March 16th, Chiang Mai, Thailand – We were supposed to make it from Chiang Mai all the way to Laos so we could catch the 7:30am transport to The Gibbon Experience. We went to the bus station with plenty of time to catch the 10:30 bus we were told went to Chiang Khong only to find out there was no such bus; the next one left at 1pm leaving no chance of making the border crossing. After running around the bus station to figure out which phone would allow us to call Laos (for some reason Laos and Malaysia are neither local nor international calls from Thailand) and then figuring out which phone card can be used, we were able to speak with the office in Huay Xai and they agreed to wait for us in the morning. So we hopped the next available bus to Chiang Rai and from there transferred to the next bus to Chiang Khong, ironically for a route with many buses running we ended up with the same vehicle and crew that we took from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai over a week earlier. It was a long day of travel and while checking online we started to learn more information about the tree house lodging, all of it suggesting that it would be a more rustic experience than first thought. Rather than the two hour trip the brochure mentioned, it would be a three hour drive back up the bad road we took earlier followed by a one hour, uphill hike with our belongings on our backs. Instead of three houses for two people each as one report suggested the primary house slept all six people, with little privacy and a single shared, squat toilet. The proprietor of our favorite guesthouse in Chiang Khong (Bamboo Riverside), who had been to the tree house, said it was best thought of as camping. We were worn down and had had several rustic experiences recently, so we were not so sure we wanted another one; particularly with the added stress of the hard travel and the relatively expensive cost of the program plus the cost of another Laos visa. We woke up the next morning still debating whether to go and in the end we were undecided until the Thai immigration official stamped us out of Thailand and sealed the deal. As it turns out, we backed our way into the right decision.
You start the journey from Huay Xai by pickup truck up the still in-progress road toward Lam Na Tha, luckily for us we snatched two seats in the cab and did not have to travel on a bench in the back (or on the roof as a slow loris, recently rescued from a nearby market place who was being brought to the forest for release, had to). After what should normally be two hours on the road you turn off for another hour off road towards the Bokeo nature reserve; of course we did not make it in two hours hampered by construction delays, a long bathroom stop and a punctured tire. So three hours after leaving Huay Xai we stopped for lunch and then continued off the main road. We reached a village where those who did not leave their unnecessary belongings in the office could store their luggage (you do not want to carry more than you need to into the hills), and after another 40 seconds of driving reached the starting point of the hike. Why we drove the last forty seconds is beyond me, but from there it was a very sweaty hour up hill, with our packs and the loris, to the lodging. At this point we still doubted our decision, but as we reached the final destination and saw Willie playing in the trees, put on our harnesses, hooked ourselves to the zip line and whisked our way into the tree house, we could tell this was going to be a different experience.
The first, and currently only completed, tree house consists of four platforms situated in a large tree about 40 meters above the ground, it has running water piped in from a natural spring and is reached via zip line from a nearby hill. There are two zip lines off the tree house, one going the short distance to the kitchen on the hillside and one going 200 meters across the valley leading to another 280 meter zip line which is a brisk walk from the second, nearly completed, smaller and sometimes used, tree house. I guess the best way to think of it is part ropes course, part children’s’ clubhouse and part Swiss Family Robinson. Willie is the five month old pet gibbon, orphaned at about 10 days when poachers killed its parents and rescued from a market, who has resided at the tree house basically since it started operations this past November. After about thirty seconds of getting to know you, Willie spends the rest of your stay in your lap or swinging from your hair, arms, the zip lines or the nearby trees. Currently, there are a few volunteers (mostly Dutch) acting as liaisons for the guests, with local villagers serving as guides, cooks, cleaning staff and maintenance. Jeff, the French man who has spent the last decade in Laos and has been entrusted by the government with stewardship of the Bokeo reserve, plans to teach the locals enough English and management skills to completely handover the operation; thus providing a strong economic and emotional link between the villagers and the forest, hopefully ensuring its preservation (we did hear the shotgun fire of poachers and two members of our group passed one on the trails, so there is still allot of work to be done). You spend the three days zipping around the forest and walking the trails with your fellow guests (up to six in the main tree house and two in the second tree house which they are using when asked even though it is not yet finished and does not have running water or a toilet). So, as with so many other adventures, the quality of your fellow travelers drives the experience. As seems to happen often for us, we were lucky and had a great group; two Brits (Phil and Carl), seasoned travelers who are about to spend a year teaching English in a small village in Northern Thailand, an Australian couple (Gabby and Ian) who are traveling for their first time, enthusiastically picking a difficult destination in Laos and willing to stay in the second tree house just to have the ‘gibbon’ experience, and the senior member of the group from Germany (Wolfgang) who was celebrating his 51 birthday with us. Our volunteer Dutch woman (Tamara), the final addition to our experience, is getting university credit for working out here; she stays with groups in the tree house and teaches the local guides English
Of course a great group and a playground setting only makes for an average adventure, the addition of a string of comedic circumstances and mishaps made for one of the best experiences of our trip. After a small lunch the group (minus Wolfgang who wanted to rest after the hike) set out on the two long zip lines to explore the area; the views when gliding across the valley where spectacular and unlike any place I can recall. The forest is in really good shape and though we did not see much wildlife we heard the groups of black gibbons in the morning as well as barking deer and banded linsang at night and the forest is clearly teeming with life. The walk back from the 280 meter zip line is a fairly steep uphill and the Australians were not really looking forward to coming back out here after dinner to reach the second tree house. We made it back for our cold showers and dinner, and as the Australians were ready to head with two local guides into the darkness on the zip line I could see what appeared to be lightning in the distance; with them already nervous about going in the dark I though it best not to mention it, what were the odds of a storm in the dry season? Apparently very good; we spent that night as the first guests to ride out a thunder storm in the tree house. It was a spectacular storm with flashes of lightning illuminating the forest and loud cracks of thunder augmented by crashing bamboo and tree branches throughout the forest; the kind of storm I love to listen to, but forty meters high in a tree did not seem like the ideal location to do so. This was a situation that can bring a group close together and we all bonded as we huddled around the second kerosene lantern, waiting for the storm to pass so we could head off to bed. Even Willie got into the bonding as he curled into Carl’s lap, trembling through his first ever storm. It was not until Wolfgang, who had headed off to bed, came back up to the main platform a little wet that it occurred to all of us to check for leaks. Luckily, aside from that one platform and a few small leaks the tree house held up fine; we even found out the next day that their is a lightning rod on a nearby tree to keep the house safe (the kind of information it would have been nice to have earlier). While we were all okay, we worried about the Australians in their little tree house. The next morning they arrived for breakfast and we learnt how they lived out the storm; the two guides did not come back as planned and the four of them huddled under two ponchos, eventually falling asleep with Ian spooning Gabby, and the guides spooning Ian. The second tree house does not have as much cover along the sides as the first, and thus was much wetter. It also is more of a steel box than a wood house, leading to a bit of concern by its inhabitants during the lightning storm.
It was one of those nights that was a little scary and a little exhilarating, making for a great experience once it is over. Following breakfast the next morning Karen and I did repeated loops on the zip lines going down to the kitchen, walking the short distance to the main zip line and taking it back to the tree house; we also did the two long zip lines and then walked to the check out the second tree house. As you get more confident on the lines you start dangling in the middle to really take in the views, and I did a considerable amount of videography and photography hanging above the valley. This evening the Australians thought it wise to head back to the second tree house before dinner, and darkness, so the whole group took the opportunity for one last run along the long zip lines. For Wolfgang, this was his first attempt at the long lines and though he really enjoyed it, he had an inauspicious start as his hat flew off part way down the first line. This probably should have been seen as an omen to the comedy of errors to come. While walking between the two long lines the knot on Carl’s harness somehow came undone. Tamara had never been taught how to tie proper rethreaded figure eight knots, so Karen and I were left with the most background on the subject. Doing the husband and wife bickering game we dug deep into our adventure memories and, after twenty minutes, were able to tie a proper knot. At this point Wolfgang and the Australians had already gone ahead so it was just me, Karen the Brits and Tamara. We each went along the 280 meter zip line, but when Tamara got to the platform she could not undo the carabiner, it was too tight. From the platform there is a short zip line to the ground, which we had all already descended, so Phil volunteered to go back up and help her (he had left his cigarettes on the platform anyway). Using what looked like a zip line to the platform he set off, right at a tree. Avoiding the tree by kicking it as he went past he made it to the platform and tried to help with the carabiner, from the ground we gave the helpful suggestion of using a shirt to get more grip; we did not realize how difficult that would be. Luckily, while Phil was unbuttoning his shirt to hand it to Tamara, I remembered that they left wrenches on the platforms and suggested he use that instead. He was able to undo the carabiner and keep his shirt on in the process. The five of us set off for the walk back a little giddy from the sitcom like events and a little wary of what would happen next. We made it back with no more difficulties and it seemed as though the night would go smoothly, at least it did until shortly after Karen went to bed. Two of the guides had come to join us for the night, as they sometimes do when too many people are sleeping in the kitchen, and those of us still up thought we were giving English lessons. We heard animals and would show them my field guide, learning what made the sound and teaching them the English. At one point the guide told us the noise in the tree was wind, very good it is wind we replied; it took the wind picking up and them deciding to whisk down to the crowded kitchen for us to realize he was saying the wind is getting stronger and a storm is coming. The wind became so strong, Karen came back down from our platform at the top of the tree house, and we all prepared for another storm. This time we secured everything before it got bad and we once again huddled around the kerosene lantern, watching the distant lightning and waiting for the upcoming downpour. The wind was so strong we could feel the tree swaying and pieces of the roof were blown vertically, but the storm never came. With the excitement dying down Carl and I decided we needed one last adrenaline rush so we put on harnesses and zipped into the dark abyss of night. That was one of the best runs of the trip; unable to see in front of you, you are left with a feeling of total freedom until your feet hit the landing platform and you realize its time to stop yourself before hitting the tree.
We were all a bit tired the next morning, but after a few last runs on the tree house-kitchen-tree house loop with some dangling photography sessions, it was time to head out. The downhill walk was much quicker and easier than the uphill one two days earlier and we made it to the village with plenty of time for the Australians to catch the bus north to Lam Na Tha and for us and the Brits to make the border and catch a bus to Chiang Mai; at least it would have been enough time if the truck were waiting for us. Some time passes and Jeff comes on his motorbike, picks up one of the local guides and heads back. Some more time passes and one of the guides comes back and speaks with two of the volunteers; this did not look good. The truck was stuck, a tree had fallen across the road and the truck could not pass it but Jeff could take us one at a time on the motorbike; suddenly we did not have so much time after all. After some more time passes we could see the truck coming, the tree was cleared and, after unloading the next group, we got in and headed off. It did not take long before we stopped; from the cab out came one of the locals and we were all asked to get out. The truck driver did not think he could make it up the hill with all of us in, so out we got and we began to walk; we would repeat this a few times on the journey each one a little more frustrating than the previous. We eventually made it to the main road, got a bite to eat, put the Australians on the last bus north and headed towards Huay Xai. The uncertainty of how far we would get, for the second time in a couple of weeks on the same road, was annoying but we did make with time to cross the border but too late for the last bus to Chiang Rai. Our only option was a tourist minibus to Chiang Mai, so us and the Brits signed up for that and waited for it to leave. I admire but abhor these tourist scams; this one has a minibus leaving Chiang Mai at 12:30 arriving shortly after the border closes at its sister guesthouse (you can easily make the border by taking an 11am public bus to Chiang Rai) who happily provides you with a Lao visa (at $10 more than it would cost at the border) and a ticket for the slow boat south to Luang Prabang that most tourists take (again a bit more than if you bought the ticket on the Lao side in the morning). I still cannot understand why the vast majority of tourists use these services, but they do and this one dropped us off at the sister guesthouse in Chiang Mai at 11:30 pm. We politely declined a room, said goodbye to the Brits and walked to the main road to get a tuk tuk to the nice hotel we stayed at a few days earlier, thus ending our great adventure with the Gibbon Experience. They still have some kinks to work through, but this is a great operation being run by a good group of idealists and I am looking forward to returning in the future to track their progress.
Making it to Chiang Mai gave us a day to rest, relax and run errands. Tomorrow we are flying to Mandalay for a couple of weeks in Myanmar. Whether we will be able to access our web or email server is still unknown, so if you do not hear from us for a while don’t worry. A recent fortune I received at a temple said my legal case is defensible, so I am quite sure whatever happens in the ‘Golden Land’ will work out just fine.