*Update* Nineteen months after soaring through the jungles of Laos, I finally sat down to sort through all our photos and videos from our incredible adventure. Unfortunately, we realized we somehow lost every single video and image we took on our GoPro from that day. We have no idea where they went but we are crushed. I may or may not be crying (a lot) right now. Anyway, these are the only pictures we have. GUTTED.
Still buzzing off our sunrise high following Phu Chi Fa, we decided to hop off the bus which was headed for Chiang Rai and take a pit stop in a small town named Thoeng. We heard there was a bus going to Chaing Khong and we figured why not, we have nothing better to do. Our confidence slowly started to fade once we realized we were the only ones at the bus station. But an hour later, sure enough, a bus headed for Chaing Khong pulled up and we hopped on board. It’s funny how sometimes things just fall into place even when you have no idea what you are doing or where you are going. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned on this trip is patience, something I don’t have nearly enough of (which Brian loves to remind me about on a daily basis).
With zero knowledge about Chiang Khong, we knew, at a minimum, that we were at least headed in the right direction for the Laos border. We had planned on spending some time in Chiang Khong just to get ourselves situated, but before we could even confirm anything, an announcement came on the speaker to disembark if you were headed to Laos. Sure, why not! So we followed the herds of backpackers shuffling off the bus and were dropped off on the side of the road. Errr what? Before the panic set in, I decided to link up with another group of travelers (while Brian fumbled around on his phone attempting to google what just happened). We all decided to join an already crowded rickshaw for around 150 baht, and continued on our path, exiting Thailand. Unknowingly (and fortunately I might add) with only one day to spare.
But the fun didn't stop there. The bus dropped all of us off at the Chiang Khong Boundary Post but before we officially exited the country, we were directed to another ticket booth to purchase 25 baht bus tickets (you can also exchange money to Kip here at a less than stellar exchange rate - which in case you were wondering, we did). With our ticket in hand, we all jumped on our final bus to cross Friendship Bridge into our second SE Asian country: Laos! Other than the mass confusion, the whole process was pretty easy. It’s kind of like a game of Follow the Leader, really. Although we did have a little scare when my backpack went missing and mysteriously reappeared in the middle of the street five minutes later. Brian and I carefully inspected every nook and cranny to make sure we weren't going down Brokedown Palace style.
After successfully crossing over at the Huay Xai border, and getting our Laos visas (on arrival for $35 USD. Those extra passport photos finally came in handy!), we realized we had no idea what our next move was. We jumped into, yet again, another songthaew for around 30,000 KIP, which took us to the heart of Huay Xai. We walked around, passed on a couple (disgusting) guesthouses, and settled into the slightly less offensive, Hom Pho Guesthouse (at $12 USD a night). We met a beautiful couple from Canada, Gui and Kirsty, who also decided to stay at the same guesthouse, after touring a few of the others, which really helped solidify our decision.
I’m not sure what Huay Xai was like back in the day, but currently, it is simply a gathering place for backpackers and travelers before heading to northern Laos or taking the slow boat down to Luang Prabang. The other main attraction, is of course, The Gibbon Experience. Our buddies at Happy Go Lucky did The Gibbon Experience four years ago and I’ve wanted to do it ever since. The problem was the $200 per person price tag (and the whole leeches situation, thankfully we didn't go during the rainy season and were able to avoid all slimy insects). After A LOT of back and forth, Brian and I decided to pass on the Gibbons and travel up to northern Laos. After all, we can zipline anywhere, right? Well, that was the plan until one morning when we were finishing up breakfast. We witnessed a group of people jumping out of the back of a songthaew looking as if they just descended from heaven.
Being the nosy person I am, I decided to ask where they were coming from, already knowing it was most likely The Gibbon Experience, and of course, I was right. Before I could protest, one of them grabbed my hand and legit dragged me to the office and told me he wasn’t leaving until we signed up. He said it was worth every penny. And you know what? He was right.
I took this as a sign and decided to sign up for the following day but, as fate would have it, they were full. We were put on a waiting list and told to show up at 8am the next morning, ready to go in case we made the cut. Of course now that the possibility of this experience was within reach, I wanted it more than ever. So I put it out into the universe, made up my mind, and told Brian we were going no matter what. And the universe graciously responded.
There are three different options, the Express (1 night) , the Classic (2 nights), and the Waterfalls (2 nights). We signed up for the Express (actually we didn't have a choice but it would have been our top choice anyway) and after hearing stories and experiencing it, it's the one I would recommend. The Express is divided into two groups: a smaller group of seven (which happened to be entirely made up of French folks) and a second group of 13 (our group). After our ninety minute drive we were handed a single can of Beerlao and we started our two hour (uphill and leech free) hike. And let me tell you, it wasn't easy. But never has there been a bigger payoff. We spent the next 48 hours living out every child’s fantasy.
When I think about the two days we spent soaring through the treetops of the jungle, I’m at a loss for words. We used over 20 different ziplines, hurled our bodies into thin air as we cruised over 570 meters of wire hanging from god knows what heights, and lived to tell the tale. I am still in shock. The exhilaration is undescribable. I thought I would be scared but surprisingly, I wasn’t. Our final zipline of our first day took us straight into our treehouse, nestled over 100 feet high in the jungle, overlooking the elegant mountain peaks and mystical fog blanketing Laos.
At first we were skeptical of being placed in the bigger group, but given most everyone had some level of English (and the fact that we couldn't communicate in French, minor details folks), we decided to take our chances. And I'm so happy we did. After our last group member zipped their way into our treehouse, we all decided it was about time to get to know one another. We sat around the table and spoke about our personal stories of the what brought us where we were today. Sharing our life adventures, our highs and our lows, and what we had planned for our future with other like minded people was such a warm welcome to this beautiful new country.
We sat down together for dinner, which was prepared and zipped over to our treehouse (there is no electricity up there!), and went through the emotions of ziplining all over again (I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW SAD I AM THAT WE DON'T HAVE ANY VIDEOS). And then, the most beautiful thing happened. Without any direction or cue, everything and everyone was silent, except for the wild distant sounds of the jungle. I took a moment to look around and realized that somehow, we had all made our way to the edge of the balconies, independently watching one of the most majestic sunsets we have ever experienced. And in the few moments following, It felt like every one of us was sharing the exact same emotions: those of wonder and happiness; fear and joy; and all those others we can't exactly define. Without exchanging a single word.
The calmness came to a halt once someone cracked opened their one and only (warm) Beerlao leading to a lively game of spoons. Which sadly, to everyone’s disappointment, ended with Brian winning. I took the coldest yet most stunning shower I have ever taken. And at the end the night, we retired to our sleeping palette, making extra sure that our mosquito net (more like a blanket) was securely tucked in to keep the rats (yes rats) out of our sleeping sacks. We seriously were living out our own Swiss Family Robinson fantasy (although after talking it over with Brian, I realized I’ve never actually seen that movie).
Now if you thought going to bed in a treehouse sounded incredible, waking up in one is somehow even more. While we didn’t see any gibbons (we didn’t have any expectations of seeing them), the experience was truly one of a kind. We zipped and soared our way out of the jungle and said goodbye to our beautiful home. We flew through the beautiful canopies of Laos, just as the Gibbons do, and eventually made our way to our serene lunch spot, alongside a lake. I didn't dare get in the murky water but Brian (and others) enjoyed a refreshing dip and a cold(ish) Beerlao before we piled back into the songthaew back to Huay Xai.
In those few moments you have to yourself, a million thoughts run through your mind. But the two that have stuck with me over these past few weeks were how peaceful I felt and how lucky I was to be able to experience the beauty that was surrounding me. I wish I could share it with everyone. I wish my parents and my brother could experience all of it. See what I see. Feel what I feel. Be where I am. Sometimes, when I take a few moments to remind myself of this incredible opportunity I have, this overwhelming feeling takes over. But that feeling isn't always happiness, it's sometimes a shattering feeling of guilt.
Guilt that I have been able to see and experience so much in this world and all I can do is share mediocre pictures and adolescent words with my family back home. The same family who worked endlessly to give me the life that I'm living. Every time I talk to my parents (which is almost every day you guys), I can hear the joy in their voices. And their joy comes from my happiness. I don't know what I did to deserve so much love in this world but all I can do is be grateful. And I will continue to share our stories, even if takes me a year and a half to get there. (I didn't mean for this post to take a sappy turn but oh well. A few nights in the jungle will do that to you I guess). I love you mom and dad. Thank you for this incredible life.
Also, for the past two weeks I’ve been convincing Brian that living in a treehouse is the only way to fully live. Sans rats, of course. Poor guy. It will never get easy living with me.