Bokeo Nature Reserve, Laos 29-31 October 2008

I’ll warn you now that this is a long posting but I’m not going to apologise for its length nor the number of photos as our time in the Bokeo Nature Reserve was just so awesome and out of this world that we reckon it should be shared. For us, the experiences we had over the three days we were there were of the kind that are imprinted in your memory and even now, so soon afterwards, I find myself returning again and again in my mind. I would do it again in a flash and would have loved to stay longer in the rain forest but then I love that sort of stuff, Euan less so. It was very funny as, on the way out there, two girls we were heading in with said to Euan “So, you don’t like heights or insects… What on EARTH are you doing then?” and in response, Euan just gave a very wry smile and pointed one finger at me. I laughed so hard!

The Gibbon Experience is an initiative to preserve some of the rain forest in Northern Laos from the logging that has, thus far, stripped many of its reserves bare. The money earned from guiding a small number people daily into the forest to stay for three days goes towards maintaining the forest, employing the villagers who live within it and preventing the trees from being felled. Its been said that the money generated annually from the initiative is greater than the (once off) income from logging the land and is sustainable to boot. There are 12 villages in the National Park and six tree houses, each maintained by a different village from what we could gather. Eventually there will be 12 tree houses, one for each village.

The Gibbon Experience (named as there is a species of gibbon in Bokeo that were thought to be extinct and exist nowhere else) doesn’t seem to advertise and aren’t listed in the usual guidebooks used by travellers. It seems that the organisers are content to leave it to word of mouth (which is how we heard about it) and they have no desire to increase the number of people entering the forest in a day. Basically, you get three days and two nights in the rain forest of Bokeo, sleeping in tree houses and getting around by a mix of hiking and using the (pretty extensive as it turned out) zip-wire network. There are two options: one is the ‘Classic’ where a group of eight people does a maximum of one and a half hours hiking and stay in the same tree house for two nights. The other is the ‘Waterfall’ (that goes out every other day) where two groups of eight people go much deeper into the forest, hiking for at least three hours a day, swap tree houses on the 2nd night and have access to the entire network of zip lines. Sounds fun right? Well, it is. Huge amounts of fun. However, what they don’t tell you about is the mud, the hard hiking, the leeches, flying insects the size of medium-sized rodents and the sheer exhilaration you get from whizzing around on zip wires that are some 150m above the ground and up to 1km long. It was pure luck that Euan and I ended up on the Waterfall trip – we were just grabbing whatever spaces were available.

Bokeo is about 83km from Huay Xai and the last hour is up and down a very steep mud track. We were taken there on the back of a Toyota Hilux (4WD or Ute) and, for any Kiwis who are reading this, I continually thought back to the brilliant Barry Crump and Scotty TV adverts for Toyota Utes in NZ. Hiluxs really do rock. We were thrown around (and nearly off at times) on the back while the Ute fishtailed in the mud, struggled up seemingly near vertical slopes and ground its way down the other side. I have done some pretty rough stuff off-road before but I still wondered at times if the Ute was going to go over but it can’t have been that bad as they weren’t using chains on the wheels. After a few hours on the back of the Ute, this is what greeted us when we stopped: a village on the edge of the forest where the trek to our tree house began.

The group really makes or breaks the experience and you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, in a tree house with people you’ve never met before. We were lucky enough to be with Line (pronounced Leena) and Gitte from Denmark, and Ronnie and Annemiek from Holland and, as a group, we were fairly like-minded and had an absolute ball (only six of us as the other Waterfall group were 10 Belgians travelling together and they went as one group so we were two people short). This is Line, Gitte, Euan and I in our ‘leech proof’ socks (yeah right!) at the start, all clean and smiling. Our guide, although we didn’t know it was him at the time, is off to the right in the background.

We met up with the group before us leaving the forest and judging from some of the comments and looks on faces, some had expected something slightly different! We’d heard about the leeches and all six of us had opted for complete protection of long pants and long socks (I actually had two pairs of socks on - wasn’t taking any chances although I cooked in the heat!). We hiked for about three hours that day, through a lot of mud, crossed streams via rickety bamboo bridges, hiked up hill sides on slippery trails and slid down even more slippery ones!

We encountered more leeches than we care to remember and they reminded me of periscopes as you can see them in the path in front of you, on their heads, their ends waving around madly in the air trying to hitch onto something. Awful little creepy things. Our guide was wearing shoes but no socks and he kept pulling them out of his shoes. One managed to wriggle unnoticed up his trouser leg and we had a short stop while he took off his harness to pull it out of his privates where it had started to suck blood. Ugh.

Our first glimpse of one of the tree houses was about 2 ½ hours in, positioned at the top of a waterfall (the pool at the bottom of which we swam in). In this photo you can see the zip line heading into the tree house.

Getting undressed to go swimming was a bit of a mission, as first you had to find a relatively leech-free spot and there weren’t many! You’d be balanced on one leg, trying to get your socks/trousers off and you’d see leeches approaching with determination. You’d get rid of them, start on the other leg and there were more!! I had a bit of an experiment trying to drown one and found that, to my horror, they behaved the same under still water as they did on land!! Invincible as well as creepy!

Clean and refreshed (not for long), we headed to our tree house that was about three valleys deeper into the forest from the waterfall and we got there by a series of zip lines between the valleys, anchored high up on the hills to large trees. The views were breathtaking and some of these early lines were the highest and longest that we experienced. This is me, mid-zip on the first line

and my face says it all coming in (Euan was already over the other side and had recovered enough to take photos!)

Some of the zips lines were fast, super fast but our guide spoke very broken English so it was guesswork on our part as to what he was saying. We couldn’t work out whether he was telling us to brake or not brake. There is a huge difference obviously! Braking when you don’t need to leaves you stranded high above the ground and you have to drag yourself hand-over-hand along the line to the platform. Euan didn’t brake when he was apparently meant to and slammed into the tree at the end of the line. I was the next one to arrive and wondered why our little guide was madly shouting something that sounded like “brake, brake, brake” at me and why Euan was standing looking so shell-shocked. Once we were all done, our guide looked at the brake on Euans roller and said “brake finish” – he was right. Euan couldn’t have braked even if he’d wanted to. The ‘brakes’ were pieces of bike tyre placed over the top of the rollers and you had to squeeze the tyre together so the inside gripped the cable and slowed you down. Well, that was the idea but some of the ‘brakes’ were worn and just didn’t work at all.

Once in the tree house, the guide left us to our own devices and we were free to do what we wanted for the rest of the day. The tree houses are incredibly well equipped and we weren’t lacking much. They even have running water (must have had a water tank high up on the adjacent hill) and there is a primus for tea or coffee and villagers zip in with pre-cooked food just before dark.

We slept under heavy mozzie nets on hard squabs and bedding was also provided. Almost luxury…

This was the view out

With lights out when the sun went down and the candles drawing all sorts of bugs, we were all in bed by 8:30pm and we all heard the tree rats scurrying around in the night, banging and crashing around the sink area. I wasn’t taking any chances and slept fully clothed, two pairs of socks still on and pulled right up with trousers tucked in. There were some mega ants that were incredibly persistent and bit. The rats went away when it got light and, much to my relief, the ants didn’t get into bed with us.

We were out zipping at dawn and the views were just spectacular

You can see how dense the forest is and the tree house in the photo is the one at the top of the waterfall. The zip line crosses the valley high above it

We ate breakfast back down by the waterfall and we were not sitting at the bench as the leeches already knew we were there and were making the trek up our legs. We are all more occupied with leech checks than breakfast! I can safely say that there was a high degree of paranoia going on but in this case it was warranted.

That morning, we had three hours of hard hiking over the hills and streams to get to the next tree house

and if we thought the mud was bad the day before, this was worse. It was the tacky sticky mud that makes things quite hard going but it was such great fun! No guesses on who was first to slip over…. (doing fancy footwork over a mud patch and wham, down she goes). We got to the tree house we were staying in that night to find that a member of the Belgian group from the night before was still there, too terrified to leave. The second tree house was much higher up, was a huge tree all alone at the top of a valley and had three zip lines (two in and one out) linking it with the surrounding hillsides. This is the view

and from the bathroom (the toilet was ridiculously close to the edge)

Gitte took this excellent photo showing how the shower worked (yes, there was even a shower! We’d gone prepared to not shower for three days). I couldn’t bring myself to stand with both feet on that grating and had to have one foot on the solid wood.

Euan was on the coffee run!

This is the landing point for one of the zip lines back in (you can see the line running away in the top left of the photo).

This is me about to head out. This was quite scary as it was a straight drop off and if you were heavy, you hit the top of the tree close to the tree house before you zipped off. This was the only line that really got me going.

This is the view of the same line but from the hillside

and Euan is about to drop out of the tree house (and bottom out on the top of the tree just off the edge!)

