The Gibbon experience in Laos is an ecotourism project designed to protect endangered animals, fight against deforestation, and empower local people to lead conservation efforts of their forests. Along with volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, this was one of my favorite experiences on my three month trip through Southeast Asia.
Not only do you get to support forest conservation in Laos, but you get to zip line through the Laos jungle, and stay the night in the highest tree houses in the world! I’ve been obsessed with tree houses since I was a kid, (anyone else binge-watch Treehouse Masters?) and my past kid self is so proud and excited that she gets to do this in the future!
About The Gibbon Experience Project
The Gibbon Experience is a local led ecotourism organization. They envision a sustainable future for both the forest ecosystem and the forest communities that live there. It’s a conservation project at it’s heart, but they make money by providing an incredible tree house and zip line experience to tourists.
Local Led Organization
The Gibbon Experience is led and managed completely by local Laos people, most from the Nam Kan area. From their website: “We believe only local people who actually live in the forest can make a change in the way forests are managed in the long run.”
Forest communities have an inherent interest in preserving their environment. They know best about the needs of the forest, and they make their own decisions about it’s conservation. The Gibbon Experience provides them with a reliable income stream for their communities that allows them to preserve their forests.
Some of the guides on The Gibbon Experience are actually ex-poachers. While hunting gibbons supported their families, it wasn’t a reliable income source, not even considering that gibbons are an endangered species. You could spend all day in the forest and come back empty handed. Guiding tourists is a guaranteed income.
The guides we had were passionate about conservation, and loved their jobs. Not only did they help us zip line safely, they showed us various plants and educated us about their forest. They were happy they didn’t have to sit at a desk all day, a sentiment my back pain strongly agrees with.
Forest Conservation and Ecotourism
The Gibbon Experience is strongly involved in forest conservation. It provides a sustainable future for the forest and it’s inhabitants. They are active in reforestation, support sustainable agriculture, and fund these programs and the local communities through ethical tourism. Ecotourism has a light footprint on the forest, as well as providing a strong educational and outreach platform for wildlife conservation. Can you tell I’m passionate about eco tourism? 🙂
The Gibbon Experience was instrumental in the creation of the Nam Kan National Park, where the project is located. The park covers ~500 square miles containing wild Lao jungle and it’s rich ecosystem.
What is The Gibbon Experience Like?
The Gibbon Experience is a trekking and zip line tour through pristine Laos jungle. Tree houses are suspended high in the canopy, accessible only by zip lines. You stay the night in a tree house, where you can observe the forest from a perspective usually reserved for its inhabitants.
Classic, Waterfall, or Express Options
There are three versions of The Gibbon Experience: Classic, Waterfall, or Express. They go to slightly different parts of the forest, stay in different tree houses, and the Express is shorter in duration. The Waterfall has more trekking and zip lining than the Classic, and the Express is only one night.
I can only speak about the Classic, as that is the one I did. (The Waterfall experience is not available during the rainy season.) I loved the Classic experience: there was plenty of trekking and zipping, and the tree houses were exquisite! If I return I’d probably be interested in the Waterfall for something different. The Express is a good option if you’re short on time: otherwise go for the Classic. One night in a tree house is not enough!
Zip Lining at The Gibbon Experience
Zip lines are set up throughout the forest, sometimes camouflaged by vegetation until we stumbled right onto them! They zip over deep canyons, allowing us to traverse ground much quicker than on foot. Zip lines lead right into tree houses: in fact, it’s the only way to access them! The cables vary in length from 50 to 570 meters (164 to 1870 feet, more than a third of a mile!), and the views of the jungle below are breathtaking!
How scary is it? Well, I’m scared of heights, but I’m also a risk taker. That said, I thought the fear factor was mild to medium on the salsa scale. Getting on was always intimidating, but once you’re off, there’s not much you can do about it! That also means there’s not much you can do to mess up, as well. Unlike an activity like rock climbing, it’s a much more passive experience, which for me decreased the fear.
The scariest part was zipping in and out of the tallest tree house. You’re 50 meters above the forest floor, and it can get to your head. Luckily, there’s not much you can do to mess up, and our guides were reassuring and watched over us. Basically, unless your fear of heights is moderately high to crippling, I’d recommend the experience.
What Shape Should You Be In?
Do you need to be fit for The Gibbon Experience? Yes, but not like, Ironman level. I was not super fit when I went because I was still recovering from the misery that is defending your PhD. I was a sweaty slowpoke, but I made it!
In general, you should be able to complete a 5 mile hike with hills in it. And I do mean complete, not like, beat your companions and have perfect hair at the end. If you can do that you’re good.
Will You See Gibbons on The Gibbon Experience?
It is not guaranteed that you will see gibbons on The Gibbon Experience. About half of our group saw the gibbons, although I was not one of them. We all heard them though! Gibbons are so freaking loud! In the mornings they sing, and their songs carry for miles around. We were all woken up in the morning, and most of us couldn’t go back to sleep because of how loud they were!
Planning for The Gibbon Experience
Here I’ll discuss the logistics of The Gibbon Experience. A little planning goes a long way here.
