Crossing the border to hell (aka. The Gibbon Experience)

Laos, Reviews, RTW: 2007-2008, Southeast Asia — By on July 26, 2008 8:00 PM


After spending five weeks in Thailand, it was time to explore another country. We planned to take a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, Thailand, where we would then cross the border into Lao. The only bus option available was a public 2nd class bus that departed at 6:30 am. We were the only non-Thai peeps on a very crowded bus with seats we hadn’t sat in since riding the bus to school… designed to fit two comfortably, but assigned to three. After the seven- hour bus ride we were up to date on Thai pop music and more than ready to get off the bus! We had our passports stamped on the Thai border, then boarded a long tail boat, crossed the Mekong River and were in Huay Xai, Laos minutes later. We were granted 30-day Laos visas upon arrival for $35 USD. The whole visa process was surprisingly quick and easy.

We had planned to come to Northwest Laos for the “Gibbon Experience” (GE), a 3 day/2 night trekking adventure in the Laos jungle, where we would sleep in treehouses only accessible by ziplines. The Gibbon Experience is located in the Bokeo Nature Reserve, a conservation project home to the endangered Gibbon monkey. The GE works closely with the local people in Bokeo Nature Reserve, to transform their economy from one based on slash-and-burn farming, logging and poaching, to one based on long term, conservation focused activity. Nicole and I felt good about booking the experience a few months back as we would be supporting the conservation project. Ziplining, living in treehouses, and seeing Gibbon monkeys sounded like so much fun that we were very excited for the experience! We had requested to do the “Waterfall Experience” which involved trekking further into the jungle to see a waterfall; however, due to the large amounts of rain recently this was no longer an option for us.


As we prepared to leave Thailand we started doing more research on the GE online as well as talking to others who had recently done the GE. We very quickly wondered f perhaps the experience was not such a good idea after hearing alot of negative feedback (loads of leeches, rats in treehouses, limited food provided, hours of trekking in the mud). We decided to use the new information to be more prepared for the trip and to go through with our original plan as each individual’s experiences in life can be quite different. We bought the recommended black rubber shoes that had spikes on the bottom, ponchos, extra food, and we stocked up on tiger palm to help prevent leech bites.

After completing the GE, we feel that whoever created the Gibbon Experience website deserves an award in false advertising, as we now find the information to be completely misleading. We also feel that the GE should be closed down during wet season due to the harsh conditions. Nicole describes the Gibbon Experience as “how she paid to torture herself for 3 days!”

Be advised this is quite a long entry! I encourage you to read it in full especially those who have envied my recent time spent on the beautiful Thai islands. This is proof that traveling can be hard work and is not always a vacation in paradise! In hindsight, even I can find humor in the story of how I survived 3 days in the jungle of Laos…hope you can too!

DAY 1: THE TORTURE BEGINS
We awoke in Huay Xai to pouring rain the morning of our departure for the Gibbon Experience. We headed down to the GE office, where we met the other people who would be traveling with us. We met the McCouley’s, an adorable family from Ireland. Dorothy (mom), Jo (dad), Garreth (12 yr old boy), and Kathy (10 year old girl). We have renamed them THE model family, and by the end of the trip we all wished to be adopted into this lovely family. The other traveler to join our group was Jill, a very cool and funny 26 year old Aussie girl who was traveling alone. I later learned that Jill had just been traveling through Thailand with my friend Claire…such a small world!! We felt so fortunate to have such a good group to travel with and our new friends helped to make the GE more enjoyable.

We all jumped in the back of the pickup truck that was to drive us 2 hours closer to the reserve park. It was still pouring rain and the roads were very muddy. We were forced to stop for a while as a bus had become stuck in the mud blocking our path… an omen of hard times to come. Our driver stopped in the town of Ban Don Chai, literally a one shop stop. Because the roads were flooded, the truck could not drive us as close to the reserve as they normally do in dry season. In dry season one only has to hike one hour to the tree house. We had to walk an additional 15 km in the pouring rain, trekking through mud up to our ankles, and crossing rivers past our knees… all the while carrying our backpacks and supplies. We were warned ahead of time about this additional walking time but figured it would be worth the trek to get to our paradise treehouse high in the sky! How little did we really know…

Nicole, Aine, and I covered our legs and arms in tiger balm in an effort to keep off the leeches. We had originally planned to wear pants to keep off the leeches but we were advised to wear shorts so that we could see the leeches on us and flick them off. When wearing pants, the leeches were likely to make their way up your pants leg and suck on you for hours without you knowing as their bites do not hurt. Nicole and I opted to wear or board shorts since they would dry quicker than cotton. We duct taped the back of our heels to prevent blisters from our new rubber shoes. We all wore ponchos but I quickly became too hot in mine and decided to just get soaking wet as we were getting wet anyways. Our trek began by crossing a bridge and walking across many suspended bamboo trees to cross larger streams.


