Luang Prabang to Gibbon Experience
2nd January, 2007
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How long do we need to get from Luang Prabang to The Gibbon Experience? And where if we are booked already do we need to go?
What is the best method of travel in July? River or road or combo?
#1 Posted: 13/4/2007 - 08:52
Unless you fly you're looking at at least two days travel. Either boat upriver to Huay Xai and then north to Gibbon Exp, else north via Udomxai to Luang Nam Tha then south to Gibbon Exp. I'd go with the boat unless you're planning on visiting the northern towns anyways.
If you're considering flying, Lao Airlines flies from Luang Prabang to Huay Xai.
#2 Posted: 13/4/2007 - 14:49
12th March, 2006
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While I can't answer specifically for July you can take the 1 day or 2 day boat from LP to Huay Xai. By bus you have to go to Udomxai, then to Pak Beng (this option still involves 1 day by boat) or LP to Luang Namtha (can be done in 1 day), then dropped off at Ban Don Chai the next day.
If you have already booked and haven't handed over any $$'s then you don't need to go ... there are many wanting to go on the Gibbon X - they arrive in Huay Xai and are unable to go 'cos all booked out. We loved it - the highlight of our Nov. Lao visit.
#3 Posted: 13/4/2007 - 14:49
11th May, 2007
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First of all let us say if you're looking to do some easy to moderate jungle trekking and above-canopy zip-lining combined with unique treehouse accommodation, this is a good bet and possibly worth the Euros...er...bhat. However, if you're looking to do business with a professionally managed eco-tour operator to the end of having an up-close and personal experience with a wild gibbon colony, you'll be disappointed.
We arrived in Houayxai, Laos Sunday afternoon April 30 after crossing over the muddy Mekong from Chiang Kong, Thailand. The crossing took all of about 4 minutes in a private boat. Upon arrival in Laos, we had to pay $35 US dollars each to the Laos Customs officials.
[Dollars? Don't they have their own currency? Apparently they do but it's not stable enough to be much good - at least not to the government that prints it. So in George they trust. Or maybe the CIA: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/2770.htm
Dunno, but government-says-dollars-only in the middle of the former opium universe seems odd if not too convenient.]
After paying the custom official's quarterly mortgage, we found a hotel (Guest House) with AC across the street from the Gibbon Experience office and checked in. The Gibbon office didn't open until 6 PM so we hung out at the restaurant/bar next door where we met several veterans of the 'Classic Experience'. A brief survey revealed none had actually experienced the gibbons. This came as a bit of a surprise as we had naively imagined we would be in their midst and it would be primate versus primate in the battle over our Powerbar stash:
Anyway, there was a rumor that someone on one of the previous expeditions had spotted a gibbon but this was not confirmed. Otherwise, the veterans described their days in the jungle as mostly positive but registered complaints about poor organization, lack of direction and supervision when using the zip-lines. Hmmm... And then there was the complaint about plain rice ad nauesum. Good thing we brought those Powerbars.
When the office finally opened around 6:30 we found Noke, a part-time Gibbon employee, hunkered down behind the computer. See failed to acknowledge our presence until we finally spoke up and introduced ourselves after several minutes. Her acknowledgement was silent and expressionless (or was that a smirk?) and upon hearing we wanted to make payment her first words to us was that there had been a price increase and our currency was no good. Ooooooooooo-K...
We had several email exchanges with the Gibbon Experience prior to our arrival and had booked well in advance. In none of our exchanges nor on their web site did we find the disclaimer 'Prices subject to change without notice.' In fact they (an employee named Liz) had sent explicit directions that the price was 200 euros total and this was their preferred method of payment over the alternative - Laotian kip or Thai bhat. So we came with Euros - Euros that we had to make a special effort to locate in Chiang Mai and Euros that ate about a 7% in commission conversion. Ok $20 loss more or less - no biggie, but now Noke is telling us that it's gonna be $110 Euros each. But wait, they no longer take Euros! Instead, she wants us to pay in bhat or kips which means we will eat another chunk of commission. We may be Americans, but we're not idiots. We politely objected to the increase based on 1) their brochure (a copy of which was on the table between us) advertising 100 Euros per person and 2) the lack of price increase disclaimer. Our objection was met with a blank stare and a definite smirk and after going back and forth - our presentation of the agreement in several forms, and her blank stares/smirk - we were finally told we would have to speak to Jeff (the owner/operator) in the morning. Fine...
We returned the next morning and met up with 7 other travelers doing the 'Waterfall Experience'. We entered the Gibbon office where Noke was again buried behind the computer and again failed to acknowledge our group presence. Without introduction or greeting, she informed the group that we were going to watch a video. When the video was over, we presented her 200 Euros along with 500 bhat or $16. That was it. She accepted our currency including some difference and responded by saying 'Thanks and you can talk with Jeff later if you want.' This we planned to do upon our return.
After the initial 'introduction' or lack off, we adjusted our expectations about the professional competence of this outfit. So less of a surprise when 12 of us line up to get into the Toyota Land Cruiser for the 3 hour ride into the Bokeo Nature Reserve. 9 in the back on two bench seats and 3 in the front, the ride was cramped, hot, dusty and at times quite bumpy. We made a midway 'convenience stop where the locals tried to charge us to use the 'toilet' (no dice). From there we crossed a shallow river and twisted up, around and trough miles of slash and burned landscape until finally reaching the village which sits about an hour trek away from the forest.
The Hike In
We met a returning group as we unpiled from the Land Cruiser. This group seemed pretty spent after their 3 hour hike back from the 'Waterfall Experience'. No gibbons sighted and as it turns out, no waterfall despite heavy rainfalls the previous week. Oooooooooooo-K. They gave us a cryptic warning about jungle parasites and off we went. The trek in was fun and easy. About an hour into the jungle you begin to get a feel for this ecosystem and its potential for biodiversity.We say potential because although biodiversity is much hyped and a favorite buzzword here, where we were at, there was surprisingly little wildlife and not much botanic diversity to be found on the forest floor. In trees there were at least 3 different birds and presumably, colonies of gibbons scattered about but that was really about the extent of perceived fauna. The exception was an up-close and personal experience with a vicious black bear. Nevermind he was only 8 pounds, he could inflict great pain and fear on our group of jungle neophytes. The encounter took place in the outfitting hut just prior to the zip-line portion of the trek. The bear, an 'orphaned pet' although quite entertaining seemed a complete anachronism to the Gibbon Experience's mission.
The technical gear required for zipping across a 1/2" wire rope is nothing more than a pulley carabinered to a climber's seat harness. It's extremely low tech but incredibly exhilarating. Top speed was about 20 miles per hour and depending on your form, you could make most of the traverses without having to reel yourself in hand-over-hand at the end. The height was pretty dramatic too as you're a couple hundred feet above the forest floor. You have a safety line attached to the cable for back-up and the whole apparatus generally seems safe. As one of us has an engineering background, we examined closely the cable clamps and entire assembly and found it adequate. We wouldn't recommend multiple zippers at the same time but one 200 pound person has a good factor of safety. The main danger comes from striking objects near the wire or at the end of the run at speed. We heard a report of someone who injured his leg striking a tree or platform upon landing but none of our party experienced any hazard. Of course we didn't do that much zipping so risk was reduced. Although zipping was advertised as unlimited and central to the experience, the bulk of our zips came the first day on the hike in where we negotiated 6 traverses via the wire. Subsequently we could go out and back from our tree house but these runs were comparatively short and uninteresting after several revolutions. Unfortunate as we really had hoped to explore more of the jungle from above. One good tip we were given by previous parties was use gloves. We purchased these across the street from the Gibbon office and they came in very handy - particularly for on day 2 when one of us had a bad pulley and always stopped short of the landing platform. This required lottsa latimus dorsus exertion and the gripping of the greasy wire which the gloves made more tolerable.
The Tree House
We signed-up, paid for, and expected the Waterfall experience whereby the group was divided between 2 tree houses (approximately 4-5 persons per) and rotated day 2. This isn't what we got. In fact all 9 of us were led to the not-Waterfall tree house the first day and this is where we stayed the entire time. We were not informed of this by management prior to our departure nor did we learn of this until we inquired with 'guides' on day 2. Gathering from their very limited English the Waterfall house tree was distressed and they were limiting occupancy. Disappointing. To add insult to injury, there were only 8 sleeping mats for 9 people. So a female member of our party spent a rough first night on a thin blanket on the hardwood floor with no top sheet or pillow! On night 2, a young male in our party took one for the team. This, sans apology and/or partial refund. So much for the 'Semi-private bedrooms' advertised in the web brochure: http://www.gibbonx.org/gibbon_experience.php
Although our treehouse had a penthouse or mezzanine gallery large enough for 2, 9 trekkers plus 2 guides made it a crowded place. As a result there was little privacy. The 'toilet' was screened by a thatched mat but of course provided no acoustical privacy, especially with a dozen people hanging out a few feet away. It's the jungle and twice the occupancy load precipitated cabin fever sooner rather than later. A fever made worse by the limited amount of zipping in our area, assorted insects, the heat and anxiousness to explore.
