Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Day 25 - 27: The Gibbon Experience

At 9am we piled into the Gibbon Experience office for the pre-event safety briefing. There were about 16 people in total, but we would eventually split into 3 groups: the people doing one-day treks, and two other groups of 5 and 6 people doing the 2 night/3 day treks. We were in a group with 2 Russians (Inessa and Orla) and two Russian-Americans (Lev and Julie). All 4 of them were great fun for the entire trip, and we were pretty lucky to get a good group.

The first day started with a 3 hour drive to the base camp/village and then a 1.5 hour hike, mostly uphill, to our treehouse. We had lunch (chicken baguettes - yum) and did a couple of ziplines before we got there, and the views were superb. Gilly managed to acquire the first leech of the trip on her foot. Leeches turned out to be a common occurrence throughout the 3 days, and they are disgusting, slimy things but pretty harmless (other than the blood "donation" you provide). Spraying DEET on them soon sorts them out.

We'd heard that Treehouse 1 was the best in terms of "luxury" so we'd requested that - we weren't disappointed. Rosewood floors, clean running water, spotless mattresses and linen...it was superb. There was also a cold water shower which was refreshing after a hard day's slog and the view from the bathroom is probably one of the best you'll find in the world. Each couple had a floor to themselves so we weren't cramped for space, and the dining area was equally fantastic. It took 10 people 8 months to build this treehouse, and then they had to rebuild it once after some berk left a candle lit when they went to bed, and managed to burn half of it down - hence why it was newer and nicer than the rest.

Once we'd arrived, that was pretty much it for the first day. It was pushing 4pm, and at about 5pm a canopying old Lao lady ziplined over with our dinner, which was a tiffin filled with pork curry, rice and various vegetables. Considering this is all cooked in the jungle, it tasted great. We also got given a bottle of wine to share between the 6 of us. I can't vouch for the vintage as it was Laos-made, but it tasted vaguely winey and we think it may have been plum. Gilly and I taught the two Russian girls (with help from Lev and Julie) how to play Uno, the other 4 taught us how to play Durak (translates as "fool") which apparently all Russian people know how to play, and we hit the sack at about 9:30pm.

Let me be clear - although it is called the Gibbon Experience, we didn't expect to see any gibbons. This was prevalent in all of the reviews we read beforehand. If we got to hear gibbons singing to each other, that was apparently rare too, so our expectations were realistic. As it turned out we didn't see any gibbons for the whole time we were out there, but we did hear them singing both mornings. It was an eerie, beautiful sound, and when coupled with the mist that spread over the jungle after dawn and until about 9am, it made for an ethereal experience.

The next day the canopying granny brought over breakfast - rice, vegetables and omelette. Those privy to my food habits will know I am not partial to eggs, actively avoiding them where possible. However, I have now been converted to omelettes and will consider myself an omelette eater should anyone wish to put it on record. This was down to a number of things: sheer hunger, a lack of choice, and desperation to eat something other than the ubiquitous rice that accompanied every meal. Boiled eggs, scrambled eggs and fried eggs are all still off the table though, and will remain so.

Breakfast was followed by a long trek to the various other treehouses around the jungle. They were all comfortably laid out, but none of them were as nice as ours - I was glad we had settled on Treehouse 1. We got around by alternate 20-30 minute walks followed by 1 or 2 ziplines. They were excellent fun, and if the treks between them were smaller, I would be happy ziplining all day. I took a couple of videos of the journey across one; I will probably upload them at some point when I find an internet cafe with a decent upload speed. At present I'm happy to find a computer that actually works.

We got back to the treehouse at 4pm, when we had "lunch" of vegetables, rice and some more vegetables, and supergran arrived an hour later with dinner (basically the same thing we had for breakfast - omelette et al). A bit of forethought from the organisers would have us take lunch in one of the treehouses we stopped at rather than leave it so late and then overwhelm us with two meals in an hour.

Something that the organisers also need to address more urgently is the total lack of medical supplies. We knew we had to pack our own mosquito repellant and sun cream but we assumed - wrongly - that there would be a first aid kit for scrapes, etc. This is not the case. If you injure yourself out there, you have nothing available to help you. It's a case of physician, heal thyself. And when this particular physician was only packing plasters (and these, only courtesy of his wonderful girlfriend), taking the top layer off the heel of my hand whilst ziplining was probably not a good idea. I just had to wash it and hope not to get it infected. Similarly, Julie fell down the stairs in the evening on the way to the bathroom and luckily only bruised her coccyx...if she had broken anything, it was 10pm at night and the guide didn't stay anywhere near the treehouse. There are no procedures for emergencies, and upon questioning I was told by the guide (Noushon) that their boss did have some medical kit in the treehouses a couple of months ago but didn't buy any more for whatever reason. This seems incredible to me, especially as there is a pharmacy attached to the Gibbon Experience tour shop. If you are considering doing this trip, pack everything you think you will need medically, and hope that you don't get anything more than aching legs.

As it happened, I also managed to get two leeches in the day, both of which munched on the skin between my toes before getting full and falling off. Cheeky gits. The problem is, they have an anti-coagulant which stops the blood from clotting, so I spent a good two hours with blood seeping into my sandals. Thankfully, and I'm thankful pretty much every day for them, my Keen sandals are waterproof so I just chucked them under the shower when I got back. Newport H2 sandals are amazing. They have all the benefits of hiking shoes but don't smell, are breathable, and are comfortable enough to wear all day.

That night we were woken up by the sound of tree rats fighting outside our bedroom. We'd seen one of them in the rubbish bag in the kitchen, but they are fairly skittish and didn't bother us. If I'd been more awake I would have got up and thrown something at them but as it turned out they shut up after about 5 minutes of squealing.

The next day we left after more omelette for breakfast and took our last few ziplines back to the village, then took a truck to a restaurant for lunch (after a brief stop to pull the second truck out of a mud road ditch) before heading back to Houay Xai.

I can definitely recommend the experience but with the caveats mentioned above regarding medical supplies. The company would also benefit from investing in English lessons for their guides. They could speak basic English, but this was all self-taught; on guide whose English was very good had learned it from speaking to tourists and reading a dictionary. Proviing lessons will allow them to explain more about the different plants and animals in the jungle; they were keen to do so but simply didn't have the vocabulary.

We went to eat at My Laos restaurant at night again (our third visit) and I had the excellent fried fish with chilli which Gilly had on our first night. Our guesthouse was Arimid but I couldn't recommend it. The owner is called Mr. Singhkam and is a retired French professor, and is one of the nicest Lao you'll meet. However, the room was a cramped basic affair with hard beds and dodgy wiring. Consequently, sleep was fitful.

Tomorrow we are catching a slow boat to Luang Prabang which takes two days with a stop at night in Pekbang. 5 hours on a cramped boat will be hot and unpleasant but will offer great views and the chance to meet more people.


Dave Braga said...

if you'd wanted to see a gibbon you should have looked in the mirror

Rob said...

I had a year of looking at a gibbon 2 desks across from me, so it wasn't disappointing when I didn't see one. Your family says hi, by the way :)