The Gibbon Experience

I signed up for this incredible experience long ago, as Willow and I were planning details of the trip. A woman who advised us on travels in Thailand and SE Asia, recommended it as a must do experience. So I have had this wild excursion planned for long enough to have many fantasies worked out, and a few worries as well. One of them was whether I would be able to physically handle the Waterfall Trek which was billed for people in reasonably good shape who could hike 2-3 hours a day. I figured that they wouldn’t under estimate the demands, but the day I walked into their office the day before I would be heading out, the young man at the registration counter asked me if I really thought I could handle the trek which was uphill climb for three hours each day. Steep, huge steps….? Well, maybe not, if he thought I couldn’t. So I switched to the Classic trek which was less rigorous and over less challenging terrain. It was leaving a day later. I felt relieved. I had an extra day in Huayxai which is a fairly quiet town that is a border town in Laos.

Huayxai is where I had crossed into Laos two days before. The van trip I had booked to get to Huayxai was a 5.5 hour trip, and I figured on staying on the Thailand side the first night, but was guided first to a man who exchanged my Thai baht for Lao kips. He put a sticker on me which I paid little attention to, but that sticker became my free tuktuk ride on the other side. Funny how we were taken care of, and shuttled to just where we needed to be once we were in Laos. I am guessing the van driver had a special money changer guy who charged a 10% exchange rate, who had a friend with a tuktuk with connections to hotels, and they all worked together for business. I realized how easily I played into those possible business ventures by just accepting without question each and every encounter. I could have checked the exchange rate for example. I do need to get a little more savvy. Later I accounted for the money exchange and realized it was quite a high rate.

Oh well, I made it across the border and to a comfortable hotel for 18 dollars a night and then wandered down the street and met the sweetest Laotian man who has augmented his wife’s printing company income by catering food to the Farang (Westerners) who wander past his storefront. His name is Mr. Nam, and he called me into his little porch restaurant where there were already some westerners eating. I was looking for food, so I ordered a Chang beer and a bowl of Tom Yum soup. He also suggested that he might take me on a tour of the Golden Triangle and some casino and a market near the border of China….$50 which would cover me and 2 others if I could find them. He was sort of a hard sell, but so utterly pleasant, I didn’t mind. I ate there a few more times and after enjoying each meal I was required to rave about it! I never took the tour, but I did get involved in helping him edit the English on his advertisement that he was going to have printed. He was most pleased, and I definitely needed a job that day as I was a bit lost about how to spend my time.

It is interesting traveling alone because I feel a bit lonely and shy about doing things. I also realized that I am on a fairly constant level of overwhelm because everything is new and unknown…all a big challenge. I did bring my pencils and spent a couple of hours drawing a small motorcycle repair shop. I also drew up at a temple. I needed quiet reflection time like that and I still do. I would love to tune my drawing chops, get quicker at it, and do a bit of painting. Half of my suitcase space is art supplies including felt pieces and threads! I agreed with myself that I would not get mad at myself if I never touched them, but ahhhh it would be a lovely thing to settle in for a couple of weeks of art making and nothing else. And NEWS FLASH……it may just happen. Dear Jimmy, Birch’s father is coming to Thailand to spend almost 6 weeks. That means, I am on my own to wander and not be a nanny. A friend is coming to travel with me for two weeks, and then I will have a month on my own.

So back to the Gibbon Experience which was an amazing adventure that will live with me forever. All participants gathered at the office around 8:00 AM, and generally people were in their 20’s and 30’s. There was one other couple who I later found out were on their early 60’s, and a single man who was 57. We traveled in trucks over paved roads to the Nam Kam National Park, and then for over an hour on bumpy dirt roads to an interior village surrounded by rice paddies. I forget the name of that village but one of our guides lives there and has 7 children even though he is only 35. We started our trek from there, and it started pretty flat, but soon the terrain changed and climbing became a pastime. The paths were fairly well trod, but some of the steps were big ones, and the inclines steep. I felt quite challenged right away, and thankful I had switched to the less intense trip. So trekking was rigorous but doable, and taking my time was fine as the guides were patient, and my group that I ended up with were delightful and not judgmental.

I loved my group! When we got to one of the “kitchens” (there are a few places where the Laotian workers who do the guiding, cooking and trail maintenance live while on the job) a group of 17 trekkers were told that we must split into 3 groups since we would be staying in one of three treehouses. One group including the other older couple formed into a solid sixsome right in front of me so I wandered down to the rest of the trekkers and this sweetheart young man swept his arm in my direction and said, “and this lovely lady,” so I was in a group of 6! My peeps were Stephan from Belgium and Canada, George from Manchester area of England, Sophie from Netherlands and England both, Anthony from the Netherlands with roots in Indonesia, and then Bryan from Chicago, and me from Minnie. These people are world travelers. It is amazing to be meeting so many adventurers. Sophie had been to some unbelievable number of countries in the past few months, and was traveling with quick friends she had made in the hostels including Stephan and George….maybe! What do I know? For now we were traveling together! And besides trekking we were heading towards our first zip line. WOW! My heart was in my throat as I watched the first folks slide off into the distance, and I wondered how I would actually leap off, but I did, and halfway across this valley, the canopy opened up and the view was breathtaking. We did at least thirty zip line traverses over the three days. We were each given a harness with a roller that attaches to the cables, and a safety line as well, and we wore that as we hiked. It was reasonably comfortable. A favorite zip line image that I hold dear is seeing the young Lao woman with her earbuds in zipping our dinner over to our treehouse the first evening. The food was terrific.

Our second day was spent trekking and zipping to visit the other treehouse, and there are 7 in all. Again the hiking was strenuous, and the zip lining thrilling. In the evening Bryan had the wisdom to ask for a period of silence before the party got started so that we could perhaps fulfill our reason for coming on this adventure anyways….to see Gibbons. (We had learned that maybe 5% of people actually saw Gibbons.) Well, we heard major crashing in the jungle, and saw monkeys eating up in a tree somewhat near by….clumsy creatures, these, and our guides later told us that what we had seen were lemurs. Since Sophie was daughter of a zoologist mother, she knew that they were not Gibbons. We played cards into the night and drank the beer we had had ziplined into us!!! What a life! In the morning we were all quiet and observant, and were so lucky to see major movement in the trees across the valley. We were treated to the view of 3 black males and a golden female Gibbon. They were distant and small, but so graceful as they swung from branch to branch. What a lovely sight.

I am so satisfied with my trip, and feel completely lucky to be in green and watery places. I had to take a night bus to Luang Prabang and that is an experience worth relating in my next post. In this I will end by noting that I got a ride to the bus station from Mr. Nam who had taken to calling me Mum. He explained that he hoped I would not be offended but he meant only love and respect with the term. I said I was honored.