With stunning vistas and lush tropical rainforests, the natural beauty of Laos is one of the primary reasons many people visit this mountainous landlocked country. And the best way to get out into nature and really experience its immense beauty is to trek. Many choose the areas surrounding Luang Nam Tha while others opt for destinations further afield such as Phongsali and Muang Khua. Those seeking a truly unique experience should take a look at the Gibbon Experience in the northern town of Huay Xai.
The Gibbon Experience project was established in 2004 (and which you were first able to read about on Travelfish in 2006) with a mission to preserve the jungle surrounding Huay Xai from the pressures of poaching, slash and burn agriculture and logging. This is largely accomplished through the fees collected from tourists wishing to experience the jungle up close and personal. A number of trekking options are presented all which feature overnight stays in treehouses and ziplining, which combine to provide a fantastic perspective on the jungle through which you are trekking.
The trek we went on was called the The Gibbon Express. It features more ziplining and less chance of seeing wildlife than other longer treks although none of the treks come with any guarantee of wildlife sightings.
Day 1 started at 08:00 at the Gibbon Experience office in the centre of Huay Xai, where the five trekkers were introduced to each other and we proceeded to watch a couple of videos about the Gibbon Experience’s purpose and how to zipline safely. Ten minutes later we were on the road to the jungle some 50 kilometres from Huay Xai.
Upon arriving in the small village on the edge of the jungle, we were asked if we needed any last minute supplies and we were on our way. Five minutes in and we were on our first zipline, which crossed a small river as our hearts jumped into our mouths and we let out a few squeals of excitement. It would be a punishing one-hour walk through dense jungle and up a steep mountain before we were to zipline again. The going was so tough that some of us needed to rest at short intervals to catch our breath, even though the temperature was around 20-25C — in the hottest months you can expect soul-destroying temperatures of 40C.
The next zipline was a longer and more exhilarating thunderbolt through the jungle with large trees and thickets of bamboo whizzing past our heads at speeds approaching 40 kilometres per hour. By this stage everyone had their cameras out and were filming their experiences to show friends and family what a magical experience they were having — camera in one hand and zipline contraption in the other.
We zipped across countless immense valleys over the course of a few hours with the longest being 600 metres and about 150 metres high. The views from these heights above a jungle valley are unparalleled and you are unlikely to experience views like these anywhere else. Just stunning.
Around mid-afternoon we zipped into our home for the night — a magical treehouse set right in the middle of the jungle.
This three-storey jungle abode is a little piece of luxury in the middle of nowhere with running water, solar electricity for lighting, a squat toilet, cold shower, cutlery, plates and beds. Because we visited in the dry season, bugs were at an absolute minimum meaning we were able to enjoy our evening without them zipping around our heads.
Just prior to sunset we went on a quick one-hour trek incorporating a couple of zips across expansive valleys which glowed in the afternoon sun. This allowed Gibbon Experience staff to set up our beds back at the treehouse and deliver some food for dinner.
In our view, the dinner was a little on the unsubstantial side, consisting almost completely of stewed cabbage, a few veggies and rice. The few bits of buffalo meat were quite poor, but portion sizes were ample and everyone filled up.
The sleeping situation was fantastic. Three double beds were provided for three men and two women, with the women agreeing to sleep in the same bed together. The men decided to use a spare mattresses and bedding to set up another bed. The beds themselves were simple yet comfortable mattresses thrown on the wooden floor with fresh clean sheets and a thick comfortable quilt on top. We’d imagine the quilt would be replaced by another sheet in the hot season. Covering the entire mattress was one of the best bug nets we have ever seen. The net is essentially an oversized fitted sheet hung from the roof to form a thick, cube shaped impervious barrier against all bugs. Needless to say, everyone slept extremely well — until the rat arrived.
Apparently the jungle is filled with all sorts of wildlife that comes out at night and at about 04:00, a rat started gnawing on the storage box filled with food. We’d been told to store all food in this box as the rats were so cunning that they could get into anything that wasn’t stored in the box. It was great advice as the rat did a great job of chewing the corners of the storage box until I got up and it promptly bolted. The rat was never to be seen again.
As 06:30 rolled around, the guides zipped back to our treehouse to escort those of us who were awake enough on a short pre-breakfast trek to see if we could spot any wildlife. After a fruitless hour bashing through the Lao jungle, we returned to the treehouse for a breakfast of baguettes and lukewarm omelettes. The breakfast was quite acceptable given the constraints of cooking in the jungle and there was plenty of fresh fruit as well.
After breakfast we proceeded to trek out of the forest. As with the first day, we trekked for a couple hours interspersed with breaks and ziplining. The last zip of the day was a 700-metre stunner which crossed over a river twice and took a good minute or so to complete.
The tour concluded with lunch in a shack on the edge of the jungle. Fried rice with beans and zuchhini was tasty enough, but we could imagine some people would be unimpressed, especially when considering the price of the whole adventure.
We had an incredible adventure with the Gibbon Experience which far surpassed what we were expecting. The number one reason it was so good was that our group had a great dynamic with every single person being positive and encouraging through the whole experience, despite some difficult trekking. Secondly, we had great weather throughout the whole trek — cool temperatures and no rain. Thirdly, the ziplining was sensational, the treehouse was luxurious compared to what you might expect and the staff were pleasant.
We have received many mixed reports regarding the Gibbon Experience over the years, with many of the negative reports set against a backdrop of how expensive this activity is. Our advice is to completely disregard the cost if you participate in this experience as against this backdrop, you will find fault. Our other advice is to go into this experience with a positive mindset, as out there in the jungle there is plenty to knock you down a peg, especially during the wet season when many trekkers endure arduous, muddy conditions and swarms of bugs. That said, this is an experience for those with an adventurous streak and those not happy to endure some hardships and the Lao way of doing things are going to fighting a mental (and perhaps physical) battle the whole way.
As of March 2015, there are three programs available. The Classic Gibbon Experience three-day two-night programme is as relaxing as you want it to be, though to get the most out of the zip-lining experience, a full day of hiking and moderate level of fitness is required. You stay in the same tree house both nights and this program gives you the best chance of gibbon sightings. Price is 2,450,000 kip / US$310.
The Waterfall Gibbon Experience is the other 3-day 2-night program. It takes you deeper into the park (in other words, more hiking) and there’s a stop for a swim in a very cold waterfall/swimming hole. You need to be in reasonably good shape. Price is 2,450,000 kip / US$310.
If you’re short on time, there’s the 2-day 1-night Gibbon Express. It’s located in a different area of the park, only an hour by road followed by a two-hour hike in. The highlight is possibly the largest living tree in Laos. However, your chance of seeing gibbons is low.
All these programs are challenging during rainy season. A good attitude about mud, leeches and slippery trails is required.
To get the latest on which treks are available (ours isn’t listed on their site) and some idea of their schedule, email the Gibbon Experience directly firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 13th April, 2015.