Seeing What Time Will Allow in Laos, Part I: Welcome to the Jungle!

I’m now fitting in the highlights of Laos and Cambodia to give myself about a month in Vietnam before I have to head back home.  It feels a bit rushed but it’s been great so far! 

We crossed into Laos on the Freedom Bridge between Chiang Khang in Thailand and Huay Xai in Laos.  We took a local bus from Chiang Rai which was a fun experience since it was only a few hours and I got a seat right behind the driver.  It was still Songkran so most of the windows and doors were closed against the revelers throwing buckets of water at the passing cars.  So it was warm.  The window by me didn’t close all the way, so the local sitting next to it rested her arm over the open sliver of window to keep up mostly dry.  I honestly didn’t mind the water that did get to me, since it was hot and the mother and child who were basically sitting in my lap for half the ride didn’t help.

The local bus from Chiang Rai - not too crowded yet.
The local bus from Chiang Rai – not too crowded yet. (Me and Ilene are reflected in the mirror and the driver has an awesome Hawaiian shirt).
So dorkily excited for my first real local bus experience.
So dorkily excited for my first real local bus experience.

After getting through the border the only option to get to Huay Xai was by open-backed truck (the Laos version of a tuk tuk).  Apparently they also celebrate Songkran with water in Laos, as both we and our bags were drenched by the time we got close to our hotel.  Of course with our luck, our hotel was again in the middle of the party zone.  The street was actually closed, so we had to walk the last couple of blocks.  Already wet from the ride across town, we were again doused with buckets of water and slapped with talc paste (orange this time) as we walked the final stretch.  Thankfully we had a balcony and our things dried by morning before we set off for the jungle. 

After getting drenched and smacked with talc, we needed a beer!
After getting drenched and smacked with talc, we needed a beer!
You can tell what country you're in by the beer -- our first Beerlao, on the Mekong (terrace behind the hotel).
You can tell what country you’re in by the beer — our first Beerlao, on the Mekong (terrace behind the hotel).
Drying all my stuff - thank goodness for the balcony!
Drying all my stuff – thank goodness for the balcony!

Bright and early the next morning we headed off for The Gibbon Experience.  While we didn’t see many gibbons (I only happened to catch one swinging between trees one morning near the tree house) we ourselves experienced the gibbon lifestyle of zipping between trees and sleeping in the jungle canopy.  For the two-hour drive in the open back of the truck I was prepared to get soaked, but it was too early in the day to get much more than a few sprays with a water gun (where was this treatment the day before?).  One hour was on winding, paved roads, but the second hour was on a very bumpy dirt road – what a fun surprise!  That part made me realize that the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland does a very realistic job imitating a ride through jungle conditions. 

The winding road to The Gibbon Experience (it was too bumpy on the dirt portion to snap a photo).
The winding road to The Gibbon Experience (it was too bumpy on the dirt portion to snap a photo).
Go ahead and try to soak me!
Go ahead and try to soak me!

Hands a bit numb from bracing ourselves during the ride, we arrived in a small village where the twelve of us on this adventure were broken into two groups and sent hiking to our respective tree houses. Me and Ilene were in the larger group of seven.  A good group that was a mix of nationalities and good fun.  About half way into our three-hour hike, we were given harnesses for the zip lines on our route.  We had watched a short instructional video before leaving Huay Xai, which was a good thing since neither of our two guides spoke much English.  And once they figured out that one member of our group (Andrew) spoke Lao (since he’s taught in Vientiane for two years) he became our designated translator and they didn’t really even try to speak to anyone else.  After a very sweaty hike and some fun zipping high above the jungle canopy, we made it to our tree house (only accessible by zip line). 

This is just the beginning of the trek, before we were drenched with sweat.
This is just the beginning of the trek, before we were drenched with sweat.
Hiking through the jungle - that's some big bamboo!
Hiking through the jungle – that’s some big bamboo!
Some of the zip lines.
Some of the zip lines.

The tree house was a good size, round and open to the jungle under a thatched roof. It included a small bathroom and a penthouse level big enough for one tent/bed combo.  Tired from our long hike and the heat, we decided to relax before dinner (which was delivered to us on zip line of course).  We quickly discovered that although the tap with drinking water ran, there was not enough water pressure to shower or do much else.  There was also apparently a bee hive in the same tree, as there were bees everywhere.  I was sure not to make any quick movements for fear of pissing off a bee and getting stung.  The worst part was that the bees always hung out in groups of ten or more in the bathroom, especially in and around the toilet.  So you basically had to squat over bees to do your business and also make sure not to step on any getting there (of course the tree house was a no-shoe zone).  At first I didn’t think I could handle it, but I channeled my best zen-like calm and worked it out. Thankfully Andrew donated a bottle of Jack Daniels so we were all happy enough to forget about the bees for the night. 

The next day we hiked to a (rather small) waterfall and had a good swim in the cool pool before making our way to a different tree house for the night (the two groups switch for the second night).  This one is all one level, with the bathroom downstairs – and although I saw a few bees in there the bathroom and the tree house was relatively bee-free…phew!!  And – huge bonus – the water pressure allowed for showering.  And this shower was even better than in the other tree house – set in the corner of the bathroom it gave a 260 degree view of the jungle.  And since the bathroom floor was just two-inch-wide wood planks with about an inch gap in between them, I could see the shower water falling down to the jungle floor under my feet.  It was an amazing feeling to be showering literally surrounded by the jungle.  That goes in my book as the best shower ever! 

After a swim I'm refreshed and ready for more zip lining!
After a swim I’m refreshed and ready for more zip lining!
This jungle is dense.
This jungle is dense.
Jungle stupa
Jungle stupa
Crazy vine!
Crazy vine!

That day we did some more hiking without our packs after getting to the tree house – doing the zip line circuit a few times, including the one line that is 500 meter long.  We even made time for another swim at the waterfall.  Of course it was after this rigorous day that we were only given a small vegetarian dinner.  By this point in our trip we were all tired of the same bland food we’d been eating for days – mostly rice and cabbage, with literally no seasoning (apparently they think white folks can’t handle it) and no more alcohol around to distract us from this sorry fare – so we had a long conversation about our favorite foods which made us all miss civilization just a little bit.  But sleeping about 40 meters above the jungle floor made up for it.  And we were even treated to a very impressive thunder storm during the night.  Overall the experience was amazing and I’d do it again.  But next time I’m packing in more whiskey! 

Time to zip!  The last line of our time there...at least it was the 500 meter one!
Time to zip! The last line of our time there…at least it was the 500 meter one!
And away I go!
And away I go!
Hiking through the fields, almost back to the village.
Hiking through the fields, almost back to the village.

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