We took the night bus from Vientiane, leaving at 8pm, sharing the back row with an American couple. We thought we got lucky as we could actually lay down properly (unlike the other 'beds'), and had plenty of space...until an hour down the road, we pulled over to pick up a local man, who wedged his way in between us two couples - awkward! It was either too hot or too cold, and again a very bumpy journey for 12 hours to Pakse.
There isn't much to do in Pakse. The city is mainly used as a transport hub and stopover for travellers exploring the south of Laos or heading to and from Cambodia. However, there is a loop around the Bolaven Plateau, an elevated region, which is popular for its waterfalls and villages, but takes 3-4 days. We were here to take a two day, one night 'Treetop explorer' trip in the Bolaven Plateau, to the Dong Houa Sao National Park (read on to find out more...!).
We hadn't booked any accommodation as we knew we had the time to search. What we didn't know was that everywhere would be fully booked! After searching around for an hour or so, and realising the price of rooms, we ended up checking into a hotel for a little bit more money. The 'Seng Aroun' hotel was along the main strip and had nice large clean rooms. We showered, then went next door for noodle soup for breakfast.
With nothing really to see, in terms of tourist attractions, we put on our agenda to find the ATM which doesn't charge us, go to the customer services of the Laos SIM card we had, in order to get the Internet working, and visit the markets.
We walked about 6km, achieving our tasks, and finding a river side local restaurant for a seafood and pork hot pot. We later returned to the river side to enjoy a 'Beer Lao' and watch the sunset. Then, having seen on Tripadvisor one of the best rated restaurants was an Indian, we had to try it out. Unfortunately we were disappointed, and it did not compare to the Indian we had had in HCM.
We had a whole day with nothing to do - a rare occurrence!
We did however spend the morning searching for some cheaper accommodation, but after a couple of hours, and a long distance covered (around 7km!), we did the maths and decided to stay put, since our hotel also included breakfast.
We went to the market for some noodle soup for lunch, then plonked ourselves on a boat restaurant for the afternoon, drinking iced coffee and relaxing.
For dinner we managed to find a local restaurant and chose the traditional papaya salad, larp, bamboo salad, and sticky rice.
Up early, our overnight bags packed, and very excited to be spending Valentine's Day zip-lining through the tree tops of southern Laos, and sleeping in a treehouse.
We met our group (Jess from the UK, Svante from Berlin, Anna from Prague, an Israeli couple, two ladies from California, and Dani from Germany) at the Green Discovery office at 8.30am, unbeknown we would have a two hour bus journey to reach the edge of the Dong Houa Sao national protected area. The last 12km of this journey was an unbearable dirt track which had us "driving" along at less than 10m/h all the way.
There was a unison sigh of relief as the bus pulled over in a small village and we were told to disembark. We were geared up with harnesses, helmets, water, and an odd looking small stick with a wrist strap. It turns out this odd looking stick would be our brake! Yikes!
Prepared for zip-lining, we first had to hike 4km into the NPA. Clinking and clanking along, we reached a line which involved us attaching ourselves to the top line and side stepping along the bottom line. The interesting thing was that I was too small to reach the top line, so I had to "balance" and shuffle my way along. After this unexpected challenge we stopped for some lunch. In traditional Laos style, we sat on the forest floor, with a spread of food laid out on banana leaves. Using sticky rice, we scooped up bamboo salad, chicken, vegetables, and peeled some boiled eggs.
Eager to get going, we geared up and hinted to the guides that we were ready. Before we knew it we had reached a rickety rope bridge, where Pi, our guide, went through the safety and instructions of zip-lining. The first and foremost instruction was to always have one clip attached to a line on the platform.
We hooked ourselves onto the lines along the fragile bridge, and over we went. Not such a smooth crossing when you have Chris jumping up and down behind you! But it added to the adrenaline rush.
A short walk later we saw the first platforms and knew this would be the beginning of our zip-lining. Our first day involved eight zip-lines, taking us gradually deeper into the forest, and where we would be staying the night.
Our hearts racing and adrenaline pumping, we each took it in turns to zip-line the first 'taster' line. The scariest part for me, was stepping or jumping off the platform, as the fear of falling was inescapable.
However, I soon got the feel for it, and without hesitation we made our way along the zip-lines. The group was great, providing a lot of encouragement and optimism, as a few people were terrified of heights and therefore trying to overcome fears.
It was such an extraordinary feeling 'flying' through the tree tops. On some zip-lines we passed by beautiful waterfalls, and nearly all the zip-lines had breathtaking views over the tree tops.
As you would draw near to the platform, the local guide would instruct you to brake if necessary. The instructions were simply "brake, brake", or "no brake, no brake". With these already sounding the same when your whizzing along a zip-line, it was made even more difficult for me, spending most of my time spinning around or travelling backwards! However, it was crucial to hear/see the instructions, and it was possible to control your direction by tapping the zip-line with your brake stick. If we heard "brake, brake" then obviously we used our wooden brake stick, which hooked over the line, and pulled down with force to slow our pace. Sometimes we were too good at braking and would stop too soon. So it was a case of pulling yourself along the zip-line to the platform. Sometimes people were not so good at braking and would crash into the guide on the platform. It was a learning curve.
