The Gibbons

Day 381 – 16 March, 2016

Loud siren-type wailing that was able to sustain several octaves echoed through the treetops. It sounded far away, but could have easily been much closer. I lifted my mosquito netting and eagerly descended the narrow wooden stairs from my semi-private alcove to join my fellow intrepid travelers on the deck below. In utter silence, the seven of us dangled our legs through the wooden slats and passed binoculars around so that we could scan the treetops for our jungle neighbors. Moments later, a hissing screech signaled that our breakfast was on its way. We temporarily abandoned our search in the morning haze to greet the young woman that was removing her harness and setting our communal table for breakfast. Another hiss screech arrival and one of our guides also ascended from the lower level. Very casually, he says, “Gibbons.” We nod emphatically, “Yes, yes, we hear them too!” He points and says, “There.”

A few “wish list” items have been on my travel itinerary for quite awhile. I don’t remember when I first heard of the Gibbon Experience, but it was years before I ever planned a RTW trip. It was meant to be unique eco-tourism at its best, sleeping in a treehouse, ziplining through the trees, waking up to the sound of wildlife, especially gibbons. I had little doubt that this adventure would not fall short of amazing.

Fourteen eager explorers departed the Gibbon Experience office that morning bound for the Classic Route. We had two hours in a bumpy songtaew to take us to the start of our tour. And when I say bumpy, I mean the ride elicited motion sickness, migraines, and back problems for almost every passenger. A cloud of dust followed in our wake. From the base, we were unceremoniously divided into two groups of seven and assigned to two different treehouse accommodations, each group with our own set of two guides.

Harnesses were doled out, the briefest of safety briefings was delivered, and the next thing we knew we were trekking through the jungle to our first zipline. The next three days encompassed the daydreams of children everywhere – we were to sleep in forts within tree houses and would have to fly to get there. A series of ziplines had been built, connecting seven tree houses in Nam Kan National Park. The longest ride was 570m, but all of them would carry us across vast valleys, well above the trees. There were 23 cables in all or 4.53km worth! It was nothing short of a fantasy. I’ve never really been afraid of heights in the traditional sense, although I don’t particular like to stand too close to a steep drop if there isn’t a guardrail. Even what I know of Southeast Asian safety standards, the crudely constructed cables didn’t make me nervous – the whole experience was too magical. I felt like a bird….or Peter Pan. Who says you have to grow up?

My group consisted of Jennifer and Clayton from Canada, Miranda from Minnesota, Aneesa from England, and Kristine and Johanne from Denmark. We were assigned to TreeHouse #7 that was a whimsical design of three levels. The first level held our entry way, but more accurately, it was where the zip line cables were connected. A rudimentary safety gate was indeed present on both outbound and inbound cables. A bathroom complete with running water was wide open to the jungle canopy – one of the best washroom views I may ever hope to see. The main level was just one large open platform with a makeshift kitchen (just a sink with running water and a shelf for dishes), a dining table, and several mattresses with pillows and mosquito netting. I slept on the top level by myself. It was only a tiny little platform, big enough for one mattress, but I was still suffering from a hacking cough after the two prior weeks and I think we all thought it best that I slept away from the other guests.

For three meals a day, our food was prepared at the kitchen camp, about 200m from our treehouse. It would be neatly packaged into a bento box-style container so that a guide or cook could easily deliver it to us via zip line. It was usually rice, stir-fried vegetables, omelette, unidentifiable meat, and other typical Asian fare. The reviews I read about the Gibbon Experience before I booked were generally negative on the food. I didn’t find the food spectacular, but it certainly wasn’t awful and I don’t think any of us had complaints.

When the sun set, we did have electricity, but that inevitably brought the bugs so the first night we chose to keep it off. Jen led us in a gentle yoga practice, which was a nice way to harmonize with the sounds of the forest. And the sounds were many. Frogs and insects were the predominant symphony, but there was also heavy crunching as some larger animal walked through the leaves on the ground and skittering as a smaller animal moved through the branches of our tree. We had been warned to lock up the food so as not to invite tree mice into our abode. Heeding the advice, thankfully we didn’t actually see any of these rodents during our stay.

Overall, the Gibbon Experience (not to be confused with the themed attraction in Thailand by the same name) was an incredible adventure that won’t soon be forgotten. It’s difficult for me to narrow down my favorite activities of my journey so far, but this ranks high on the list and if you ever have the chance to go*, I highly recommend it. However, a quick word on safety….while I did feel like the cables seemed strong and intact, the platforms seemed solid, I believe my safety was entirely in my own hands. The guides paid very little attention to us otherwise, forcing us to learn the correct way to wear the harness and to clip on to the cables ourselves. When trekking between the lines, the guide was often way ahead and if someone needed to stop for any reason, they would be left behind. By the end of the first day, we were left to zip line by ourselves without supervision at all and we had to trust that our peers would remember the difference between inbound and outbound cables and would also wait for the signal that the cable was clear before starting their own flight. When our guide did accompany us, he rarely followed his own safety rules and was often on the line before it was clear. Because we had a mature responsible group, it didn’t affect us much at all and we had a fabulous time, but if you prefer to have your hand held, it won’t happen. In that case, steer clear of this place.

