Andrea: "I think I could swim that."
"I could definitely swim that."
"What would we do with the bags?"
"Couple of trash bags would work."
Five further minutes of deliberation ended with us forking over the money for a boat to ferry us across the 100 meters of Mekong River that separates Thailand and Laos. More money forked for visas and we were officially in the border town of Huay Xai, searching the dusty roads for a guest house. We immediately found a suitable place with a fiesty old owner who spoke impeccable English. Almost too impeccable. When I mumbled under my breath to Vern, in almost inaudible speech, that maybe we should look at a few more places to compare, she picked up on it immediately saying we won't find anything else with rooms this big and at this price. She then proceeded to tell us about how the rooms in Thailand are so small that she has to use the toilet standing up and another tirade about staying in an airport hotel in the US for $150 per night that wasn't half as nice as her guest house. OK. Lesson learned. No sneaky conversations in front of this lady. We smiled and took the room. (The next day she caught Vern mention, in a hushed tone, that we should get sandwiches across the street. "Sandwiches? I can make sandwiches. The place across the street uses expired cheese. Very bad." Lesson learned...again.) That night for dinner we found a cheap and delicious street BBQ and had chicken skewers, sausage and sticky rice, which we dipped in a fiery chilli sauce that left us both gasping for air. Also on offer were bottles of Lao whiskey featuring floating snakes and scorpions inside, which we managed to decline. Some had cobras that were biting their own tails! Gruesome, but hard to pass up what with Christmas almost here.
The morning we were waiting for had arrived! We had come to this dusty town to embark on a three day adventure in the forest called the Gibbon Experience. The experience is an eco-friendly adventure that finds one zipping around the Bokeo Nature Reserve on zip lines and sleeping in treehouses. The forest is one of the most pristine in Laos and is home to tigers, clouded leopard, black bears, macaques, wild elephants and, of course, the black crested gibbon. We were however told that even seeing a gibbon is very lucky so we weren't getting our hopes up for many animal sightings. The Gibbon Experience started five years ago when poaching was threatening the extinction of the black crested gibbon and a conservation-based tour group came in and persuaded the hunters of Bokeo to become the guardians, by making them guides and zip line instructors. They now make more money than they did as poachers.
We gathered in their office to watch a safety video for the zip lines that I can safely say scared everyone even more. We also learned that the lines can be up to 200 meters off the ground of the forest! With that and the safety video being the only information we received, I was a tad nervous about the zip lines. Piling into a few trucks, I sat comfortably in the cab while Vern was stuck in the back of the truck, freezing for over 2 hours. His excitement, however, could still be seen behind his watering eyes and we jumped out of the truck ready to go! About 30 minutes of jungle walking led us to a hut with harnesses waiting for us. We strapped our harnesses on with no instruction and asked each other if it looked OK (nobody knew for sure, but everyone said yes). We broke up into 4 groups--one group of eight, one of seven, one group of five and one group of two. We decided to forgo the 'honeymoon suite' for a more social experience and grouped up with five other people, making us seven. Proving the 'small world' cliché, the two British guys in our group lived one suburb away from us in London. We bored the rest if the group with comparisons of tube lines and our favorite pubs in the area. The bored ones in our group were two Germans and a hippie from Holland.
We made it to our first zip line. I was so scared as I examined the 2 carabiners that were saving me from plunging 200 meters into the tiger-infested forest below (Exaggerate? Me?). The guide told us to always put the safety rope on first. 'Seff-e-ty first' were his exact words. Then he put the other rope on, said, 'no brake' (which translates to, 'you shouldn't need to use the rubber break') and was gone. I jumped up to the platform and repeatedly asked the other guide if everything was in place. He barely glanced over and said yes and after some umming and aweing I let myself fall. And gravity did what it does best and before I knew it I was flying through the air, holding on for dear life and admiring the most spectacular forest views I've ever seen. I was immediately hooked. We continued with higher and longer zip lines, gaining confidence each time. We were in the middle of nowhere--gradient shades of green trees covered the landscape from left to right without a road in sight. I've never felt so bird-like, apart from that time I ate worms in Chiang Rai. We zipped our way to treehouse #7--our home for the next two nights. We arrived early and were keen for more zipping, but our guide informed us that we were all tired and we needed to stay in our treehouse for the evening. We toured our three story abode and Vern and I claimed the penthouse suite--the only private room in the place. The bathroom was on the bottom floor and the dining area on the second floor. We made ourselves comfortable sitting in what looked like camping chairs for children around a tiny table. Chatting continued throughout the night as we got to know the rest of our group. We made it to 8:30 and all turned in for the night.
The next morning we woke early. The only access to the treehouse was via zip line and the whole place shook when the guides arrived in the morning. We were very lucky because the guide immediately spotted a family of gibbons! We all watched in silence as the black and orange gibbons flung themselves effortlessly from tree to tree. Their long arms had no problem grabbing each branch as they danced around each other, 50 meters off the ground. Another day of zipping ensued and we worked up the confidence to take running starts and zip back and forth many times without stopping. Every time we finished a line we dutifully shouted the safety word, PINEAPPLE!, to the next person in line so they'd know it was clear and they'd zip through shortly after. And every time we jumped up to zip we muttered, 'seff-e-ty first' as we put on the safety line. We zipped to each treehouse, comparing and admiring the views from each one. Some had better views and some were much nicer and newer, but we learned that our treehouse was the only one that saw gibbons so we used that to rub in people's faces if we felt they had a nicer treehouse. Every treehouse was only accessable by zip line so the spectacular forest views followed us everywhere. There were some hard uphills around the area, but they were compensated for with higher zip lines! I honestly don't know how else to explain it, but to say imagine travelling 200 meters above the densest, greenest forest you've ever seen at 40 Kph with the wind whipping your face and with nothing to hold you but two ropes. Magical, is all I can say. (We posted a video in the video section if you want to see it from our point of view.)
After a very full day of zipping it was back to treehouse #7. It was so hot and I had the most amazing shower of my life. It was a rainwater shower in an open bathroom that overlooked the forest. The view was breathtaking (as was the cold water!) and it was a place you never wanted to leave, but there were 6 more people waiting for the shower so I had to leave. That view was the perfect ending to a perfect day. We were exhausted, but determined to stay up past 8:30. Our amazing guide had walked an hour and a half each way to the village to bring us beers that we enjoyed as day turned to night. The guide, Ya Tcha, sat with us and told us more about the company (run by a fat Frenchman) and a little about his family. Rob, the Dutch hippie, asked him for a job in a moment that proved very awkward for everyone when Ya Tcha thought he meant volunteer but Rob made clear he wanted money for the work. I don't know what happened with that, but I don't expect to see Rob working as a guide any time soon. We made it until just past 10:00 and fell asleep to the cacophony of jungle sounds on our last night.
Before we left the treehouse, a few of us spent about 15 minutes zipping back and forth on our entrance and exit lines trying to get photos. Then we continued on out of the forest via some of the zip lines we had done the day before. It was still so amazing as I don't think any of is would tire from it. On the second to last zip, though, I had an incident where I took my right hand off the wheel and then went to put it back up and got my finger stuck in the wheel. My glove got stuck in the wheel and my middle finger got nipped. I got scared because I thought I'd taken the tip of my finger off, but the blood that pooled in my nail was just from a little cut and I was fine. I was scared and I shed a few tears and Gareth said, 'Oh, I thought you were crying because it's over.' And that IS how we all felt. It was sad to be leaving our Peter Pan forest adventure, although my finger was throbbing so that was still the main reason for the tears.
An hour long walk (after all the zipping I've realized walking is for suckers) back to the village, and then we waited for another hour for the buses to come pick us up. The village was small and dusty and full of animals--giant pigs, chickens, cows and a horse that looked like his head was stuck to a house. Dirty kids ran among them and we observed as these rural people went about their day to day. Gareth exclaimed that he thought these people were 'like 400 years behind us!' to which we laughed and dismissed as an exaggeration as one of the villagers walked by holding a cell phone.