This is a family post, about our adventure at “The Gibbon Experience,” and ziplining in the jungle wonderland in Northern Laos. We spent three amazing days here – hiking, sleeping in treehouses, ziplining, meeting new friends, and dissolving into the jungle. The following are a few words (well, a few more than a few for John), a string of video highlights, and several photos. We can’t get enough of all of these; we have literally watched every video like 100 times. They just keep making us laugh and smile. If you are pressed for time, at least check out the last two videos of Amy and Mia, they are the funniest.
And a quick spoiler, although there are Gibbons living near where we stayed, we did not see any. They are elusive creatures, rarely seen during this time of year, as there is not much fruit on the trees. No matter, we were there to act like Gibbons, not necessarily see one.
It hurts to laugh. My core muscles hurt. It’s hard pulling in. Ziplining is tiring, you have to lie flat on your back, trying to look up, suspended in the air by only your waist. It’s harder than it sounds, especially when you do it like a hundred million times. But, it is very, very, very, very, very, very, ∞ (and beyond) fun. It is spectacular, and fun, and spectacular, and fun, and so on, and so on. And the same for the treehouse. We even got to sleep in it. Too bad it was only two nights.
That was only the beginning. I’m just going to tell you about a little part, and some other member of my family will tell you about the rest of it. The part that I will tell you about is how to position your body on the zip. I curled up in a ball, but everyone else would lie flat, and lying flat hurts your core muscles. So, I go in a ball, but there is another reason I go in a ball. Because I go faster. But, I’m still too light, so sometimes I had to climb. Climbing is what you must do when you don’t make it to the platform. You turn around and pull up hand by hand on the zip-line. Mia will show you that in one of her videos.
I kept track of the length and how many ziplines we went on. Here are the facts:
Each of us traveled 31,713 ft on ziplines, that is about 6 miles! We each did at least 50 total zips (but I probably did more), on 23 different ziplines. The longest zip line was 500 meters (5 football fields!!!), the highest point on a zipline was 200 meters off the forest floor.
Poe is out (or in?)
Ziplining, hiking, treehouse camping. Those things pretty much sum up the gibbon experience. Also, beautiful views, sore muscles, and little animals. Our guide showed us around, we got to zip line, and sleep in a treehouse 40 meters (120 feet) off the ground. When you think of me, Mia, you probably think of books, books, books, books, etc. You might not expect me to love such an adrenaline sport like ziplining. Surprise! I actually trust the cable more than my own limbs. But still, I can’t pretend I wasn’t scared. Launching yourself into midair and hanging over the tops of trees is freaky, but exhilarating. The only downfall is my weight. If you are heavier, you go faster, but if you are light, like me, you stop before you get to the end. More often than I would have liked, I had to pull myself the rest of the way. The result is painfully sore arms, and waist. I also now have sore legs from trekking to the next ziplines, but all was worth the views, the exhilaration, the fun.
Here is Mia illustrating how to “climb like a gibbon,” assisted by Liv and Poe.
It never gets old. Over the course of 3 days, zipping became a way of life. Time to leave the hut in the morning? Get your harness on and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzip. Let’s leave the treehouse after lunch? Put your harness on and zzzzzzzzzip. John and I were amazed at how MUCH fun we had. But that fun came at a price. Sick nervous stomach watching my children drop off a platform 150ft above the jungle floor, reaching speeds of 40 mi/h, zipping across the jungle canopy as far as the eye can see. I fared pretty well as far as keeping my cool and only had a few OPM’s (over parenting moments), none of which ended in disaster. I think I said “be careful” only once when Porter headed out into the darkness for a dawn zzzip to look for Gibbons. I did have two brief, but sickening panic moments. One for no good reason and one because Porter got disoriented in the dark of night, sleeping in a tree house 130ft off the ground.
