Friday, January 27, 2006

The Gibbon Experience

I am hundreds of feet above the ground, looking out from a perch on the branches of a massive tree, and the forest takes on a new perspective: the ragged lines of tree-lined mountains march into the horizon -- green fades to white in tinted bands, from dark to light -- I am so high up, only the distant atmosphere obstructs a view to infinity. Here and there the sun creates shadows and illuminates patches of leaves, creating, on my forest canvas, a palette of a million shades of green and even more textures. Only the symphony of a thousand birds competes with the woodland medley before me. I'd be happy enough to see this view of the rainforest for only several minutes, but lucky for me, this will be my home (and my view) for a few days. I am living in the forest canopy -- in a treehouse cradled in the protective embrace of a towering Strangler Fig -- in the Bokeo Forest in Laos. Welcome to the Gibbon Experience.

It's not an easy journey to the top of a tree. We left the border town of Huay Xai early in the morning and traveled along a rough dirt road in the back of a pickup for three hours. Everything on the sides of the road was painted brown from dust kicked up by passing vehicles. I licked my lips and tasted soil; grains of dirt crunched between my teeth; my skin turned the color of dark rouge worn by old women with poor eyesight. Our truck crossed a river and eventually dropped us in a clearing surrounded by the thatch huts of a village. From there, we walked through corn fields, waded through streams, and entered the shadowy darkness of the forest: huge palm leaves, dense bamboo groves, hanging vines. One hour later, at the summit of a steep climb, we came upon a small wooden structure and were handed harnesses for the final leg of our journey into the forest canopy... We made our grand entrance -- sailing in the air, suspended over the forest floor on a cable -- to our home, our treehouse. For the next 2-1/2 days, we will spend more time in the air than on the ground, cable gliding through the Bokeo Forest, sleeping in the boughs of its trees, watching and hearing the jungle below.

Despite how it sounds, the Gibbon Experience is not an adventure travel destination; it's not a tour or trek; it's not your typical ecotourism destination. It's a means to an end: a fresh approach to forest conservation dreamed up by local villagers with the help of a French man known, simply, as Jeff. Together, they created the Gibbon Experience as a way to combat poaching and illegal logging; the forest, their environment, was changing. Village life faces increased difficulty -- with lower rice revenue and higher living costs, people have turned to the forest and her inhabitants for profit. A diminishing population of wildlife alerted the locals that something must be done. While the Laos government protects the forest from the outside, it has no funds for protection from within and thus, the Gibbon Experience was born as a way to earn money to protect the forest where the government cannot. Funds from the project pay the salaries of forest guards who track and arrest poachers and loggers. More than that, the project provides locals with a self-reliant, sustainable way to earn a living while preserving their natural resources.

The Gibbon Experience is named for the Black-cheeked Crested Gibbons that live in the forest; they were once thought to be extinct and are considered the 4th most endangered gibbon species in the world. In fact, they are only found in northern Laos, southern China and northern Vietnam. They live in family groups and are famous for their singing, which can last up to 30 minutes; partners sing duets as carefully orchestrated as an operatic ballad. Within the first 1/2 hour of our arrival to the treehouse, Benjamin spotted several Gibbons playing in the distant trees. We were told it was a special moment; visitors to the Gibbon Experience don't often see the apes and are lucky just to hear them sing. Perhaps the name of the project is a misnomer in this regard, but nonetheless, the money earned by the project serves to protect them as well as the multitude of animals that live in the forest: tigers, hornbills, barking deer, wild boar, and hundreds of others. During a quiet day in the treehouse, Benjamin and I observed a Blue Throated Barbet -- a beauty of a bird unlike any I've ever seen -- with a red, purple, blue, and black pattern on its head and two-tone green body. We also saw a pair of giant squirrel-like animals with black fur on their backs and white underneath (they must have been 6 feet in length and sadly, their Western name is not known and I forget the Laos name for the creature).

Currently the Gibbon Experience sleeps 12 in three treehouses that were built by three villages, but plans are in the works to expand to 10 treehouses, involving 10 villages and encompassing the entirety of the forest. "Zip lines are the most environmentally friendly way of getting around," we were told. In the mountainous forest, it's also the quickest and least tiring way of getting from one place to another. There are 12 cables up to 150 meters above the ground (that's almost 500 feet) that serve as the primary means of transport for people, supplies, and food. Cable gliding at these heights is a thrill hard to match as you propel yourself from a wooden platform and sail through the forest; the views are stupendous -- you can see for miles; the wind rushes against your cheek; the tallest treetops brush against your feet; the winding noise of the cable goes Zzwimmm....

Tree life was nothing but comfortable. We were provided with a cozy place to sleep, an endless supply of tea and coffee, and were encouraged to snack at will on nuts, sweets, and fruits stored in the treehouse. There was clean running water, supplied by an underground spring and a bathroom complete with a shower, albeit cold water only, and squat toilet. Everything about the treehouses was built with the environment in mind -- only biodegradable waste makes its way to the forest floor (read leftover food and human waste, no TP). At the base of 'Treehouse One' lives a pig that consumes anything and everything that makes its way out of the treehouse. We were dismayed to find out he had no name and lacking any sort of creativity, we called him 'pig pen'.

The people who run the project are a passionate bunch, consisting of local villagers and a small group of foreigners from France, Holland, and England. The goal is that in the future, the project will be entirely run by the locals, but for now foreign workers and volunteers are on hand to teach the Laos villagers English and to serve as 'translators' for visitors. Liz and Lara, two women who have been working with the project for a period of time, were quick to tell us that they do not run the show; rather, it is the villagers who do everything. They guide glides and hikes and cook the food -- it is their creativity with which the project is sustained.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the project is the freedom of purpose laid out to visitors. "This is your experience," Liz told us on arrival, "...use your time as you like." The options are unlimited and flexible and the guides are there to help, but not direct... and certainly not impose. There are no scheduled activities as such, unless we wanted it that way. There are no 'to-dos' or meetings or forced excursions. You can be lazy and quiet in the treehouse or you can cable glide around the forest or you can fetch a guide and take a hike: it's all up to you. Here, your time is truly yours... in any way you want to use it to experience the forest, the choice is completely up to you. It's a refreshing approach, built on respect for the people who visit the forest and on behalf of the forest itself: it has much to offer.

All who visit this place say they have reclaimed their childhood. Zip lines and treehouses and nothing but free time have 'childhood' written all over them. And besides all of that, in the quiet hours that come without electricity and radios and tvs, the joy of insects is rediscovered; we spent hours watching death battles between ants and gasping at the sight of giant spiders feeding on moths at night. "When was the last time you were content -- no, had the time -- to watch insects?" I asked a Swedish couple who were bunking in Treehouse One with us. At dusk, the bird calls increased, a fine musical backdrop for our evening meal by candle light. And in the darkness, when we went to bed, the hooting sounds of owls and the soft chatter of insects lulled us to sleep... Rockabye baby, on the treetop... This lullaby ran through my mind as I drifted into slumber, but I had no fear of wind and breaking boughs: our tree was mammoth.

As a tourist, it is an uncommon experience, a privilege to be part of the project. Witnessing the conservation efforts, creativity, and dedication of the local people is inspiring and I left the Gibbon Experience happy to have been a part of it and to have seen and lived so closely with the animals and the trees. And cable gliding was icing on the cake.


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