The Gibbon Experience in northern Laos is like a childhood fantasy come true. This unique project within the Nam Ka National Park lets you stay overnight in tree huts up to 40m above the ground — and then soar above the jungle canopy using a combined 15km (!) of zip-lines.
It’s a thrill to glide from one side of a valley to the next while getting a drone’s eye view of the canopy below. But I thought it was equally delightful just to wake up in one of the tallest treehouses in the world and seeing a glorious vista of a misty rainforest.
Since the Gibbon Experience is a long-running project I’m far from the first blogger to write about it. So rather than giving a blow-by-blow account of the experience, let me share with you just some general impressions. (I did the 3-Day Classic Experience.)
What to expect
The Nam Kan national park is home to many gibbon species, though the Gibbon Experience is less about the ‘gibbons’ and more about the ‘experience’.
Since you’ll be with a group of 8 people and since the zip-lines obviously make some noise, the conditions for seeing wildlife are not always ideal.
But if you’re lucky, the elusive gibbons will be singing their songs in the early morning. Since it had rained during my stay the gibbons were a little shy, so I wasn’t so lucky myself. But I’ve heard those cheerful rising calls of gibbons before and it definitely makes you feel like you’re in a wildlife documentary!
Still, the real purpose of the Gibbon Experience is to see the jungle from a different perspective. You know that expression about not seeing the forest for the trees? Well, that also applies quite literally to forests and trees. It’s often difficult to see much of the jungle when you’re smack in the middle of it. But when you’re high above the canopy, you can appreciate it so much more.
The zip-lining — at least for me — was more of a serotonin thing than an adrenaline thing. If you have a severe fear of heights, then maybe I wouldn’t recommend it. But otherwise, it’s just a lot of solid good fun. Soaring from one tree hut to another over jungled valleys is an amazing sensation.
There is a shorter 1-day Gibbon experience focused exclusively on the ziplining, but I felt that staying the night in the tree huts during the 3-day track made it a lot more special. There’s thankfully no internet and there’s not much to do at night but to simply chat with your fellow travelers and play some card games. You’ll be having family-style meals delivered via zipline by your cook. In the morning, you’ll wake up to some stunning vistas of the rainforest with morning mist forming layered silhouettes.
By the way, maybe this is an odd detail, but I had quite possibly the best shower of my life at the Gibbon Experience.
The bathroom is on a platform just one level down from the living area. There’s a curtain behind you but ahead of you it’s fully open, so you’re just standing naked 30 meters above the ground in front of a glorious 180-degree vista of a rainforest. Below you is just a slatted platform, and then nothing below but some distant foliage. You can trace the water drops with your eyes as they go down through the platform and then alllll the way down to the jungle floor.
I took my shower just as the sun was setting, seeing the golden glow while tropical birds zipped past from left and right. It felt like taking a shower in the Garden of Eden.
I give the shower: five stars.
Is the Gibbon Experience worth it?
This is easily the number one question I get whenever I mention the Gibbon Experience to anyone. My answer is simply this: if you can afford it, it’s worth it.
300 Euros for a 3-day tour is not that cheap, particularly when considered by local standards. A frugal backpacker could use the same amount of money to travel around Laos for two weeks or more.
Then again, having travelled all over the world I haven’t found an experience quite like this one. The zip-lines were some of the longest and highest I’ve done and the views were spectacular.
One essential thing to keep in mind when considering the price is that this is an ecotourism project! At least half of the revenues go to reforestation and aid projects, ranger operations, wildlife conservation, and the generous salaries for the guides which help to support many local communities. I think that easily makes it among the most worthwhile things you could be spending money on as a tourist in Laos.
From what I could tell, the project has been successful at protecting the forests from poaching, illegal logging, and other threats. Locals I spoke to who were not associated with the project all spoke very highly of it.
The guides and staff all come from the local villages — in fact, I didn’t see a single Westerner on staff. One of my guides used to be a logger, but now his work helps to protect the forests instead. It’s difficult to think of anything more poetic than that.
The ecotourism element here doesn’t seem to be just a convenient marketing hook. It’s genuinely set up as a project with a mission, unlike some other similarly named ziplining businesses in the Southeast Asia region. These other ziplining parks may be cheaper, but don’t include any treehouse accommodation nor do they spend a significant portion of the funds on sustainable development and conservation.
If you’re on a shoestring budget then maybe I wouldn’t immediately recommend the Gibbon Experience. But if you’re not too intimidated too much by the price, I think the experience is highly worth it.
What: The Gibbon Experience, Classic 3-Day Tour
Where: The office is located in Huay Xai. Pre-booking one their website is highly advised.
Why: You’ll fly through the forest and stay in amazing treehouses! Though the guides probably won’t tell you in great depth about flora and fauna (for that type of experience, consider trekking in Luang Namtha, for example). The Gibbon Experience is mostly about having a unique immersive jungle adventure.
Who: It’s popular with backpackers but seems family-friendly as well. The minimum age requirement for the Classic experience is 8 years. While I was there, one woman in another group was 67 and she was loving it.
Pro Tip: If you’re coming from Huay Xai, you can leave your bags at the park entrance. After the 3-day tour, you can pick them up again, and flag down any bus heading to Luang Namtha. This saves you having to backtrack to Huay Xai!
Our jeeps got stuck in the mud as even their 4x drives couldn’t deal with some of the slippery roads.
Waiting for our jeep to become unstuck, we took shelter underneath a farmer’s hut and had lunch around a campfire…
The first day involves an hour or two of hiking to reach the first tree hut.
A little volleyball session with the guides on our way back.