And then came the mud…. SO much mud that within minutes our feet and legs were covered! But we soldiered on…

We eventually made it to the road that in dry season we would have been driven down, but the only option was for us was to walk. We hiked for hours along this very hilly, muddy, and slippery path. We were all very glad we had were wearing the rubber shoes as even proper hiking boots would not have given you enough traction to keep you from falling into the mud. Your feet would literally sink and become completely covered in mud. I lost my shoes in the mud twice as the mud was so deep and thick that I literally walked right out of my shoes! I had to use both hands to pull my shoe out of the mud!


Along the way, we passed several groups that were on their way pack to town after completing the GE. They all looked terrible and had sympathetic looks as they told us “Good luck to you” and “you aren’t even close!” and the worst one of all…”It’s so not worth it”! Slightly unnerved after hearing more stories of rats in the treehouses and leeches along the trail, and at their general disheveled appearance (quite frankly they looked a little like death), we nevertheless soldiered on in our quest for adventure.

We felt safe with Nicole, our banana leaf warrior….

It poured down rain the entire walk and was very foggy, making it impossible to even enjoy the scenery around you. After five hours of walking we arrived at the small village of Ban Tup, which consisted of many straw huts, pigs, roosters, and naked Laos children. Their faces seemed so sad and older beyond their years. There was a very small Laos girl that walked with us to the village carrying a large container full of gasoline. We were all trying to guess her age which was hard because her body was tiny but her face looked so old. Turns out she was only 10 years old, but it was very obvious she had lived a hard life so far. It made me very sad to see all the poverty and the children with no clothes and their big bellies as a result of malnutrition.


Just past the village was a large river that we all had to cross by foot. The water was fast moving and came up to our knees. We have since learned that the water level is now up to ones chest and one must carry their backpacks over their heads! We were told that the camp was only thirty minutes away, but this was just the first of many lies to come! It ended up taking 1.5 hours longer to reach camp, which included some of the muddiest trekking we had done all day! We were all so scared of getting attacked by leeches that we attempted to run through the ankle high mud and standing water as we were told that you were more likely to get leeches if you stand in one place for too long. Of course this resulted in us spraying more mud all over ourselves and each other…but by that point no one really cared!

Nicole attempting to avoid the mud…such a lost cause!

My muddy feet…
Aine finding humor in our muddiness… gotta love her for trying!

We eventually began to hike into more brush and jungle and knew we were getting closer to the treehouses. The last hour was by far the hardest as it was completely uphill and very very slippery. We also were each given our harnesses which was additional weight we had to carry uphill. After 6.5 hours of trekking in the mud we finally arrived at “the kitchen”, the area where all of the staff lived and where our meals would be prepared. We were greeted with bananas, a small reward for the days suffering.

We stopped for a short rest and were given a short orientation by Courtney to prepare us for the next few days. Courtney is from Australia and is volunteering at the reserve. I am still amazed by her constantly smiling face and happy spirit after living in the jungle for months! She is helping the locals to improve their English, as most of the guide spoke very little. We were given a short demonstration on how to put on our harnesses and how to attach the clamps to the zipline. Little did we know that we should pay very close attention as we would often be ziplining without a guide, meaning one was responsible for attaching themselves properly to the metal cable before suspending themselves hundreds of feet above the ground! Courtney also told us that we must evacuate the treehouse in the event of strong winds. I was wondering how exactly we would determine what winds warranted evacuation and just how easy it would be to zipline in the dark?

Yes, it was as bad as we look here…


From the camp, we had a short 10 minute walk to the first zipline platform that would deliver us to Treehouse #1…our home for the first night. The treehouse was about 60 meters high in the jungle canopy. There was a roof on the house; however, the house itself was pretty much open to all elements of the jungle including the rain which made everything feel a bit damp. By day the treehouse was relatively nice with it’s cool multi level layout, a small kitchen/dining room area, and amazing views of the jungle. The bathroom was a small room with a “toilet” which was a hole that dropped straight down to the earth. There was a sink and shower; however, there was not enough running water available so no one was able to shower off their layers of mud.

