Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Gibbons, Tree houses, and Hiking in the Mud

(From my 2011 trip to Laos - just catching up!)

The Gibbons Experience was one of the must dos of my trip and the thing that excited me most about Laos. The program uses the money it generates to protect the surrounding jungle and the animals in it. When I say protect I actually mean bribe the government not to log the area. Participants hike into the jungle where tree houses and a network of zip-lines have been built.

When I checked in they gave me a list of things I needed to bring so I found a guesthouse and went shopping. First on the list were shoes. I knew there was going to be mud and I didn't want to ruin my running shoes, so I went in search of the plastic cleats that they recommended. I found the largest size in town, which was still too small, but it did the job. I also got some gloves for zip-lining and a heavy duty poncho.

The trip began the next morning with an hour ride in two pickup trucks. Two Dutch girls and I secured a spot inside one of the trucks, which was really nice once it started to rain. They dropped us off on the side of the highway and pointed for us to go. The first minor incident occurred when we left the highway and crossed the river on a footbridge that seemed to be older than all of us combined. We were told to cross four at a time and slowly. I think there were more boards missing then there were still on the bridge, and yes, someone did manage to put his foot though one of the boards, but he came out fine so we continued on.

As we went on it got muddier and muddier and I became happier and happier with my three dollar rubber cleat purchase. Within the first 15 minutes I was in mud up to my knees. We hiked and we hiked and we hiked. They said that this road was too bad for a car, which it was, but that there would be one to pick us up a little bit further and take us part of the way. After a couple of hours we reached the car, one car!  There were 12 of us and five guides. I have no idea how we fit, but we did.

The car didn't last long. I've never seen so much mud. We got stuck, got out of the car, pushed, got back in the car, and got stuck again four or five times before something on the car broke and we had to walk again. We walked for another couple hours and came to a small village. I was the third one to walk into the village and the first girl, which must have felt safer to the kids because they all ran out when I walked through.

All of our water was gone from the five hours of hiking we had done so far and there was no water to be purchased. After much hemming and hawing we decided that we had no choice but to drink the water from the town spigot, and the guides assured us that it was safe. This village is where the real hiking began, but it was by far the most beautiful. We arrived at the first kitchen an hour later where we were fit for our harnesses. It took about an hour of hiking and five zip-lines for us to get to our tree house. The zip-lining was
different than what I have done in the past, in that you are all on your own. You attached it yourself and there isn't a guide there to double check that you did it correctly. We all checked each other's till we felt comfortable.

We zipped directly into our tree house which was some ridiculous height off the ground. The view was spectacular, nothing but jungle! The tree house had two levels, the first was where you zipped in and had the bathroom, the second housed the kitchen and living area. I make it general practice to read very little about the conditions of the places I go so that I have low expectations and I'm normally pleasantly surprised.  I had no idea there was even going to be a bathroom, I figured we were going showerless for the next couple days. Needless to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Once we settled in we started talking about showers. I was the first one to go. While we were cleaning the mud off ourselves so we could walk up to the second floor we used the hose next to the squaty toilet. I remember saying to someone that it was more of a shower than I expected, but that it was going to be a difficult shower, they didn't say anything. Now that I look back this was absolutely ridiculous, I'd been traveling for two weeks and I'd seen them in well over half of the places I'd stayed.  Somehow in my excitement that I got any type of shower it never hit me that this was not the shower, but the Southeast Asian answer to toilet paper. After I “showered” I walked upstairs and everyone asked how it was.  I said it was fine, but it was kind of a pain in the ass to have to bend over to wash your hair since the hose wasn't long enough. No one thought anything of it till the second shower taker emerged, “Amsbry, you didn't have
to bend over to wash your hair.  The shower was around the corner, you took a shower with the toilet hose.”  Everyone laughed hysterically. I was slightly grossed out, but it was the same water and I was happy to see everyone laughing.

They brought us dinner, which was really good considering we were in the middle of the jungle and they had to hike it all in. It got dark just before seven, we all played cards for a bit, set up up the mosquito nets and floor mattresses and went to bed early.

Many, including myself, woke up with wet beds. It rained half the night and all the way to lunch, which was no match for the thatch roof. We may have been unlucky with the rain, but we were super lucky with the Gibbons. Even though it is called the Gibbons Experience very few people get to see them, but we got to see them swinging from the trees for hours.

A couple of the group members spent the afternoon hiking and zipping to other tree houses, but most of us stuck around and zipped a couple of times from our tree house. When I came back from my short excursion I was taking my shoes off I discovered a leech on my ankle. I had only ventured a couple hundred feet from the tree house and hadn't walked through any water, but I managed to get a leech. I freaked out a bit because I couldn't seem to get a good enough grip to get it off, but eventually did.

We headed back early the next day knowing that the car was still broken down so we had seven hours ahead of us. About half way we heard a car. It was driving the new people. It took them in and ended up getting us for the last 15 minutes which saved us an hour, but I kind of wished I could have finished it myself after I had put in that much time.

It was an extreme three days. Seven hours in, zipping, sleeping in tree houses, gibbons, leeches, and six hours out. I would highly recommend it, but preferably in the dry season!

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