We made our way to Huay Xai, a border town on the Thailand/Laos border, so that we could enjoy the Gibbon Experience. Getting to Huay Xai was quite the adventure as it required taking a 14 hour bus ride. We all boarded the bus at 7pm and prepared ourselves for our travel into the night. The bus wasn’t very crowded which was quite nice as it allowed us to spread out so that we could lay down and sleep, or attempt to sleep. The bus made a few stops along the way and one of the stops was in a town with a “market”. The offerings in these little markets were chocolate, ice cream, chips, live beetles, maggots, fruits, and vegetables, among many other things. Ice cream was our sustenance of choice during this stop. We were told that the ride would be fairly smooth except for the final 2 hours which were supposed to be “bumpy”. As with most travel in the developing world, the actualities of the road conditions and duration of the trip are grossly underestimated. The road was to say the least non-existent in many places. The bus would crisscross the road in order to avoid or attempt to avoid huge potholes created by the rainy season. When the bus couldn’t avoid the potholes it shook and bounced as if you were on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The northern part of Laos gets so much rain during the rainy season that road washes away and to try and keep up with the road maintenance would be a huge job even for the developed world. They were gracious enough to play Laotian music for the duration of our bus ride as well. This music was definitely much better than the karaoke that drones into the night that we’ve experienced on many previous occasions. We arrived in Huay Xai around 9am and all piled into our tuk-tuk to make our way to the Gibbon Experience office before finding a guesthouse for much needed showers and shut eye.
The Gibbon Experience, created by the vision of a man from France, is an organization that works with local villagers to protect the 123,000hectare Bokeo Nature Reserve. The money paid for the experience is used to fund the entirety of the project so that they are not reliant on outside donations. They invest 1Euro/hectare to change the economy from forest destruction to forest conservation. Forest conservation and canopy visits generate as much income every year as a logging company could do once. The long term goal is to be able to hand the entire project over to the Lao people.
Getting to the reserve required a combination of riding in vehicles with 4WD capabilities and hiking. We traveled on the main road for about an hour before we turned off to head down this “road” that started on one side of the river and continued on the other. Yes, that’s right…..the trucks went straight through the river, no bridges needed here. The drive out was bumpy and hot but, overall not too bad. The drive to return to the office on the other hand was another story. It had rained while we were out playing which turned the “road” into a mud hole. The trucks were sliding all over the road. At times we were pushing through ruts that were almost 2 feet deep and filled with water. One of the trucks had engine trouble and had to wait at the top of a hill to cool down a bit before continuing. The other truck ended up getting completely stuck in the mud which resulted in us getting out and watching the developing world at its best. The locals got out, evaluated the situation, and stood there in disbelief laughing. Then the action: find the head of a shovel under a seat, cut down a tree to use as the shovel handle, start digging the truck out, hook the trucks together, and then finally the truck came out and we were able to continue our journey. We were all relieved that the trucks had actually come to pick us up though as we had heard many stories about how people had to hike, 5 or 6 hours, out to the main road during and after rain.
We spent two nights and three days out in the canopy. Moving around in the canopy required a combination of hiking and ziplining. It was amazing to be out in the middle of the forest gliding along taking in the lush greenery, sounds of nature, and huge limestone mountains. Our nights were spent in a tree house that was as high as at least a 3-story building or maybe higher. The meals were brought in to the tree house from the kitchen which was back at “base camp”. We got up at 6am the first morning to go out with one of our guides in hopes of seeing and hearing the Gibbons. As our guide said, we were lucky. We saw Gibbons playing around in the trees and were able to hear them doing their morning singing. Our tree house was the only one out of the three to see the Gibbons. We made our way out to a tree house that was about an hour away from ours and as luck would have it, it started to pour on our way back. We were all drenched when we finally got back to our tree, but fun was had by all. Leeches, enough said, though there weren’t as many here as there were on the trek. We spent our two nights in the tree house conversing, playing cards, and relaxing with a Kiwi/British couple. They were a great duo who had been traveling around in the area for 3 months and were soon to head to New Zealand to get back to the “real world”.