Deep into the Laos jungle, high up amid its leafy canopy are the legendary treehouses and ziplines of the Gibbon Experience. Here, adventure meets nature in an ecotourism project that is doubtlessly one of the most unique experiences in the world. Visitors to this part of Southeast Asia get to live out childhood fantasies of waking up with the sunrise in a fairytale treehouse. They then witness the world from a completely different perspective, flying through the forest on a zip wire.
Founded back in 2004, the Gibbon Experience is first and foremost a conservation project that helps protect part of the Bokeo Forest in northern Laos. The project sustains itself by inviting tourists to make the journey deep into the jungle and stay overnight in wooden huts at the top of high trees – allegedly the highest treehouses in the world. During the day, visitors explore vast expanses, traveling above the forest on a crazy 15 kilometers of a zip line, as well as going on some hiking adventures on the jungle floor too.
The organization was set up to protect the forest and its wildlife from illegal activities such as logging, poaching and slash and burn agriculture, and it’s been an incredible success. In 2008 the area was officially declared a national park (Nam Kan National Park) by the Lao Assembly. Now, there are law-enforcing forest patrols, surveys to monitor wildlife, development schemes for agriculture, huge tree-planting programs and even support for local schools.
Another wonderful element to the project is that it provides employment for locals (and so prevents them from being forced into illegally exploiting the land). Numbering 130 altogether, the guides and staff are almost all locals, born in neighboring villages.
You can choose from three different tour options depending on what part of the trip you’re most interested in and your overall fitness levels. There’s the two-day express trip or the classic and waterfall options which are both three-day-long excursions.
All this might sound like a scene from a child’s dream – but you’re probably wondering how it works on a practical level. What do you get for your money, how taxing is it physically, and what is a day like in the jungle?
On day one, you arrive at the Gibbon Experience after a hefty trek into the forest with your guide. The first things to happen are harnessing up, and the allocation of treehouses – you’ll set off to yours by ziplining and hiking and then get settled for the first night. Dinner eaten, guides zipped safely back to their own beds, it’s time to witness your first colorful sunset over the jungle canopy.
Your cooked evening meal will be delivered to your treehouse by your guide via zipline in stackable lunch box canisters – these meals are cooked in the local Hmong villages. The food is a simple but tasty affair – a sample of Lao cuisine, normally a combination of vegetables, meat, and rice. In fact, you’d better get used to rice as you’ll most likely even be served this for breakfast! You’ll also be given a selection of fresh fruit and snacks and sandwiches for lunch.
By most reports, the food is not haute cuisine but still good quality. Some people say that it doesn’t come in huge quantities, so it might be a good idea to pack plenty of snacks to top you up if you get hungry. If you are vegetarian – make sure you let the team know in advance.
There is a selection of treehouses of mixed sizes, and so there’s a high likelihood that you’ll be bunking in with other people on the experience. These are the highest treehouses in the world, at 30 – 40 meters (100 to 130 feet) tall, and they’re utterly breathtaking, made from repurposed wood previously used by poachers.
The structures themselves are by no means luxurious, but the views from them are truly spectacular. The facilities are rudimentary but they have everything you need. There’s a main sleeping area with mattresses and plenty of blankets, as well as thorough mosquito nets to cover you when you sleep. The kitchen area has a gas hot plate, a sink with fresh drinking water and a first aid kit. The bathroom is rough around the edges – open-air (but out of view from the rest of the treehouse) with a basic toilet, a cold fresh-water shower, and a sink. There’s nothing quite like showering naked with an entire forest stretching out in front of you, not a soul to be seen. There is lighting in the treehouses – powered by solar panels.
The answer to this is yes – you do need to have a moderate level of fitness to go on the Gibbon Experience. You’ll be hiking up to 5 miles at a time through tricky terrain, but the pace will be set by the group so as long as you’re able to walk that far, you should be fine.
