The Gibbon Experience

Trip Start Jun 04, 2009
Trip End Sep 06, 2010

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Bokèo,
Saturday, July 31, 2010

Aaaaaeeeeeeaaaaaaeeeeeeaaaaa! (Tarzans Hello)

So as luck would have it we were off to spend three days and two nights in the jungle on The Gibbon Experience. This was by far the most expensive excursion we had undertaken in the history of our travels but the money largely goes towards conservation of the jungle and the protection of the gibbons from poachers.  It certainly seemed like a good investment and one that we wouldn't regret making, even if it does mean we’ll be eating plain rice for the next month to afford it.

It turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of my life, although I’d read about what it was going to be like I was still completely unprepared for the adventure ahead.  As we found out that we would be going with only minutes to spare we haphazardly threw a few items into over night bags and jumped in the back of a jeep to be whisked off towards the start of the jungle.  The journey to get to our tree house for the night consisted of one hour on the back of a jeep, half an hour wading through mud and walking through a river, an hour by four wheel drive on dirt roads followed by five hours of hiking and ziplines.  Knowing how much walking was ahead of us Steve carefully removed his shoes to carry them through the river crossing.  Unfortunately, then being barefoot, he slipped over on the mud leading down into the river and his shoes fell out of his hand, bounced off his belly and landed in the river.  He didn’t find it as amusing as I did for some reason but it was to be the first of many falls to come so I shouldn’t have laughed quite so hard.

The long journey to the tree house sounded exhausting enough already so imagine our reaction when we got to the four wheel drive road and were informed that the driver had lost his keys so we would have to hike for an extra four hours to get to the 'starting point’ of the hike into the jungle!  Luckily our group was in good spirits and we set off along the dirt road getting to know each other.  An hour into the walk with the sun beating down on us it was a much less jolly group and we were already at breaking point, the road continuously plunged down and rose up steeply again making the walk completely exhausting in the heat.  We took a communal break huddled in a rare patch of shade and contemplated just how far we still had to go when we heard the miraculous sound of engines and the 4x4’s rumbled into view.  I have never been happier to see a car in all my life!  It was certainly not a comfortable journey and we gained a fair few bruises being thrown around in the back of the truck but who could complain when we knew how hard going the walking was.  The road seemed to go on and on forever I’m certain it would have taken us more like 7 hours if we had to walk it.

After stopping at a village for lunch we set off on the actual hike into the jungle.  Given that it was the wet season there was no shortage of mud to slow us down.  Trying to make our way up slippery hills was challenging but trying to stay on two feet while coming downhill was near impossible.  By the time we reached a halfway point, where we got our harnesses, we were as muddy and sweaty as it’s feasible to be but as tough as every step was we were just so glad that the cars had spared us the walk before that point.  The next few hours were just as much hard work but felt like we were really getting deep into the jungle, plus we had now come across the zipwires that broke up the hiking with some thrill seeking.  We’ve done a fair bit of ziplining before but nothing at these kind of heights where you are sailing high above the treetops and can look out at the mist forming around the edges of the jungle.  What made it more thrilling was the complete lack of guidance we were given, we did have guides with us but they hardly spoke English and were not particularly interested in the group (apart from trying to convince a couple of the single girls to marry them).  So were off on our own doing our safety checks and keeping our fingers crossed that there was some kind of maintenance procedure for checking on the cables from time to time. 

In true ‘Amy’ style we were in sight of the final cable that would take us into our tree house when I had my big fall and landed on top of the metal part of my harness earning myself an award winning bruise to deal with over the next few days.  Once we were all in the tree house we could finally relax and appreciate what an amazing place we were in.  This was no back garden tree house, we were at the least 100ft up in the air and only accessible by zipline, Steve and I shot-gunned the bedroom up in the roof but it was the bathroom that had the best view.  It had a completely open back wall with the shower on so you showered with a view out over the jungle canopy, utterly incredible.  Steve found the toilet particularly rewarding with the 100ft freefall below, I think that’s a boy thing!  It was only when both myself and Steve got ready for our showers that evening that we noticed tell tale holes in ourselves.  We had been leeched!  I had been suckered on my thigh, by a Houdini leech as I was wearing long trousers and a harness, and Steve had a mark on his ankle.  The bandits were long gone but the frustrating thing about leech bites is that they don’t stop bleeding for hours, I tried to put a plaster on mine but four plasters later it was seemed a pointless effort.  I made a vow that no leeches would get to me the next day, my trousers would be well and truly tucked into my socks in the height of jungle fashion.

The guides left us alone in the tree house for the night and would bring by food later so we made ourselves at home by making some coffee and playing card games.  The coffee was classic South East Asian style made with condensed milk but we made the first mistake of tree-house living and left the can on the side where a line of ants started filing into the opening.  Refusing to let them spoil our fun we simply carried on regardless in our coffee consumption but delegating someone the extra job of filtering the ant bodies from the milk before it went into the cups. 

