Everything I’ve been telling you is true, it’s cheap! I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand costs have averaged at least one third of my previous living expenses.
Part of why I moved to Chiang Mai was because I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life, without all the worrying about expenses if I lowered my cost of living. I’m still building up an online income for myself and paying off one last small piece of debt. The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.
After a decade of traveling the world, budgeting for short- and long-term trips is one of my specialties. I’ve managed to come from a modest background, yet still save the money to travel while also being a remote worker for all 10+ years of my world travels.
When I left on my first round the world trip, I had no idea how much it would cost. Some people reported around $10,000 a year (which seemed absurdly low) while others spent upwards of $40K to travel a bit more luxuriously. Knowing where my own world tour would fall in that spectrum was a great unknown, so I thought of it as a grand adventure. How much will it cost, and how long can I keep traveling with just my freelance income and travel blogging to sustain me?
Over that first year, I tracked every single dollar I spent while traveling.
My trip budget is complete: I traveled around the world for for 328 days (11 months) through 15 countries and tracked what I spent, what each and every country cost, and where I could have done better.
I spent USD $17,985.
Then I decided to keep traveling and have been on the road for a decade, still traveling as of 2019. After more than 10 years on the road, read on for my tips on how to budget and save for just about any style of trip you can dream up.
Just want the cold hard figures? Navigate my Google spreadsheet by the countries listed at the bottom of my full World Travel Budget.
My Personal Round the World Trip
How Did I Save for World Travel?
Most people automatically assume traveling the world is expensive, so they wonder how I could have possibly afforded it.
A round the world trip is not as expensive as you assume. Most anyone reading this post has the ability to save for travel if it’s a true priority. As regular A Little Adrift readers have surmised, I don’t live off of a trust fund. My family is quite poor and I put myself through college with merit-based scholarships.
Instead of counting on help from family, I budgeted for the trip.
I sold my couch, my clothes, my cups. I sold my car, too. I purged everything I owned and saved ruthlessly in the countdown months. When calculating if I could afford my RTW trip, I even accounted for student-loan and medical debt repayments that I would have during my year on the road (because yes, I was actually in a fair bit of debt). I took on side-hustles to sock away money. And then I worked on freelance SEO remotely for the entire year. And through all that, I came to the same conclusions as those backpackers who have adventurously gone before me: Around the world travel does not cost as much as you think!
I am not saying it’s dirt cheap, but compared to my life in LA, where $1,200+ went toward rent and bills each month, I used that same online income to travel the world—I only dug into my small savings to pay for the my travel gear and long-haul flights. I wasn’t sure how much my trip would cost when I left to travel, and the information just wasn’t out there like it is now. Now you can play with your travel route and your travel style and come up with a tally in just a few hours for what your dream trip will cost. In fact, I believe so much that world travel is affordable that I wrote a budget guide and spreadsheet to help you price out your dream trip and have all the possible resources you need at your fingertips.
How Much Did it Cost to Travel the World for a Year?
Let’s talk cold, hard facts. I documented every single expense from my yearlong round the world trip with meticulous care. In the years since I originally posted this breakdown, other backpackers have loved the precise and exact breakdown of just how much I spent throughout a year of active world travel. And ten years later, even with rising global food costs, people still travel on similar budgets (more on how that’s possible later).
My total: USD $17,985
You’re shocked right now, I know, I sprang it on you out of nowhere! Close the gaping jaw.
Travel was my bootcamp for life. This trip was the single best investment in both my personal growth and my career. Throughout life we are presented with a series of choices—each has the ability to help us create the life we want to have lived. I am forever glad I chose to travel our beautiful world.
What does that number not include? Personal choices that upped the price bit: an external hard drive for photo storage, new camera (old one was waterlogged in Australia), and I rented a car alone in Ireland (most backpacker budgets wouldn’t allow for this so I included my car’s petrol to approximate the cost of public transportation for three weeks). My personal total, inclusive of all of that, was just under $19,000 … so it’s still a bargain considering I was on the road for nearly an entire year. And again, I stress, this is thousands less than my annual expenses living in Los Angeles, California.
In a Nutshell: How much does traveling the world cost?
Travelers should consider $20,000 the baseline cost for a yearlong trip around the world for one person. This estimation falls in line with popular recommendations that budget travelers can travel for $50 a day, and allows additional budget for flights and vaccines. Couples will not automatically face double the costs (since lodging and transport are often shared expenses), and midrange world travelers can adjust the budget upward to account for additional expenses on accommodation, transport, or food (where ever you choose to splurge!)
Let’s dive into the good stuff. The following tables and charts further outline my RTW budget including the country-by-country expenses. And because I just had to go that extra mile, I share a complete-down-to-the penny budget, too. This budget spreadsheetincludes every single expense itemized out in an absolutely gorgeous Google spreadsheet if I can toot my own horn for a moment!
And consider using the blank, formatted spreadsheet to log your own RTW travel budget (this is a Google Spreadsheet, either save a copy of this to your own drive for editing, or download as an excel file!).
A World Travel Budget Breakdown
Total Costs to Travel the World for a Year
Activities + Entertainment
Misc (internet, gifts, extra gear, etc)
Pre-Trip Travel Gear
* Lodging: Includes all accommodation; I couchsurfed in a few countries and stayed with friends a couple of times. * Food: Includes everything from three meals a day, to snacks, and funding my chocolate obsession. * Entertainment: Going out on the town, sharing beers with friends—this will be much higher if you drink often. My budget was for drinking on average once a week. * Activities: Includes my volunteer program and all tours, trips, and group adventures. Everything from diving to ziplining to visiting temples and museums. * Transportation: This total excludes flights, but covers all intra-country transportation like buses, trains, taxis and tuk-tuks. * Misc: A large portion is the internet, it was pricey to make sure I had a strong connection for my work. Also includes shipping things home, gifts, and toiletries along the way. * Flights: Includes many puddle-jumper little flights between countries in the same region. I did not use a RTW ticket, but instead booked along the way.
Budget of Daily & Total Costs Per Country
**These totals do not include flights, travel gear, and other misc pre-trip expenditures, only my actual on-the-road costs.
How to Much Will YOUR Dream Trip Cost?
Finding a way to travel the world is a mental obstacle as much as a financial one. Every situation is different, but I believe that if you are ready to truly prioritize travel, then it’s possible to plan and execute a round the world trip. The problem is, there’s crappy information out there about how to make it happen. Many bloggers have shared posts with a handful of tips about how much they saved for their dream trip, but they don’t break down how they arrived at that final figure. You may read this information and see my budget, but it leaves you wondering if your own travels would cost the same.
For that reason, I wrote two entire guides to address your current hurdle. One is about creating a realistic anticipated budget for your trip. The other is about saving for world travel.
How much will your dream trip cost? I wrote this guide to specifically answer the most common question I was emailed by readers: how much will a specific route/itinerary costs. In it, I share comprehensive and thoroughly practical advice about understanding trip budgets and understanding your own style of travel. The guide is a full treatise on how to estimate what your dream trip will cost and it includes case studies from other long-term travelers who tracked their trip budgets. I’ve spent eight years on the road, and nearly that long talking with with other travelers about how they budget for travel. Using the aggregate of their knowledge and experience, I’ve outlined a road-map to taking a long-term trip. I wrote this guide to empower travelers and travel dreamers anywhere in the world with the tools to plan their trip. The guide breaks down average traveling costs for the world’s most traveled destinations, which you can use with the fully customizable Trip Budget Worksheet to create an accurate anticipated budget for your dream trip. Available on Kindle, ePub, and PDF.
True wealth is having the freedom to do what you want with your life. Many travel dreamers get waylaid by the financial side of life. If you’re new to personal finance, or lost about how to start saving for a big goal, this book distills hard-learned information into easily actionable steps specifically targeted at giving travel dreamers tools to become financially literate. This book provides a thorough deep-dive into the principles of saving money, common obstacles, overcoming debt, and the tenets of strong personal finance. It offers a streamlined process to create substantial changes in your financial life. If money is your primary obstacle to leaving on a long-term trip, this guide breaks down exactly the shifts you can make to change your financial situation. Many travelers look at my adventures and experiences these past eight years that I’ve traveled and they dream of also traveling through the cultures, stories, and conversations. This guide gives you the tools to move the needle from dreaming to doing. Available on Amazon Kindle or as a PDF bundle with the budget book.
How to Decide on Your Final World Travel Budget?
Creating an accurate anticipated budget for your world tour is an important step—you certainly don’t want to plan for a year but run out of funds in month eight! Each person has different goals, a unique trip itinerary, and differing travel styles. These factors can create significant differences in the total cost of a round the world trip.
Your Route and Speed Around the World: This is the single biggest indicator of how much you will spend. To lower costs you will need to travel slowly overland and minimize the number of flights that you take. Also, consider visiting fewer places. Every travel dreamer over-packs their round the world route. That’s the dream list, but unless you have unlimited funds, then you should scale back the number of regions/countries that you will visit. When I first planned my trip, a long-term traveler advised me to cut five countries from my itinerary. Looking back now, I can’t even imagine where they would have fit! It’s my route and speed that allowed me to travel for under $20K. Read: How to Plan an Around the World Itinerary in 8 Steps
Which Countries You Visit: If you add in developed countries like Europe, Japan, Australia, and the United States, your daily budget will double. Instead of spending $25 per day in SEA and India, you will average $75 to $100 per day in most developed countries. For that reason, weight your trip in favor of developing regions of the world. Save Europe or the U.S. for a shorter trip later in life, and add a few off-beat locations to your planned route—these are most often the sleeper-favorites by the end of your RTW trip.
Eat Local Food, Street Foods, and Shop in Markets: How you eat on your travels impacts your bottom line. Eat locally from mom and pop restaurants, and sample eats from street food stalls. Contrary to many assumptions from first glance, these locations are perfectly safe so long as you adhere to a few standard food safety practices. (Read How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick, and buy the Food Traveler’s Handbook to learn even more about safely enjoying street eats). Local food is a window into the culture, so dig deep and eat like the locals, asking the vendors questions and learning more about each country’s food peculiarities. Also, when traveling in Western countries, shop for groceries and prepare your own breakfast at the very least.
Note that budgets and guides give clear examples of how travelers can truly spend on average $50 per day on average to travel the world. And using the tips above, you can lower these figures even more, if needed. You could likely travel with as little as US $12,000 per year if you stick to one region—overland for a year from Mexico to Argentina; or overland through China, Southeast Asia and India. The price of a budget trip jumps to US $25,000 to visit many regions rapidly. If you prefer mid-range accommodations, that might increase your expenses by $10,000; same goes if you’re prone to splurging on expensive extras like helicopter rides, diving, and adventure activities. The bottom line: You have to understand your route, travel style, and goals before you can develop an accurate anticipated budget for travel.
Recommended Next Steps
It’s easy to see the numbers, be inspired for a bit and then never take action. If you’re actively planning your RTW—fantastic! My site and those of my friends contain every essential resource you need to plan world travel. If you’re currently working, studying, or just dreaming of traveling, I have resources for you as well. And if you want a second look at those spreadsheets, visit my full RTW budget as a Google Document that will open in your browser. Or head to the free blank spreadsheet to track your own expenses as you travel around the world. You can save an editable copy of these to your own Google Drive, or download for your own use.
How to Travel the World on $50 a Day. Published by Penguin and now in its second edition, it shows you how to stick to a budget while you’re traveling. It’s an guide for travelers new to budgeting on the road and weighs heavily toward backpacker-style travel with basic tips and hacks to save money by using travel cards, points, etc.
Cost of Living Guides show you how affordable it is might be to live outside your home country. You can sometimes elongate world travels by months or years by stopping in these affordable locations.
Working on the Road
How to Start a Travel Blog: Record the highs and lows of your once in a lifetime trip. This no-nonsense page details the process and won’t upsell you on any courses you likely don’t need. Just basic facts of how to start your first blog, and maybe even make some money along the way.
Over the past few months, the timeline of stories is disjointed because of the nature of my internet access and the number of power outages in Nepal, which limited my ability to do anything except for my online work. But it’s been an incredible four months backpacking through South Asia. I started in Mumbai in February, then backpacked north through India with my cousin, spending two months taking in all of the highs and lows. There was the beautiful and festive Holi Festival of Colors in Jaipur, the Taj Mahal, and even rafting in Rishikesh.
After India, I welcomed the slower pace of my travels in Nepal. I spent a month teaching English to monks in the Kathmandu Valley, which was an absolute highlight of my round the world trip so far. We joined other volunteers on a trip to see endangered one-horned rhinos in Chitwan National Park, and then returned to the monastery for a final week. My cousin and I said our goodbyes to our monasteries, we gave Amrit a huge hug, and then took a bus straight to Pokhara. With just a few weeks left before leaving this region of the world, it was time to see the Himalayas. My cousin and I decided to do the Poon Hill trek through the Annapurna region. Straight from the hike, I headed to Begnas Lake and started a very serious and intense meditation course. It’s a painstaking mind-purification process known as Vipassana meditation, and it requires 10 days of intense meditation and a vow of silence.
My time in Nepal is among the most profound these past weeks. I slowed my travel pace significantly, choosing to sink into the travel experience rather than rack up a number of tourist sights and activities. I learned more than I could have possibly imparted by teaching a the monastery. The boys were welcoming, inquisitive, and fun. Each morning they would echo a chorus of “Good Morning, Miss” when I walked through the monastery gates. I will never forget my brief time working with them. Now though I will have to suffice myself with the sweet memories and the hope of returning in the future.
I had visa woes when I left Nepal. The whole of my problem centered on the fact that must attain an Indian Transit Visa if your luggage is not checked straight through to your final destination. The Indian Embassy in Cambodia screwed up my 6-month visa, and I my flight left three days after it expired. Since my flight would switch airlines in Delhi airport, I needed an Indian Transit Visa before I left Kathmandu. This cost me a $75, including the bribe money I paid to expedite the process. It was a debacle and until the day before my flight to Europe, I wasn’t even sure if I would be allowed on the flight. Whew, I was happy when it all worked out.
As I scurried around Kathmandu attempting to bribing my way out of my visa situation, the political situation deteriorated. The Maoist protests and marches shut down the streets and highways around Nepal in a bid for power because the Prime Minister stepped down. It caused chaos for so many, and I was both thankful and lucky that my flight and plans were not interrupted.
My conclusions on Nepal are wholly positive. The volunteering opportunity made me feel such a part of this country, and learning a lot of Nepali also changed my ability to bond and enjoy the people and culture. The people make this place. Beyond physical beauty, it’s about the people. The nature and welcome of the locals is what makes the difference — for this reason Nepal will always stand out as a wonderful travel experience. The Nepali people are earnest and friendly. And my rudimentary conversation skills earned the kudos and friendship of so many amazing people who I now call friends.
One anecdote sums up why Nepal is so special. My cousin and I were leaving Nepal en route to Italy (via India, which caused the transit issue). At the airport we had such a fun encounter with the Nepali immigration officials — and that’s not a group most known for their humor! More often than not, I encounter steely-faced, humorless immigration officers — it seems to be almost an international behavior code. Except in Nepal, because that code didn’t hold up against the natural joy and fun the people bring to daily life.
As my cousin and I moseyed through the line, the line was short and so one the immigration officers started chatting with us, wondering why we had visited for a full two months when most tourists come for just a couple weeks! In response, my cousin and I conjured up our best Nepali to inform him that we were volunteers. And if our display of conversational Nepali were not enough, fast forward ten seconds to the moment that my cousin and I are standing across the counter from the customs officer serenading him with our off-key and mildly mispronounced Nepali songs that we had learned along the weeks. From Nepali Ho to Resham Firiri, both beloved and patriotic songs, it was surely a sight.
He was shocked silent by our ability to sing in Nepali. He recovered quickly, however, and began to sway and sing along. Moments later, several other immigration officers abandoned their posts, circled around us, and joined in for the ending chorus of the patriotic Nepali Ho, which I had learned during Nepali New Year festivities in my small village. The moment was spontaneous and unexpected, and also completely in line with the welcome that I felt in every corner of Nepal.
With that moment buoying our spirits, my cousin and I caught a short flight into the oppressing heat of Delhi. Delhi was in a heat wave just before Monsoon season would roll across the land, and it was a dense, choking heat that my cousin struggled through (she’s from the Pacific Northwest and not accustomed to hot and humid like me, a born-and-raised Floridian). I hadn’t realized that Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport had no luggage storage, so it compounded the heat to carry our backpacks for the day-long layover.
With a full day before our flight, we hoisted our packs ventured into Delhi in search of Fabindia, our favorite shop that we found while shopping in Ahmedabad. We sweltered in the heat for an hour as our driver attempted to find our chosen mall, but instead we hopped out at a small grouping of restaurants and sought relief from the still, dense heat with a cool drink. Given the chance to do it over, I wouldn’t have left the airport area. It was a never-ending travel day, but the upside was knowing I would soon see one of my closest friends once we touched down in Italy.
After twenty hours in Delhi, we entered the international terminal of the airport and I felt a wave of giddy anticipation wash over me. I have loved so much about my five months in this region of the world — there is a lot to love about Asia, specifically, and developing countries, generally — but it’s also more work to travel in these countries. With large language and cultural barriers, even simple tasks become monumental. And there’s the food, I miss Western food. And my friends. It’s time to move on. Although it’s a sad goodbye to Nepal, I look forward to giving my friend Jenn a huge welcoming hug while we hunt down an ice-cold gelato.
My volunteer travels in Nepal started with sightseeing around the Kathmandu Valley. I loved this part. Sightseeing gave my me a jump-start of sorts into the Nepali Buddhist culture into which my cousin and I were immersing ourselves for two months. We toured Kathmandu for a few days and we took a crash-course in Nepali language.
After those orientation days, the plan was to head into the Kathmandu Valley to our volunteer placements at two Buddhist monasteries in a little village in a rural part of the valley. It’s about this point that we saw the cracks in volunteer placement company we used used. Volunteering in Nepal was a long-time goal for my cousin in particular, and we had used a middleman for ease and for local knowledge. Turns out that doesn’t always work out so well!
Update: This article was gently critical when I first posted about VSSN Nepal, and it was a story, not a review of the company. Basically the story recounted the joys with the monks and our placement, but also a few of the issues we’d had. Unfortunately, they didn’t like my feedback. It got nasty via email. In good faith, I can’t recommend VSSN (Volunteer Services and Support Nepal) to future volunteers.
Here’s the deal, I don’t like to dwell on the bad, so bear with me. After sharing on ALA that I liked neither the money trail nor the facilitation aspect of VSSN Nepal, I left it at that and wrote about what I did like about volunteering. I wrote several positive posts about my volunteering time in the country. A year after I left Nepal, however, various people representing the company and using VSSN email addresses started an aggressive email and commenting campaign on my website, forcing me to close the comment and eventually block IP addresses because of the hate and vitriol. Nasty things were said by both sides and eventually the founder stopped whoever was initiating the issues.
My goal was never to annihilate their business, so even after the heated and nasty exchanges, I left this blog post how it was back in 2008—gently critical but no mention of the more recent issues. Then, three years later and after no changes or contact from me, someone representing the volunteer organization sent me a series of snarky, aggressive, and attacking emails.
Volunteer Services and Support Nepal (VSSN) was frustrated by my criticism, I get it. But their approach showcased a serious lack of professionalism, which was my initial assessment and primary critique. At the height of the email attacks, I got nasty and ended up cussing in all caps in response. It was not my finest moment. After stressing over what to do, I left this post on my website. They are unprofessional. I offered to forget all of this and take down this blog post in exchange for an honest and professional apology; I was called a liar and Matrika told me he would never apologize for the very real issues that cropped up in our program, and he never explained why his uncle’s orphanage received an unverified donation on my behalf instead of the monastery.
I give up. The company consistently tried to make me feel like I was a bad person for sharing my personal volunteer experience on my website. My VSSN review boils down to this: They are unprofessional and they have never accounted for why zero percent of my volunteer fee went to the monastery that hosted me. That’s what sticks out most in the years since I volunteered; my presence was a burden to the very people I aimed to support. I thought they were receiving money to cover my food, but the placement company didn’t share that fee with them.
Below are a few other issues if you care to continue, and I also share tips for what to ask before you volunteer with a company. At the end of the day, I loved teaching the young monks English in Nepal. For years now, I continue to support the monastery and I follow the progress of the students. And I also loved my time traveling across Nepal.
So, read on, or skip to the volunteer experience posts. At the end of this post I share information on ideas for arranging independent volunteer experiences
What Went Wrong? My VSSN Nepal Review
The rest of this blog is a recap of what went right and wrong with our organization, it’s a review of Volunteer Service and Support Nepal (VSSN). This represents my personal experience with the company, no more, no less. VSSN Nepal denied that anything went wrong with our program, but out of the seven other volunteers I met during my month, scarcely one person was completely satisfied with their experience.
The good? I loved my language lessons and the two sisters who taught me basic Nepali—they were sweet women and they took me sightseeing around Kathmandu, gave some history, and a fun few days of orientation. The women are locals, and demonstrate that VSSN is supporting the local community through employment.
The bad? The facilitation side of our VSSN volunteer program went into the gutter the moment the cab dropped us off in the small town of Pharping. To my mind, facilitation on the ground is a key reason to pay the fee.
Pharping is a small Newari village with not a whole lot going on—which is lovely, really. The pace of life slowed once we left Kathmandu city. Tibetan Buddhist monasteries dot the hillside around town. It is quaint, quiet, cool; a respite from the bustle of Kathmandu.
The owner of VSSN, Matrika, came with us for the hour-long trip to Pharping. He settled us into our rooms—clean and serviceable—and shared information about our placement at the two monasteries where my cousin and I would spend nearly four weeks teaching. After a bit of soup and tea, Matrika told us that while he was returning to Kathmandu, a new, third person would arrive in the morning to escort us to our two monasteries (my cousin at one, and me at another).
At this point, we had learned that two other women (another American and a South African) were already staying at the guesthouse and that each of the girls were placed at the two different monasteries: Manjushri Di-Chen Learning Center and Arya Tara.
We had two choices at this point, one of us would walk for 45 minutes to the girls monastery, Arya Tara, and teach English to the young nuns. The other would work at the boys monastery, Manjushri Di-Chen, a short walk up a steep hill. My cousin chose the nuns and I opted for the monks; then we said our adieus to Matrika.
Volunteer Placement Confusion
That night, we ate dinner with the two other women, Cara and Louise, and they gave us the scoop on the situation—the girl’s monastery was on holiday for three weeks and the boys’ monastery already had two English teacher volunteers for the small handful of classes.
Louise was concerned with the situation because there wasno need for me at the boys’ monastery. In fact, the facilitator at my monastery, Lobsang, hadn’t been informed that I was arriving. Helen was similarly confused: If the monastery is on vacation for three of the four weeks we are here, what will she do every day?
Then the women at the guesthouse shared that they felt trapped in the village with few food options. We were forced to eat at the monastery since the town offered just one sporadically open restaurant. And they were weary of the food. My approach to travel is to maintain respect and even bend my vegetarianism if culturally necessary. The program description explained that three complete meals every day were included. Even under generous assumptions, that did not pan out. The women had been eating from a single pot of lentils (unseasoned and simply boiled), for a week. By comparison, friends who were also volunteering through VSSN but living at a local homestay said the local families used the food stipend—which goes a very long way in a country as poor as Nepal—to prepare local vegetables, offer fruit a few times a week, and add a tad variety.
I went to bed that night confused about what was going to happen the next day. After we finished our breakfast, my cousin and I anticipated meeting Barbajuan, the owner of the guesthouse and a relative of Matrika. Matrika had indicated that this man would escort us to the monasteries and help ensure the placement went smoothly.
Instead, Amrit, a lovable and truly sweet man running the guesthouse (and a friend to this day) followed Barbajuan’s orders and instructed my cousin and me to tag along behind Louise and Cara to our respective monasteries.
Louise and Cara were awesome throughout everything; it was not their job to act as our tour guides for the day, but they both played an integral role in helping us figure out how to make a good experience out of the situation for the following four weeks. Lobsang, the man running my monastery, was kind and helpful when I showed up, even though he was also confused about my presence.
As a stop-gap for the situation, he instructed me to shadow Louise for the week-and-a-half left that she had for volunteering. Once Louise left, I would take over her classes. My cousin was equally unexpected and even less unnecessary at her monastery. She and Cara and decided to walk to their monasteries every day anyhow and play with the handful of girls who did not go home for break; they taught them Spanish, Latin salsa, and other fun games and dances.
Both of us made the absolute best out of the situation but it was not ideal for anyone. I addressed many grievances with Matrika as soon as they cropped up. Matrika responded positively to our polite request for food diversity, or even just access to the kitchen, which we weren’t allowed to use. And the food got better. He told us he couldn’t change the situation at the monasteries, but didn’t apologize that they were on break and also full of other volunteers.
As a placement organization, he dropped the ball by not communicating our arrival to either monastery.
The thing is, I had an open volunteer time-frame. My yearlong round the world trip meant that if he had informed me and my cousin of the situation, we would have simply volunteered three weeks later. We had planned to trek in the Himalayas and also explore other parts of Nepal, so we were beyond flexible on the timing. We could have avoided this situation Matrika and VSSN had maintained open communication channels. VSSN didn’t have it figured out; they were disorganized and they had no record of our past emails, past communiqués, aor our submitted application detailing when we planned to volunteer. They had simply forgotten about us until we arrived, then tossed us into a rural village.
In the years since volunteering in Nepal, I have volunteered in many other places—Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand—and in each case, things like this happen. But they usually happen because I volunteer independently. When my plans fall through, I roll with it. But when I pay money for someone smooth those rough edges, there’s at least a small expectation that some facilitation will occur.
So What Can You Do To Volunteer in Nepal?
My time at the monastery ended on a positive note because of the interactions with the children. It’s hard to go wrong once you actually get to volunteering. VSSN had little to do with what I loved about my experience. Since then, I’ve learned that going through a third party isn’t always necessary. My monastery has a website and it allows volunteers to book their time through them directly (there is a contact email on their site, please navigate there and contact them directly).
I loved teaching English at the monastery and I highly recommend this place to volunteers looking to teach English in Nepal, particularly since you can live right at the monastery while you volunteer. My cousin’s woman’s monastery, Arya Tara is less connected online, so it’s hard to volunteer there. But she had a fantastic time with the nuns even though she was not able to formally teach them; she did mini-lessons every day and formed some tight bonds with many of the girls.
If you’re willing to brave some of the details yourself then consider the advantages of booking directly with the monastery! I loved every moment teaching my young monks. There is a lot of need in Nepal, especially in the wake of the earthquake, so it would behoove those interested to really research where your skills best fit. Sometimes tourism is the best answer, but other times you can find great-fit volunteer experiences too.
This entire experience was my first lesson in the importance of thorough research; volunteer organizations charge anywhere from $500 to $2500 to arrange programs. In some cases this is necessary because of remote locations and specific types of volunteering—medical volunteering costs more. In other circumstances, if you know what type of volunteering you want to do it pays to read other travel blogs and stories from other RTW travelers. Do your homework and it’s possible to avoid using a middleman.
So, Should You Use VSSN to Volunteer in Nepal?
It was my sheer lack of knowledge that put me in my predicament. Even though we emailed past VSSN volunteers and received positive reviews, it was just an unlucky set of events. For a little perspective, at the time that I’m writing this, the amount of money I could have saved by going through the monastery directly is about US $510. The monastery charged roughly $150+ a month for housing and three meals a day; VSSN Nepal was significantly more than that.
Even all of the confusion wouldn’t have prompted me to share the issues online, but it galled me to learn (on my last day) that VSSN did not donate any of my volunteering fee to my monastery. The monastery fed me lunch every single day and received no food stipend from my donation, despite language on the website and from Matrika indicating that $100 of my fee would go toward the local project hosting me. Instead, I’m told that he donated my fee to his uncle’s orphanage a few towns over, which I never visited. I cannot know their intentions with that aboutface on the donation, but I do know it’s murky ethically.
If you are going to use VSSN—because they are nice enough people and they do offer some facilitation—I simply suggest that you account for the fact that they don’t spread your volunteer fee into the local areas. Once on the ground, you have the opportunity to infuse money directly into rural communities. This is the most powerful form of support possible for volunteers. Consider the fee that you pay VSSN is only for facilitation on getting to the placement—donate to your organization independently of Matrika and his company. It’s the only way that you will truly know that your presence at the—hospital, school, monastery, etc—isn’t negatively impacting its financial stability.
The paper trail. Honest organizations will fully itemize their annual expenses and clearly tell you how much of your fee is going to the volunteer project itself. Volunteering is about service, so I encourage you to find a non-profit, not a for-profit company whenever possible, unless you can volunteer directly with the school, monastery, or project.
What is included in the volunteer fee. Ask questions about your lodging, the type of food (western or local).
Point of contact. Who will be your contact person and can you get in touch with them at all times.
How many in-country details are provided? If it’s independent, will they help you get to the volunteer site? (In many cases, yes!).
Endorsements and accreditation. Find out if the NGO or organization has proven itself to any of the standards organizations.
Email past volunteers and Google the organization. They will never give you the email address of someone like me, who had a negative experience, so use the internet to research thoroughly. One negative review can be a fluke, but look around. Ask volunteers about their daily lives at the placement and what didn’t meet their expectations.
Is the company working with your placement? The best volunteer projects are community-led and the organization has a close relationship with the placement schools, monasteries, and hospitals to be sure the volunteers are needed and working on worthwhile projects. Some for-profit companies are only interested in the volunteer fees, not helping volunteers work toward the good and betterment of a community
So much good luck! Consider checking out Grassroots Volunteering; I launched this database to counter the issues and lack of transparency in international volunteering. This site is free and open-source; it’s the culmination of hundreds of travelers from around the world submitting volunteer projects they’ve found on their wanders. It’s a database of low-cost independent volunteering opportunities all over the world. :)
Is any trip to India complete without a trip to see the sacred Mother Ganges? This famous river winds through the country, giving life to northern towns and accepting life at Varanasi, where the ghats sit on the banks of India’s holy Ganges River. After nearly two months in India, it was time to make the pilgrimage and find the sacred waters. I had relaxed in McLeod Ganj learning more about the Tibetan culture, and now — with my flight to Kathmandu just a week away — I spent for days in Rishikesh. The plan was to raft the river, bend and twist in a yoga class, meander the many ashrams, and to enjoy my last week of Indian cuisine.
Rishikesh is a strange town; it’s unlike the other Indian towns I have visited these past two months. It’s a tourist hotspot, but for foreigners and locals alike. Some Indians travel to Rishikesh on vacation, while others see it as a pilgrimage — a chance to stay at an ashram on the holy river and soak in the divinity of temples and religions. Getting to Rishikesh from McLeod Ganj was brutal. It was a taxi to a bus to an overnight train. And while that’s not uncommon for backpacking India, I had eaten questionable street veggies in Dharamsala and then spent the next 15 hours becoming reacquainted with said veggies. I don’t often get sick on the road, but when I do, it takes a toll. It was a long night. But by morning I was determined to shake off the weak achy feeling and explore this new spot.
The fantastically blue-green waters of the Ganges River greeted me when I exited the train station. Most stories of the Ganges River are largely negative. And it’s not just the banter around town. Even Indian literature portrays the Ganges River as a festering gray slush with feces, filth, and the ashes of dead bodies clogging the banks of the river. With those images embedded in my brain, seeing the heart of Rishikesh on the far side sun-glinted blue river surprised me. I crossed the rushing clean river on a large pedestrian bridge and landed in an area of town where motorbikes and push carts are the only transportation options clogging the streets. The place has tons of places to stay, from ashrams to boutique hotels to hostels. I was on a budget so I went with the Shiv Shakti Hostel — highly recommended.
Rishikesh is essentially the first place that the sacred Ganges River exits the mountains and enters the plains of India. In the high mountains, the water travels through forests and remains in clear glory. At this part of the river, nothing of the slush to come is visible. The Ganges’ poor reputation is well deserved once it reaches Varanasi, where riverside cremations and funeral pyres create a thick, polluted river that flows into the rest of the country.
Rishikesh has a lot to offer, but for many backpackers, it’s best known as the Yoga capital of India. I eased into the yoga scene with a free meditation class offered by the Cultural Center. The class is led by a Yogi guru and assisted by a team of pubescent girls who circle the room like vultures over a kill. The girls adjust your position and patiently shove your body deeper into the postures. The girls’ flawless execution of the deep bends and twists intimidated me, a newbie. But yoga is about honoring your own pace so I followed the flow and postures as best as possible. The free class was an excellent way to ensure a gentle evening workout. Plus, it stretched out the kinks from all those hours of buses and trains.
And even more than the kinks from train rides, I really looked forward to that nightly yoga class after whitewater rafting down the Ganges River. Because the river is so clean this far north, the Ganges is a viable rafting spot. It draws adventurists to the area since the this section of the river offers three to four grade rapids this time of year. Even more, it was pretty budget-friendly to take a morning rafting trip down the river. I am not one to pinch pennies if it’s a memorable trip, but this was both memorable and affordable so it became a must-do.
My cousin and I arrived early and met the four other tourists in our raft — a group of Indian twenty-somethings from Delhi who were vacationing in Rishikesh for the weekend. They were jazzed for the weekend vacation from the city and they were a lot of fun, but they were not the best paddlers. There were times on the river when my cousin and I were the only two paddling in the boat! Two of the others, Deepak and his friend, sat at the helm chatting. Meanwhile, our guide would shout for us to paddle and they wouldn’t even listen. It got to the point where the chubbier guy was relieved of his paddling duties and instead asked to splay himself across the front of the boat to act as a weight. That turned out to incite the others into guffaws because he was traveling face first through the rapids. He must have swallowed bucket-loads of the Ganges River!
My cousin and I are adding to our arsenal of Hindi phrases. In addition to knowing how to say “please dance” in Hindi, we can also say “dude, paddle harder!” It’s not the handiest of phrases (when could I possible need this in the future?!) but it’s a fun parlor trick now.
This was my first rafting trip and while my arm muscles ached that evening, I’d love to try rafting again. There’s this fun adrenaline high that comes with adventure sports like rafting, climbing, and diving. And while I am not an adrenaline junky, rafting is good fun!
Beyond the rafting and yoga, Rishikesh is a spiritual center where people come for weeks and months to live at an ashram, meditate, and practice yoga. This wasn’t my plan for now (I will be taking a ten-day Vipassana meditation course in Nepal), so my cousin and I enjoyed exploring Rishikesh and we walked the sandy white shoreline of the Ganges River.
Fun and random anecdote: I spotted this black cow and decided to do a mini photo-shoot of the cow on the beach. He stood so tall and proud and he stood out against the white sand. Unfortunately, one of the nearby cows was less impressed by my presence and intentions. While I was consumed with the task of framing the perfect picture, my cousin snapped a very brief video of our scramble to avoid the charge of the lighter colored and oddly huge cow. How ridiculous is it that neither of us realized the cow was charging us until he was very close!
Besides the rafting, yoga, and relaxed pace of it all, Rishikesh was just quietly lovely. I loved this gorgeous fruit salad and curd (you know how I love curd!) served at one of the hippy tourist restaurants. It was the tastiest of the entire trip. It’s as if India put its best foot forward during my final days in the country. I hadn’t seen a snake charmer before. Is it cheesy and cliché? Totally. But it was cool nonetheless. :)
Quick Tips: Visiting Rishikesh, India
Where to Stay: Shiv Shakti is the best hostel in town, and it’s in the backpacker area, Lakshman Jhula, so you will find affordable eats nearby. Although many people come for the ashrams, if you’re passing through you can still practice yoga and meditate from the many hotels. Rishikesh Valley Hotel is the eco-friendly option with wooden huts and great sustainable choice. Atali Ganga Cottages has the best views in town, and Ganga Kinare Boutique Hotel is the best all-around mid-range and convenient option.
Adventure. Besides rafting — which I highly recommend — this is a hotspot for the adventurous. You can bungee jump, rappel, cliff jump, rock climb, and kayak.
Yoga. The largest ashram in town is Parmarth Niketan, this would make a good starting point for those serious about yoga. There are dozens of yoga programs in Rishikesh, however, so you can certainly find other options, too. (The yoga section of this guide lists out all the options along with contact details.
Daytrips. Head to Kunjapuri Temple, an easy day trip from Rishikesh. And don’t miss Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram, which is the abandoned ashram that the Beatles visited in 1968 to learn transcendental meditation.
Best Guidebook: I can’t imagine backpacking India without the newest Lonely Planet India. Although some of the hotel recommendations and restaurants become lower quality once listed (because of the influx of travelers), the transportation and activity recommendations were spot on and I wouldn’t have explored half of the neat places without the guidebook there to recommend towns and activities off the beaten path a bit. To keep the weight down, I ripped out the sections that I no longer needed as I traveled.
Reading: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. This was among my favorite reads so far this year. I am just finishing it up — the narrator’s voice is bizarre, but the story was compelling and it has given me a lot of insight into the Indian culture without reading like a history book. Highly recommend it, and I have a list of other country-based travel reads too. This is one of my favorite ways to learn about the places I am visiting!
Pacing long-term travel is difficult. It’s not something I anticipated in my many pre-travel worries. I worried about my route, about the culture shock, about a million other tiny details. And yet I didn’t anticipate what it would be like to constantly move. I didn’t realize that being unmoored from a single spot is disorienting. I have no center to which I return each day, or even each week. There is no familiarity to my routine and my senses are constantly assaulted by new experiences, people, cultural norms and foods.
Readers have emailed in the past few weeks about my decision to slow my pace of travel to a week in each new city. India is an enormous country and I could see so many more places if I jumped around every two to three days. It comes down to pacing myself. Traveling for a year is a long time and rushing from place to place is stressful. Although at times it does feel like a vacation, most of the time it’s a lot of work too. Instead of architecting two weeks of fun and racing to enjoy a new place, I have to live life alongside the travel. I am working too, and that also changes the nature of how I can travel. Even without work, I would need at least one “business” day each week, and probably two. In travel terms, business days means hand-washing my underwear (they won’t wash them here in India), calling home to assure the parents I’m alive, blogging, and at this time of year I even have to sort out my taxes from the road.
I wasn’t sure of my pace in India when I first arrived since I was traveling with my cousin. But she was equally keen to slow down and try to venture past the checklist tourist sites in each new place. That meant weird stops like Ahmedabad, which is not a tourist spot but is home to Gandhi’s Ashram. And then it meant visiting more than the palaces of Udaipur. It meant taking all the smaller, quirky local recommendations for Udaipur, like a visit to the city’s rose garden. We walked there from our hotel (a gorgeous spot we love at the Lakeview Guest House), and it was quite a ways! It took us far outside of the tourist quarter, however, and that was fun to see the different pace locals live beyond the tourist-focused shops, cafes, and restaurants.
When we arrived at Udaipur’s rose garden, we found vast rows of every type of rose imaginable. And butterflies flitted around the gardens — hundreds of them — from flower to flower as they did their bee business in bliss. My cousin and I had both brought book, we had hoped to find a spot and read in the shade, but there wasn’t a tall tree in sight, which was a bummer. But it was still a green spot and a pretty slice of nature in the middle of a city with little nature outside of the centerpiece lake.
In fact, throughout my weeks in India, I’ve noticed precious few lakes and green spaces in the country’s cities and towns. Nature exists on the fringes, I hiked a mountain from Pushkar and took a camel ride through the desert too. But space seems precious here, it’s a country bursting at the seams to hold its billion inhabitants. And perhaps the parks are simply taken over by the poverty. I don’t know enough yet to say whether there is a lack of concern about how people need open spaces, or if open space becomes another opportunity for humanity to push into the cracks and spaces and pace of city life.
Whatever the reasons, the park was lovely. The garden is set off from the main road and provided a respite from the noise, smells, traffic. I welcomed the chance to wander aisles of fragrant roses without worrying a motorcycle might clip my toes, or worrying I might step in a steaming pile of cow manure.
After the rose garden, Sanju — the resident miniature artist who pouts like a sad puppy every time I walked by since I refused his marriage proposal — suggested that my cousin and I visit a nearby cultural show. Fun! I am down. I was a dancer throughout middle and high school and I love seeing the dancing and art in each new place. It turned out that it was a charming evening. The evening cultural show mixed a range of arts and traditions, from Indian dancing to balancing to master puppeteers.
The puppeteer was a bit strange, to be honest, but the women dancers were superb. They wore beautiful, ornate dresses and spun across the stage in an intricate display of timing, precision, and art. My favorite dance was a group dance with six women — they danced in perfect unison and when they twirled in circles their dresses blurred in vibrant colors. Another memorable one was the peacock dance, which was a hoot.
The entire night was capped with a woman doing a balancing act. It sounds a bit silly on the surface, but displayed true feats with her incredible poise and ability. She started with just one big bucket on her head and then slowly stacked as many as 16 buckets! With all that on her head, she twirled, shuffled, and dipped — she swayed to the music but never lost the balance of those things perched on her head.
Her dance showcased the talent of Indian women for balancing large loads on their heads. This is one of the most impressive things I bear witness to every day. The women use this skill to facilitate every aspect of their lives. They carry buckets of water on their heads from the community well back to their homes. And they are even used on construction sites across the country to clear rubble. The men do the construction while the women carry stones, wood, and debris away from the construction site one plate-full at a time. It’s a large part of the culture. I spotted a woman in town with a team of donkeys who was able to forgo carting the rubble on her head by instead wrangled the donkeys through the town, back and forth, all day long.
Oh! And I discovered the best thalis ever in Udaipur — in my entire trip to India so far, in fact. I could never return to Udaipur without stopping at Natraj Lodge for a $1 thali. The spot is local and well-loved. It’s not remotely near the tourist side of town either, so my cousin and I were the only goras there. This thali was worth the 15 minute rickshaw ride. The the food was flavorful, fresh, and distinctive. I’ve mentioned the thali before — it was my first meal in India when I landed in Mumbai. It’s a never-ending dish of dhal, curries, veggies, rice, naan, and a variety of dips for the food. The servers circulate with trays of the various dishes and scoop a refill onto your plate. To stop the flow of food, you have to cover the dish with your hands. They return a couple more times until they begin to then bypass your table on their rounds. This is one of the best dishes I’ve sampled so far India — incredibly tasty, a bit spicy (our noses were running when we were finished), and contained every element of the flavors I love in Indian food.
Udaipur is oozed charm and I found it delightful. The streets maze through the city, towering buildings blotting out the sun. We found a gorgeous guesthouse, a new friend at the shop next door, and a good pace of life. I loved it enough to spend several extra days in the city, spending a week to relax, eat, and enjoy. It’s also been an effective way to both cut the travel fatigue and to keep a low budget. It’s the transportation and travel days adding extra costs. Although, I also admit that the dollar is quite strong, so even on a splurge day I am often below my anticipated budget. I know that will change when I reach places with the larger tourist attractions — the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple — but right now the focus is on soaking in Indian food, culture, and the pace of life.
The hotels here sport gorgeous rooftop restaurants. It’s a city with a lake, and that makes for prime sunrise, sunset viewings, and afternoons on the patio with a lassi and a breeze. There are three main palaces here too, each one interesting with a stor and history: Lake Palace, City Palace and Monsoon Palace.
The Lake Palace, as the name would suggest is the palace surrounded by Udaipur’s partly natural, partly man-made Lake Pichola. Although you can take a boat out to the Lake Palace Hotel, the lake was low since it’s the tail end of India’s dry season. Instead, my cousin and I chose a new restaurant each night and watched the moon rise over the lake and Palace while we gorged on the flavorful spread of Indian dishes.
The town is beautiful. I’m not on a high budget for this trip, but in Udaipur there are no bad views. Every window of the hotel, the restaurants, the shops — they afford the chance to gaze at mountains, lake, and palaces. It’s stunning and I understood quickly why every rooftop functions as a restaurant, cafe, or hotel. Udaipur is a place where you want to linger and soak in the atmosphere.
The City Palace sits on the edge of Lake Pichola, it’s the largest palace in Rajasthan, which is India’s arguably most tourism-heavy one of the states. The City Palace museum is interesting too, and I don’t usually love museums. My cousin and I considered saving the 100 rupee entry fee and skipping the museum, but that would have been silly. Both of us were happy to have spent the $2 fee to see everything up close and learn more about the city’s history.
Plus, the views of the Lake Palace and two islands in the lake is beautiful from this spot — dozens of terraces and cupolas within the palace offer views of the surrounding mountains and palaces. I ended up taking way more pictures than I had anticipated, and I enjoyed it more than I anticipated as well!
The museum showcases some of the oddest and random arrangements of well, stuff. From a room highlighting olden-time fans (this picture is for my dad since he collects and restores antique fans!) to a peek into the old-style throne-room, it was bizarre. The peacock is the state bird of Rajasthan; dozens of intricate peacock mosaics adorned the structure.
With two of the three palaces explored, my cousin and I packed a few snacks and used a rickshaw for the 30 minute ride to the Monsoon Palace. The thing is, the Monsoon Palace is nothing to write home about in and of itself — when I visited in 2009, the state government was still restoring the palace. It was empty inside, which has me curious about what it will become. But! The Monsoon Palace is built on a mountain, and views of Udaipur on one side and the rolling hills and mountains on the other. Locals had advised that we stay for sunset, so we had packed a few snacks for primo seats and views.
The Monsoon Palace was peaceful. It was a lovely way to end our visit to Udaipur. And even though a dozen or so other tourists had the same idea, everyone was there to relax. It’s a quiet, tranquil setting. One Indian man near my perch meditated on a ledge for the 45 minutes before sunset.
Once the sun dipped over the horizon, we used our waiting rickshaw for a moonlit dinner on the lake. After the frenetic pace of India in my first days in Mumbai and Ahmedabad, life is pretty darn good right now. I always try to remember how lucky I am to have online work that has allowed me to take this trip. It’s a charmed life, and one I am grateful for every day. :)
This short video shows the local temple playing the call to prayer — it happens several times a day, every day:
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 2018) 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
Although I’m on a budget during this trip, I’ve committed to myself that I will spend money when it’s needed. I met backpackers along the way who were on bare-bones budgets and splurging more on booze than on the experiences available — both cultural and adventure. The Gibbon Experience hit so many interest spots though, and it’s supporting the local economy, so I forked over the money to visit. At about $100 per day, it’s pricey. But that money goes toward fair wages, maintenance, and conservation. Plus, everyone who we met in Luang Prabang had gushed about how much fun they had searching for gibbons in the treetops.
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.
Quick Facts: How to Prepare for the Gibbon Experience
Entertainment: Bring your Kindle or a good book since the evenings are very chill. Also pack a deck of cards or a portable game like Bananagrams if you want to be the hero each evening!
Insurance: I use World Nomads, and since I was so desperately ill before I left, I was relieved to know they would help me get help if I happened to get worse (or injured) while in the jungle. I’ve used them for a decade now and find it a reliable option for backpackers.