Ziplining the Lao jungle

One of the most awesome experiences to be had in Laos is of ziplining over the jungle in the Bokeo national park. I took the opportunity on my trip to Laos in 2016. My entry to Laos was through its northernmost border with Thailand, near a town called Huay Xai. Huay Xai is the base for the Gibbon Experience, one of the major attractions of Laos. It is an ecological experience that provides jobs to the locals that depend upon the conservation of the forest. I had selected the cheapest and shortest trip option: the express trail would cost US$190 and take two days.

I arrived at the office at about 8.30 AM. There was a large group of foreigners at the office doing the three trails (the classic trail, 3 days, gives you the best chance of spotting gibbons; the waterfall trail, 3 days, has a waterfall). We were shown a video of what to expect and how to use the ziplining system safely. We were sorted into songtheaws (trucks with seats at the back) and sent to our respective starting points. Our ride was about an hour.

The low-tech kit on which our lives depended.

We kitted up at the starting point. We put on our harnesses and familiarised ourselves with the equipment. There was a little piece of metal with a few small wheels to which a big carabiner was fitted. A section of rubber tyre was on top to use as a brake. A hook in front would hold fast the backup carabiner that would hold the harness (and the rider) in place in the event that the main carabiner failed. A two minute walk took us to the edge of a river. One of the guides crossed. “Who wants to be first?” I stepped forward.

The first zipline across the river

I clipped the metal with the rollers to the thick metal wire rope using the primary carabiner. I clipped the secondary carabiner to the rope and placed it above the hook. My left hand held the carabiners tightly. My right was above the rubber tyre. I took a short run of a metre and lifted my legs. The river passed under me and I was across in seconds. I made landfall and quickly pulled off the carabiner to get out of the way of the next person. The whole group passed in minutes without incident.

We then began the trek. This went on for about three hours. We set off at a brisk pace led by a pair of Dutch medical students. Eventually they realised that we need not be so fast and slowed down a little. The forest was a typical tropical rainforest. I had passed through many of these in South East Asia before. It had tall trees, plenty of insects and lots of shade at the ground level. We stepped over tree roots here and there. In places there were baskets made of old tyres placed for garbage collection. The trek was tiring in places and we made a few stops before getting to the end. We had lunch at the last stop.

About to make a smooth landing.

We were finally at the big ziplines. We did the same drill as at the first one: clip oneself to the wire, short run and fly. I went first again. I could not see the other end of the wire as I stood on the platform. A brief fear gripped me as I readied myself to take off. I ran and then lifted my legs. I zoomed past trees and bamboos to both sides and in seconds I was flying high above the trees. Once I was high above the trees, the fear left me and I enjoyed the rest of the ride. The visible colours were green, blue and yellow. My eyes watered. In half a minute, I got the feeling that I was slowing down and getting lower among the trees. I spotted a wooden platform with X-man, our guide, at the other end. I pressed down lightly on the brake and put my feet down on the platform. I unclipped myself and gave three tugs on the wire to let the next person know that they were good to go. The Dutch students followed. We walked the few metres to the next zipline and waited for the rest.

We had not necessarily been very sociable before but that now changed. There were plenty of breaks as people waited for others to catch up and we started getting to know each other’s names. The 19-strong group consisted of Europeans and Indians. (There were five Indians including myself, an unusually high concentration.) After the second zipline after the trek the guides mostly asked us to proceed to the next line and go. We would stop building up big queues and we would move faster. We started picking up the nuances of using the ziplines. Our bodies had to lean backward and be as straight as possible for optimal aerodynamics. If we got twisted sideways due to the wind, we would seriously slow down and would need to rectify our positions. Our backpacks needed to be close to our chests – mine was a dry bag that hung downward and slowed me down. One zipline was considered slow, so the guides got two people to go in tandem to increase the momentum.

Eventually we had the final wire of the day that led to our treehouse. This was one of the shorter ziplines and we could see the end before we took off. I did not brake early enough for a smooth landing and planted both legs heavily on the tree to not crash on to it. The treehouse was a wonder. From one side I looked 40 metres down onto the forest floor. It had three floors: ziplines in and out + bathroom at the bottom; kitchenette, living space and mosquito nets with mattresses in the middle; a few more mattresses and nets at the top. X-man told me that the water from the kitchenette tap was drinkable. I checked out the bathroom. It had a simple non-flush western toilet, a basin and an overhead shower. “Yeah, right, a shower,” I thought. I turned the wheel. Water poured down! The bathroom had 180 degree views of the forest; no wall or glass separated me from the forest; just a few pieces of wood to prevent the occupant from falling off the side. The sun was setting as I bathed; it was the best sight that I had ever had from a bathroom.

Two women flew in via the ziplines to do a little cooking. Most of the big meals were pre-cooked at a more convenient location. We spent some time admiring the views and then had dinner. X-man and Somedee, the second guide, entertained us with card tricks and fire tricks. They ground something into powder, let the powder drop from their fingers and lit it up as it fell. It burned brightly and suddenly, making for an impressive display; a bunch of guests tried it as well. Eventually people started moving to their beds. I was the only solo traveller and got a “double mattress” to myself.

We awoke the next morning and in about half an hour had put on our harnesses and moved on for the day’s ziplining. We played along a few lines and returned for breakfast. After breakfast we packed our bags and did a little photo shoot on the zipline before leaving. X-man would zipline a few metres; the guest would do the same with his roller mechanism in reverse; they would take a few pictures of the person hanging by the line with the treehouse in the background. We then trekked to the pick up for lunch and were brought back to Huay Xai.

I rate the gibbon experience as among the top five in my life. It is a must do if you go to Laos.


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