*To go: If arriving via an international flight, the closest major city is actually Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s about 5 hours from Chiang Mai to the border and Huay Xai, home of the Gibbon Experience offices in Laos. Chiang Rai, Thailand is only 2 hours away. No major cities in Laos will get you within one day’s journey of the border. There are plenty of basic guesthouses in Huay Xai if you arrive the night before, but there isn’t much else to do there so don’t arrive too early! It’s possible to obtain a Lao visa on arrival at the border (cost around $35), but if you want to avoid any hassles or bribes of border officials, it’s best to get it in advance. I only paid about $2 in bribes so it wasn’t terrible. I recommend reserving your place at least a week or two in advance, but ask if you can pay at their office in cash. Their website requests payment in Euros, but it’s actually cheaper if you pay in Kip because of the exchange rate they use. They also accept Dollars, but again, it’s cheaper in Kip. I reserved my place 2 weeks early and wished to pay in Kip. They asked me to “promise” that I would be there rather than taking a deposit, which I found adorable. There were also many unconfirmed hopefuls that met at their office on the morning of our departure in case anyone was a no show. The whole operation seemed very professional and I would gladly go again – two thumbs up!

Cultural Capital of Laos

Day 376 – 11 March, 2016

I didn’t know much about Luang Prabang before my arrival in Southeast Asia, although I had heard of it and had a preconceived notion that I would really enjoy it. I’m not sure where this expectation came from, but I think it is within the scope of human nature to subconsciously internalize the reactions of others and take them for your own. Almost everyone I met whom had been to Laos before me spoke highly of Luang Prabang, if for no other reason, because it was rich in culture, quiet and there wasn’t a ton to do there but relax.  The night market was one of the best I had seen in quite awhile (and there are loads of night markets in Asia!)

My first night back in the city, I reconnected with Melinda. Her short holiday was coming to a close and she would be leaving the following day to go back home. Together with Iris, a lovely Norwegian girl I met in my hostel, and a French guy that Melinda knew, the four of us decided to try a Lao barbecue restaurant. A metal pot, shaped like a bundt pan, was placed in the middle of the table and a large plate of raw meat, eggs and vegetables was artfully displayed along with it. First, using a chunk of pork fat to grease the hump in the middle and pouring a generous amount of water in the basin, we were able to grill the meat and boil the vegetables at the same time. It was a fun interactive way to enjoy a social meal. The eggs, being the trickiest item to master, were mostly poached or scrambled by the time they slid from the hump (for frying) into the water and then fished back out using a fork and chopsticks.

The viewpoint in the center of the historic part of the old city can be reached by climbing a few flights of stone stairs landscaped into the hill. To say this venture was soured by the number of Chinese tourists with selfie sticks would be an understatement. No matter where I travelled in this part of the world, the Chinese tourist was ubiquitous, always pushing and shoving, rarely without a selfie stick aggressively maneuvered into position. I truly hate to generalize this fact because I know there must be some socially-aware worldly Chinese tourists out there who realize they are surrounded by international citizens with different customs than their own; I just didn’t encounter any. The lookout was framed by the lovely Annamite Range, but the vantage point was unreasonably small for the number of people and I couldn’t stay for the sunset as originally planned. On my way back down, I fought the ascending traffic, selfie sticks and all.

The Kuang Si Waterfall and Asiatic black bear sanctuary was a short drive outside of town and while Luang Prabang is not considered an especially busy city by local standards, I always relish the opportunity to get out in nature. While not the only waterfall in close proximity to the city limits, Kuang Si was the only one with flowing water at the moment. It turns out when the dry season strikes, it really is the dry season. The waterfall is composed of three different tiers with pools and mineral rich water to bathe in. The water was cold and refreshing; I almost missed my return transport because I lost track of time in the peaceful scene. On the way back down, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the black bears, also known as moon bears, which are an endangered species in Asia. Their bile is used in Chinese medicine in a variety of cures and also in many standard bath products. Seeing these bears frolicking around in a playful manner was enough to melt anyone’s heart and hopefully reconsider the ingredients of their shower gel!

While I haven’t mentioned it much, I was sick almost the entire time I was in Laos. I blame it on the pollution; I had a sore throat, cough, and a headache and sometimes it was hard to drag myself out of bed. On my final full day in the city, I decided to get a Lao massage….you know, to make me feel better (wink). There are plenty of spas in the historic part of Luang Prabang, difficult to distinguish the good ones from the bad ones purely on sight. Because there are so many, almost all of these spas are completely empty of patrons for the majority of the day. When you enter, you’ll see 10-12 barefoot women sitting on the floor or in other awkward places, chatting or braiding each other’s hair. They will always make room for you so long as they don’t have to move from their chatting position. Even with all the other beds empty, they will position you right next to the toilet or on the one bed where the fan doesn’t work or next to the broken speaker where the music comes out gravelly. It’s to be expected. I had the one teenage boy as my masseuse; his mother was probably one of the hens sitting around who couldn’t be troubled to get up. I also had the massage table next to the toilet with the broken fan and gravelly speaker. It wasn’t a bad massage exactly, but the atmosphere wasn’t what I had in mind.

All of these activities had some element of cultural heritage, but one ritual in particular that Luang Prabang is most famous for is the procession of monks that winds through the city streets for alms-giving every morning. This is an age-old tradition for the centuries of monks who have always lived here, and while there were many tourists who participated and tried to follow local customs, there were many others who acted disrespectfully. The ritual is such that the faithful will sit quietly, without shoes on a mat, while offering donations of food to the monks. The monks, in turn, partake of the food for their one meal in the day. I saw a mob of Chinese tourists following the procession, with camera flashes blinding the monks at times. This made me feel sad for the loss of authenticity of what these monks were there to represent and I left feeling kind of sleazy for having been a witness to such blatant bad behavior as if all of us were complicit in some strange way.

When I left Luang Prabang, I still felt ill, but I was well-rested and unexpectedly fond of, not just this city, but the whole country.  While not quite done, I had so far been rewarded with magnificent views, kind and hospitable people, and a deeper understanding of the cultural values they hold dear.