There have been zero major injuries and zero deaths at the Gibbon Experience, their safety protocols are excellent. But towards the end of day two, I started to have some irrational thoughts about pushing our luck, kids falling to their death, and “inevitable carelessness” while not under my motherly watch. It’s hard enough to manage fun fear, but child death fear on top of fun fear is just too much. I probably lost 4 zips to anxiety before I got it under control. Is this intuition or anxious worry? Intuition? Anxious worry? Anxious worry of course, but what if it’s intuition? Aaarrrrgggghhhhh, stop the madness! I worried less about Mia, she was a graceful zipper. I worried more about Porter (obviously), he was an insane, feet in the air, no hands, monkey on steroid caffeine zipper. But, every time I checked he was following protocol and saying “yeah yeah yeah mom, I know, I know, I’m doing it, mom, I know how to do this!”
By the end of the day, snuggled up in the treehouse, playing cards with our jungle family, I was tired, relaxed and very happy. All was well as we went to bed. That night though, my motherly nighttime superhuman listening machine was turned on and I awoke (not really “woke up,” because who actually sleeps in a treehouse in the jungle with the cacophony of jungle noises, tree rats and flapping bark munching flying squirrels? Oh wait, John does…) to a faint cry from the upper level where the kids were sleeping. I tore out of the tent and started calling for Porter’s location. I found him trapped between the blanket tent and the railing (the other side of which is some thatch roof and fall to your death). He and Mia had switched places in the night, he couldn’t find his headlamp and went out the wrong side of the tent. He was a mess of tears and frustration and really had to pee. I’m not convinced that he was even fully awake. Needless to say, we brought him to bed with us for the remainder of the night. After that scare, the superstitious part of me thought we had somehow paid our close call dues, and we would officially be fine for all the zipping on the last day. FYI – Superstitious bargaining is not a wise or sustainable anxiety coping strategy, but it did get me through the day.
Our treehouse mates were great. Sonia from France, Brett from Australia and Immy and Liv the jungle babies from UK. On the first night, Immy awoke to a furry animal nuzzling her neck, she and Liv didn’t sleep a wink. Neither did I as flying squirrels flapped through our treehouse, occasionally slapping into our tent-like blankets hanging over our beds, and making loud munching noises on the tree house tree. On night two, they named me Jungle mom after I insisted on “tucking the shit” out of their net/tent before bed. I am the master critter net tucker in the jungle, and in guesthouses.
The zipping was super fun, the tree house was so cool, and our jungle family was wonderful. I didn’t want to leave.
Ziplining and jungle living are amazing, but as with most amazing experiences in my life, the real treat were the people we met – our jungle family in Treehouse #7.
It started on the drive in. Amy and the kids sat in the air-conditioned front of a pickup (to prevent car sickness), and chatted with Tungchan, one of the guides. He spoke very good English and was a jokester; Amy began scheming to get him as our guide. I sat in the back of the truck and made small talk with other Gibboners: a couple from Italy and two young travelers from the UK – Olivia (Liv) and Imogene (Immy). The girls were on a gap year, working and traveling before college. I was entertained by their miserable-on-the-cheap-bus-ride stories, and impressed by their informed perspective. The gap year is such a good idea!
After 3 hours of dust, curves and bumps, we reached the end of the road, a pretty little village in the hills. Twenty-two of us plus guides began hiking. After a half hour, we stopped for lunch. Sitting next to us was a French-English woman named Sonia. She was tall, composed, and had a bemused look on her face. We were immediately drawn into her life stories of travel to Tibet and Palestine. Amy and she bonded over similar feelings of animosity towards one nationality of people at the temples of Angkor Wat. Same observations, same frustrations, same too-widespread conclusion, same guilt about it, and same effort to prove themselves wrong.
After lunch as we hiked, we overheard conversations of “Which treehouse do you want? Where are you more likely to see Gibbons? Where are you staying?” Camp stress had set in. Amy told me that she was going to take charge, and fight for Treehouse #7. She asked if I was ok with her getting a little aggressive. “Hell yes!” I said, and “Thank God,” I thought.
