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The Gibbon Experience
Save a forest by living in the trees...


I am hundreds of feet above the ground, looking out from a perch on the branches of a massive tree, and the forest takes on a new perspective: the ragged profile of tree-lined mountains marches into the horizon - green fades to white in tinted bands, from dark to light - I am so high up, only the distant atmosphere obstructs a view to infinity. Here and there the sun creates shadows and illuminates patches of leaves, creating, on my forest canvas, a palette of a million shades of green and even more textures. Only the symphony of a thousand birds competes with the woodland medley before me.

I'd be happy enough to see this view of the rainforest for only several minutes, but lucky for me, this will be my home (and my view) for a few days. I am living in the forest canopy - in a treehouse nested in the protective embrace of a towering Strangler Fig. For the next 2-1/2 days, I will spend more time in the air than on the ground, cable gliding through the Bokeo Forest and sleeping in the boughs of her trees, watching and hearing the jungle and animals below. I have arrived at the Gibbon Experience, a grass roots conservation project in the heart of Laos.

It's not an easy journey to the top of a tree. We left the border town of Huay Xai early in the morning and traveled along a rough dirt road in the back of a pickup for three hours. Everything on the sides of the road was painted brown from dust kicked up by passing vehicles. I licked my lips and tasted soil; grains of dirt crunched between my teeth; my skin turned the color of dark rouge worn by old women with poor eyesight. Our truck crossed a river and eventually dropped us in a clearing surrounded by the thatch huts of a village, the caretakers of this forest. From there, we walked through cornfields, waded through streams, and entered the shadowy darkness of the forest: huge palm leaves, dense bamboo groves, hanging vines. One hour later, at the summit of a steep climb, we came upon a small wooden structure and were handed harnesses for the final leg of our journey into the forest canopy. We sailed to our home, suspended over the forest on a cable, and entered a world few humans are so privileged to inhabit.

Despite how it sounds, the Gibbon Experience is not an adventure travel destination; it's not a tour or trek. It's not your typical ecotourism destination. It's a fresh approach to forest conservation dreamed up by local villagers with the help of a French man known, simply, as Jeff. Together, they created the Gibbon Experience as a way to combat poaching and illegal logging; the forest, their environment, was changing. Village life faces increased difficulty - with lower rice revenue and higher living costs, people have turned to the forest and her inhabitants for profit. A diminishing population of wildlife alerted the locals that something must be done. While the Laos government protects the forest from the outside, it has no funds for protection from within and thus, the Gibbon Experience was born to earn the money necessary for the complete protection of the forest. Funds from the project pay the salaries of forest guards who track and arrest poachers and loggers. More than that, the project provides locals with a self-reliant, sustainable way to earn a living while preserving their natural resources.

The Gibbon Experience is named for the Black-cheeked Crested Gibbons that live in the forest; they were once thought to be extinct and are considered the 4th most endangered Gibbon species in the world. They are famous for their singing, which can last up to 30 minutes; partners sing duets as carefully orchestrated as an operatic ballad. Within the first 1/2 hour of our arrival to the treehouse, our group spotted several Gibbons playing in the distant trees. Money earned by the project serves to protect them as well as the multitude of animals that live in the forest: tigers, monkeys, hornbills, barking deer, wild boar, and hundreds of others. As a visitor, I not only had the rare opportunity to live in the treetops, but to become a part of it, with tropical birds and wild animals for neighbors.

Currently the Gibbon Experience sleeps 12 people in 3 treehouses that were built by 3 villages, but plans are in the works to expand to 10 treehouses, involving 10 villages and encompassing the entirety of the forest. Everything was built with the environment in mind - treehouses are constructed with natural materials and only biodegradable waste makes its way to the forest floor. There are no roads or parking lots or constructions foreign to the forest: the Gibbon Experience is located deep in the jungle. And the treehouses are nothing but comfortable. There is clean running water, supplied by an underground spring, and a bathroom complete with a shower and squat toilet. We were provided with a cozy place to sleep, an endless supply of tea and coffee, and were encouraged to snack at will on nuts, sweets, and fruits. There are no 'to-dos' or meetings or forced excursions. Here, your time is truly yours, in any way you want to use it to experience the forest: cable gliding, hiking, or watching wildlife in solitude. It's a refreshing approach, built on respect for the people who visit and on behalf of the forest itself: it has much to offer.

For many, the highlight of their visit is the opportunity to cable glide in the heights of the forest; this mode of transportation is not only an environmentally friendly way to get around (not to mention the quickest and least tiring way of traversing the mountainous region), but it also provides a unique perspective of the forest at heights up to 150 meters above the ground. There are 12 cables that serve as the primary means of transport for people, supplies, and food. Cable gliding at these heights is a thrill hard to match as you propel yourself from a platform and sail through the trees; you can see for miles and feel the wind against your cheek as the tallest treetops brush against your feet.

All who visit this place say they have reclaimed their childhood. Zip lines and treehouses and nothing but free time have 'childhood' written all over them. But it's more than that. In the quiet hours that come with retreat from the urban world, without electricity and the gizmos it powers, people can really 'get back to nature'. It's so quiet in the day, the soft pattering of falling leaves fills the forest like the sound of rain. At dusk, the birdcalls increase. And in the darkness of night, the hooting calls of owls and the soft chatter of insects lulled me to sleep... As a traveler, it is an uncommon experience, a privilege to be invited into the forest. Witnessing the conservation efforts, creativity, and dedication of the local people is inspiring and I left the Gibbon Experience happy to be a part of it and help, in my small way, to protect the Bokeo Forest.

 

If You Go

The Gibbon Experience starts in Huay Xai, a small bordertown on the banks of the Mekong River. Many travelers arrive from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, Thailand or from Luang Prabang in Laos. Your backpack can be stored at the office; take a small pack with only the essentials for 2 nights in the trees. The best time to go is in the dry season, December through April.

To make a reservation, call: +856-84-212-021 or email: jf@clemastecs.net

 

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Treehouse One, my home...
 
 
Cable gliding is the way to get around...
 
The views from the treehouses amaze...
 
Fly through the forest at 150m in the air...
 
 
     
© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan