best in Southeast Asia. The Laotians have built a ziplining oasis in the middle of the jungle and not only are they long, but they are high above the forest canopy as well. As you can see in the video, there are magical vistas sweeping far into the distance as you ride across the ziplines.
That said, we lived in the jungle for three days and two nights. That meant we faced off against the tree rats at night. But the tradeoff was listening to the gibbon monkeys sing from the treetops at dawn. It’s not for everyone. The treehouses are open to the air with very little protection from the elements. If you fear rats and spiders than you might not get much sleep. That said, it’s a beautiful and fun activity with a lot of layers built into it. It helps the locals maintain employment through tourism and encourages the Laotians to care about and protect their natural resources. The Bokeo Nature Reserve is home to not only the endangered Gibbon, but also to tigers, birds, and more wildlife than you can imagine. Again, while I can see how many might not want to get that in touch with nature, if you’ve done any even mild camping than you can handle the two nights in the Bokeo Nature Reserve.