The Gibbon Experience

Flying through the trees…

One of the reasons I came to Huay Xai was to join The Gibbon Experience. This is an eco-tourism adventure that is mainly popular with the backpacking crowd. But that doesn’t stop anyone from joining it if they are game enough. If your childhood dream was to live in a treehouse and swing through the trees like Tarzan, this would really be a dream come true.

he starting point of the Gibbon Experience is in Nam Kan National Park which is near Huay Xai, the border crossing town between Thailand and Laos. If you are wondering about Huay Xai and how to get there, click here for travel options to Huay Xai from Luang Prabang, and click here for what to do in Huay Xai itself.

The Gibbon Experience was started in 1996 as a conservation project to stop illegal logging, poaching and deforestation. But getting funds to do this was difficult, and the idea of ziplining and treehouses was conceived where tourists like us can take part and fund their conservation efforts. In 2004, the first ziplines and treehouses were built. For more about the Gibbon Experience and what they do, you can visit their website.

The tours start at 9.00am but I had to check in to register the day before, preferably. Otherwise, you can also check in at by 8.00am on the day your tour starts. Although, I think that’s not a great idea especially if you’ve just taken the overnight bus to Huay Xai and want to go hiking through the jungle immediately. Many people also come here directly from Thailand after staying the night at Chiang Khong across the Mekong River.

The Gibbon Experience’s office was located just across the street from my hotel.
I signed up for the Express Tour which is 2 days/1 night. This is a great option if you don’t have time for the standard 3 days/2 nights tours, or don’t care too much about spending more than a night in the jungle The Express Tour has more ziplines and less trekking, and you only stay in 1 treehouse.
A briefing first on the origins of the Gibbon Experience followed by a safety briefing and the do’s and don’ts. We were also given a complimentary cap and metal water bottle.

After the briefings, we were split into the Express and Classic/Waterfall tour groups, The Classic/Waterfall tours are 3 days/2 nights long and have different start points. We were then directed to our respective tuk tuks.

Tuk tuks are the only form of transport. The start point of our hike was more than an hour’s drive from Huay Xai into the Nam Kan National Park where the ziplines and treehouses are located.
After getting down at a small village which is just off the main road, our guides were waiting for us with our zipline equipment and food supplies.

Each of us was given a harness attached with a zipline roller and safety line. The guides also helped us to fit into the harness and we had to wear them throughout the hike. It can be uncomfortable at first, but I soon got used to it.

After making sure that we were wearing our harnesses properly and the equipment was secured, we set out on our hike. Right off the start, we had our first zipline which was to cross over a small river from the village. Nice! Since we could straight away practice how to use the zipline equipment. It was a short zipline, but nevertheless it gave us a taste of how exhilarating ziplining was. But after this zipline, it was all downhill, or rather uphill from here…

For the Express Tour, the first couple of hours is a fast hike up a mountain to gain elevation of around 500m. I must say I under estimated how tough this hike was going to be, especially for older people (like me) and in the 36°C heat. My advice would be to travel light and pack only a small light backpack. I also brought some additional camera gear which added extra weight, and made my hiking experience worse.

Taking our lunch break in the middle of the jungle. It was time for me to catch my breath trying to keep up with the much younger members in the tour group.
During our lunch break we also encountered one of the Gibbon Experience’s anti-poaching patrols. They had confiscated a homemade hunting rifle from a local poacher. This is one of the conservation activities that we as tourists seldom see.
Lunch was provided and we had a chicken sandwich wrapped in a banana leaf. It was surprisingly tasty and did provide much needed energy to continue the hike.
A member of the anti-poaching patrol armed with an AK47. These guys mean serious business.

After around more than 2 hours of hiking uphill, we came to our first major zipline, which spanned across a valley.

Our guide says this is the longest zipline in the national park. It’s 570m long and spans across a valley.
We had to trek and zipline with our backpacks. So make sure all your stuff is secured and not loose otherwise it will be lost if it drops into the jungle.
We also got to see some forest highlights like this huge tree that is considered holy by the locals.

So it was that we spent the rest of the afternoon ziplining from one ridge to another. Sometimes we had to hike short distances between ziplines to gain elevation, and at times the next zipline was just beside the one we had crossed. Speeding down a zipline and hanging around 50-100m above the ground is both exhilarating and scary at the same time. The views of the forest and valleys from the air is really something that you won’t be able to see just from hiking.

One of the more interesting ziplines is this one that crosses a padi field and river. The zipline sounds like a plane engine and seems appropriate since you are literally flying through the air. Also, now is the time to mention that if you are scared of heights, maybe you shouldn’t come.

Finally, around 4.00pm we reached the treehouse that will be our home for the night. Staying in a treehouse is the other highlight of the Gibbon Experience, and if you often wondered as a child how cool it was to stay in a treehouse, now’s your chance.

The only way to enter the treehouse is by zipline. I can guarantee that you won’t find this on Airbnb.
The is the largest treehouse in the national park, and the thought of how they built it amazes me. At a height of 40m above ground, it has 4 levels consisting of a toilet and bath, kitchen, dining and sleeping areas. This is as close as you can get to comfort in the middle of the jungle.

While we were busying washing up and looking for our space to spend the night in the treehouse, our guides were busying preparing dinner. Other staff from a nearby village had ziplined into the treehouse with our dinner.

There was only 1 toilet and bath where we bathed au naturel. There was no drainage and bath water just dripped through the floorboards onto the ground below. I don’t even want to think about standing below when someone flushes the toilet. There is a thick curtain which serves as the door, but the chance of someone barging in while you are doing your business or bathing is real.
The immense branches of the tree supporting the treehouse structure is quite a sight to behold. As a mechanical engineer, I’m really amazed by the amount of design and work to build this treehouse.
Looking down on the main hall from the top level and waiting for dinner. After all that hiking and ziplining we were really hungry.
These girls came in by zipline from a nearby village where they had prepared our dinner. The small kitchen in the treehouse was just to prepare food and wash up after dinner.
Dinner was actually quite delicious considering the primitive cooking conditions in the jungle.

After all the excitement of ziplining, it was a relief to finally have a bath, relax and sit down for dinner. Besides preparing our dinners, the guides and other staff also helped to prepare our beds for the night.

Dinner consisted of Laotian dishes accompanied by sticky rice. Our guides also brewed some “jungle tea” which is made from some kind of tree roots boiled in hot water. It tastes like medicine and is supposed to help you relax and sleep at night.

There is also a drinking water supply from water bottles (water cooler kind). I wonder how they even bring those heavy things up to the treehouse. But there was more than enough water to rehydrate and refill our water bottles.

My little corner of the treehouse. The guides had helped to prepare the mosquito net over my mattress, with my blanket just hanging over the rails. Even though there is no air-conditioning or fans, the night can get pretty cold with temperatures dropping to less than 15°C sometimes.
After dinner, it was time to relax and watch the sunset over the forest.

As the last rays of the Sun disappeared behind the mountains, as if on cue, a sudden crescendo of insect sounds burst out in the darkness. It was really deafening as millions of insects suddenly awoke and started their day.

The Sun sets over the forest, as a tired group of adventurers prepared to turn in for the night.
Well, we didn’t turn in immediately. There was time for some card games with our guides, followed by sharing a bottle of Lao Lao that they had brought along. It was also time to get to know the members of our group better. After all travel is not just to amuse ourselves but to connect with people from all over the world.
I finally turned in for the night, although some of the group were still talking and playing cards till late. Despite the spartan conditions, I found myself sound asleep and snoring.

In the morning, I was woken up by the sound of birds chirping around the treehouse. That’s something that you won’t get to experience living in a city. The insects had stopped their concert sometime in the night and now the music of the day time jungle was starting.

The forest covered in morning mist is a surreal and magical sight.

For the second day, we went for a short hike and zipline before breakfast, where we visited the nearby village (more like a base camp) which the Gibbon Experience’s staff uses to prepare our meals and also stay during their shifts.

A family of pigs living in the village. We were told that the mother pig was brought here by zipline when she was a piglet. But now she’s too big to be carried out.
Another treehouse which was not far from ours. It’s much smaller but still looks impressive.
That’s our morning coffee, express service.

Breakfast was equally delicious and sumptuous as our dinner. And after breakfast, it was time to say goodbye to the treehouse as we prepared to leave and trek back out into civilization.

Our last time ziplining out of the treehouse.
Trekking out was easier since it was mostly going downhill. We did more ziplines along the way, and even passed by this bamboo forest.

Finally, by 12pm we reached the end of our hike by a river. We could swim in the river and some people did. Lunch was also served along with refreshments like Beerlao.

After lunch, tuk tuks were waiting to ferry us back to the Gibbon Experience’s office in Huay Xai. This time the trip took 2.5 hours, and we were back in Huay Xai before 3.00pm.

For some of the people, they were rushing to catch the bus that will bring them to Chiangrai and Chiangmai. While the rest of us went back to our lodgings to rest and continue our journeys the next day.

The prize at the end of the journey. Well not really, since you got to pay for it.

If you have some time to kill in Huay Xai, why not spend a day here? After all the thrills of zipping through the jungles of Laos, it’s time to relax and take it slow like the locals. Here are some things that you can do in Huay Xai while waiting for your bus or slow boat.

While the Gibbon Experience does say that there is a chance to spot the endangered Black Crested Gibbon, we didn’t see any wildlife during our 2 days in the jungle. Our guide did point out claw marks on trees made by bears climbing them, but we didn’t encounter any bears too. I guess the noise that we made from ziplining probably scared off most animals. The chances of seeing gibbons are higher with the Classic and Waterfall tours since they spend more time in the jungle and more families of gibbons live near their treehouses. So if you want to spot wildlife, the Express tour may not be the one for you.

