The Gibbon Experience

Ok, we admit it. We did it – possibly the most touristy thing in Laos. The Gibbon Experience. And what a fantastic experience it was. Yes, it’s expensive: we paid $180 pp for the ‘express’ tour which is two days, with one night spent in the jungle. The ‘classic’ tour is 3 days, and goes to a different part of the national park. The company was perfectly honest with us – on the express tour, you won’t see any gibbons as they don’t live in that part of the jungle, and there is a fairly serious amount of trekking up to where the zip lines start, but it’s perfectly manageable, and we loved it. 

        
We probably did about 20-25 zip lines over the two days; most of them stretch for hundreds of metres high over the jungle, spanning deep valleys. It’s incredible. The longest is more that half a kilometre (although there is an even longer one on the ‘classic’). The equipment is of a decent quality, and you get shown exactly what to do – there’s no need to have even done zip-lining before. 
The tree-houses where you spend the night are amazing! Having to zip line into your house is a great experience. Perched high up in huge trees, and spread over 3 floors, they have drinking water, a toilet, and shower with possibly the best view ever. The beds are mattresses on the floor, and the mozzie nets are more heavy duty cloth than anything else, but it works and the bedding is clean. There’s a large area downstairs (in treehouse number 2) where we sat and played cards with Mel and Chris for hours. Teaching our Laos guides spoons was a laugh! Unsurprisingly, Kat reigned supreme! 
All in all, a brilliant two days, and worth the money. Recommended if you decided you can afford it! 

Central Laos

After a 14th of March steak meal at Inthira Restaurant in Tha Khaek, we set off on another ‘loop’ east away from the Mekong and the main road that runs along the Thai border. This loop is well known and in years gone by has been somewhat notorious, with many travellers on hired motorbikes and scooters having bad accidents. However, the road is now paved pretty much the whole way round, and, although the sight of a falang hobbling around minus a fair bit of skin is still fairly common, it should now be less of a problem. There are some people who will argue that the loop is less special now that it’s paved, but we loved it. It’s a beautiful, stunning road of twists and turns, through gorgeous and varied scenery – one of the best driving roads we’d been on since the Pamirs. 
We did the loop anti clockwise and spent the first day waterfall and cave hunting. For us, this mainly consisted of driving off the main Route 12, and heading north on dirt tracks, sometimes following signs (unreliable), and sometimes blindly following maps.me! One such trail got narrower and narrower for about 20km, through villages that had definitely never seen a land rover before, and resulted in us fording rivers, braving jungle and generally using low range/4WD much more than we’d intended! Ultimately, it also resulted in us turning round, but it was great fun. More red-dust laning than green laning 🙂 We also might have misjudged our height in the forest, and ended up with a tree (and accompanying red ants) for a passenger. Oops. 

   
    
   
The road then turns north through one of the most bizarre landscapes we’d ever seen. On one side is pristine jungle, thick and green, and on the other is an environmental disaster zone caused by the recent flooding of the Nam Theun 2 dam. Trees are dead and brown – utterly stripped of branches and leaves, and stand alone in patches of water. Life is slowly returning, but the contrast is shocking. The road snakes through the mess of the valley over the causeways and bridges that have been built to join the hundreds of islands together. On one such island sits Sabaidee Guesthouse. This is a real gem – the cheapest rooms we found in Laos, wonderful hospitality, loads of parking, good wifi, and great food – especially the apple pie! 

  
The northern leg of the loop is much more undulating, with some fantastic viewpoints along the way. The cold springs were great fun – a big pool of crystal clear deep water surrounded by rocks. We were the only tourists there, and there must have been 30 locals jumping in. It was bliss! 

  
The highlight of the loop (and possibly of all of Laos – big claim, I know!), is the Tham Kong Lo cave system in the middle. We stayed at the Spring River Resort (they let us camp and use their facilities for free!), which is in a stunning location, and serves excellent (but not cheap) breakfasts. Here we met Henry and Paul, who were both on bikes, and joined up with them for a couple of days. To describe Tham Kong Lo as a ‘cave’ is really not doing it justice. It’s 7km of unground river, linking together huge caverns. Pitch black inside (head torches essential, although they hire them out), apart from one section where it’s been tastefully lit (by the French) in multi colours. It was incredible. Go there if you possibly can – we’ve never experienced anything like it. 

