Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Laos' Closing Chapter: Experiencing Gibbons

Sometimes it is good to be able to write these entries a few weeks (or months as I have managed before) after the act itself so that I can start using superlatives. And the Gibbon Experience, a tourism/conservation project based in Bokeo province, northern Laos, is one of those trips that deserves superlatives. With just 5 days left until I get back to the UK, it could very well end up being the best thing we have done in the entire 5 weeks we've tripped and trailed through south east Asia. That is a particularly impressive title to grant it since it was also the part of the trip we were most excited about, the only part we actually booked in advance and, given it was the rainy season, could well have been a big disappointment.

Out of laziness, I give over here to my journal entry written on the first night of our 2 night/3day 'Classic Experience':

"We are in a mosquito net tent in a treehouse in the jungle of Bokeo Province, Laos. And that sentence is so ridiculous I don't even know what to follow it with. I can hear the rainforest all around us. Constant insect chirping; the soft patter of rain from the fringe of a storm; and the occasional squawk of a bigger animal - bird, monkey or bigger, I can't tell.

It took a combination of ziplining and hiking to get here - so a combination of fairly physical slog and bursts of adrenaline, zooming (and that's the noise it makes above your head as you whiz across the line) for up to 400 metres about 30 or 40 metres above the ground, above the lower canopy, to see some utterly breath-taking views. We are now
in the scenery we have been admiring for a week from buses and boats.

When we arrived in our treehouse we had some fruit - rambutan, sour green mango, longan - and delicious coffee with condensed milk while getting to know our 5 in the group, as well as our guides a bit better. That bonding continued over Lao wine (fizzy, a bit like it was turning to vinegar but mysteriously got better with every sip), tea and card games. First 'chopsticks' instead of spoons then cheat which became 'bo men!' in Lao. My very simple knowledge of the numbers in Lao came in handy [many thanks to Rachel Dance!].

Before dark fell we had showers. Definitely the coolest shower of my life. As you wash the mud off, the water falls through the slats to the ground far below [remember the height of the zip lines? Well they are how you access the treehouses so you can guess roughly how high your bed for the night it]; you can't even see it for the trees. And straight ahead of you is the whole rainforest laid out for your viewing pleasure. Layers of green hills stretching out to the distance and you can see it all as there are no walls, no barrier at all except for the fence at elbow height to keep you in. Right while you are soapy and naked. Talk about being at one with nature.

My favourite part of the evening (pretty tough call to make) was watching the storm. The lightening would light up the whole sky and top canopy layer, just for a fraction of a second. And then sometimes another flash, the lightening mimicking a heartbeat. The storm skirted around our treehouse, or so it seemed from the changing sources of thunder. And the lightening clap too, the heart of it like a bright moon or fleeting spotlight looked directly into, moved above the hills to our left. I can still hear a few rumbles in the distance."

I fell asleep that night (despite small paranoia about rats; another of the treehouses actually had a cat but it isn't a problem if you don't have food in your bag) listening to those rainforest sounds and I felt content to be so at one with nature. It's a great self satisfied feeling you can only truly achieve by being close enough to hear nature but far enough away so it can't touch you.

The next morning, that tranquility in my soul was quite abruptly interrupted by our guide, a wonderful young man by the name of Boun Peng (as a group of 5 girls, 4 of us left with serious crushes). Lorna does the best impression of his wake up call but I will try to reproduce it in written form for you - "Hello, please, excuse me.... WAKE UP!" We jumped to it, half blind and in pyjamas but awake. Although all completely unable to put on our own harnesses, which Boun Peng secured for each of us 5. Even semi-comatose as we were, the gibbon singing filtered through the sleep. Between Boun Peng's urgency for us to move and that strange song - half long whoop, half R2D2 beeps - we were pretty thrilled and up for the chase that ensued.

After ziplining out of the treehouse, we hurried to the kitchen hut and then took a left turn completely off the track and into real jungle, stepping as quietly as we could, as quickly as we could and failing on both counts, watching Boun Peng and stopping as he stopped, which was every time the gibbon paused its song. But we were getting closer. And then, as we had started to lose hope of actually seeing the singer, Boun Peng thrust an arm up to point to the tree tops and there was my first gibbon. A black shape, a bit bigger than I had imagined, not unlike a man with extraordinarily long arms, hanging between two tree tips.

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