When globetrotters book their tickets to Southeast Asia, they usually anticipate weeks of lounging on beaches, eating delicious spicy food, and touring stunning temples. But as any traveller can tell you, the most rewarding and memorable experiences are often found off the tourist trail. For some people, it’s hard to tear through such beautiful countries without giving something back. Well, eco-minded adventurers take note of the most exciting conservation project on the map; the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo, northern Laos.
The premise sounds a bit like a boyhood Tarzan fantasy; guests climb up to treehouses and don’t touch the ground for days. Instead, they zipline between huts and throughout the conservation area in attempts to spot the elusive-but-adorable black gibbon. But as thoughts of Swiss Family Robinson come to mind, remember that this project is operated with nature and wildlife conservation in mind. The Societe Animo is the brains behind the operation, working with the Bokeo Nature Reserve to help promote environmental awareness and conscienciousness through this hands-on style of eco-tourism.
The organization is located in Huay Xai, across the river from Thailand’s popular northern border crossing. Here you can book your Gibbon Experience package and catch the 3 hour ride into the reserve (trucks leave every other day at 7:30am).
Once you’ve arrived, you can spend hours touring the camp and its environs by zipline, eat delicious fire-cooked meals, and chat with local guides who will dazzle you with their bottomless knowledge of the forest and its animals. A 3-day stay (approx. $110 USD) includes all food and accomodation, plus hiking excursions and visits to stunning waterfalls.
When you’re not swinging through the trees, monkey-style, take a moment to ask the Gibbon staff about their environmental efforts. Animo encourages grassroots conservation; a common goal that should be realized by local inhabitant, not imposed upon them by foreign organizations or NGOs. The emphasis of the project is on the protection of the black gibbon, a species that was once thought to be extinct before it was discovered again. This is different from the hilltribe tourist treks of “ethnotourism,” which Animo believes is an exploitative move to peddle a tribe’s otherness for tourist profit. Animo wishes to draw awareness and respect to the environment itself, not simply the people. All profits of the Gibbon Experience go towards the conservation of the forest, to help prevent logging, poaching, and scorched-earth farming in the area.
If you’re interested in stepping off the beaten path in Laos, why not forego the tribal treks in favour of the Gibbon Experience? Your money will go towards an important cause, and your three days of tree hut living will be an adventure you won’t soon forget, even when you’re back on the ground.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.