   
 The other benefit of meeting new friends (apart from the sparkling conversation of course) was the ability for us to join forces and order a whole piglet for supper. Oh yes. Extravagance and gluttony in the extreme – but oh so worth it! An amazing couple of days, and the jewel in the crown of Central Laos (the cave, not the piglet, I promise…).

Southern Laos

Having entered Laos from Cambodia, we had our eyes on a couple of what the guide book describes as ‘motorcycle loops’. These are exactly what you imagine them to be – circular routes that take in a number of various sights, and the easiest way to get around is by motorbike. Well, where a motorbike can go, surely our trusty steed can also venture? Read on to find out…!
First though, we had the lure of the four thousand islands. This region of the Mekong, in the far south of Laos, where, in the dry season at least, innumerable (well, apparently four thousand!), islands rise out of the waters. Some are little more than rocks, but the three biggest are inhabited all year round. Being connected to the mainland by a bridge, Don Khong was our target for a couple of lazy days sampling the restaurants on the river front. After spending one night in a guesthouse, we found a beautiful spot to camp on the outskirts of the village, and whiled away our time drinking the cheapest iced coffee and Big Beer Laos for miles around. That’s not to say that we didn’t find anything to do – we managed to find a number of other forms of transport that were even more uncomfortable than the Beaut! First on the list were some hired bikes, on which we spent an afternoon pootling round the island. Second was a canoe, which was possibly the most unseaworthy craft ever built. It was however, just about good for some gentle exploring of some of the smaller islands in the river, once we’d worked out that it moved in a much straighter line if we didn’t spend the entire time shouting at each other…

  
Don’t expect to be able to take cash out on the island – even the locals were struggling with the cash point, and the opening hours of the bank were relatively indecipherable. Also don’t expect to be able to find the market first time – it’s now a kilometre out of town and most definitely not where the guide book implies! The market opens at 5am and shuts at 7am, which was a bit of a disappointment for us layabouts, but, in dire need of a cheap breakfast, we made the effort in search of bread. We failed. Completely. This market appeared to sell everything apart from bread, and I think it’s fair to say that we both got a bit hangry. The irony was that later on that day, a woman on a bike cycled up to the back of the Beaut with her basket filled with baguettes. A needless early morning!!

Our one gripe with camping by the Mekong is the stifling heat, most importantly at night. It just doesn’t get cool. The Bolaven Plateau was to be our sanctuary.  

Heading east out of Pakse towards Paksong, you climb slowly onto a fertile region of land that is famous for growing coffee. Our first stop was Kiet Ngong, a tiny village on the edge of the Se Pian NPA national park. The reason for this was simple – elephants. Some elephant trekking centres have slightly dubious morals, but this one is a bit different, as the elephants here used to work in the fields, but now pay their way by lugging tourists up into the national park. After a night camped outside the gates of a particularly expensive eco-lodge, we were woken by one of the elephants walking right past the tent! Amazing!! Although the elephant ride itself was great fun, it was yet another contender for in the ‘most uncomfortable mode of transport’ category! 

  
One thing I will say about Laos is that there are some incredible waterfalls. We took to camping near them, as they make brilliant spots for a cheeky shower. If I’m honest, there are so many that tumble off the edge of the Plateau that they blur slightly into one – but both Tat Fan (viewed from a resort opposite) and Tat Yuang (great for swimming) are well worth a look. 

   
 Tat Lo was another highlight. We ended up spending a couple of days here, and it’s a really nice place. We spent a day exploring the waterfalls on a 6 hour trek (with a dog for a guide – he even climbed the ladders with us!), and then watched the elephants get a wash in the river at Tadlo Lodge. You could easily spend a lot longer here.