Contrary to what we’d heard, crossing the border from (Chiang Khong) Thailand to (Huay Xai) Laos was a breeze. We arrived late in the afternoon and were the only ones at immigration. Thailand stamped us out with a smile, and we got in a longtail boat with two Thai ladies to cross the Mekong River. Once there, we filled out the Visa-on-Arrival application, attached our photo (which we’d had made back in Chiang Mai), paid the clearly posted $35 fee, plus the $1 weekend surcharge, and walked on up the hill. We were free to roam Laos for the next 30 days.
We soon found Beer Lao at just over a dollar a bottle, delicious, cheap curries, soups and fried or grilled meats with rice. Oh, and Laos makes a mean papaya salad too. The BAP Guesthouse is run by a truly friendly, highly engaging lady who does her best to make you feel at home. She succeeds! She sat down with us for a while one evening and had us counting to 10, saying please, thank you, and see you again in Lao. She could do this exercise in at least six languages. She also makes delicious Lao coffee, strong and thick with a fat layer of condensed milk at the bottom. Prices are very reasonable for a comfortable room with fan, some with balconies overlooking the Mekong. Her stories about her family and experiences in Laos over the past six decades were fascinating. We could hardly imagine all the changes she’s seen and how she ever made it through.
In the morning we set off for The Gibbon Experience. We were impressed with the idea of the project, and what they seemed to be doing in the community they worked in. Their aim is to try and protect the primary forest and inhabitants of the Bokeo Nature Preserve, while involving and supporting local people. You spend most of the time at the canopy level, minimizing impact. Guides are local. The project employs about 40 full-time workers, and aims to refocus the economies of local villages away from slash and burn agriculture, poaching and logging to more sustainable, conservation-based efforts. They also do not support ethnotourism, which often focuses more on the “dress up in traditional clothes and perform for the tourists” rather than drawing on the real knowledge and expertise local tribes have, in this case about their forest and the natural world. In addition, they fun a crew of local Forest Guards, on the lookout for illegal poaching and logging activities. Our guides, Don and Phet joined us at a small shack where the truck pulled over, a couple of hours from Huay Xai. Phet spoke more English, and he was really enthusiastic about learning more. Don was a bit more reserved, but you could tell he was really trying to pay attention and get a word in when he could. They both had all of the vocab of the job down: directions, when to go, when to jump, when to brake. We also had lots of fun finding out everyone’s age, family situation and (most challenging due to a language gap in explaining “months”) birthdays.
The beginning of the walk passed through a small village with people going about their daily activities. The houses were traditional Lao style, on stilts, and there were lots of kids running around, waving and playing. There were also plenty of cows. Other travelers have reported much longer, more exhausting treks into the Natural Preserve. This depends on the road conditions. We were traveling in the rainy season, but the weather cooperated for the most part while we were there. The walk was certainly sweaty and humid, with lots of up and down, but nothing too crazy. We were especially lucky to be sharing the experience with only two other people, fun and like-minded people at that: a Belgian guy, Fred, and Celia, from Spain. After trekking in part-way, there were a number of ziplines around the jungle to reach the accommodations for the night. The longest one was about 700 meters/a half a mile!!! And they were HIGH. The scenery was beautiful.
The treehouse was like some young boy or girl’s dream! There were three levels. The first incuded the platform where the zipline arrived, as well as a section containing the squat toilet and shower. These were open to the jungle on three sides, with a curtain in back. It was strange and wonderful to stand naked a hundred+ feet in the air at the top of a tree looking out at the jungle while showering. The second floor was the biggest space, with a low table and stools for eating, visiting and hanging out. There was a sink with running water (drinkable!), some plates, cups and silverware, and space for some limited food prep, coffee making, etc. Around the perimeter were mats stacked up and mosquito covers pulled back for making up sleeping areas at night. The third level had sleeping space for two. (This was our spot overnight, close to whatever seemed to be trying to scratch through the straw roof.)
At dusk, one of the cooks who had joined the trek somewhere in the middle, ziplined in with our dinner, and zipped off again until morning. The food was quite good, with three or four main dishes and plenty of sticky rice. We also shared a bottle of Lao wine. The mountains in the distance were gorgeous as the sun set, and we all spent some quiet time just staring out at the jungle. Phet had warned us there would be some loud noises in the night, but we had no idea just how loud he meant. The bugs and animals in the night were crazy. Some were so loud we spent time tossing around theories on what they really might look like or whether perhaps they weren’t insects at all but maybe a UFO preparing to swoop in and whisk us away. In the morning we were up bright and early for a walk to see what animals were around. We saw one Gibbon, and heard a couple more, plus birds and one snake. Fortunately, it wasn’t the green type with a red tail, whose bite, we were told, would likely be fatal.
We were sad to leave, but the price was enough of a splurge that we had decided on the two-day, one-night option. The trek out was easier than the way in, though rain overnight had made the track quite muddy and slippery. That also meant we had to keep a keep eye out for leeches. One made it right through Donny’s sock, and we only saw the end of a little leech tail trying to wriggle the rest of the way in. It bled for quite a while after pulling it out. In an act of karmic balancing, the last we saw of the leech he was being carried off still wiggling and with a thread of sock in his teeth by a troupe of ants.
The guides seemed very surprised to see that the truck had made it so far to pick us up. The last people we’d spoken to had to walk a solid seven hours to the semi-paved road. The ruts were deep and slick, and they truck got stuck numerous times. The four-wheel drive broke somehow in the first mile or two, making progress even more challenging. Up and down the hills, we held on for dear life in the bed of the truck. Staying on the wooden plank seat was impossible, and we ducked branches, leaves and debris flying in at random. Each time we got stuck, we all got out and pushed. Neung, song sam: One, two three. The little “bridges,” wood planks just wide enough for the truck to cross, were probably the scariest part (except for one of our party getting slammed hard on one of the particularly rough spots). Luckily, the bridge our back end slid off of was only over water a few feet deep. We were totally covered in mud by the time we got back even after splashing off in the river as best we could when we reached the paved road. All in all quite an adventure. Needless to say, the four of us head directly to the showers, then a beer, after arriving back to the BAP Guesthouse in Huay Xai.
More photos HERE.