We woke up in Huay Xia early in the morning, anxious for what the day would bring. We headed to the same restaurant we’d eaten in the night before, scarfing down a baguette and eggs, before heading to the Gibbon Experience office. When we arrived, we found our friends from the night before and began to chat while we waited to begin. As it turned out, Hazel and Sarah were also teaching in China, but in the city of Suzhou (just north of Shanghai). Hazel is also the coach of their school’s girls’ basketball team (Trent and I coach the girls’ team at QISS) and we will be meeting again at the Acamis tournament in less than a week. This is just one of many “small world” experiences we’ve had since moving to China.
When everyone had finally arrived, we sat down and watched a safety video outlining the zip lining experience and how to ensure safety at all points along the trip. The video also outlined the Gibbon Experience’s history and mission. This organization was born in 1996 with a mission of helping local villages and authorities to run self-sufficient forest conservation schemes (there was a lot of poaching, illegal logging, commercial cropping, and excessive slash-and-burn practices that were all too fast eradicating the forest). Then, in 2003, they evolved to the grown-up treehouse experience that we embarked on. They began building treehouses in the canopy of the forest to draw attention to the black-crested gibbon’s habitat and to fund their conservation project. Then, in 2008, the area that they had adopted to protect (136,000 hectares) was officially named the Nam Kan National Park in the Bokeo Province. They offer three distinct treehouse and zip line experiences: the “Classic,” “Waterfall,” and “Express” programs. We chose the “Waterfall Experience” because it involved more hiking and cable experiences which took us deeper into the forest (which meant more of a chance of actually seeing the wild gibbons), and also to the waterfall itself.
After the safety video, the 17 of us departed in 2 white trucks with covered beds. Trent and I sat squished in the front of the truck (which later proved to be the best possible place we could have been). When we left, it was early in the morning and still very cold. The roads were made of dirt and were very dry and dusty. The combination of the wind and dirt (and later branches and other foliage) made us very thankful to have made it inside the truck with some Russians with whom we made quick friends. It was nearly a two hour car ride along the windy, rural roads of Laos. We passed all sorts of small villages built up on stilts and made out of woven straw. Women and children sat on porches, others carried loads on their backs on the side of the road. We stopped for a short time for a bathroom break and to buy snacks before we hopped back in the trucks and took off again down a bumpy road that looked like it was heading straight into the river… oh wait, it did go straight into the river. The truck was nearly up to the windows in water. I would have paid to see the expressions of the people sitting in the covered beds as we plunged headlong into the frigid water (if it was anything like my own, it was probably pretty priceless). I’m still not quite sure how they emerged dry and unscathed. Once we came out on the other side of the river, the roads got really rough. There was a lot of mud, both wet and dry, that made the roads particularly hard to navigate. The “road” was also very narrow with lots of vegetation on both sides, which snapped against the windows as we drove (again, I wouldn’t have wanted to be sitting in the open-sided bed of the truck). The views were incredible along the drive- lush, green mountains sprawled out before us. After another half hour or so down this road, we arrived at a small village. Naked children ran around and played in the river while others flocked to the trucks which delivered supplies and food to them every few days. Chickens and roosters were running around, wild piglets slept in the shade with a misfit cat, and a mule stood there oblivious to all the commotion going on around him. People were out sitting on their porches, children were playing with each other or watching this strange new group of foreigners file out of the trucks and linger about. Finally we took our shoes off and crossed the river barefoot as we began our trek to the first treehouse.
(The trucks we rode in)
(Some of the sights of rural life along the Laos countryside)
(Driving through the river)
(The gorgeous countryside)
(Some of the kids at the local village)
(The kitty cat sleeping with the piggies)
Now, I had read in the brochure and on the website that those doing the “waterfall experience” should be in good shape. I have always considered myself in “good” shape. I played college soccer, Trent and I have run half marathons, done P90X, done a lot of hiking and biking, and we coach basketball… we are the epitome of good shape, right? Not for this we weren’t. In our group we had a yoga teacher with her own yoga studio, an ex-Canadian National Team football player, three basketball coaches, and another couple who does a lot of backpacking and yet, none of us were quite prepared for what we encountered. Although the hike began easy enough, trekking through rice paddies and along the river, it soon became MUCH more strenuous. We each had a backpack with three day’s-worth of warm clothes, plenty of water to drink, flashlights, swimsuits and towels, cameras, etc. that we carried for hours along the mountainous terrain. We went up, up, up and then went down, down, down. The trips up were enough to make our muscles scream and make us need to stop to catch our breath while going down was steep, hard on the knees, and required a lot of concentration. As we were all huffing and puffing, our guide Pia, scaled the mountains with ease… IN HIS FLIP FLOPS. After stopping to eat pre-prepared sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, we arrived at one of the local camps where they cook the meals that we would be eating for the next two days (which are also delivered by zip line). The men there were playing a soccer-like game where they have a small wooden ball that they kick back and forth over a volleyball net. It was very entertaining to watch. I hung out with a sweet kitty cat that belonged to the villagers while we were given our zip line equipment. We wore the harnesses for the rest of the hiking until we arrived at our treehouse. It was also here that Dante, our forest ranger bearing a semi-automatic weapon, joined us. Not too long after we left the village, we came to our first zip line. Dante went first, with his gun slung across his chest. What a sight that was. But it made us feel safe that he was going ahead of us to make sure there were no poachers or anyone who wasn’t supposed to be there.
(The guys playing at the village)
(Hazel, Sarah, and I getting our zip lining equipment)
Now, Trent and I have never been zip lining before. I had the opportunity to go when I was in Costa Rica but I had chosen a different activity instead. So, needless to say, we were a little nervous (Trent more-so than I since he is afraid of heights). I went first, making extra sure that everything was connected correctly and that all the safety features were in place. Leaving the platform was an experience in and of itself… a test of trust. Once your feet leave the ledge, there’s no going back. It was like nothing I’ve ever done. You are flying through the air, miles above the ground, above the treetop canopy of the forest. You can see trees all below and around you, and momentarily, you do feel like a wild gibbon, flying through the tree tops. It was an exhilarating experience. Well, several more zip lines and another bit of hiking and we had arrived at our treehouse. We actually had to zip line INTO the treehouse as this was the only way to get in and out of the houses. This particular house was the highest one they have built and it was HIGH off the ground. When we finally got in, I was terrified. I didn’t expect to feel that way, but we were so high up and literally towered above anything around us. You could see through the cracks between the floorboards which really tripped me out and gave me butterflies in my stomach. The toilet was in the floor on the outer edge of the treehouse and, to be honest, I needed Trent to hold my hand when I went pee. It was terrifying! It took me a good half an hour or so to get comfortable enough to walk around. By that time, the sun was setting and Pia was zip lining in with our dinner. We ate dinner seated on these short little stools around a table maybe two feet off the ground and then set up our beds around the perimeter of the treehouse. We each had a small mat with sheets and blankets and, for every two people, there was one mosquito net. When everything was set, we each brought out our snacks to share and began to play “Crazy Eights.” Even though we probably played cards for an hour or so, by the time it was 8:00, it had already been dark for a few hours and we were all exhausted. We all turned in for the night to try and rejuvenate our bodies for the trekking to the waterfall the next day.
(Ready to ride!)
(Trent ready to zip line)
(How high up our treehouse was)
(The toilet at the edge of the treehouse)
(The table and little stools we ate at and the mosquito nets we slept under)