One of the reasons we wanted to take a trip to Laos was that we had read about the Gibbon Experience (way back when we first accepted our jobs) and thought that sounded like an amazing thing to do. Sitting on our couch in London, the thought of sleeping in the world’s tallest treehouses and ziplining along in the jungles of South East Asia seemed very exotic indeed. We finally started to look into the logistics of actually going this past summer and everything seemed to fall into place nicely for our October break.
The trip to see the gibbons actually starts kind of in the middle of nowhere. It is literally a dirt track off of the one main highway in the north of Laos. Almost everyone who does this trip comes over from Thailand, having visited Chiang Mai or Chaing Rai and crossed the border (actually the Mekong river) into Laos. At the border crossing between Thailand and Laos, there is a big-ish town called Houay Xai. The Gibbon Experience has an office there and they tell you to arrive the night before, check in with them, and then early the next morning they drive you 2 hours to the dirt track to actually start the trip. We didn’t want to have to go to Thailand just to go back into Laos as we were coming from Vientiane, and the airport in Houay Xai is temporarily closed. But no problem the gibbon people assured us! We could fly into a different airport, grab a bus to the town where the dirt track starting point was and save ourselves a lot of highway driving time.
Sounded fab. The company even said they would organise our accommodation the night before, which I happily took them up on. The told me Mr. Boulean would meet our bus and take us to our room. We left our very swanky hotel in Vientiane and boarded the little prop plane that took us up to Luang Namtha. All was fine until we emerged from the airport in Luang Namtha, asking everyone around where the shuttle bus was. We got a lot of blank stares and people just pointing to the car park where there were a few minivans loitering around. It became clear very quickly that there was no shuttle bus and also no one spoke any English or seemed to recognise the name of the village we were trying to get to. I knew it was at least a 2 hour drive away, but other than that had very little information. We tried to call the gibbon guys, but ran out of credit very quickly on our phones (learning the lesson that you can’t top up outside of your own network!) It will surprise no one that at this point I am sweating profusely as a) I am standing in the hot sun and b) am now panicking.
Gav of course saved the day by getting one of the random minivan guys to call Mr. Boulean with his own phone. After much conversation, Mr. Minivan seemed to know where we needed to go and we agreed to pay an exorbitant fee for him to drive us. He then spent 2 hours driving like a maniac down this twisty highway, merrily overtaking giant lorries from China on blind bends. Luckily we had seat belts, but what I actually needed was a helmet because he kept flying over speed bumps and I think I hit my head on the ceiling a few times. Eventually we made it to the little village where Mr. Boulean was waiting for us on a motorbike. He led us up a dirt road to our accommodation. Which surprise!!!! Was his house. I did warn Gav that I thought this night might be a little more “rustic” than we were used to, but I was not actually prepared to be doing a homestay. At this point the sweats returned, especially after we were shown the village toilet hut and pointed to our sleeping area which was a mosquito net in the corner of the house’s one room.
Toilet hut hiding behind this house. It was next to the pigpen.
At this point Gav and I are both in shock and kind of panicking, so we told our host that we were going for a walk. Down the road I had spied a shop with a refrigerator full of Beer Lao and I desperately needed to get back there. We sat in front of the shop having a beer and trying to talk ourselves back from the ledge. We didn’t know if dinner or breakfast was provided. Gone were my dreams of having a shower before heading out in the jungle and a possibly shower-less treehouse. We were definitely too old for this kind of experience!
The village-actually very lovely
Eventually we made our way back to Mr. Boulean’s house where we did indeed get served dinner. The sun started going down and the electricity got shut off in the village. Our host asked us if we wanted to drink whiskey with him and we said no thanks-very glad we turned that down as later in the trip we tasted Laos “whiskey” and it’s sort of reminiscent of turpentine. At about 7 we were told it was time to go to bed, so off we went into our little corner. The family slept in another room, but as we were in the main room, all night long people kept tromping through to go visit the toilet hut. No problem because the cow that lived under the house started mooing at about 2:30am so there was very little sleep anyway.
We got up with the rest of the family around 5 and had a little wander through the village, waiting for the rest of the gibbon group to come and get us. Now that the night had passed, we could laugh about it a little more but to be honest we were still a little traumatised. I’m going to admit that I have gone back and read my emails and it does say that they were organising a homestay for us, I do not know how I glossed over that fact.
Our house. Our early riser cow friend.
We did eventually get picked up by the rest of the group. At one point some of them said “hey, were did you guys come from?” and we had to tell the whole story. Everyone else was 21 so they were totally nonplussed by the whole thing, even saying that the guidebook said doing a homestay in Laos was a not-to-be-missed experience. I’m here to tell you that it’s OK to skip it.
Gav will tell you more about the rest of the trip, but the treehouse we spent the next 2 days in was very comfortable, so we recovered. It even had a shower! With the best view of any shower I have ever had.
The rest of our gibbon group (remember they were all 21) spent lots of time and energy taking selfies in this shower. It was a group effort, often someone would be called down to assist in the shower-selfie taking to get just the right sexy but not pornographic shot for Instagram. They were all aghast that neither Gav nor I were interested in doing the same. I told them no one wants to see a picture of a 40 year old in the shower. They just kind of snickered like “ewww, gross. You’re 40?” Youths.