When we arrived in Southeast Asia, we knew that Laos was on our list of countries to visit but we knew little about it. All I had heard previously was “this is the place to get drunk and go tubing” but that didn’t sound appealing, so what else? We shared a taxi in Nepal with a traveler who had just been to Laos and told us about The Gibbon Experience, a 3 day jungle trek and zip-lining adventure in the Nam Kan National Park just north of Thailand with the highest tree houses in the world. Although it’s pricey for the standard backpacker budget, we only heard rave reviews from fellow travelers.
Booking was simple. The form on their website asked you to submit your selection, Classic, Waterfall or Express 2-day trek and the date you wish to depart (they leave every other day). Our friend from Nepal recommended the waterfall trek as it’s a bit more strenuous and requires you to be in better shape. We love a good outdoor adventure, so this was the obvious choice. We were initially worried about our booking being accepted since we only submitted it 2 weeks prior to departure during Laos’ peak season (February), but they had space and sent back prompt emails with our confirmation and a Paypal request to complete for payment. The Paypal request was sent in Euros and we have a dollar account. Paypal’s exchange rate is terrible so if you can send your own payment in dollars (or equivalent currency) or pay on arrival, I would suggest that option.
A few of the travelers we met in Huay Xai were able to book on arrival so if you are undecided there may be space when you get into Laos. The headquarters will let you know what trek options and days they have available.
Thailand-Laos Border Crossing
Next we had to work out the logistics of getting to Huay Xai for check in at the headquarters and border crossing from Thailand. We read several blogs about this process since the bridge to Laos is brand new and The Gibbon Experience is not that common yet for travelers (it was founded in 2004).
If you are already in Laos you can take a boat or bus from Luang Prabang or a 24 hour bus from Vientiane to Huay Xai. The gibbon website also mentions flights from Vientiane, but we couldn’t find any relevant information on the Laos Airways website.
Due to the location of the National Park and headquarters being so close to Thailand it made more sense to travel from there. From Chiang Mai we booked a bus ticket to Chiang Kong, the northern most border town in Thailand. We bought VIP mini-bus tickets from our guesthouse for 550 Baht each. You can also go directly to the bus station and buy a ticket for slightly less, but based on the tuk tuk costs to get to the main bus terminal, it didn’t make sense financially. The mini-bus picked us up from our hotel at 10am, made 2 stops along the way, one for a lunch and another quick one in Chiang Rai before heading to the border. The driver stopped just before the border so we could take visa photos if needed, and exchange any remaining Thai Baht for Laos Kip or USD for the visa, then he dropped us off at immigration.
Laos Visa on Arrival
When you leave Thai immigration you have to cross the Mekong River to enter Laos. There are buses waiting to take travelers across the bridge that cost 25 Baht per ticket. When you get to Laos immigration, there are two forms to fill out for the 30-day visa on arrival and the required 35USD fee and passport photo. If you enter on a weekend there is an extra 1USD fee and an extra 1USD fee if you enter after 4pm. As U.S. citizens the total fee for our visas was 37USD each (some countries have a 30USD fee, make sure to check before arriving). There was an ATM dispensing Laos Kip and a window to take photos and exchange money but it was not open when we arrived. My advice, don’t count on it and have the necessary items prior to arriving.
We exchanged Thai Baht for USD in Chiang Mai before we left, but if you are unable to do so, Laos Immigration also accepts 1500 Thai Baht for the visa fee. This works out to 42USD at the time of writing so it’s much better to pay in dollars.
On Saturday afternoon, immigration was very quiet, we submitted our papers and had the visa in our passport within 5 minutes. When you leave immigration, tuk tuks are waiting to drive passengers to the Huay Xai town center for 25,000 KIP or 100 Baht each, the ride is approximately 20 minutes.
Huay Xai feels like a ghost town. It is clearly just a jumping off point for The Gibbon Experience, slow boats down the Mekong and border crossings. There are few restaurants open and no nightlife. Guesthouses and hostels are easy to find when you arrive, with rooms from 10-20USD per night. We stayed at Sabaydee Guesthouse for 80,000 Kip (this price is negotiable). Since you have to arrive one day prior for check in at the Gibbon Experience office, keep your stay limited to 1 or 2 nights max. After checking in, we booked our slow boat tickets to Luang Prabang for the day after we arrive back in Huay Xai to avoid any delays in getting out of here.
The Gibbon Experience
First, this was absolutely one of the most incredible trips we have ever taken. It is worth the money and an experience we will never forget. Below I have detailed our daily itinerary, some information on the three different trek options they offer, and items to bring with you.
The Waterfall Trek
This is the most difficult option of the three, as there is much more trekking involved. We trekked for 3-4 hours each day in between zip lining, most of which is uphill. Our guide took us to the classic trek on the last day so we were able to zip line on that course as well. The only downside of this trek is that the chance of seeing gibbons is much lower than on the classic trek (although we were able to see them on our last day).
The Classic Trek
This option has the best chance of seeing gibbons, less trekking and the most zip lining.
This is a quicker version of the classic trek, it is on the same course but for a shorter amount of time.
Day 1: Meet at the office at 8:30 for a quick safety video before our bus ride to the jungle. We split into 2 groups, max 8 people per group, and our group visited the waterfall on the first day. The trek was 3 hours to the waterfall and then 2 hours to swim before we trekked to our first treehouse and to zipline. The waterfall itself wasn’t that special but the trekking was excellent, great exercise and beautiful scenery. We spent 3 hours zipling on the first day before we had dinner and went to bed.
Day 2: 8am start. Pack up and leave the first treehouse. Trek for 2-3 hours to the next treehouse and spend the rest of the day zip-lining and trekking on the waterfall trek course.
Day 3: (*This was the best day, but we were told that some guides don’t do this for their groups, the other group on the waterfall trek that arrived with us didn’t do any of this) 5am start. Zip-lining and trekking in the dark to the classic course. We arrived at another treehouse on that course to try and see/hear the gibbons at dawn. We did end up seeing them from the classic treehouse. We left that treehouse at 9am to zipline the rest of the classic course and trek back to the village to be picked up on at 12pm and arrived back in Huay Xai at 3pm.
The last day was the most incredible, zip-lining in the dark and seeing and hearing the gibbons was the best part. The only chance you have to see the gibbons is at dawn or dusk and the part of the jungle they are in is near to the classic tour, which is why the chances of seeing them on that trek is greater. It was unfortunate that the other group’s guide didn’t take them to do this, but it sounded like it depended on the people in the group, fitness level and willingness to get up that early.
We were very surprised at how nice the treehouses were. As a budget traveler, I already have low expectations for accommodation, especially when we were sleeping in trees. These treehouses however, were luxury treehouses. The guide brought us hot meals, the beds were comfortable, there were even showers!!!
What to Pack
The website has a list of recommended items to pack on their FAQ’s, but there were a few additions we made that definitely made things more comfortable.
- Hiking boots and sandals
- Sleeping bag liner (Cocoon makes a great on with insect repellent built in)
- Travel towel
- Head lamp
- Waterproof jacket/pants in case it rains (check out NorthFace)
We hope this information has been helpful in making your choice about the Gibbon Experience. Please leave us comments if you have any additional questions about the experience.