A miracle of sorts was the fact that our tree house had, clean, drinkable running water. It is gathered from a spring fed creek which runs near our treehouse and pumped up to a central sink in the treehouse and to a shower and bath sink. We were reluctant to drink the water at first but having been assured it was safe by previous trekkers, drank the water for 3 days including directly from the stream itself. A week later we are still alive and appear to be giardia free.
The treehouse was approximately 110' above the forest floor and roughly the same elevation as 3 bee hives about 120 yards away. Which is to say our house was a convenient starting point for the bees forage for pollen or water. The bees were a constant presence and nuisance. They loved the wet shower/toilet area and would work their way under your shirt if you were not vigilant. Hugh got stung twice but wrote this off as user error. At night, management provided opaque tent-like canopies over your sleeping mat to keep the bees and other bugs out. This worked and also provided a measure of visual privacy.
Otherwise the tree house was comfortable and provided great views as advertised. If the Waterfall house tree was stressed accommodating half the people then this one is going to go fast as all the kitchen and human waste is deposited at it's base. And judging by the smell down there, there's a fair amount of bacteria and ammonia impacting the tree's root system.
The Guides and Day 2
The brochure advertises: 'Local guides eager to show you the forest and its inhabitants'
This is a stretch at best. Our young male 'guides' although nice enough (especially to each other ;-), were neither local nor eager to orient and educate us about the forest or it's inhabitants. During our stay in Southeast Asia we hired true professional guides in several areas all of which demonstrated adequate knowledge and interest in their subject and conveyed this quite adequately in English. No so here. Either because their English was so poor or they lacked knowledge of their subject, very little was communicated about the flora, fauna or social history of this region. They were neither licensed nor educated. We had many questions about types of plants including medicinal uses, flowering species, edible species, invasive/indigenous species, poisonous species, place in the forest chain etc. but quit asking when we could not get an answer. Similarly, we had many questions about the fauna including the birds we were hearing, small jungle mammals, snakes and the ever elusive gibbons but had to wait our return to internet where these questions could be answered. The Gibbon Experience is more than anything else, a Jungle Experience yet our guides could answer only the most basic of questions and unlike the other guides we experienced in SE Asia, they offered no running commentary as they led us hurriedly through the forest. They were guides only in the strictest sense of the term.
Nor were they at all eager. Day 2 started out with a nice early morning trek down the mountain and back up the leach infested stream. Unfortunately, that was the highlight hike of the day. After breakfast the guides crashed (too much rice wine) before giving us any indication of what was to come this day or what our options were. After a couple hours, we grew restless waiting for them to wake so forged ahead and did some exploring on our own. This is not possible unless you are a good tracker or have a GPS and mark your waypoints frequently as there are no sign posts in the jungle and the trails are thin in spots. Despite the brochure mandated: 'Unlimited access to explore the forest', our absence caused great consternation and concern when the guides awoke. As the search party was looking for us, we covered quite a bit of territory making it to a nearby village and to then on to the big river where, 4 hours later, we crossed paths with the balance of our party led by a surprised/relieved looking guide. They were off to go swimming but quickly dispensed with the idea once they saw the number of leaches they would be sharing the mucky brown water with. Unlike our route, this group had covered no new territory on their river trek as it was generally the same path as the morning hike. The promised waterfall hike never materialized and with limited zip line access and no gibbon sightings our only full day in the jungle was a mixed experience.
The Gibbon 'Experience'
It is interesting that although this is billed as the Gibbon Experience, there was no effort on the part of the guides to take us to the gibbons straight away. During May, the gibbons can only be spotted in the very early dawn when the sky is just beginning to change. The guides know this as well as the exact location of the gibbons. Despite our early requests to see the gibbons and obvious anxiousness, we spent the first morning in another part of the gibbonless forest picking leaches off our feet.
