South by Southeast: The Gibbon Experience

As a kid, did you ever fantasize about living in a tree house? Of climbing into your own hideaway stocked with chocolate bars, hanging out with monkeys and doing as you please? If you’ve ever wanted to feel like a kid again, it’s time to visit The Gibbon Experience, a magical realm of tree houses, waterfalls and exotic wildlife hidden deep in the dense jungle of Northern Laos.

The Gibbon Experience is one of the world’s most unique adventure travel concepts. Visitors have the chance to eat and sleep in their own personal tree house, suspended hundreds of feet above the forest floor, immersed in a symphony of cackling birds, humming cicadas and shrieking monkeys. Best of all, guests get around on a series of sturdy steel “zip line” cables, connecting the tree houses to forest paths. It’s the equivalent of waking up in the morning, strapping on a body harness and throwing yourself out a 10-story window. The experience is at once terrifying and exhilarating – a realization of long-dormant childhood dreams.

Not only is The Gibbon Experience great fun, it’s also tourism that’s good for your conscience. The project is pioneering a totally unique model of conservation, sustainable tourism and grass roots local support. If you’ve ever wanted to live out childhood tree house fantasies and help support a great cause, keep reading below for more…
What Is It?
Southeast Asian travelers talk about The Gibbon Experience with the sort of hushed tones reserved for religious visions. But travelers that have braved the long journey to the Laos border town of Huay Xai come back raving about what they’ve seen. For 180 Euros (around $270 USD), guests are treated to a three-day, two-night stay within the confines of one the world’s last great untouched nature preserves, home to tigers, Asian Black Bears and Gibbons, a small species of ape that gives the project its name.

During your stay, you’ll get to take it all in from a bird’s eye view, nested high in the tree tops of one of project’s seven tree houses. All guests have 24-hour access to local guides, unlimited access to the park’s zip lines, three meals per day and basic-but-comfortable tree house sleeping arrangements. Those looking to experience the Preserve’s ample wildlife and scenery can opt for additional guided treks through the jungle.

Welcome to the Jungle
My own Gibbon “experience” began with a brisk hike through the woods, moist green sunlight pouring down through the forest’s dense undergrowth. Thick jungle trees towered above like sacred monuments, trunks knotted with snaking vines reaching for the heavens. In the distance was the faint squawking of mysterious creatures, howling with glee. Soon a tree trunk wrapped with a steel cable popped into view, hiding behind a clump of palm leaves: it was our first zip line.

My pulse raced as I stepped onto the zip line’s rickety wooden platform for my first jump. I clipped my roller cable and safety line onto the wire, took a deep breath and jumped off the edge into nothing. I was now a human tennis ball, served in a giant volley between two distant trees. The metal wheels of my roller sang on the wire with a high-pitched shriek as I catapulted forward at great speed, wind howling and the jungle tree tops whizzing below my shoes. It was a feeling of terror and euphoria rolled into one…as if I had fallen off a cliff and discovered I could float like a bird, all within a few seconds. All too quickly my first “zip” was over, feet landing with a thud on a wooden platform hundreds of feet away.

My tour group headed on to our sky-high accommodations, a colossal tree crowned by a real-life fantasy tree house. The “house” was little more than a large wooden platform encircled by railings on all sides, a thatched roof on top, the tree’s branches jutting up through the center. Inside was a simple array of sleeping mats, hammocks, and a small sink and propane stove. After dark the “house” was lit by two puny solar-powered bulbs. Entering or exiting my “house” required attaching oneself to a zip line, stepping off a platform into thin air, feet dangling above the tree tops below.

So did I encounter any Gibbons? Save a few small geckos and moths, I saw scant wildlife during my three-day visit. But despite the lack of Gibbon sightings, there were signs they were around. Each night, the sun plummeted below the horizon, plunging the jungle into pitch-black night. It was during this darkness that the forest sprung to life, erupting with a sounds of strange hoots and whistles and barks. The wildlife was out there…it just didn’t want to be found.

A New Tourism Model
While I was in the jungle swinging around on zip lines, The Gibbon Experience has been busy reinventing the future of tourism in Southeast Asia. Not only did my visit provide funds to help preserve the fragile jungle ecosystem of Northern Laos, the project is also working to include the people of Laos in the park’s success.

All the guides employed by The Gibbon Experience live in the towns and villages surrounding Bokeo Nature Reserve, and a portion of the profit from each visitor is pumped back into these local communities. It’s hoped this model will provide added incentive to keep this wonderful forest intact for future generations. In Southeast Asia, a region oft-threatened by unchecked development, it’s just the type of model that will ensure visitors can enjoy this special place in the years to come.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast”