Roosters blared triumphantly in the cool morning mist that Rose through the valley settlement of Ban Dan Chai, in north-eastern Laos. We were at a truck stop along a Chinese built highway where we were to begin our next adventure. The early sunlight squeezed through the bamboo hut we had rented for a scant 2 US dollars. I wiped the red clay dust from my eyes and crawled out from underneath the mosquito net.
The day before we had survived a three hour ride through a dust storm on a 30 year old bus with open floorboards. A fine red dust had settled upon us like flakes falling at the beginning of a blizzard. In the humid airless interior, Jaime and I both donned face masks, sunglasses, and earplugs to quell the noise of the storm, yet our own escape was still several hours down the road. Luckily, the crackling stereo and syrupy whine of the Thai pop music masked the pure discomfort we were all feeling inside the moving dust bin. I had discovered early on in our honeymoon adventure that comfort, convenience, and a schedule simply don't exist. We were at the mercy of the driver and there was nothing for us to do but sit back and let the dust envelop us.
The sun peeked over the lush hills and cast beams along the valley floor as I walked through the fallow rice field across from the truck stop. The dew was refreshing on my feet as I enjoyed the morning light in the quiet rural village. A shy young girl smiled at me and ran down the road, stopping to buy some groceries from a food stand nearby.
We had joined an adventure called the Gibbon Experience, a French and Laos run eco-tourism project promoting Laos hill tribe culture and protecting the Gibbon monkeys. The Gibbons are small acrobatic apes in danger of becoming extinct in south east Asia and known for their territorial and harmonic ballads.
Later that morning, while fjording streams and traipsing through the outskirts of the village corn fields, we reached a snaking trail through the overgrown jungle. We arrived at the base camp where the Moung guides lived. Just waking up from a midday slumber was a bear cub yearning for its mother. It was an orphan, rescued from the clutches of poachers and taken in by our guides. I cuddled the warm cub in my arms as it suckled the salty sweat from the inside of my elbow. After peeling the cub from my arms, we climbed further up the forested hilltop to a platform which had a cable- zip line attached to a two storey tree house some 500 feet away. This was just one of four tree houses floating a hundred feet above the jungle floor and our source of lodging over the next three days.
Jaime slung the carabiner over the cable, checked the safety line and off she flew like a bird with a high pitched scream that echoed far below. We hurtled ourselves into empty space as fast as we could go to the tree house platform across the valley canopy. Coming to a full stop required a feet-first approach similar to rappelling, and on many instances I forgot to use the hand brake and smacked into the tree with a hilarious roar of laughter.
On our first morning we woke up to a song complete with vibrato and timbre unlike any song I had heard before. The soliloquy of sound was eerie in a human like manner and we tried tracking them by their song. Whizzing high above the jungle floor we pretended for a moment that we could fly like the gibbons that we always heard but rarely saw. After unclipping from the cables we set out on foot listening to the high octave notes emanating from above. Up high in their tree top sanctuary the gibbons surely heard us tramping around their territory and soon fled out of sight and earshot.
During our stay in the jungle we hiked and cable zipped from tree to tree, at times hundreds of feet off the jungle floor from one tree house to the next. We were led by two Moung women guides, who took us to the waterfall tree house which was perched hundreds of feet above a natural spring. Along the way we collected root vegetables, mustard greens, fresh papaya, and a few fish from the river. Along the river bank sat a fisherman�s high-tech backpack made from four bamboo pieces tied together by reed grass to hold his daily catch. Not a stitch of nylon or internal metal stays supported his pack, just the materials from the jungle that he had found readily available.
The midday sun beat down upon us in the heat of the day and our creative guides crafted banana leaf hats for us to wear with relief. After a hot day hike through the steaming humidity of the jungle we arrived at the base of the Waterfall tree house and cooled off in the calming waters trickling from the cold spring emanating from the earth. Time spent in the tree house was a reflective time for me as I listened to the collective sounds from the jungle and wondered if our friends the gibbons were as curious of us as we were of them. We had heard a song that was perhaps age old, soared through the air, hiked through dense jungle terrain and were now perched 200 feet off the ground enjoying a freshly foraged meal. The air was filled with blossoming flowers and dew moistened leaves as shades of sunset soaked through the jungle canopy. We had reached new heights in Laos, deep within the jungles of the Bokeo province with our invisible friends the gibbons, as our guides.