Toilet with a view…

Stairs to the third floor….
The family’s tent and the bathroom…
View from the kitchen…
View looking down from the treehouse…

By night, the treehouse took on a totally different life. There was no electricity so we all hung out in the kitchen area lit up by candles and our headlamps. A guide zipped in with our dinner which consisted of cold rice and several different cabbage dishes. Little did we know that we would be eating rice and cabbage for breakfast, lunch, and dinner the next 3 days! And did I mention that I hate cabbage and have never been a huge fan of plain boiled rice? And I quote the Gibbon Experience’s misleading website “Delicious snacks and fire cooked meals provided”. LIARS! Our “snacks” were two rotten pineapples and open bags of peanuts found in a cooler filled with bugs. Delicious.

One of many large spiders sharing our treehouse…


After dinner I noticed many pairs of green eyes on the walls of the hut. Upon closer inspection I discovered the eyes belonged to VERY large spiders. At about 8:30 pm the RATS CAME OUT TO PLAY!!! We saw two very large rats scurry across the inside of the roof! We decided it was time to go to bed as we could be safe inside our “tents” which consisted of a few dirty mattresses with a filthy, mildewed sheet dangling from above, which when tucked under the mattress served as a mosquito net. The bed was to sleep three; however, we didn’t want Jill to have to sleep alone at the top of the treehouse where all the rats were spotted! So Jill joined our “tent” and we raced to secure the mosquito net cloth tightly under the mattress to prevent and unwanted intruders. There was no time for hygine when rats are involve, even if we had had running water! All of us but Jill climbed into our sleep sacs avoiding any contact with the nasty sheets and pillows. We were all exhausted from the days hike; however, we found it quite hard to fall asleep with all the noises of the jungle and the rats that were scurrying all around us! At one point the rats were having a dance party on top of our “tent” and we could hear them and feel them jump on the sheet and run around! I think they would even jump from the level above us and land on top of our tent! I must have dozed off a little but I awoke to one of my frequent hallucinations which was two very large spiders dangling above my head. While I have been known to hallucinate and do crazy things in my sleep before, these events have intensified since I have begun taking my malaria pills! I screamed out and threw my sleeping sac over my head, which resulted in Nicole and Jill jumping on top of me and Jill screaming out about a rat she saw brush past the tent. I couldn’t speak and everyone thought there was something alive in our tent so we were all freaking out! Turns out there was nothing inside but still plenty of wildlife outside the tent. We didn’t sleep much.

DAY 2: ZIPLINING MAKES US HAPPY AND OUR TORTURES WORTHWHILE

We awoke to the pouring rain the following morning about 8 am. A guide was suppose to have woken us up at 6 am to take us on an early morning trek in search of gibbons; however, he didn’t bother coming. He finally arrived about 10 am with our breakfast… cold rice and cabbage. No one was impressed. We were told we would be trekking and zipping three hours deeper into the jungle to treehouse 5. We all unanimously agreed that we did not want to trek further in the jungle as it would mean we would have to walk 10 hours back to town on day three. We weren’t allowed to stay in treehouse 1 because another group would be arriving that day. Our only alternative was to sleep in “the kitchen” with the staff. We decided this would be best and in hindsight, it is so good that we did this!

We have since met other travelers that were scheduled to go to treehouse 5. Apparently there is another river that must be crossed on the way and it is currently too high to cross which means one has to hike a much longer path in order to arrive at the treehouse adding even more hours to the return trip. Thanks but no thanks GE.

Our second day was filled with ziplining high above the jungle and trekking between platforms. Day 2 was actually alot of fun and we got to zipline much more than we would have if we had gone to treehouse 5 as originally planned. It was amazing to view the jungle from so high in the sky, not to mention such a fun rush! Some of the ziplines were as long as 350 meters! We ziplined into treehouse 3 to check it out and renamed it the “leech house”. There were leeches everywhere! I saw what a leech looks like before it sucks your blood and how it grows fat and black after sucking your blood. I got a leech on my shorts but saw it and flicked it off before it could bite me. Daddy Jo was not as lucky and was bitten twice by leaches. The second leech went unnoticed until it grew full from sucking blood from the area close to his “man bits” as Jo reported, and it’s plump black body fell to the floor. Nicole was like “something just fell out of your pants Papa Jo”. His leg immediately began gushing blood and he continued to bleed for the next 30 minute due to the anti-clotting agent found in the leaches mouth! YUCK! Us girls immediately reapplied our tiger balm and decided it was time to get the hell out of treehouse 3! We felt sorry for those who would be spending the night there!

Aine preparing to zip out of treehouse 1…


Kelly Ziplining
Nicole Ziplining
Kelly Ziplining
Jungle Queens… we are strong!


We had a blast zipping all around the jungle for hours, only stopping when it began to turn dark. We arrived back at “the kitchen” and were shown where we should sleep for the night. The hut was very small but filled with many Laos workers who seemed less than thrilled to have to share the space with us. The mattresses were even dirtier than those in the treehouses! My mom would have fainted at the sight! We felt like we were living in a refugee camp as we were again given our small rations of rice and cabbage for dinner, this time without a plate or fork! One good thing about our hut was that it housed cats as well, which kept the rats away! While there were no rats, something very loud did land on top of our hut in the middle of the night. We were awakened at 4 am when the Laos began playing music, singing, and talking loudly. WTF???

Nicole inspecting our accommodation. The verdict…IT SUCKS!

The Bathroom

There was no toilet inside “the kitchen” so we had to walk through the mud down a hill to use the toilet. We washed our faces and brushed our teeth for the first time in days. There was a shower that was located outside in the open, but we decided not to bother as we would just get muddy again soon. Also the reason for wearing the same clothes and socks each day! I worried that I would need a toilet in the middle of the night, but knew there would be NO WAY that I would walk into the dark animal filled jungle… I would rather pee my pants! Dehydration worked in my favor!

DAY 3: THE LONG WALK BACK

We awoke once again to pouring rain but didn’t expect anything less. I refused to eat anymore rice and cabbage and ate one of my last two Clif Bars for breakfast. We were each given a small banana leaf filled package. Apparently this was suppose to be our lunch. More RICE!!! Just what the body needs to walk uphill in the mud for six hours! Nice attempt with the cute packaging aimed to disguise the bland boiled rice inside! Thanks GE, you are the best…REALLY!

We began our trek back through the jungle in the pouring rain. To our disbelieve, there was even MORE MUD than we encountered on the first day! We didn’t think it was possible!

We knew the hardest part of our walk would be in the beginning when we had to hike uphill for an hour in very thick mud. Of course it poured down on us the entire time. I went into a zone as I powered ahead while listening to an entire album of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on my iPod. My left earphone abruptly stopped working…that sucked.



We stopped for “lunch” and I took one bite of my boiled rice in and threw it on the ground. I don’t love rice anyways and I had had enough! I ate my last energy bar, a few peanuts, and half of a Kit Kat bar which I also shared with our guides. They were so grateful and I felt so sorry for them that they have to do this horrid walk each day and are only fed rice! NOT NICE GE! I finished off the rest of my water which I had been rationing for the walk back. We were not provided any bottled water for the entire 3 days, and were told we could drink water from the tap. The water was cloudy and had lots of strange things floating inside it. I tried to purify the water with my Steripen; however, I got the red warning light meaning the water was unsafe to drink. I don’t think 2 liters is enough for one to drink over 3 days, but I managed and Jill shared some of her water with me the last day.

I have to say how impressed I am with the kids, Kathy and Garreth. They were both so well behaved and never complained about the journey. I know if my parents had made me walk 12 hours in the mud at their age, I would have thrown a temper tantrum! I enjoyed walking along side Kathy… she was very talkative and had lots of funny stories that made the time pass faster.


Once we crossed the river again, we were back in the small village of Ban Tup and were able to buy more water. It finally stopped raining in the afternoon and the skies cleared making way for beautiful views for the remaining walk back.




When our guide told us to turn left off the main road we knew that we were almost done! We walked back through the familiar corn field, across the streams with the help of bamboo sticks, through the rice paddies…

and ALAS we arrived back at the bridge again! HOORAY!!!!!!!


Aine, Nicole, and I were the first of the eight to complete the walk back. The first thing we did was to take off our muddy shoes and socks. After wearing the same socks for three days straight, they were pretty foul. My feet ached but I had no idea that the top layer of skin of my toes had rubbed off on the walk back. Ouch! We rested on the side of the road until the others returned. We all completed the 15 km walk back in about six hours although it seemed to me like it took less time. I guess the way home always seems quicker?



