The high fly­ers of Laos

Close en­coun­ters with gib­bons

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - MATTHEW CLAY­FIELD

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

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