At the beginning of the trip, you’ll be shown a series of safety training videos to make sure you know your way around the harnesses and how to best secure your own safety. This is because, to a certain extent, the Gibbon Experience relies on each traveler to be personally vigilant in order to prevent accidents from happening. Each traveler is given an optional helmet, mainly to protect the head from branches but it’s recommended to wear it – you reach high speeds on some of the ziplines and the longest zipline is 500 meters. You have a basic brake to use when you get near the end of a zipline which you have total control over – if it’s raining, don’t forget to activate the brake sooner.
Sadly, in March 2017 there was an accident at the Gibbon Experience that resulted in the death of a traveler. Needless to say, this freak event led to rigorous investigations and new, strict safety protocols. The incident happened because of two separate zip lines crossing above each other – a crew member was carrying out maintenance on the one below, and his weight on one end raised the other end, meaning the above line intercepted the lower line and cut through the traveler’s harness.
Now, there are strict measures in place to ensure no lines cross each other, and everyone must wait until the lines are clear before setting off. All equipment is imported from France, undergoes thorough safety checks, and is replaced regularly. More importantly – if at any point you feel unsafe or concerned about anything, you can ask questions or ask for things to be checked, or even pass up on parts of the experience.
Nam Kan National Park extends over 136,000 hectares of Bokeo Province’s mixed deciduous forest, and it is a pristine preserved jungle home to some rare flora and fauna. Thanks to the ongoing protection and conservation of the Gibbon Experience, this Laotian wilderness is now home to an amazingly diverse range of species. These include tigers, wild pigs, snakes, deer, loris, black bears, Asian elephants, water buffalos, lizards, civets, clouded leopards, giant squirrels, langurs, macaques, multiple birds and insects and of course, the rare black crested gibbon.
This leads us to the big question – will you see gibbons? It really varies – some groups are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures swinging through the branches, while others do not. Groups can be up to 8 people, and as you can imagine a ziplining group of this size can generate quite a racket – not ideal conditions for seeing gibbons. One thing is guaranteed, however, and that is the ever-present glorious gibbon song that serenades the forest at dawn. This is a totally unique duet made up of complex siren-like vocalizations and created by monogamous pairs of gibbons signaling to each other across the treetops.
Gibbons are apes (not monkeys) and the black-crested variety is critically endangered with numbers only ranging from 1300 to 2000 individuals in the entire world. Females are beigey-brown with black faces and black crests, while males are all black. Their arms are twice as long as their bodies! Families have up to 5 young, with offspring born once every couple of years usually. Black-crested gibbons can live up to 30 to 40 years!
The Gibbon Experience is located in northwestern Laos. As the treehouses themselves are far into the jungle, to get there you have to head to the official departure point and begin the journey with staff from the project. The Gibbon Experience Office can be found in Huay Xai (also known as Houayxay, Huoeisay, or Houei Sai), the capital of the province of Bokeo, right next to the Mekong River. You need to check in here one day before departure – there are several nice guesthouses available to choose from for the night, and you might want to book one for the return trip too, as you’ll get back to Huay Xai at about 4 or 5 pm on the final day and will most likely be exhausted!
At the office, you’ll be officially enrolled onto the trip – you’ll pay, and be asked to sign some documents. You’ll also be shown some tutorial videos on safety and using the harnesses for the zip lines. It’s also a good idea to store your main luggage here, as you won’t want to take more than just a small day pack with you on the trip. You’ll be moving from treehouse to treehouse along zip lines so you definitely want to travel as light as possible! The following morning, you’ll be taken by a truck on a 2.5-hour journey into the jungle, from where you’ll get off the truck and proceed on foot for just over an hour’s hike even further into the forest.
You can either fly to Huay Xai or to Luang Namtha from Vientiane – the Gibbon Experience is right between the two destinations. Flights cost between 400,000 kip to 670,000 kip (45 – 75 USD) and take about 50 minutes. If flying into Huay Xai, follow the instructions above.
If your flight comes into Luang Namtha or you are starting your journey from there – hop on a shuttle bus towards Huay Xai but get off at Ban Donchai. There is a cheap Lao Skyway shuttle on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays that takes an hour and a half, and costs 60,000 kip (6.7 USD), and more expensive buses on other days. Organize in advance with the Gibbon Experience to book accommodation in Ban Donchai – and then wait to be picked up the following morning at 10 am.
