Unlike Cecilia, I don’t really care to celebrate my birthday. As far as I’m concerned, the less fanfare, the better. That said, I do like to do something memorable on my actual birthday. For the past three years, we’ve been at our favorite beach in Tobago, sipping Caribs and enjoying the tranquility of a beach devoid of tourists. This year, we woke up in the highest treehouse in the world and ziplined across the treetops of the Nam Ka National Park in Laos — a birthday I’ll never forget.
We had toiled for over a week about whether to commit the money to join the Gibbon Experience tour. We are not huge fans of packaged tours, and the hefty $345 price tag (per person) meant we would be spending a week’s budget for essentially two days of adventure. After crossing the Thai-Lao border at midday on January 15th, and leaving the decision till the last moment, we agreed we were in and proceeded directly to the booking office, opting for the “Classic Tour” leaving the next morning.
The adventure kicked off when six of us packed into the back of a songtaew for a two and a half hour ride that took us across a river, past fields of rubber trees, along a windy muddy mountain road and ultimately to our destination — a village on the edge of the thick Laotian jungle. We linked up with our guides, SothSay (aka Mike) and Khampy, and set of into the jungle on foot. It wasn’t long before we happened upon the Gibbon Experience homebase, where we got our ziplining harness, a protective shell that inserted right into our custom-designed Gibbon Experience hats, and instructions for the next two days. After a practice run on the training zipline, we were all ready for the real fun to begin.
I can’t remember the last time I ziplined. In fact, I’m not certain I ever did more than the makeshift zipline set up in a friend’s backyard, when I was about seven years old. To me, ziplining was one of those things that was billed as “extreme”, but was really just a boring way for adventure companies to rip off tourists. Then I did the Gibbon Experience, and while I can’t recommended ziplining as a whole, I can absolutely recommend ziplining across the treetops of untouched jungle in the north of Laos. Ziplining with The Gibbon Experience was not about the adrenaline rush, it was about crossing wide valleys, high above the jungle below, with a view into the distance that cannot be captured elsewhere (this video of me on the longest ziplines may help you get an idea of the experience). The price tag was 100% worth it — this was an experience that cannot be replicated.
Aside from the ziplining, another draw to The Gibbon Experience is a chance to sleep in the world’s highest treehouses. Our group stayed in Treehouse #7, situated about 35 meters above the jungle floor (this video shows Cecilia ziplining into it). The view west, with the sun going down behind the mountains in the distance, was unforgettable, especially while enjoying the uniquely designed shower after a long day hiking and ziplining in the sweltering jungle. Waking up in the morning at first light and having a cup of coffee while trying to clear the fog from the lao lao (local rice alcohol) consumed the night before was a memorable birthday treat.
While we hoped to see the gibbons during our stay, unfortunately we never got closer than hearing their distinctive howls off in the distance. Seeing the gibbons would have been icing on the cake of an otherwise amazing birthday trip. Alas, it was not meant to be…but that did not mean there was not any icing to be had.
On our final night, SothSay asked us if we had any interest in attending the wedding of a person affiliated with The Gibbon Experience. The six of us emphatically said yes — no way we were going to miss a chance to get a true local Laotian experience that is rarely on offer to a group of falangs.
The next day, after hiking out and enduring the long, bumpy trip (including the river crossing), we arrived at the wedding venue — a large tent set up in the middle of a field off the main road. There must have been 30+ tables, all complete with a selection of local food and a crate of large Beerlaos bottles. We’d been warned that there is a lot of drinking at Laotian weddings — we were not prepared for what ensued.
The group of us, dressed in the cleanest clothes we had on us, but still wreaking of sweat and mud, were whisked to a table on the outskirts of the party. Within seconds, a couple wedding attendees came to our table and promptly poured a round of beers in tiny plastic cups with ice. Within no time, we had tham keo’d (cheers, literally “hit glass”) with loads of people and gone through a half dozen Beerlaos (mind you, it was probably a little after noon at this point). The beers loosened us all up a bit, and we headed to the dancefloor to join the group dance circle. Luckily, the Lao traditional dance was arguably the simplest dance in the world to learn — the women and men faced each other while proceeding around in a circle, the only difference in their steps being how they moved their hands. The women acted as if they had pancakes in their hands which they were continually flipping, first left then right. The men were acting as if they were pushing air with both hands towards the women, then attempting to pull it back to them; a sequence of two pushes then two pulls. The soundtrack was traditional songs, sung karaoke style (often by rather intoxicated young men), played at eardrum shattering volumes.
We danced and drank for a good three hours before it was finally time to go. Cecilia and I both agreed — in less than three days, The Gibbon Experience had provided us with countless memories (and not to mention, a few new friends). We could not have been happier that this was how we had decided to start our time in Laos.