When Kimberly first mentioned the Gibbon Experience (www.gibbonexperience.org) as we were researching Laos, I was a bit wary because the cost – at about $100 per person per day – was uncharacteristically steep for the region and completely unplanned for in our initial budget. However, a visit to their website as well as universally glowing reviews on TripAdvisor quickly turned me around as it was clear that this would be a truly unique experience only available via Houay Xai (or Huay Sai, or Hueysai, you get the idea). HX is a sleepy northern border town just across the Mekong River from Thailand, which justifiably is only a stopover point for backpackers with little else to offer. I’ll shit on it some more later.
The Gibbon Experience is a multi-day eco-tour that mixes hiking and ziplining (!) in order to access and sleep in treehouses (!!) deep in a national forest. We opted for a 2 night/3 day option (Classic) instead of 1 night/2 day (Express) since a lot of reviews for the latter indicated regret for not doing longer. We are happy to say we made the correct decision.
We arrived in HX Thursday, 6/23 via a bus from Chiang Rai (220 baht) that waited for us to go through customs and dropped us off at a bus terminal about a 10 minute tuk tuk ride from the town center and our guesthouse. There was only one tuk tuk at the terminal and thus we didn’t really have any haggling power – I’m embarrassed to say the ride was 100 baht per person (they accept baht in Laos as well as kips but you’ll get screwed on exchange rate). We went straight to the GE office and paid – 2.3M kips each, just about 285 USD. We then walked to check in at Kaupjai (Kopchai, thank you in Lao) guesthouse where a cold receptionist no older than 14 received payment and gave our key with no more than 3 words. The room was spacious and clean but nothing special, fine for one night. We had a couple of forgettable meals at restaurants with surprisingly bad service.
Next day we arrived at the GE office at 0815am and after a quick safety video met our fellow GE’ers – Boy from Holland and Alan from California (a Dukie, as Kimberly helpfully reminds me). After dropping off large backpacks with non-essentials in the office storage we were herded onto a tuk tuk and on our way. The first half of the ride was scenic and smooth through a valley with seemingly endless rice paddies. Then we veered onto an unpaved dirt road and climbed through curves and bone-rattling bumps to arrive at a small mountain village where an earlier group was sipping on Beerlao and waiting for the transportation back. A group of Brits were eager to find out the result of Brexit but disappointed to know it was still being tallied at our last wi-fi access. They were tired but satisfied and encouraged us for the hike ahead. Our group was quick to reapply bug repellent spray after a look at their legs.
The hike began through a picturesque and verdant valley, a flat path passing by tilling farmers and rice plant seedlings. Then it started. Just straight uphill through the forest for about 30 minutes, lunch (baguette sandwiches with curry chicken and vegetables) on shaded benches, then another 30 minutes of even steeper uphill. I’m estimating the times here because I had no fucking concept of time through the sweat and aching calves (from Muay Thai 3 days ago, shut up). I consider myself an avid and experienced hiker and while that was far from the toughest hikes of my life, the heat and humidity was unpleasant to say the least. I sprinkled in some encouraging words for Kimberly who was probably struggling more, because she’s a girl, and we eventually reached a base camp where we met our main guide for the trip Kamphy and his assistant of sorts, Sompheng. They had a jeu de balle (literally “game of ball,” similar to bocce) court which the locals seemed passionate about and honestly way too good at and our group partook a bit as part of our respite. We donned on our harnesses and hiked a bit more uphill to reach the first zipline. By ziplining from one ridge to another we would be skipping considerable lengths of walking, but that’s not the best part about it.
The initial dread of height and speed vanishes once reaching the clearing and sufficient height above the valley below to get a clear view of the endless mountain ranges glistening in the sun, nothing for hundreds of feet around you as cool wind dries off sweat. Some of the longest ziplines were over 400 meters, or 1300 ft. The sensation did not get old nor do the clips in the video below do it justice.
After some combination of hikes and ziplining, we reached TreeHouse7 where we would be based for the next 2 nights. I estimate about 4 miles total of hiking, which does not sound much in retrospect but we were ready to rest up for the next day which would entail more of the same to visit other treehouses. TH7 had by far the best view and facilities, with 3 levels: zipline platform, toilet, and shower on the first; mattresses with mosquito nets and kitchen on the second; and additional sleeping quarter on the third. It is ONLY accessible by ziplining, which is cool as shit, and we could tell our dinner is on the way by the unmistakable sound of our guides zipping from the nearby kitchen and guide camp. One half of the round TH7 had a clear view of the valley below which meant we showered and pooped looking out for tens of miles of untouched green. The meals were delicious but repetitive with 4 dishes (vegetable with broth, fried starch, meat, stir fry, and rice) that seemed to use the same spices. After dinner at 5 we watched the sunset and played competitive games of shithead which was a great way to pass the time despite the deck missing 5 cards. I almost forgot; we saw a black gibbon right by the treehouse as soon as we arrived, which Kimberly missed because she was on the toilet. I mean, we saw a gibbon which is rare even for people staying for 2 nights and that’s cool and all but whatever, a forest has gibbons, big fucking whoop.
The second day, which was the main day of ziplining and views, can be told best by the video. We basically did the whole trail of hikes and ziplines beginning at 0830am, oftentimes repeating the same ones over and over because we could not get enough. Especially Alan, who wanted to do them “forever” and seemed a little tiffed when it was really time to go back for lunch and dinner. I envied his energy and enthusiasm but my previous experiences with outdoor sports dictated when you’re thinking “one more,” you’ve already had your last run. I really wanted to avoid visiting a Lao doctor in a place called fucking Houay Xai. We ate dinner, which I swear was the same exact as the night before, and did some reading before more games of shithead. I won like 3 times in a row and used my privilege as the champion to create fun and creative new rules which everyone thoroughly enjoyed and they thought I was awesome and totally not a dick.
The third day we had another early breakfast at 0630 and were on our way out by 0830. We got our fill of zipling for the last time for about 1.5 hours at more scenic and longer lines, then it was finally time to head back down to the village where we started and wait for the tuk tuk back. The lady at a small store totally boned us by charging 20,000 kips for a large beer instead of 16,000 like the menu said but seeing how the village kids were running around in absolutely filthy and ragged clothes, if they were wearing anything at all, I wasn’t going to argue for what amounted to extra 0.50 USD. I hope to write more about haggling while traveling in a country like Laos on a later post, and why I thoroughly hate it.
It was another bumpy ride, predictably mediocre meal at a roadside restaurant, then a drowsy rest of the way back to the office where we picked up our bags, unsuccessfully tried to use wi-fi, which was shit the whole time in HX, and checked into a different guesthouse for the night. We were rather tired at this point and decided to take it easy, which meant I got drunk and went to bed early. Next morning would be the beginning of another 2 crazy days of slow-boating down the Mekong to Luang Prabang where we planned to rest for a few nights before heading off to Hanoi, Vietnam.
Song: Adventure of a Lifetime by Coldplay
I’ll forego some sentimental bullshit retrospect on the 3 days as whole. The GE was a truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I’m glad we spent the time and money on and I would highly recommend it to anybody that comes through Laos. Now I’m going to go eat some cup noodles for lunch in ultimately futile hopes of balancing our books.
-For me, the hiking was pretty difficult. The trails were nothing out of the ordinary besides being steep and slippery at times, but trying to keep up with the Hoch, Alan (who was pretty gungho), and Boy (a 22 year old boy lol) in the heat really pushed me to my limit. I think under regular circumstances, there are larger groups and you would move at a slower pace. Being a smaller group, we were able to choose our own pace which happened to be on the faster end. I also blame my lack of endurance exercise on this trip thus far for making it more challenging for me. All that said, I am glad I pushed myself and definitely felt that by the 3rd day, the trails were becoming slightly easier. I did fall behind a little bit at times, but for the most part, I kept up with the guys and think I did a pretty good job.
-We used 98% DEET spray. I left with 5 mosquito bites which is exponentially less than what we saw on the previous groups. They must’ve used the natural stuff.
-Shithead is a fun game, similar to Asshole minus the excessive drinking. Though we did bring and enjoy whiskey and wine both evenings. 🙂
-The squatter toilet was constantly covered in bees (they like the smell?). In order to use it, I always took the hose spray and made it rain to get them to go away for barely long enough to use the bathroom. Also, the shower was really, really, really cool.
-Treehouses come with tree rats. They came out both nights and luckily leave the tents alone, but were scrimmaging through the garbage which we moved to the bottom level the second night. I did not see one, but supposedly they are tiny, like the size of your wrist. I had envisioned large rats with sharp teeth. Yeah I was freaking out a bit and slept with earplugs the second night so I could not hear them scurry about.
-To reiterate what Hoch said, when in Laos, do the Gibbon Experience. It was challenging, fun, super cool, and definitely a highlight of our travels so far. Even though I missed seeing the damn Gibbon! Also, we were caught up in the moment and did not take as many videos or try any selfie shots since you need both hands to stay in control while zip lining (yeah we were being chickens). I am kicking myself now, but wanted to mention that if you have Instagram, look up #thegibbonexperience to see other cool videos from other peeps as well.
-Lastly, Happy Birthday to my mom (6/30) and my sister, Stephanie (7/1)! It is officially my mom’s birthday in the states and Stephanie’s birthday here in southeast Asia! 🙂