On the final morning we woke everyone at 4:50 and were zipping out of the treehouse by 5:05. It was still dark and our guide was racing. The party was slow assembling and we had to stop the guide from going on without them as we were venturing into an essentially pathless and unmarked part of the forest. Once the group assembled the guide led us approximately 400 yards from the 'kitchen' to an area where he pointed out movement in the treetops some 150 yards beyond. No gibbons were visible yet it was obvious, judging by the swaying of the branches and leaves, they were present. As a group we stood on a steep embankment opposite the colony trees and watched the branches sway. Visibility was not good due to the low light level and other trees obscuring our view. But alas after a minute or so we saw the tiniest shadow of a figure leap from one canopy to the other - a distance of about 7 feet. A gibbon! And a appetite wetted. We strained to see more but the creature, maybe detecting our presence, disappeared. We moved closer to what we expected would be a better vantage but the guide raced on and on until we were back at the zip line a few minutes later. That was it! A brief sighting. No hunkering down and waiting and witnessing their dance in the trees. No opportunities to zoom in on those cute little faces and get that shot of the vacation. No experience of how the colony interacts, forages or demonstrates it's acrobatic prowess. Just a fleeting glimpse in a very rushed spin through the forest. So fast indeed that only 2 marathoners and a spry teenager could keep up - barely. Oh well. A gibbon sighting but not an experience. Fortunately we marked the GPS coordinates for this colony so that future participants can truly experience the gibbons. For these coordinates, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Gibbon Experience is a mis-nomer. If you surveyed our group of 9 international travelers, 'Leach Experience' would likely be the most memorable and accurate description. Alternatively, 'Bee Experience', 'Baby Bear Experience', 'Gayboy Experience', or the 'Bamboo-In-The-Eye Experience' would also apply. For another group in another treehouse we met enroute, it would be the 'Spiders-As-Big-As-Your-Face Experience'.
The biggest disappointment for us was not the unqualified guides but rather the unprofessional management and poor business practices of Mr. Jeff the French-born, tree-climbing proprietor who turns out to be even more elusive than the gibbons. If Mr. Jeff is to continue on his mission to preserve the Bokeo forest he will need the ever-increasing support of eco-tourists such as those in our group. However if he continues to operate his enterprise in such a capricious fashion he will not only lose the support of tourists but also the people of Bokeo Provence and ultimately, the Lao government.
- Easy to moderate hiking in sub-tropical jungle
- Awesome zip line rides through and across the forest canopy
- Tree house lodging with great views
- Meeting a great group of international travelers
- Remotely observing a jungle village and tribal culture/agrarian lifestyle
- Expensive given Laos economy (you can lodge/eat/recreate comfortably for $15/day)
- Price increases without notice
- Change of accepted currency without notice
- Change of accommodations without notice
- Crowded accommodations
- Lack of proper bedding for some
- 3 hour commute to and from the jungle was in an overcrowded Land Cruiser (bench seats)
- Guides spoke very little English and/or had very limited knowledge (botanical, historic, etc.) of the region
- Guides were less than 'eager to show you the forest' contrary to the brochure:
- Limited access unless you carry a GPS
- Food was primarily rice with rather bland tasting mix of vegetables and some meat
- Lack of zipping opportunities
- Limited zip line access from some areas
- Lack of briefing about itinerary and 'jungle trekking' tips
- Very few jungle animals
- Leaches, bees, and massive (but harmless) spiders
Hugh & Adrienne
#4 Posted: 11/5/2007 - 01:08
Thanks for the very detailed trip report on the Gibbon Experience - I'm sure it will assist others in deciding if it is for them or not. Our story on the Gibbon Experience which we ran a year or so back, mentioned some of the very concernes you had -- seems things are not improving with time.
Tellingly, the organisers have written to Lonely Plant and specifically asked that the set-up not be mentioned in the upcoming Laos guidebook, and LP honoured that -- they will not be listed. I think this indicates that they're having some issues dealing with the increasing popularity of the programme.
Thanks again for taking the time to make the report.
#5 Posted: 11/5/2007 - 07:49
No opportunities to zoom in on those cute little faces and get that shot of the vacation. No experience of how the colony interacts, forages or demonstrates it's acrobatic prowess.
For this kind of experience one would have to go to a zoo. The Singapore Zoo has a gibbon 'enclosure' (no fences) & benches where one may sit & observe them at close range for the entire duration of the zoo opening hours.
Gibbons can be highly elusive, it isn't easy to observe so much about their behaviour unless one is willing to spend a lot of time in the forest tracking & studying them (http://www.markuskappeler.ch/gib/gibs/chapter5.html - see 5.4.4b the part on 'cryptic withdrawal'). Humans & signs of human activity can affect them too - a 'dilemma' that researchers face as our very presence has the potential to alter the behaviour that we are interested in documenting.
Wonder if the gibbons might have become increasingly difficult to spot since the spike in interest in the Gibbon Experience. May perhaps be a sign that they find the increased human presence harassing, & Gibbon Experience might become a victim of its own popularity, unless a (fine) balance is found.
Very few jungle animals
In the tropics many of them (except primates & most birds) tend to be more active at night when it is cooler & also easier for them to hide from predators.
Leaches, bees, and massive (but harmless) spiders
It is a rainforest after all ;) Not sure about Lao but for tropical rainforest in Malaysia, April-May is peak season for bees that are more interested in the salt in your perspiration rather than stinging you. Leeches - leech socks, or just go in the dry season.
Guides spoke very little English and/or had very limited knowledge (botanical, historic, etc.) of the region
This is a difficult one. Many of those who know the forest best are those who have spent the most time living in it - far from any school, in villages belonging to ethnic groups that have no written language. Won't be surprised if some can't even speak much Lao or even write. Takes time & a lot of effort to train competent guides & to get them to grasp the expectations & preferences of tourists from a very different society.
As for the rest I am not in a position to comment, have not dealt with Gibbon Experience before. Have seen so many posts raving about Gibbon Experience, this one is a real change that gives food for thought on management of expectations & promoting ecotourism involving trekking & wildlife - no easy answers & a lot of double-edged swords.
#6 Posted: 11/5/2007 - 08:55
27th December, 2008
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I know this link is old, but sometimes an update can help.
I (thoroughly) enjoyed a recent sojourn to the Gibbon Experience. The access price is high, but... once every so often, price is not the issue. And, the Gibbon Experience falls into that category.
All too often, I hear the comments like I'd only pay that much to actually see a Gibbon, or for that money, I could...
As one guide suggested unless you've got a horseshoe stuck up your bum, you won't see a Gibbon.
No, I didn't see, or hear a Gibbon. But, that is not why I went.
I went for a host of other reasons:
* trekking in a rainforest,
* sleeping in a treehouse,
* interacting with the H!Mong guides,
to name a few.
But, the primary purpose I went is that the project is preserving Gibbon habitat rainforest. That so much of Laos has been deforested so some high ranking official can drive a fancy car means that Gibbon habitat is shrinking fast.
Globally, the list of species becoming extinct is growing too rapidly. But worse, the list of species considered endangered (ie on the brink of extinction) is growing at a faster pace.
That a conservation minded person has devised a way to protect habitat from deforestation, give employment to the locals who would otherwise be paid by high ranking officials to deforest (and sell the logs to him for tuppence, only to be resold for a huge profit), and at the same time let me have a great adventure needs recognition.
I hope you choose to enjoy the Gibbon Experience. Likely as not you won't see a Gibbon, and yes you could do a host of other things with the same $$$'s, but you WILL enjoy yourself immensely.
#7 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 10:43
6th June, 2009
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OK, I am interested in the zip lines... I am not interested in getting close to nature... I don't even like nature. So for me the Gibbon experience is about racing around on ziplines. Screw the Gibbons.
As for primates, I can't speak about Laos, but we have them all over the place here. Not only will you see them, you can probably drink a beer with them.
So go get the zipline experience (I guess a name change is in order) and then go someplace else where you can play with monkeys (note I said "play" and not "do").
#8 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 13:36
Screw the Gibbons.
MADMAC, there's a similar set up in Chiang Mai -- p'haps you should try that -- then you won't have to go to Laos either ;-)
#9 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 14:24
27th December, 2008
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I've already alerted John to the one in Chiang Mai (there's also a new one near BKK).
The 'problem' is that he has to convince his wife to go. he recognises she likes shopping in CM, but he wants to visit CM without being committed to a big time shopping trip.
I'm not sure whether I pity or sympathise him.
#10 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 19:15
6th June, 2009
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"The 'problem' is that he has to convince his wife to go. he recognises she likes shopping in CM, but he wants to visit CM without being committed to a big time shopping trip."
This sums it up... marriage is all about compromise.
#11 Posted: 12/7/2009 - 18:42
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