I am running down a gentle slope before I am flying through a tunnel of green leafs and vines opening on the canopy. I am now gliding over treetops with a bird’s eye view on the rainforest that covers the surrounding mountains. Right in front of me appears my everlasting childhood dream: a multi-level treehouse perched about 50 metres above ground level covered by a thatched roof and dominating the forest with a 360° view. The sight is surreal. I am slowing down as I hang in my harness which is connected to a steel cable leading me to the entrance of the treehouse. Here, we will spend the night in the jungle of north-western Laos in the Nam Kan National Park, home to the critically endangered gibbon.
Right before dusk, after an amazing full day of zip-lining, hiking and visiting other surreal tree houses, I quickly take off my harness and shoes as I am eager to explore our cabin for the night. Downstairs, the bathroom provides an outdoor shower with running water and the best view ever! Upstairs, the mezzanine offers an excellent vista on nearby branches and tree-covered mountains.
Scanning the surroundings with a pair of binoculars, our treehouse appears to be a wildlife-spotting heaven: squirrels, flying dragons and various colourful birds are feeding themselves hastily on the bark. The sun is setting, tainting the sky orange when the characteristic sound of the roller on the steel cable overpowers the symphony of birds. Two Laotian women are zip-lining into the treehouse, one with a heavy kettle with hot water, and the other one with our dinner. They are coming from the nearby kitchen area where they cook on open fires and where they live surrounded by a small vegetable garden around which a few chickens roam.
Sitting down on low stools, we are savouring a delicious meal when my eyes catch something flying across the treehouse. The 25-centimetre tall animal is climbing up to the edge of the balcony with agility. In a blink of an eye, it jumps down and flies to land 15 metres away, in a tree! The flying squirrel can teach world’s best wing-suiters some stunts!
We fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle. At sunrise, wrapped in our blankets to stay warm, we are observing treetops for some signs of the gibbons. The mist is slowly rising, revealing the green vastness. Birds start singing and are soon followed by a song that gives us goose bumps: the black-crested gibbon announces a new day in a series of rising siren-like vocalizations that echo through the forest. The 20-minute concert dominates the valley below us. The male is soon joined by the female in a duet which intends to keep the family bound. We keep scanning the canopy with the pair of binoculars, but unfortunately the shy black-crested gibbons will not reveal themselves today. Our knowledgeable guide Nou shows us a video he shot a couple of days earlier on his professional Canon camera, as the Gibbon Experience also makes the inventory of the various species present in the Nam Kan NP. On the screen, the black-crested gibbon jumps gracefully from branch to branch, covering up to 15 metres in the air at a top speed of about 55 kilometres per hour thanks to its long arms. This is about twice as fast as our top speed on the longest zip-lines!
These fury man-like apes only live in healthy forests, and hence are a good way of monitoring their status. Gibbons are facing extinction due to hunting, poaching and habitat loss. With a low education rate, it is more or less natural for a village boy in Laos to head into the forest to hunt and bring a wild animal back to eat or to sell. The Gibbon Experience gives these men a choice: former poachers and hunters can become guides to lead tourists from tree to tree and protect the forest for a living. Overall, almost 150 people from forest rangers to cooks and guides are employed by the Gibbon Experience allowing them to build a sustainable income while conserving their environment.
Our second night in the treehouse, we hear a gun shot. It is not all perfect yet, but poaching and hunting have been dramatically reduced in this area thanks to a business model that puts local communities in the heart of the project as defenders of their own precious forest. Jean Francois Reumaux, founder of the Gibbon Experience explains: “I was afraid of the downsides of tourism and very cautious when starting this project. Now that I see the positive impacts, I am happy to be working on an extension that should incorporate a new village of the park, and provide another new thrilling adventure to visitors.”
If other provinces of Laos and a neighbouring country are interested in reproducing such an initiative, Jean François regrets the fact that only the zip-lining part is often copied, and not the overall non-profit business model, empowering local communities to protect the forests. And giving its visitors the experience of a lifetime!
Claire & Marcella
Video recorded in Khao Sok National Park, Thailand – Sound track recorded in Nam Kan National Park, Laos – by Best regards from far
- If you want to live this experience, refer to the Gibbon Experience website to check the different options and make sure you book ahead!
- The zip-lines cover about 15 kilometres for the moment, and are located in a very small area of the Nam Kan NP, minimizing their impact on the forest.
- The Nam Kan NP is probably the most pristine forest we have visited in Laos.
- Black crested gibbons are on the IUCN red list of threatened species as being critically endangered and this is the highest category of extinction risk.
- If you go to South East Asia, at the moment, there is only one Gibbon Experience. So if you feel like zip-lining, you may want to do it for a good cause!
- Jean-François Reumaux would be more than happy to help organizations that would want to use his business model to conserve the environment. If interested, get in touch!
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
Notes: it was such an incredible experience that we can’t resist showing a few more videos to take you zip-lining with us and feeling like Peter Pan flying over the rainforest in search for the gibbons!