I arrive into Houay Xai – a dusty, una attractive little town on the border of Thailand – pretty much famous for one thing only that puts it on the map – The Gibbon Experience -which is what i'm here to do. Guesthouses rather than dorms are more common in South East Asia so I end up paying 80,000 kip a night for a private room with ensuite bathroom (around six pounds) but hey I get an mtv channel which even though its showing some crappy rock god countdown is bliss compared to the all Asian music and media i've been experiencing to date. The next day I find a nice bakery and buy some pumpkin and raisin bread along with a proper coffee for breakfast.
I get talking to a sixty something German artist called Yuri. He is tanned with clouds of white hair, a brisk little moustache and eyes that twinkle. Nowadays he lives in the Blue Mountains in Sydney – but he likes to spend some months travelling Asia where its cheaper and hotter. He waxes lyrical about Indonesia which I inform him i've decided to tag onto the end of my trip – and recommends that I go to Sumatra and visit Lake Tobu. Should I ever decide to learn Chinese again he also recommends a school on Hainan which is cheap where I can go. I talk about my love of literature and he tells me about the Chinese poet Bai Lu – who died staring up and admiring the moon but then falling overboard because he was drunk...
We go for lunch overlooking the wide coffee brown Mekong River and share a plate of spring rolls and dumplings. He gets out his painter's note book and his acrylic paints and sets to work touching up one of his sketches. He gives his art away often to locals – because the universe always gives back. I tell him I want to start painting again and he encourages me.
He's getting a bus to Luang Prabang – I take a walk up the hill to see the temple at the top where the monks are. Its all gold and glittery and there are hundreds of monks – young boys and teenagers mostly in their bright orange robes. A couple come up to chat to me – Bat and Bong I think there names are!
They are studying Buddhism for three years. They are sweet and curious and friendly :
“Good luck!” they say as I leave.
In Laos – becoming a monk is something that nearly all young men do it signifies the rite of passage from boy to man. The monks come down every day at dawn to receive alms from the villages but today is an extra special ceremony that signifies the end of their three month fast and the rainy season. All evening the villagers have been wrapping up parcels of sticky rice in banana leaves and creating flower arrangements to float down the river.
I am taking over the single room that Yuri has been in – and knowledge of this causes me to get very little sleep. I can smell him on the sheets. Its a pretty shitty hotel – the sink comes away from the basin and the water is collected in a bucket underneath. There are no mosquito nets on the window.
I get up early for The Gibbon experience and go get a pancake in banana and honey for breakfast in preparation.
The Gibbon Experience is listed as one of Lonely Planet's must do sights (one of the only things to do...) in Houay Xai. It started out as an innovative initiative to stop poachers wiping out the black gibbon native to the jungle in Bokeo Province. They created a series of tree houses with zip lines between the canopies so that thrill seeking travellers could experience what it really feels like to swing between the trees like a monkey – and retrained the poachers to be guides to help travellers hear and see the gibbons– paying them more money than they would have made through the killing and selling of the creature.
This adventure is something I was planning to do last Easter when I was looking at a 3 week holiday to South East Asia while I worked at Network Rail. Then around 230 pounds for a 3 day 2 night experience seemed like an absolute bargain – these days its feels like a seriously overpriced extravagance. There is a cheaper option for around 180 pounds that is two days and one night – however the chances of seeing gibbons are low to none.
The women who run the tiny, blink and you miss it, office in Houay Xia are bored and listless and seem to operate on Lao time which means although everyone has been gathered at the doors by 8.30am no one appears till quarter to nine and its about 9.30 when we hit the road. We are taken to the edges of the jungle in a jeep. In rainy season the roads leading to the official start of the trek get waterlogged and too muddy to traverse by car so participants must walk – it can add an extra 3 to 5 hours ontothe trek to get to the campsite. Luckily we have hit the end of the rainy season and the jeep sets off, first driving right through a muddy river then managing deep dirt tracks with deep dusty grooves. The landscape is thick and gives way to paddy fields and banana trees. The Gibbon Experience will take place even if only one person has paid – but I opt to wait a day to join a group of four other people – I figure ziplining will be more fun (and safer!) with some company. My group are Miika – a 35 year old tanned Dutch senior school teacher with cropped hair and tanned athletic build, Dominik - a bearded german on holiday from work in management accountancy and Polly and Ben – a 21 year old and 19 year old brother and sister from Essex. We share our jeep with some Lao locals – a mother with a little boy that keeps falling asleep on his mother – and a couple of little girls sucking lollipops.
We arrive and start the hour long trek through the jungle to the tree house camp – our home for the next few nights. Bright green paddy fields flank the path – which is at least clear and easy to navigate. Dry twisted vines hang from the trees and the sun is boiling. A lot of the trek is steep and uphill (which they don't tell you in the promotional material) but finally we get to the camp and are issued with our harnesses and then the final steep hike to the tree house. When we get to the first zip line we are shown again by our guide what to do – zip the safety clip and then the harness to the zipline and off you go! Its not for the faint hearted or those who have the slightest problem with heights! And the health and safety isn't quite up to European standards. The guides seem very laid back about everything. I check with them the first two times that i'm attaching myself correctly to the line but they aren't really even watching. On one particulary long zip line I slow down and get stuck before I get to the platform -when this happens you have to pull yourself the rest of the way with your arms. I try and brake but then I go zipping back in the opposite direction to the middle of the line (how typically me!) and I don't have the strength to pull myself all the way back. So one of the guides has to shimmy out to help me.
Its fairly daunting – a lot of the platforms are just brown slats of dry wood nailed to the tree without any barriers to stop you toppling over the edge – with a sharp plummet of hundreds of metres! But the zipline itseslf is brilliant – a wonderful free whooshing sensation as you fly threw the air with nothing but the tops of trees and the entire canopy of the beautiful jungle spread out below you. A unique way to experience this amazing environment.
We are shown our tree house and then just left to play in this fantastic playground. But no guides hang around to continue to check our harnasses or that we attach our selves to the zip line correctly. I attempt a first go by myself:
“hang on a minute – you've got the harness and safety clip attached the wrong way around – oh and the safety clip isn't done up properly..o” Ben says adjusting everything for me:
“Right there you go, now you can and kill yourself!”
We arrive at our tree house – which is beautiful and every big kid's fantasy. Its on three levels – with a big rain water shower where the water just falls through the slats to the forest below. There is a little kitchen in one of the other trees and three floors up the branches where we can sleep. Mattresses and bedding has been laid out and there are mosquito nets that hang in great big tents “like a princess' palace” says The Essex. “How appropriate for me” I think.
Our dinner has been left for us – its sticky rice, chicken, cashew nuts, mushrooms and tomatoes. Some of the others have brought biscuits which we eat along with honeyed peanuts for snacks. At about 8.30pm the electricity which is solar powered runs out so we are left with flashlights and the sound of the jungle all around us. I'm blown away by how noisy little creatures can be: cicadas - little insects like grasshoppers sound like an industrial sprinkler systems gearing up to irrigate 30 hectares of land. Geckos - little pale colourless lizards with sticky feet make a loud sharp sucking noise that I thought could only come from a two tonne bird sitting outside my window. The jungle also has a creature which is making the sound like a train hooting and rushing through a station – god knows what it is. We play card games – and Uno courtesy of The Essex – and forfeits are created. The German is told he must zipline to the kitchen in the dark and go get a mosquito coil lit. (We have been expressly told not to zipline in the dark.) The Dutch woman accompanies him (I can't believe they've agreed to it – i'm not feeling secure on the line on the first day and point blank refuse – party pooper that I am) We watch them zipline off and Polly says:
“well that's got rid of them – well done Team GB” then we turn off all the lights in the tree house. Childish but amusing!
As another forfeit and so as not to disappoint The Essex I eat a moth. Its a bit like a really low rent version of I'm a celebrity...
The chances of seeing gibbons are about 50:50 it depends how close they choose to come to the camp.
But in the morning I wake to the eerie high pitched looping whoops of the gibbons singing heir early morning song. Its only just 6am and the jungle is still a deep dark blue - the sun has yet to burn off the mist that hangs in the trees. But the gibbons throw their songs to each other in ululating waves – crescendoing and then trailing off only to begin again.
Our guide has arrived to help us try and spot them and he's brought strong coffee and fruit as well for an early morning snack:
“The gibbons are happy this morning!” he smiles.
After about almost an hour of people trying to point them out only for me to fixate on a dark black shape that turns about to be a gap in the trees I finally spot them – some way off in the distance but there are few black shapes and you can see their long dangly arms as they swing between the branches. I'm delighted! Seeing and hearing them has made the experience for me.
We go back to bed for a snooze and wake up later for breakfast proper – egg, rice, vegetables and thick sweet Lao coffee sweetened with condensed milk. Today we are going on another hike to visit the other tree houses where groups stay. There follows yet more really gruelling uphill hikes which I find strenous but may be because i'm finding it difficult to keep up with the younger members of the group who just go storming off into the jungle. The leeches are also back out in force. God I hate them. Both Ben and Polly get bitten three or four times and find them in their socks (they bite through socks did you know?) but I remain unscathed. I still scream everytime I find one on me – and the others laugh.
To get to these tree houses we must zip across lines as long as 500m. Its awesome and i'm feeling more confident than the day before too. At one of the tree houses we stop for lunch and then all of us except Polly fall fast asleep for a 30 minute catnap. Whereas a lot of the zipline platforms have sloping ground beneath them - the only exit from our luncheon treehouse is via a little step which you shift out onto that has a sheer drop below it, you clip you self to the zip line and basically just let yourself fall into thin air. I actually like this one it is quite literally a “leap of faith” and no more scary to me than some of the others but it does freak out a couple fo the rest of the gorup which actually I find quite comforting asi have been the biggest wuus so far.
Later that night I have developed a tummy ache so go to bed and get up at around 8pm to discover them all playig cards.
“If you could have a super hero power what would it be?” asks Polly. Excellent I like to address the important issues of the day whilst travelling...
“I would be spiderman” I declare “so I can swing between buildings.”
“NO!” says the German – "not spider man imagine how messy it would be ….all that sticky web..."
“I don't think” I say “ I could have predicted a more stereotypical response from a German.”
Late into the night we just stand in darkness and stare out inot the jungle listening to its sounds. A lone bird has a “whoo whoo” call that we then spend half an hour whistling back to. We try different tunes and lengthening the melody but it never plays along.
We wake the next day – Polly who missed the gibbons before because she couldn't be bothered to get up (young people) has got up early but the day is dark and misty and I think they are all snoozing in their tree tops still. I've woken with an itchy rash all down one arm and around the nape of my neck.
We do a long gruelling trek back to the main camp and across a particularly dodgy suspension bridge with planks of wood rotting and missing and then wait for our lift. A jeep with the next group arrives and empties. Polly whispers and points at some of them – a few are quite overweight and one man has turned up in white linen trousers and loafers. I don't know how they are going to manage either the muddy steep trekking or the ziplining for that matter!
We continue to play our card game surrounded by a gaggle of little kids watching intently and then it begins to rain. I think we timed our little trip just perfectly!