The Gibbon Experience Price
The cost of The Gibbon Experience depends on the season, but should be around $100 per day. For the Classic Experience in July 2018, we payed $335 per person.
How to Get to The Gibbon Experience
The office of The Gibbon Experience is in Huay Xai, Laos (also written Houayxay). Huay Xai is a small river town on the border with Thailand.
You can get to Huay Xai from Thailand by taking a bus from Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (the town opposite Huay Xai on the Thai border). Cross the border, (a bus should take you across the bridge, save some Thai baht for this!) and take a tuk tuk to central Huay Xai.
From Laos, you can take a boat or bus from Luang Prabang, or fly from Vientiane.
You should arrive a day early and spend the night in Huay Xai, (Sabaidee Guesthouse was nice and very close to the office). The next morning the trip leaves from the office in Huay Xai. You will get back to the office around 4 or 5 pm on the third day. Since it’s late and you’re going to be dirty, I recommend staying another night in Huay Xai.
What to Pack for The Gibbon Experience
You can leave your big bag at the office in Huai Xai, and just bring a small bag with you.
Here’s a list of everything you will need:
- Small backpack (this is an excellent choice)
- Hiking shoes (will get muddy and wet in the rainy season!)
- Hiking pants or leggings (one or two)
- Shirts or tank tops (one to three)
- Underwear and/or bras (three underwear, one or two bras, ps these are my faves)
- Socks (3 pairs, long to protect from leeches)
- Sleeping clothes
- Rain jacket or poncho (this poncho got me through 3 months in the rainy season!)
- Small toiletry kit with toothbrush, shampoo bar, anything else you need for overnight
- Travel towel
- Water bottle or bladder
- Insect repellent
Things to keep in mind are:
- It’ll be wet and muddy, especially in the rainy season, so don’t bring your favorite expensive shoes, because you will be very sad. You can buy a pair of the rubber trekking shoes that the guides wear. They have cleats and drainage holes, and they’re sold everywhere in town for quite cheap.
- There are leeches!! On the trail! They’re slow but steady, and head right for your delicious (I guess?) ankles. One got me good even though I was constantly checking. Long socks can help a bit, but mostly vigilance.
- If bringing a camera, make sure the camera bag is waterproof, especially in the rainy season.
The treehouses were absolutely my favorite part of the entire experience. You really felt like an Ewok on the forest moon of Endor (life goal fulfilled)!
These are the world’s highest treehouses, 30 – 40 meters above the ground (98 – 131 feet!)! On the second day, we zip lined around and got to tour all the treehouses in our area of the jungle. They vary from cozy and rustic to elegant multi-storied designs.
Our guides had actually participated the construction of many of the treehouses, which involves climbing the tree first to set up an initial zip line, and then zipping all the materials straight to the construction site. Here you can find more information about the treehouse architecture.
High above the forest floor in the upper canopy of the lush jungle, all the treehouses are only accessible by zip line. From the top you can observe all manner of forest life: the Lao black squirrel had us all screaming “Gibbon!” while our guides dispassionately explained about the pest that keeps gnawing on all the railings to taste the salt left over from our sweaty hands.
Staying the Night in a Treehouse: Accommodations
Staying the night in a treehouse was equally exhilarating and tranquil. The accommodations include a mattress with a blanket and a canvas tent suspended over top, to protect from mosquitoes and other critters. It was quite comfortable and felt like summer camp!
The bathrooms are stunning. Yes, stunning! There is a squat toilet, a sink, and a shower off to the side of the treehouses, and you get to ‘go’ and shower while gazing over the treetops of a rainforest. If you look down through the wooden slats, you can watch your shower water cascading to the forest floor. You are literally forest bathing!!!
The food is plentiful and satisfying. Local Hmong women from the village zip line into your treehouse with containers full of food for breakfast and dinner. For lunch, sandwiches hit the spot.
Concerns about The Gibbon Experience
I can’t review The Gibbon Experience without discussing the man that died there in 2017.
Gibbon Experience Death
In Laos Buddhist tradition, two lines crossing is very bad luck. At the time, there were two zip lines that crossed each other, one way above the other.
A maintenance crew was working on the lower line, weighting it on one end: thus raising the other end higher. The man on the higher line fell after the lower line intercepted his path, cutting through his harness. It was a terrible tragedy.
There are no longer any crossing zip lines in the park. I felt safe, but you should make an informed decision for yourself.
Review of The Gibbon Experience: Final Verdict
I had an unbelievable time at The Gibbon Experience. I sweat, I bled, and I picked leeches off of my ankles. I also soared over canyons and into the highest treehouses in the world! I lived like a freaking Ewok and showered in the canopy of the Laos jungle. Woken up by raucous yelling, I realized I was actually listening to the delightful songs of the gibbons.
If this sounds like your jam, 100% go for it! It’s an extraordinary experience that really left a mark on my imagination. It’s something that 20 years ago, I dreamed about and wished for myself. I just wanted to say to kid me: thank you for putting your trust in me, and I’m happy to report that we did it! The future is not going to be perfect, but we get to do shit like this occasionally! Score!