An hour up the trail, we stopped at a camp of a few stilted bungalows, the jungle kitchen for treehouse #1. We donned our harnesses and stared at the map of houses. Amy quietly tried to form an alliance with three other travelers (so we could get the eight-person treehouse #7 and Tungchan as our guide), but they didn’t bite. Other groups were banding together, as the primal instinct of “where will we sleep?” was taking hold. A guide told us to figure out who would sleep where. The stress! I immediately withered into my 7th grade, last pick for the football team self, while Amy leapt into action.
“Treehouse #7 over here!” she called out, stepping away from the group. Mia, Porter and I followed her into our newly claimed land. Nobody protested, and immediately others started adjusting their own plans to the loss of four available spaces. A master-move, as she grabbed the first mover’s advantage. And, those who joined us would be choosing to be with kids, an important factor in close-quartered living. I love that woman, and the fact that she has the bullying power I so obviously lack. Four others quickly moved up to fill out our band – Immy, Liv, Sonia, and Brett, an Australian tech worker.
Up the trail, and on to ziplining. We’ve written plenty about that, but I will just say that it was a exquisite thrill each time, about as close to a day of good powder skiing as I have experienced.
In the afternoon and evenings, we had time to relax in our treehouse, enjoy each other’s company and survey the surrounding jungle. On the first afternoon, we spotted wide- throated lizards, brightly colored birds, and a “giant black tree squirrel” clamboring around the tree tops. By giant, I mean giant – about the size of a small black bear! During the nights, we had limited electricity, so we entertained ourselves with puzzles, riddles and cares. Every member of the family, including Tungchen were gamers, making for spirited competition.
Throughout the time, I was struck by how interested Immy and Liv were with Mia and Porter. They would often strike up conversation, asking about top-ten lists, how our family operated, and what they missed about home. Over time, we realized that even though the girls had the composure of adults, and felt like travelling peers, they were actually much closer to the ages of Mia and Poe. They probably identified with our kids, and felt some kinship.
When Amy found out their age (19), she exclaimed, “You are just babies!” They laughed good-naturedly, accepting the title “the babies” as they had numerous other times with older travelers. When Amy offered to tuck their mosquito tent in on the second night to avoid unwanted furry bed-fellows, they rejoiced to be taken care of by a “jungle mom.”
On the ride out of the Gibbon back into town, Sonia, Immy, Liv and I all got into a political discussion. I wanted to know their perspective on Brexit, they wanted to know what I thought of the US election. Once again, I was impressed by their knowledge of the world, and their facility to think critically. After I ranted about our US president for a bit, Immy asked me an insightful question,
“Are there any policies of Trump that you agree with?”
I was a little stumped, but I appreciated her question, she was asking whether I was a nuanced thinker. We went on to share our impressions of the cultural differences between people from different nationalities. When describing Americans, Liv said she thinks of us having a “Gaw shucks, attitude, VERY positive, Action-oriented.” It was especially funny to hear her drop her proper English accent, and take on a “John Wayne” kind of swagger.
It did not take me long to figure out I was swimming in deep waters, without much of a stroke to swim by. All three women were interested and aware of world affairs. I mean, I didn’t even know who the current leader of the UK is. As Sonia and the two nineteen-year-old girls sort of schooled me in geo-politics, I bemoaned the fact that I, as an American, do not really understand the world very well. Immy asked sweetly, “What do you think could be done to improve US citizens’ understanding of the world?”
Whew, tough question! In a sense, it is understandable. The US is a large and incredible country, offering plenty to explore without needing to leave the boundaries. Our food, water and roads are safe. We have wonderful people at home. Everyone speaks English there. So it makes sense that many Americans may not leave the comforts of home to meet the wider world. But I am still left with this nagging questions from a couple of 19-year-olds, laughing, traveling and expanding their own worldviews…
I could not resist adding this last video, showing Mia on the 500 meter zipline. Every time I watched, I would gasp as the zipper slipped away from us. It was surreal, looking a bit unnatural – like the speeder bikes in the Ewok forest scenes from Star Wars. On this one, she was still going after 30, 40 and 50 seconds. Here’s Mia: