Slow Boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang
26th June 2015
We had got tickets for the slow boat down the river from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang the day before going on the Gibbon Experience. We got up bright and early and picked up some sandwiches we had got ordered from a shop over the road from our hotel. The tuktuk arrived and we got taken through the town down to the jetty where the boat left from. We hung around in a shop while the tuktuk driver exchanged our vouchers for tickets and said it would be a while before the boat set off so we had a coffee and bought a couple more snacks for the trip. After a bit we headed down to the peer. We got on the boat before 8am when we were told we had to be on there for an 8:30am departure, which was good in one way because we got a comfy seat on the shaded side of the boat. It was bad in another way because we then waited a couple of hours for the boat to actually set off. It didn’t seem to be late for a reason, just because the pilot felt like it.
Once we got going, the boat actually moved pretty quickly down the river as we going with the current. The boat swayed around a bit and it looked like we were going down some pretty turbulent high flowing river. The pilot clearly knew where he was going, and so did the child who occasionally took over! The river wound down around hills with the odd village here and there. Groups of kids were playing on the beaches and waving at the boat. There were also water buffalo wallowing near the banks. Occasionally the boat would stop very quickly at a peer to drop a delivery or pick up some sacks of food. We thought that there would be lots of mosquitoes but the boat was moving quick enough that we didn’t get bothered by them.
We were surrounded by tourists mainly and a few locals. Behind us was a very loud American guy called Spencer, who was a large and vocal fellow. His Americaness was unfortunate as sometimes it made him sound like a complete idiot but he was actually pretty intelligent. He was with a few mates from a tour group who had seemed to have booked a rush around trip of south east Asia. Once they got on the beers it was a case of “Well if you can’t beat em, join em!”. So we did. We only had a couple Beer Laos each but it was enough to actually send us to sleep for a little bit despite the party. Everyone was good fun though. There was a shop at the back of the boat selling noodles and beers, cokes, etc, so we were well supplied.
We stopped at a reasonably large village for the night which seemed to thrive from the tourist industry. There was a small market and lots of guesthouses. We first of all went to one the other group had pre-booked but they were full, so we went and found a nice place at a much cheaper price. We didn’t prebook our accomodation as we were warned people were frequently booked into complete dumps at expensive prices. We found a pretty good place with a nice view from the balcony. We had dinner then went over to the hotel bar where most of the group were staying. We had a few beers and Spencer and another lad smoked some “opium” that the barman got him. He didn’t seem high, but also didn’t seem at all healthy or in good shape either.
27th June 2015
We got up early again and went down to the boat for 8am and once again it didn’t leave till about 11am! The boat was a bit quieter than the day before due to certain people’s hangovers! Every now a jet one of the speed boats passed the other way going far to fast, with 8 people in wearing crash helmets getting covered in spray. It didn’t look like a fun way to travel. As we neared Luang Prabang the scenery became a bit more dramatic with some nice cliff faces. Once we got to Luang Prabang we got a tuktuk ride into town which took us to a couple of pretty crappy mosquito ridden hotels. So we got one just off the main street which was very nice. The hotelier used to be a monk and gave us lots of info on the temples in luang prabang and the rituals.
The Gibbon Experience
23rd June 2015 – Day 1
We got up early at 7AM and left Momma’s guesthouse on the main street in Huay Xai. We walked a couple of doors down to the Gibbon experience office where we had booked our tour a couple of days before. We watched the safety video in the office which was just a short film about the project and using the harnesses and zip lines. We left there in a big modern 4×4. I was buying a couple of cokes from the shop opposite which meant the benches in the back soon filled up with people leaving the comfy seats inside the pickup for me and Rosy free! So we had a very comfortable ride for about an hour to our first stop where the guides picked up supplies. On the way we saw an overturned lorry on the side of the road which had been abandoned for some time, but still had most of its load on it. A tell tale sign of the safety of the roads in Laos! We left the first pit stop and immediately turned left down a very steep rough track and over a ford. The track remained very rough and we felt glad we were inside the pickup truck as we could see everyone bouncing around in the back. We got to a tiny village made of wooden huts. People were still using carts towed by cows or what can only be described as Kubota mechanical cows, which were small tractors which had handlebars which pulled the cart or plough or whatever you liked along. The village seemed very poor and remote. There were piglets and livestock all over the place. Another thing of note was a topless saggy breasted old granny just stood in a doorway and she couldn’t care less!
We started the walk by jumping over a small stream. I had just one backpack with both mine and Rosy’s things in and Rosy had her bumbag. We weren’t walking for long when we stopped for lunch in the jungle, which was a nice sandwich. I don’t know if it was that I had been sat around drinking for a month or was just plain unfit, but I was soaked in sweat! I was wearing my green long sleaved adventure shirt and it looked black with all the moisture. We carried on to another hut which acted as a depot for the tours. We were kitted out with harnesses and pulleys for ziplining, which also including a piece of old motorbike tyre to use as a brake. We were split into two groups of four and picked a treehouse to stay in at random. We chose treehouse 7 and the other group chose treehouse 3. We were assigned our guides who were Bounlun and Sampeng, Bounlun was the person we saw the most of as Sampeng spent more time with the other group. We had a short hike up a hill to our first zip line which wasn’t that long but gave us a good practice at what we needed to do. The second line was about 140m long and ended up in a tree with four other zip wires going off it. Not long after we had gotten into the tree we waited while the other group zipped over and then went on ahead of us. While we were looking back we could see a couple of trees shaking and we had our first sighting of the endangered black crested gibbon! There were a couple in a tree we could see dangling but they were quite far away. We zipped across another long and very high zip wire and then head over a hill through the jungle to our tree house.
The path took us through the kitchen area where pots sat on wood fires cooking what was to be our dinner! We went down a short path and across a short zip wire into our tree house. It was pretty damn big! We entered in the lower level which had the long drop squat toilet and cold water shower (not so glamorous!) and went upstairs to the middle level, which had a sink and cups, plates etc, and a food hamper with some snacks in. There were a few mattresses piled up for large groups but there were just 4 in our group. There was a great view of the jungle looking over the valley. The upper level was a small bedroom so the other couple took that and we slept in the middle level with a thick mosquito net. Bounlun then left us to it and said we could stay in the treehouse and relax or go ziplining by ourselves! So we got our harnesses back on and went back to the four ziplines where we had seen the gibbons and did a few circuits around there. We were very nervous being on our own, double checking each others gear and so on. We didn’t see any gibbons again but had a great time zipping around. We went back to the treehouse for dinner, which was mostly different kinds of boiled vegetables with steamed rice (which was nice because we had been eating a lot of fried food in Thailand). We had dinner with the other couple who were from Finland and Norway and were called Siri and Joe. We stayed up listening to the jungle and watching out for wildlife till it got dark. We tried shining our torches out into the darkness to see if we could pick up the eyes of any animals but couldn’t see any. I woke up in the middle of the night and could here an animal skuttling around the treehouse! I think it must have been a tree rat. I could also here the beating of bat wings as they flew around. I poked my camera out from underneath our mosquitoe net but didn’t get a photo of tree rat but could see a bat on one of the pictures. I think I was hoping to get a picture of a gibbon trying to break into our food hamper.
24th June 2016 – Day 2
We woke up to the sound of the black crested gibbons at about 5AM. I’d never heard anything like it. It sounded like a cross between standard monkey howling and flying saucers beaming people up from space! Our guide Boulun appeared and we tried to spot them but couldn’t. He then dissappeared to go and get breakfast from the kitchen area. While he was gone I spotted a tree branching swaying by itself and realised a gibbon must’ve just jumped on it. Surely enough we soon saw a whole troop of gibbons swinging through the trees doing they UFO like howl. There were black ones which were the males and yellow ones which were the females. Boulun had left quite a powerful pair of binoculars in the tree house so we could see them up close. Boulun reappeared with breakfast and we ate while watching the gibbons which must have been for about an hour or so. He said we were very very lucky to see them. Eventually it was time to leave on our zip lining adventure and set off through the jungle to visit the other tree houses that were about.
We head over to treehouse 5 which was the highest treehouse. To get there we had to go on a zip line over 400 metres long! We didn’t see much wildlife along the way but the views from the zip lines were great. We did a lap of a circuit near tree house 5 and by that time it was time to head back again. When we got to back to our treehouse we were joined by the other group from treehouse 3 for lunch. They had not slept well as a 3 meter long green tree snake had decided to join them in their treehouse for the night, slithering around the treehouse and the surrounding branches! We were suddenly then very grateful that we only had hornets and wasps in our toilet and shower! After lunch we were quite tired so had a knap while the others talked about travelling, uni, casual racism etc. We then got our harnesses on again and Sampeng (the other guide) took us through the jungle to treehouse one which was a bit of a narrow overgrown path but apparently was a “shortcut”. Treehouse 1 was huge and will probably be the closest I’ll ever get to the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. It was split into two sections and had a different design to the others and was suspended by cables in the tree. There were loads of people there from other groups making loads of noise so there was no chance any gibbons would be near by. We hung out there for a while and then made our way back along the original route on the first day to our treehouse, with a few extra circuits thrown in on the way. We tried filming the zip lining by hanging my camera around my neck but it didn’t work too well. Boulun followed Rosy down the wire from treehouse 5 so he had managed to get a pretty good video of her doing that.
Our dinner again consisted of mainly boiled veg and sticky rice which sounded simple but was infact really really tasty. We watched the sunset again and used the bird chart to try and identify birds we could see. At first the finnish couple mocked me for doing this but soon joined in. I built a pretty good house of cards then when it was dark decided to go to bed. I put in my earplugs and slept pretty darn solidly till morning.
25th June 2015
We woke up pretty early again and could hear the gibbons doing their morning call but quite far away. Apparently they do this to warn other troops where they are that day and not to come near them. We had breakfast which was nice. While we were walking the previous day Boulun pointed out a tree root which was good chopped up and made into tea and was good for settling sore stomachs. He asked if any of us had been feeling not well and I hadn’t felt normal in bowels since Pai so I decided to give it a go. It was cold and red and a horribly dry tasting drink and quite bitter. I immediately felt sick and like I was going to pass out and thought Boulun was playing a joke on me. I downed some water and then felt better and slowly got back to normal. I don’t recommend it!
We packed up all of our stuff and then zip lined back to the place where we picked up our harnesses and got split into groups. We walked back to the village and jumped back in the pickup truck and drove down the bumpy track to the main road. It was amazing to see just how poor some of the villagers were with just a cart and a mud shack. We got given another meal at a cafe when got to the main road and filled in feedback forms for the guides. When we got back to Huay Xai we decided not to go back to Mama’s guesthouse (we don’t like elastic bands in our coffee) and stayed at another hotel just down the road. There was a booming birthday party going on in the town but apparently it was not a public event. We booked our boat down the river to Luang Prabang at the hotel, had a nice meal out and went to bed.
All in all the Gibbon Experience was a great experience and I encourage all who go to North Thailand or Laos to go to Huay Xai and do it! The project works well in so many ways. It stops people poaching while while replacing poaching a profitable future with long term rather than short term ideas. The money from the project also goes to maintaining and protecting the national park and the gibbons and other species, and also goes to support local schools. Also, there are less than 2000 black crested gibbons in the wild, they might not be around forever, especially while there is still a demand for these creatures to be used in chinese medicine! So go and see them before they are gone!
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