The sun rises over the Mekong River and meets my excitement about the next three days with no rain clouds to accompany it. Excellent. It’s monsoon season in Laos and a rainy day would mean six-to-eight hours of hiking instead of three. My boyfriend Jeff and I are about to participate in The Gibbon Experience---a three-day adventure of hiking into the Borneo Nature Reserve to zip-line through trees, over canyons, and to a tree house which Jeff and I will share with another couple we haven’t met yet.
It’s my first time zip-lining and I’m unsure a pulley system I clip onto a one-centimetre-thick wire with carabineers is going to be safe. The wire’s attached to a tree on either side of the travel distance, and it’s on an incline, using gravity as the driving force. The pulley mechanism’s attached to my body by ropes, and the mechanism---as big as both my hands resting side-by-side---has a rubber tire encasing so I can cover it with my hand and squeeze in order to stop the little wheels in it from rolling. The contraption sounds well thought out, but I’m going to be 60 feet in the air, dangling on a wire. It sounds a bit sketchy. We have breakfast at the Experience’s office and wait for our ride into the reserve. A voice in my head says, “I hope the other couple isn’t too athletic so my 5’ frame can keep up.” My hopes are dashed on my muesli cereal as a six-foot tall German guy named Michael and an equally-as-tall Dutch lady named Mikka walk into the room. Both are sports medicine graduates and Michael’s a professional volleyball player. Excellent. Said with sarcasm this time. After the introductions---the giants don’t seem so intimidating with their smiles and friendliness---the four of us plus our driver pile into a Toyota 4x4 to begin our adventure. A smoothly paved road lets us meander our way through jungle and villages for an hour to the banks of a raging river. We give each other questioning glances. The driver revs the engine, takes a sharp left and barrels his way down the riverbank towards the river. It now looks like death. We each grab hold of anything to steady ourselves as the 4x4 plunges in. The quickly-flowing, muddied water comes just a few inches below our windows. With the tires submerged and the current slowly carrying us downstream, the driver turns his head, smiles and winks at us, grips the wheel a bit more tightly as we hit firmer ground and rocket up the opposite riverbank. My sigh of relief is premature looking more closely at the three-foot-deep mud road we now face. After an hour of swerving, almost tree-hitting driving, we get stuck. We pile out into the squelching, leech-infested mud, dig the truck out, climb back in and hope we don’t get stuck again. Arriving in a small village, we leave the Toyota behind and begin the three-hour hike in more leech-infested mud, learning quickly that taking breaks is when the leeches get into shoes, so I don’t stop for anything short of passing out from the heat. Sooner than expected we arrive at the hut where our zip-lining will begin. I clumsily step into the harness that will keep me from falling to my death and tighten all the straps. Walking up two steps to a wooden platform on the side of a hill, I hook myself up to the cable with the help of our guide, take a deep breath, and push off into the air. The tiny wheels in the zip-line mechanism whir as the trees rush by my side. The ground suddenly drops below me and I shoot out of the rainforest canopy over a canyon. My stomach drops to the rainforest floor while my adrenaline lets a “Woop!” escape my lips. The other side arrives much too fast. We zip our way along until we reach the coolest tree house the child in me could’ve ever dreamed up. It’s 60 feet in the air, with a bathroom, running cold water, a thatched roof, lanterns for light, and a banister for safety. Not to mention the view of the entire reserve is right before us. I forget about the terrifying drive, grueling hike, and the blood currently being sucked out of my feet. This is worth it.
As a sad note, we never see any gibbons. They’re a shy species of monkey who are difficult to spot. We instead spend the days watching colourful birds flit in and out of the trees. After a sleep deprived night of small-dog-sized squirrels scratching through the tree house for food, we’re awake early enough to hear the gibbons’ dawn song. Each morning they sing an eerie tune with the sun, and their song plays in my ears every time I think of Laos.
Holly Gordon is a freelance writer in Halifax who is currently planning her next adventure. The Gibbon Experience office is located in Houay Xay, Laos, which is across the northern Thailand border from Chiang Kong. Email email@example.com to make a booking, or visit gibbonx.org for more info. You can get to Chiang Kong from Bangkok by bus or train (bus is cheaper). It’s a 12-hour bus ride to Chiang Mai, then a five-hour bus ride from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong. Walk from the Chiang Kong bus stop to the border crossing, which is only a couple of kilometres, get your passport stamped, hop on a wooden, long-tail boat to cross the Mekong River to Laos. The visa is $42 for Canadians.