There was also some abseiling involved to reach certain platforms. This was easy enough, as really we were lowered down by one of the guides.
Far too soon we had reached the tree top houses and base camp, where we would spend the night. Pumped with adrenalin, hot and sweaty, myself, Chris, Svante, Jess, and Anna, quickly put our swimmers on and went for a 'shower' under the waterfall we had been zip-lining past. It was refreshing to say the least, but it's not every day you get to cool off under a waterfall, in the middle of a NPA, surrounded by nature. Not quite satisfied, we followed some very precarious wooden steps down to the 'swimming' area. We plunged into the ice cold water, which took your breath away.
Having noticed another feeble bridge, we crossed it to find a two tiered platform, overlooking the NPA and in time to watch the sun set behind the mountains.
Back at camp, we changed into some warmer clothes, and sat with a roaring open fire, waiting for dinner. We were served a delicious yellow chicken curry and fresh spring rolls. We all sat around the fire getting to know each other, with very friendly cats curled up on our laps. But soon enough (around 9pm!) it was bed time.
We were instructed to get geared up as we would be zip-lining into our rooms! We followed each other, one by one up the canopy, in the pitch black. Then as we reached each treehouse we took it turns to attach our pulley and zip-line into a treehouse - the most surreal experience. It was hilarious watching people zip-line over your head, saying 'goodnight', as they disappeared into a camouflaged treehouse.
I sent Chris off first into our treehouse as he had the torch. However, it seemed I did not take a good enough run up to the zip-line, as I didn't quite make it to the platform, and before I knew it, I was zip-lining in the wrong direction. So in the dark, I had to pull my way into our treehouse.
Simple but awesome, the treehouse consisted of two single beds with mosquito nets and sleeping bags, a small table, and a bathroom with a toilet and sink. What more do you need! It was so exciting to be sleeping in a treehouse in the forest.
A surprisingly good nights sleep in the treehouse. We woke up to a misty surrounding but definitely at one with nature. Geared up and ready to be collected by a guide at 8am, to zip-line down to breakfast. We had omelettes with bread, watermelon, and local coffee from the village. The setting was phenomenal, surrounded by waterfalls with just the sound of water crashing and birds singing.
We spent the morning zip-lining a large loop which would bring us back to camp for lunch. We zip-lined between 10-13 lines, and experienced the longest zip-line of 450m.
Despite feeling nervous for the longest zip-line, it was by far the most enjoyable. We encountered several long zip-lines on this morning, which were exhilarating.
As we all bunched together on the platform waiting for the final person, Jess, to zip-line down. We couldn't quite believe our eyes when we noticed she was not attached to her pulley on the line, but to Pi's harness. To help with your imagination, she was basically flying - suspended horizontally, underneath Pi, who was attached to the line vertically. It looked like a lot of fun, and Chris and I were very jealous.
When the moment was right, Chris asked if it would be possible for him to play Superman, which luckily there was one more opportunity to. At the last minute I realised I could also have a go, but not attached to Pi. This meant turning my harness around and having my back attached to the pulley. It was terrifying taking the first step off the platform, head first, trusting that the clips were all on. Of course they were, and I went flying headfirst down the zip line. Well I actually spent more time feet first as I was spinning around, so I had to 'swim' my way to being head first so I could see my instructions.
When I reached the platform, I held in my overwhelming excitement to watch Chris, sorry, Superman, fly down the zip-line. With his red hoody acting as his cape, he really played the part well.
We had a final rope bridge to cross, which was surprisingly challenging, before a short hike up to camp.
Lunch was another delicious curry, this time a red curry with pork, and a few vegetable dishes. The food was definitely some of the best we have eaten since being in Laos.
After a short rest to let our food go down, we geared up, but put the brake sticks away, as our zip-lining was finished. It was time for hiking and the via ferrata.
The hike was pretty tough going, climbing up hill, up huge rocks, over fallen trees, all for a good hour or two. With all our gear on, and it being the hottest part of the day, we didn't look our best. Luckily the helmets could hide our greasy, sweaty hair.
We reached the beginning of the via ferrata, and I have to be honest, it looked scary.
One of the local guides went first to show us how it's done, and of course was like a monkey, and made it look easy. We then all followed, one at a time. We had to leave plenty of space in between us, as it took some time to move your clips between the sections. Especially since you could only move one clip at a time, to ensure you were always attached to the line. It was pretty demanding, and required a lot of upper body strength. At one point our sweaty hands were holding onto the slippy metal handles which were further up and out than our feet, this meant using mainly our upper body to manoeuvre along and hold ourselves close to the rock.
The via ferrata took us up and over the rocks, climbing for about an hour. Then it was the final 4km hike back to the village where the bus was waiting, through the forest and coffee plantations, and passing by a c*** fight. Of course all the boys stopped off to watch and us girls carried on to the bus.
It was such a relief to have a real shower, and we joined Svante and Anna for a pleasant evenings meal and drinks on the roof top restaurant, at the Pakse Hotel.
Up early to catch the bus and a boat over to Don Det, in the Si Phan Dan, aka the four thousand islands.