The high flyers of Laos
Close encounters with gibbons
It is probably the greatest shower in the world. Open to the elements, it looks on to Laos’s Nam Kan National Park, northwest of Luang Prabang near the Laos-Thai border. The park sprawls away from the wooden railing to the horizon, shrouded in mist. The water falls through the slats beneath my feet, at least 40m to the forest floor. There’s no hot water, but after the three-hour uphill hike to get to this Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse deep in the forest, accessible only by zip-line, such a luxury isn’t exactly a prerequisite to enjoyment. My impulse is to shout, Tarzan-like, into the void. But to do so might scare away the gibbons.
These creatures are why we are here. Nam Kan is one of the only places in Laos where the long-limbed ape population isn’t in decline, in part thanks to the work of the Gibbon Experience, which offers treehouse accommodation and uses tourist dollars like ours to fund conservation efforts. We strike it lucky on this front, catching four gibbons mid-frolic (in mid-air, it seems) within five minutes of our arrival. But it’s the shower, on the lowest of the treehouse’s three levels, we can’t stop going on about. The hike has predisposed us all — three Brits, two Israelis, two Australians and an Irishwoman — to being overly enthusiastic about a good wash. The water is piped in while a solar-powered generator provides enough electricity for us to charge our phones, though why anyone should feel the need to is beyond me.
A rudimentary meal of stir-fried vegetables and sticky rice, cooked by locals at the ground-level outpost where our guides stay, and washed down with rough Laotian “whisky”, has us in our camp-style beds by 9pm. We are up again early the next morning with the sun; the gibbons’ weird whooping call, like a 1980s video game sound-effect, stands in for a cock’s crow.
We don our mud-encrusted shoes and take again to the jungle and its zip-lines, the longest of which is 500m. Eco-tourism meets its adventure counterpart at precarious speeds high above the canopy. It takes a while to stop worrying about the prospect of death and appreciate the rush on its own terms. But I probably shouldn’t have read the waiver they asked us to sign back in Ban Houayxay or be glancing so often at the single piece of fabric keeping my harness connected to the cable.
Having already seen the gibbons, the second day lacks a sense of anticipation. It’s interesting to visit the Gibbon Experience’s other treehouses — some smaller, some larger, all without windows and made of wood, nailed around tree trunks high above the forest floor. (We all agree that ours has the best shower.) But the highlight of each day is its march towards night, the painterly quality of the sky over the forest, the conversation, the laughter. We’ve been lucky in terms of travelling companions. You’d be hard-pressed to plan a better dinner party.
We’re all glad we came, but pleased, too, the next morning, to be on our way back to civilisation. None of us is a fitness fanatic and the trekking has been harder than anticipated. ( My custom-made boots have been destroyed, as I have let everyone know.) The relative quiet of our first night in the treehouse, probably the result of the afternoon’s thunderstorm, is replaced on our second with the arrival of a menagerie. A small battalion of insects, along with leeches we imported from the jungle floor, chase us into the thick, curtain-like mosquito canopies above our beds early in the evening, and bats and tree rats keep some of us awake into the early hours.
One last surprise awaits us. Two hours of heavy rain — falling, thankfully, at the conclusion of our retreat from the forest — have rendered what was, only two days earlier, a minor stream into a raging river, and we are forced to take one final zip-line across the water to our waiting tuk-tuk. But the physically draining nature of the experience is quickly forgotten as we approach Ban Houayxay and the promise of proper beds and air-conditioning. What remains is the glow of a rewarding experience but there’s the slightest hint of regret. I should have taken one last, indulgent shower. Hot water’s got nothing on that view.
We strike it lucky, catching four gibbons mid-frolic (in mid-air, it seems) within five minutes of our arrival
Tree-top accommodation, above; even elusive white-cheeked gibbons can be seen deep in the forest, top right; using the zip line to get around, above right