The Gibbon Experience’s office has a baggage storeroom where you can store your bulky luggage safely before you go on their tour. This is pretty convenient if you’ve checked out of your guesthouse and don’t have a place to store your luggage. You can reclaim your luggage once you are back from the tour.

Should You Do it?

I will be honest and say that the Gibbon Experience is not for everyone. Whether you should take part in this tour really depends on what you want from your travels. This is an unique experience that you won’t find anywhere else where you can zipline over a jungle and stay in a treehouse high above the treetops away from civilization. Having said that, there are a lot of factors that discourages the average traveler from taking part:

  • The price for this is not exactly cheap. During the high season, the Express and Classic/Waterfall tours costs close to €200 and €300 respectively. For many people, that money can go a long way in a vacation. However, the high price goes into funding their sustainability and conservation projects, and supports their local staff salaries.
  • While not exactly a camping trip, having to hike strenuously uphill in high heat and humidity, carrying your own backpack, while warding off swarms of bugs that are out to suck every last drop of your blood, isn’t top of the bucket list for many people. You have to be physically fit to do this, and there is also a 110kg weight limit to use the zipline.
  • Risk of dying or getting injured. As in all extreme sports like bungee jumping, sky diving, para-sailing, etc, there is a danger element, and we had to sign an indemnity form before taking part. You will be speeding on a zipline more than 10 storeys above the forest floor. So if you have a fear of heights, now is the time to face your fear. There has been only 1 fatality in the history of the Gibbon Experience. Ever since, safety is top priority and I could see that being safety culture being practiced during my tour.
  • Getting there isn’t exactly the most convenient. Huay Xai is really out of the way for most tourists, unless you make a deliberate plan to come here. It is usually part of a longer tour from Thailand to Laos, so you can’t really come here on a whim just for a long weekend stay.

When To Go?

If after reading through all that and you are still determined to try it, then do consider the season of the year to go. It can make a big difference between bearable and miserable.

Like most of the Indochina countries, Laos has 2 seasons – Dry season (November-April) and Rainy Season (May-October). Dry season coincides roughly with the tourist high season, since there is almost no rain, humidity is lower and it’s cooler at night. Hiking is easier in the dry season and roads don’t get flooded, but it can get really dusty.

In the rainy season, the trails get quite muddy making it harder to hike through them. Roads may be flooded or muddy and the tuk tuks are not able to come deeper into the jungle. Not to mention that leeches come out in wet weather (Yeah, I hate leeches). But, the tour prices are lower in the rainy season. So if you want to save money, or you can’t make it in the dry season, then why not.

I booked my tour from their website, and payment is online. It’s advisable to reserve your dates early especially if you are planning to come here during the peak season.

What To Pack?

I would advise you to pack as light as possible because of the strenuous hike. But it all depends on your own personal fitness level. Here is a practical list of things to bring:

  • Water supply. I would recommend at least 2 litres of water. You can bring this in a plastic bottle or hydration pack. The Gibbon Experience also gave us a complimentary 1 litre metal water bottle fully filled with water, so as to cut down plastic use. If you have rehydration salts, they can be helpful to mix into your water. The high heat and humidity is nothing to be trifled with. Water bottles can be refilled at the treehouse.
  • Mosquito/insect repellant. There are millions of mosquitoes in the jungle. I went there in February/March and didn’t encounter many mosquitoes, but there were a lot of biting flies. Make sure it’s a good spray or lotion type of repellent. Those citronella patches are useless here.
  • Fully charged phone, camera or Gopro. There is no electricity in the treehouse. The LED lights are powered by solar panels and a battery, so it’s not sufficient to charge any appliance. Bring your fully charged power bank and spare batteries if you need to.
  • A light sweater or wind breaker. It can get chilly at night and this might come in useful if you find the blanket is not enough to keep warm.
  • Personal toiletries. You will be able to bathe and brush your teeth, so no need to go to bed smelly and sweaty. This also includes toilet paper, otherwise, you could be using leaves to wipe your backside, jungle style. I swiped a roll of toilet paper from my guesthouse in Luang Prabang. Bath towels were provided for us at the treehouse which was great.
  • A change of clothes and underwear. Just because you are hiking and living in the jungle doesn’t mean you have to skimp on personal hygiene. And your travel companions will thank you for it.
  • Some of these stuff are optional but good to have.
    • Ear plugs if you can’t stand the noise that the jungle makes at night, or snorers like me.
    • A torchlight for finding your way in the dark to the toilet, or you can use the LED torch on your smartphone. After all, you don’t want to fall out of a treehouse that’s 40m above ground.
    • A book to read in case you get bored at night.
    • Wet wipes and a small bottle of hand sanitizer if you are obsessed about hygiene.

While this post is not a definite guide to the Gibbon Experience, I’ve tried to include my own experience from the viewpoint of an average traveler, and not an adrenaline junkie. My next post will be about the slow boat cruise to Luang Prabang. This is another popular activity that travelers take after completing their Gibbon Experience tours.

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