We rode in the truck for two hour drive back to Huay Xai. I dozed in the front seat dreaming of a clean bed, a hot shower, and lots of meat and Beer Lao! We were dropped off at the Gibbon Experience office where we were asked about our experience? I responded that while I knew alot of what I was getting into due to making the journey in the wet season; I was extremely disappointed in the lack of and quality of the food we were given. The woman who worked the office desk claimed that pork and chicken to the camp each day on a horse and are puzzled as to why it never makes it to camp. Beats me! Overall, I am not impressed with the organization of this experience and find the marketing tools to be very misleading and the experience to be overpriced at $2oo USD.

And you want to know the worst part about the whole experience??? WE NEVER EVEN SAW A FREAKIN GIBBON!!!

To see all of my photos from Gibbon Experience (sure to amuse)… CLICK HERE!

So the questions everyone asks…

Q: Do I regret doing the Gibbon Experience?
A: No, it’s a good feeling to have accomplished something so hard. I also feel I made it worth the trekking in the mud by ziplining as much as possible the second day.

Q: Would I do the Gibbon Experience again?
A: Maybe, but ONLY in dry season!

For those masacists that have read my experiences and still wish to do the GE, here is my advice to you…

1. Don’t do it in wet season!
2. Buy the rubber shoes
3. Bring LOTS of food and water
4. Cover your body in tiger balm
5. Don’t eat rice for at least a year prior to your trip
6. Store all contents of your backpack in waterproof bags
7. Wear shorts instead of pants for leech prevention
8. Don’t weigh your bag down with toiletries as you will not be able to shower
9. Keep your shoulder away from the zipline when zipping to prevent a painful wire burn
10. Bring a sleeping sac
11. Bring your own towel to dry off, the ones they give you are dirty and wet
12. Don’t drink the water!
13. Zipline as much as possible
14. Be nice to your guides, they may not speak much English, but they are really sweet guys and will help you any way they can. Don’t take out your mud filled anger on your guide…they are innocent and man they deserve extra kindness after having to do that trek each day!
15. Be at peace with the fact that you will probably see no Gibbons

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7 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    You girls are very determined!
    Good show of spirit!!

    Danny

  2. Rick@NatureEscapes says:

    Jungle Queens! Gotta love muddy women. Great resolve and jungle spirit in all the elements. I hope you don’t miss out on the jungles in Malaysia.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am so thankful I came across your blog before taking off for Bokea. I’m not going to waste the money. But good for you girls for driving on. Good Luck.

  4. JIm says:

    Hi guys – yes people will have different expectations, but we went through the same thing in the wet season (digging out busses, tramping through mud, getting our blood sucked by leeches, sharing our abode with GIANT spiders) but it is absolutely fantastic.

    Honestly, I feel really sorry for ‘anonymous’ above. S/he’s missed out massively. Amazing experience – waking up to gibbon song, seeing them in the trees, ziplining over the jungle. It’s a great thing to do – please go and do it!

    • Kelly says:

      Jim, you lucky guy! You mean to tell me you actually saw a gibbon??!! Our expectation was to see a Gibbon too, but we never saw a single monkey nor did we wake up to the gibbon song 🙁 The conditions of the jungle in the wet season were to be expected, and honestly tramping through the mud and getting our blood sucked by leeches, and waking up to the sound of rats eating my towel and food would have totally been worth it had we seen even ONE gibbon monkey! Perhaps we were just unlucky, but happy you had a great experience and got to see the monkeys! The zipping was good fun too. Regardless I still say the experience is way overpriced and I wouldn’t have cared so much if I felt like my $$ was going toward the Laos people who led our group and helped us in the jungle. Sadly, from our perspective they did not seem well taken care for and I suspect the French owner profits the most. I am very curious, were you fed anything besides cold rice and cabbage? The site advertises warm bbq meals, we were never served this. Not sure where our $250/pp (I think this is what I paid) went toward?!

  5. Sam says:

    Hey,

    Thanks for the detailed info! I know this is old and I’m hoping/assuming things have gotten slightly better since then.
    What was the date of your travel?
    If we were to do GE the end of August should I expect the same conditions?

    Thank you!

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