Like the milk-tray man, one of the guides arrived via zip line with a stack of dishes for our dinner and quickly exited through the zip line at the back.  It was our first helping of rice with various vegetables and certainly not the last, we had the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner all three days on the trip.  The only variable was if there was an untraceable meat or not in one pile of vegetables.  Frustratingly we later found out that other tree-houses had a gourmet spread including pasta, chips and various distinguishable meats (but their bathrooms didn’t have such a good view!).  After a good few more cups of ants and rounds of cards it was time to get to bed so we were ready for more trekking the next day.  Unfortunately someone decided to shine a torch at the ceiling and with that my chances of any sleep disappeared for good.  It wasn’t hard to spot the hand span sized spiders loitering on the ceiling right by our bed.  Thanks to the ladder to our bed we could get an up close and personal look at our eight-legged room mates who truly were horror story sized.  We climbed into bed and lowered our mosquito net around us and just lay perfectly still all night trying to ignore the endless creepy noises drifting in from the jungle.  At 5.30am we got up to watch the sunrise, which didn’t kick in until 6.30am but when it did the mist started to burn through and all the layers of the tree canopy were defined in the light.  It was an incredible sight, especially with the soundtrack of the various birds and insects stirring in the morning.

Our breakfast arrived by zipline and we fished out some more ants from the milk to get another kick of the highly addictive Lao coffee (I was starting to think that the 5 cups I had before bed were a contributing factor to my lack of sleep).  My war against the leeches didn’t last long, one of the girls spotted one climbing up her trousers and flicked it away…into my face!  Panic ensued but I managed to pry it off and give it the long trip down to the forest floor.  We spent the day zooming around the jungle on zipwires and plodding up and down the linking trails.  It was the most fun type of exhausting activity imaginable.  Thanks to the lack of guides, who we lost on the second day anyway, it felt so much more like an adventure than an organised trip.  We found all the tree houses and had lunch in one with the rest of our group before going it alone for some more exploring.  There were a few sudden and dramatic down pours to cool us down and keep the mud fresh but mostly we were very lucky with the weather for the whole trip. 

On the second night we returned to the tree-house in drips and drabs and once again I managed to injure myself right at the end of the day, this time by moving my head to avoid head butting a tree and instead nearly loosing my ear in the harness mechanism.  Thankfully I got away with a bruise and a small cut but I dread to think how nasty it could have been.  We were just getting settled back into tree-house life, putting the kettle on, when a man with an AK47 zipped in on one line and out the other, whether he was a poacher or not we never figured out and it didn’t seem like a good idea to ask him too many questions.  In any case a man with a big gun was the least of my worries when I decided to have a shower and discovered horror of all horrors, a leech had gotten inside my knickers!!  Worse than that, it was still there and was, without question, the largest one we’d seen, about the size of my little finger.  I had an attempt at pulling it off but it wouldn’t let go, my screaming alerted Steve to the situation who had to come in and help me wrestle with it but he couldn’t pull it off either!  It was a horror scene.  Steve had to go and get his zipline glove to get a good hold of it and finally wrenched it off with blood everywhere.  I was shaking like a leaf but Steve had washed it down the sink so he left me to shower in peace.  But anyone who has seen a horror film knows it doesn’t end that easily and after I turned my back on the sink it started climbing out again!  I got a glimpse and quickly ran the tap trying to push it into the flow but some how it leapt back onto me and started crawling up my arm!  (They are really, really fast by the way I wasn’t being completely pathetic) My second attempt to remove it was more successful and finally I was rid of it but days, probably years, later I’ve still got a nervous twitch to remind me of the incident.

The second evening we whiled away the hours with more coffee and conversation which would have been very pleasant if once again there were not more giant spiders right by our bed.  This time one as big as my palm was eating an equally super sized moth creating the effect of a giant flying spider (see photo) one to feature in my nightmares for years to come.  Strangely enough I slept very well that night, most likely with the conviction that the worst possible thing had already happened to me so bring on all the spiders who wanted to crawl over me, my reality was worse than my nightmares.

The next morning we began our long slog back to town which seemed mildly easier as we had our bearings in the jungle now.  Thanks to a few opportune down-pours we skidded down quite a few mud slides and Steve did a very impressive cartoon fall that got his feet up to eye level before he came crashing down on his back.  At least the nice thing about falling in mud is the soft landing.  Slowly but surely we arrived back at the village, my legs were shaking like jelly but we were all still standing and very proud of ourselves.  Then we got the news that the trucks couldn’t make it as far as the village and we’d have to hike for an hour uphill to meet them.  This nearly broke a few of us, me included, but there was little we could do but plough on and eventually the trucks appeared on our horizon, this now topping the list for times in my life I’ve been most happy to see a car.  An even bumpier journey ensued with six of us in the back clinging on for dear life and taking some mighty whacks, my funny bone being the prime victim, as the truck did well to get through the mud covered track.

Finally we made it back to town and it would have been wonderful to have a rest and a shower but instead we decided to travel with a couple of girls from our trip to catch the border crossing to Thailand while it was still open and then hop on a three hour bus to take us to Chiang Rai where eventually we managed to shower like we’ve never showered before and clean all our gear.  The leech crawling out of my shoes when we arrived was the final insult but we made sure he regretted coming along for the ride!

Lots of Love,

Amy and blood-Sucker Steve

P.s Did someone mention gibbons?  In theory there were gibbons around, we think we might have seen one, maybe.  We didn’t really find out anything about them thanks to a lack of guides but after reading about the jungle we were in I found out there are also tigers and bears roaming around.  Always good to know after the event!  We found out from another tree-house that they had a 6ft long boa constrictor in their beds, so I’m quite happy with the fairly small scale wildlife encounters we had in comparison.

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