There are a few different travel options if you’re leaving from Luang Prabang. You can fly but you’d have to go all the way via Vientiane in the south. The two more popular choices are either by bus or by boat. The bus takes 12 hours and costs 150,000 kip (17 USD) and there’s the option of taking it all the way through to Huay Xai, or stop in Luang Namtha and follow the instructions above (meaning you can break up the journey with an overnight stay in Ban Donchai.
If you fancy the boat option, there are two choices. The slow boat from Luang Prabang takes two days, stopping in Pak Beng overnight where you can book into one of the town’s multiple guesthouses. This boat trip will set you back about 200,000 kip (22.4 USD). There’s also a fast boat that takes only 6 hours, costing 280,000 kip (31.3 USD). These speedboats only leave if it has a minimum of 6 passengers so it’s a good idea to get there early in the morning as that’s when most other passengers will be traveling.
The Gibbon Experience is just over the border from Thailand (with the river Mekong the severing line) so it’s quite common for people to be traveling to it from either Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. If so – take a bus to Chiang Kong, which is the small town on the opposite bank of the river to Huay Xai. From Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong costs between 200 to 300 bahts (around 6 – 9 USD), and Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong costs around 70 bahts (just over 2 USD). From here you can get another bus across the bridge (bear in mind the bridge closes at 8 pm) and then a tuk-tuk to the office in the middle of Huay Xai.
There are three different types of tours on the Gibbon Experience which are all subtly different. All of them include both trekking and ziplining. The average cost comes to about 100 USD per day for each traveler, but costs vary with the time of year and different tour options, as listed below.
The Classic is the most popular choice as it has a bit of everything. It is three days long with two nights spent in the treehouses. This program is the best option if you want to spot gibbons and other wildlife as you stay in the same treehouse for the two nights and offers the best chance of gibbon encounters. The cost is normally around 310 USD.
This option is another three-day/two-night program, but takes you even further into the forest, stopping to swim in cold waterfalls and lagoons. You’ll spend the two nights in different treehouses, one that looks over a river and another that has views that stretch across several valleys. As there is more hiking for this trip, a higher level of fitness is needed. The Waterfall experience does not run during the rainy season. It also generally costs 310 USD.
The shorter option is the Gibbon Express, which is just two days and one night long. This isn’t as far into the jungle as the other two programs – it only takes an hour’s drive but then a two-hour hike to get to the treehouses. The chance of seeing gibbons is much lower, but you will get to see the largest living tree in the whole of Laos – the Tree King! This is about 208 USD.
The climate in Laos is fairly straightforward, with the year split into two main seasons. The dry and cool season is from November to April, and the wet, hot season is from May to October. March until June are the hottest months. You can take part in the Gibbon Experience at any time of year and there are pros and cons for both the wet and dry seasons. Most people believe that the dry season is the best time of year to visit the Gibbon Experience.
In the dry season, you won’t see (and feel!) as many bugs, and the trails are more easily tackled. The night can get fairly cool, however, but there are plenty of quilts and blankets provided. The wet season, however, sees a rise in mosquitoes and midges, but beds are equipped with insect nets. The trails can get slippery and muddy in the wet season making hiking trickier, but the tree growth will be luscious and thriving and the waterways full. For this reason, the Waterfall option is not possible during the wet season.
Because of the unique nature of the Gibbon Experience and the fact you’ll be whizzing around on zip lines for most of the time, it’s important to think carefully about the small number of items you’ll actually be able to bring with you. Here’s a list of the essentials that you should consider packing:
So there you have it. You should now have all the information you need to make an informed decision on whether or not to visit the Gibbon Experience in Laos and witness the remarkable gibbons, have the thrill of your life as you ride the ziplines, and get to experience life in the canopy of the sky-high treehouses in the depths of the Nam Kan National Park. We think you should, then again we do love rainforests. If you are interested, why not give us a call on 888 215 3555 to arrange you tour.
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