This is the other way into the house but, as you can see, you had to climb over the barrier. Max, who cooked for us and brought in the food, is perched there.

Unfortunately this photo was taken at the last minute when I realised I wouldn’t have a chance to do it in the morning. The sun was going down and I was moving quite fast but hopefully it gives an idea of the tree house position

While I was taking photos from the zip line, Euan was taking photos from the tree house

but I got so absorbed with taking photos, wasn’t paying any attention to my speed and got stuck out on the cable

and once I was over the fact I was dangling so high off the ground

I continued to snap away and got some OK photos of everyone else! (L to R is Catherine, Euan, Annemiek, Ronnie, Gitte and Line).

It was quite a large tree house for 7 people and the top story was for two lucky people to sleep, under the thatch with the huge spiders, rats and ants (Ronnie said “if no one minds, I quite like the idea of sleeping up there” and we were like “away you go, feel free, no problems at all!” We weren’t sure Annemiek shared Ronnies view!).

I was trying to show how long the tree trunk is… hope you get the idea!

The bugs in this tree house were larger, more violent, determined and scary than those the previous night. A different part of the forest I guess. On sun down, 1000s of four-winged flying insects rose up from a patch in the forest, just below the tree house. It was like nothing we’d seen before and these beautiful midnight-blue birds with tails consisting of two really long skinny feathers with one big feather on the end of each came out to feed. It was an absolute treat to see.

Later that night there were things that we didn’t want to know about thudding onto the thatched roof. There was near pandemonium when this ‘thing’ flew smack into my arm. I think I mentioned my fear of large flying insects and I went nuts. Then it hit Ronnie and he went nuts. Then a cicada landed on the ground and I’m fine with them, so picked it up, threw it overboard (we think it was stunned as Gitte went for it with the torch as it sat under Ronnies arm. Ronnie wasn’t moving as he didn’t know what was on him). We thought that we’d seen the last of the big flying thing but oh no, a few minutes later the real culprit landed bang smack in the middle of everyone and everyone went nuts. It was the biggest flying grasshopper I’ve ever seen, about six inches long with huge wings. Everyone went to bed after that and then the rats came. Ronnie and Annemiek woke in the morning to find the rats had chewed through their ‘tent’ and eaten their way into Ronnies backpack. Catherine had the same, but the bag was right next to her as she slept. It was an interesting night to say the least!

Early morning view from the tree house

View from the second zip line of the day as we were leaving the tree house to hike out

Some of the zips were very high, over 150m off the ground

but it felt higher because you were way way above the forest

This is one of the tree houses used in the ‘Classic’ option, much closer to the village start point.

One of the zip lines ended high in a tree on the top of a ridge. You can just see the opening in the foliage to let us in

and once there, we dropped down a few steps before clipping back on and shooting off out the other side, which is what Line is doing below

Us all geared up

By the time we were done, we were all pretty shattered and probably none more so than Catherine who had to overcome her fear of the zips to get out (there were at least 7 unavoidable zip lines to do on the way out, and some were incredibly long and high). However, we reckon that the drive in and out on the back of the Ute was way more dangerous than the zip lines. It had been raining and there was a threat of more so the driver put pedal to the metal and the combination of speed, extreme gradients and mud meant we were thrown around (and nearly out) rather violently. It was so much fun so when Line and I cracked heads together as the Ute fishtailed through a muddy patch, my teeth smacked into her forehead because I had my mouth open laughing as we flew forward

We were all cracking up (this is pre-clash)

and then it started tipping it down, so there was a quick garment change on the move (which prompted more hilarity)

Finally, last but not least, the river to cross

What they didn’t tell us was that if the river is too high, they make people hike from the river, adding 7 hours to the hike. We weren't sure what "too high" was, but obviously a bit higher than the below!

You might be able to tell we were impressed and enjoyed ourselves? The great thing about the zip lines is that they are so unobtrusive, have virtually no impact on the forest and the lines are invisible – you’d never know they were there if you hadn’t used them and even when we had we struggled to find them.

If you’re ever in Laos and getting into the forest is your sort of thing, we’d highly recommend it but be sure to talk to others and pick the right option for you as the two Laos girls taking the bookings don’t tell you much at all!

A journalist from the Sunday Times (UK) was there a few days before us so those Sunday Times readers among you in the UK, look out for an article.

Oh, also, I've a few videos but loading them is causing problems so they might come in a seperate posting.

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1 comment:

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