Trip Start Nov 05, 2006
Trip End Jan 14, 2008

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Tree House Three

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Monday, March 19, 2007

When I was a kid, I wanted to be able to fly and live in a tree house.  Mission accomplished!

We just came out of Laos having completed The Gibbon Experience and it is BY FAR one of the top 5 best things we've both ever done.  A little bit of background...When we were back in Bangkok while Laura was shopping, I got a bite to eat and spent my time eves dropping on a couple Americans who were forming an eco-tour company.  After dinner, I interrupted them and asked for suggestions for Laos.  They both looked up and said "Do the Gibbon Experience."  Neither of them had ever done it before but their description was intriguing enough to start the booking process. 

We checked out their website and "The Gibbon Experience" takes place in the Bokeo Reserve in Northern Laos.  The Bokeo Reserve is a 303,810 acre preserve where Gibbons, once thought extinct, live safely under a protected status.  The Gibbon Experience offers visitors a chance to see the reserve and uses proceeds to promote awareness and pay for rangers to patrol and prevent poaching.  The "experience" entails a bus ride into a remote village, where you are provided exclusive access to a series of zip lines and jungle trails, while spending the night in your own tree house.  That sounded good enough so we signed up.  The description of the program completely understates how great it really is!  As we neared the launch point we encountered several people who had completed it who provided rave reviews.  This built our expectations, which as high as they were, were completely surpassed.

Our experience was as follows:  We were picked up in the village of Baan Donchai Sunday morning in an older model, faded, white Toyota Land Cruiser.  We piled in with the other nine guests, our jungle guides on the rooftop rack, and crossed through the river and rode up a hill deep into the jungle.  After an hour long 4-wheel drive trip (even the drive was fun!), we arrived in a small village where we were all handed climbing harnesses and led further into the jungle for an hour trek to the "school."  We were informed along the way that a camera crew was present to film a documentary on the project so periodically we'd hike by a camera filming the group (don't look at the camera!).  The school housed the guides, the family who cooks for the project, a baby Asiatic black bear (cat size they said), and a precocious Mecauques monkey.  After a brief explanation of the harness, and the color coded zip lines (green is go, yellow is safety and red is the wrong way,) and a safety course ("Safety first!" is the motto), a volunteer was requested to go first.  "I'll go," I said, so I climbed on the platform, clipped on, jumped off the platform and zipped across a short valley to "Tree House One."  ZIP LINES ARE COOL!  It's the closest I've ever been to flying through the air at high speed. Some things to remember though, don't let the line touch your glasses or your ear (ouch!).

Tree House One is not your average tree house!  Sitting 150 feet up in the tree's canopy and carefully constructed to not damage the tree, the tree house had three levels, a small kitchen, toilet (long drop toilet...think about that for a moment) and sleeping quarters for six. One by one, the group zipped across the valley and we gathered for some food and questions by the film crew.  After some brief discussion, volunteers were requested for the hike to Tree House Three (Tree House Two was a two-person and reserved by an Australian couple celebrating their anniversary).  We had been told by other travelers that number three was the most remote and offered the best chance for gibbon sightings, and Tree House Three only sleeps four so we jumped at the chance to go there.  The trek to Tree House Three involved another hour of hiking and a series of four zip lines across different valleys and a final zip into the tree house.  Tree House Three is definitely the place to stay if you are on the Gibbon Experience!  It is only a single story, but about 350 square feet with full facilities, and a much more comfortable venue, especially with only three people!   With a 180 degree panoramic view of the jungle and a remote location we were optimistic about our chances for spotting gibbons.  So just a quick recap so far, zip lining through the jungle and live in a tree house.  Can it get any better??

We relaxed in our tree house and enjoyed the view for the remaining two hours of the day.  At approximately five-thirty, we felt a jolt and heard the familiar whine of an incoming zip line pulley.  We'd heard that dinner would be delivered, but being in the jungle, we expected minimalist rations.  Things could get better!!  From the hatch in our tree house emerged a guide with a five course Laotian dinner!  We enjoyed our meal being serenaded by the jungle birds as the sun set over the misty hills.   Felix, our tree house mate, was a German percussionist who seemed "at one" with nature.  Often quiet and speaking with only interesting topics, he made the perfect house mate.

The following morning at about six o'clock, we awoke sharply to an unfamiliar sound.  What initially sounded like a car alarm, was the local troupe of gibbons engaging in their morning song.  It's impossible to describe the sound as it seems almost electronic.  Fifteen minutes later, our guide arrived and we glided out of the tree house for our morning jungle trek.  Deeper into the jungle we went taking a particularly long line across another valley from where we circled back in hopes of intercepting the gibbons we'd been listening to all morning.  No such luck on this day.  The hiking was incredible though as be wandered through tropical jungle and giant bamboo forests.  Giant trees only seen previously in movies, populate the jungle floor.  Our morning hike completed, we returned to the tree house where breakfast was delivered (another fantastic meal) and then set out to spend the day "gliding" across the valleys. Lunch placed us back at Tree House One where stories were exchanged with the other participants (no gibbon sightings there either). 

After lunch we went down to the school to visit the monkey and the bear.   The bear, a black Asiatic cub, was rescued from poachers after they'd killed its' mother.   The staff at Gibbon Experience will raise the cub until it's about a year old at which point they said it would leave on its' own.  The bear behaves exactly how you'd expect a bear cub to behave.  Motivated by food, it took interest in you only as long as it took to confirm you weren't  holding any.  The monkey was another story.  "Phi" is a female Macaque.  Macaque's join families for life and Phi has decided that the Gibbon people are her family.  Phi is a total menace.  Phi will steal anything that isn't secured including the glasses on your head.  Phi can open backpacks as well, so nothing is really safe.  Phi didn't care for women in particular (jealous) unless they were petting the bear, in which case she needed to interfere.  My favorite Phi observation was when she stole a pack of cigarettes from a guide and sat just out of his range while she took each cigarette out, place it in her mouth, then broke it, before casting it on the ground.  The film crew despised Phi as she would leap on their heads in the middle of the night.  The guides weren't always crazy about her either.  Phi is frequently tied up, probably for her own protection.

We spent the afternoon gliding around and repeated our morning hike in hopes of catching the gibbons out for the evening.  Still no sightings though. 

We awoke the second morning to the gibbon song and had resigned ourselves to just relaxing when our guide arrived.  He had other plans, taking us back into the far valley and trail blazing a new trail straight through the jungle.  We stopped just outside a small valley from which the gibbon songs emerged.  They were there!  Knowing that the gibbons were within sight, we strained our eyes trying to pick them out of the jungle.  No such luck though; being quite small, it seems that if a gibbon doesn't want to be seen, you don't see it!  Drenched in sweat and covered in dirt, we made our way back to Tree House One to rendezvous with the other part of the group for the hike out. 

Even though we didn't actually see any gibbons, the overall experience is beyond description.  This is truly an amazing place and the fact that the efforts go to such a noble cause makes you feel even better about having such an amazing time.  In two days we probably hiked and zip lined through twenty miles of jungle.  This is definitely an experience we will never forget!
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