Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai Travel Blog

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The boat trip

The boat journey from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai was extremely slow...in fact it took two whole days. We had been shown photos of first class, VIP luxury seats when buying the tickets, and were told that if we got there early we should be able to secure some. We duly got up insanely early (7am!) and made our way down to the boat. Sure enough, the seats were still vacant, but, you will be unsurprised to learn by now, they were not the airplane-style seating we were hankering for, but rather wooden benches with a cushion thrown in for good measure. We should have known better! To be fair to the ticket seller (if that is possible) we did pass some boats on the journey up the Mekong River that had the luxury seating, but they all seemed to be going in the opposite direction and only carried Laos passengers.

Despite this hardship, the scenery along the cruise was stunning, and we whiled our time away doing the old-aged thing of talking to other people and playing cards.

Treehouse 3
It was really chilled, with the most exciting event being the boat running out of fuel (we think). Either that, or the captain decided he wanted lunch! There were very few disturbances bar the occasional speedboat whizzing past, carrying what often looked like very scared passengers in helmets and life-jackets. Although a significantly faster means of transport, the safety record of these boats was not that great (for once we took heed to the Lonely Planet, which estimated that there was at least one serious accident per week), and having seen the number of logs and broken branches floating down the river, we can understand why.

We stayed the night in Pak Bang; another night, another bed, another rice meal. We were back on the boat the next day, having gotten up even earlier to beat the hordes of people that we were sure would be fighting their way down for the comfy seats (?), only to be met with plenty of empty seats, all of which were very wooden, and not a cushion in sight.

A poo with a view
Noooooooooooo! So, in any case like this, we did what any sane traveller does and did what the locals did ... we hit the floor! This was the best thing that we could have done, and had we thought of it the day before would have done exactly the same. Plenty of space to stretch out, play cards and have the odd power nap or three. Apparently the scenery was stunning. 

Suitably chilled, if not a little sore, we arrived at our final destination, the border town of Houay Xai. We were not there to visit the town, as there is not a lot to see, but rather to meet up with our tour group for the next three days. Houay Xai is the base for the much talked about Gibbon Experience.

Pam swings through the trees
This experience is not listed in any travel guides (and hopefully will remain that way), and is only known about through word-of-mouth. We had heard about it through Amanda, the Space Pixie, from China, who could not rave about it enough (nice one, Amanda). It is fair to say that it is probably the most amazing thing that we have done since we have been travelling, and is definitely the most different. In preparation for this trip, Pam and I actually managed to condense our equipment for 3 days into my 20litre day pack. If you know Pam as well as I do, you will know that this is impressive. And here is why it was necessary.

Day 1 - we got up even more insanely early in the morning (6am!) as we had to go to the local morning market to invest in some new shoes.

James swings through the trees
We had been to the office the night before to fill in our disclaimer forms and had subsequently been informed that our walking sandals most definitely were not suitable for where we were going. Fortunately, the shoes only set us back a massive 80 pence each. Not bad for a pair of old-skool, black rubber plimsols with football studs. Very sexy, but they are what the locals wear, so they must be good.

Pam, having gotten her last shopping fix for the next few days, was happy, and even happier when we were able to fill up with egg butties for breakfast to prepare for the 3 to 7 hour trek that we would have to undertake to get to base camp. The length of the walk was determined by how far the 4x4 was able to get.

Next, we all dived into the back of a 4x4 and had to endure a 3-hour drive into the Bokeo Rainforest.

Steve swings through the trees
The road is currently under construction, and therefore is primarily a very muddy dirt track, which becomes a bog during wet season. We were there during wet season! Needless to say it made for a very interesting journey, especially when you are staring over the edge of a cliff, and the car is sliding across the road towards it - hats off to the drivers, it has to be said. But remember, no scary, no fun!

Within our group was Will, a child protégé studying to become a vet (he went to university at 16 ... pretty impressive). With Will was Jack, a female (?) monkey that had been rescued from a cage in a Laos restaurant, that Will had kindly volunteered to take to the Gibbon Experience for relocation. Jack was cool, if a little hyperactive.

I think I might need a new shirt!
It was her first experience away from a cage so everything was very new, very exciting and very breakable.

Unfortunately, having a monkey with us did not mean that we were still able to get further in the jeep. In fact, we could get no further than the end of the main road, which meant a 3-hour trek to the village (where the jeep is supposed to drop you off) and then a further 1-hour trek uphill to the base camp. At least it was a good opportunity to break in our new, gore-tex killing, boot-beating, rubber plimsoles...!?! However, we soon discovered that the downside of having such a hi-tec shoe was should you allow your foot to become encased by mud, your foot is very unlikely to re-emerge with shoe still attached .... plimsoles 0 - boots 1.

The walk was a good warm-up for what was to come over the next few days, plus we were all able to get to know each other, before having to share very close living quarters.

The survivors...just!
Two hours into the walk we were passed by the company jeep taking the previous party back down to the main road. What goes down must come up and sure enough, about an hour later, we were picked up by said jeep and taken the last few miles in relative comfort (if hitting your head and having to stare at a guide's crotch who is hanging off the back of the jeep can be classed as that) to the village.

From the village was the final one-hour stretch uphill through the rainforest to our destination and accommodation for the first night ... a tree house. However, to get there, rather than climbing a ladder or taking a lift, we had to ride zip lines. We strapped on our harnesses (whilst fighting off the resident monkey - we had lost Will and Jack at this point) and whizzed our way through the jungle canopy to Tree House 1.

No way back now.
This was a welcome respite from all the walking that we had done, although not so if you are scared of heights (like Bex and Ade). Tree House 1 sits at the top of tree a mere 40m above the ground! Here we met the owner of the project, Jeff, who told us all the do's and don'ts, primarily being do not use the zip line network during a lightning storm ... still not too sure why though!?! At this point, we should make it clear that the Gibbon Experience is basically trekking through jungle for three days, moving from camp to camp, staying overnight in tree houses and utilizing a network of over 40 zip lines to help you get to and from the houses. It is primarily trekking, though. Certainly different.

Our accommodation for the night was in Tree House 3, which meant that we had to trek for a further 1/2 hour and had to be forced to use yet more zip lines.

The JCB lends an extended arm.
That took a lot of arm twisting. The usual suspects were thrown together in a house that consisted of one large decking area, covered with a bamboo roof, and sides that were open to the elements. The toilet & shower was the same, or was a 'poo with a view' as Pam called it, privacy only protected by a very flimsy piece of cloth. Any grunting and groaning was audible not only to the rest of the group, but to all the animals in the rainforest as well. Suppose that is one way to keep them at bay! The toilet/showers were eco-friendly, which basically meant that all the waste dropped straight to the forest floor, which was great fun to do and watch (unless you were stood underneath...). Toilet paper was also not an option, so the 'butt gun', as Ade christened it, had to be used. Quite an eye-opening (or is that eye-watering) experience by all accounts. 

Pam was the first to make use of the shower, and was the first of many to make the gruesome discovery of a leech ... on her boob (he-he, J). We first tried to burn it off, but only succeeded in burning Pam rather than the leech. Our next idea was to use the mozzy spray, which had the desired effect of making the leech drop off, although not before it had left plenty of blood. Grim, but a fact of life in the jungle as we were to all discover over the next few days (although not on our breasts)! 

Food was brought to us in metal carriers by our guides, via the zip lines, which they had prepared in the kitchen huts at Tree House 1, along with carrier bags full of rice. The evening was then whiled away playing cards once more, before making an early break for bed, being completely exhausted from the exertions of the day. Our beds consisted of mattresses on the floor, with heavy-duty anti-animal sheets being draped over the top.

Pulling our sheet down, Pam was startled by a rather large thump on the decking (fortunately it was not me - I would have been over the side of the house in an instant). Upon investigation it was an extremely large spider. It was a good hand-size, very beefy and very hairy - my worst nightmare. Pam thought it was dead, but eyes in a headlamp never lie (all 100 in this case) , and I had to duly dispatch the spider over the edge of the house (still not sure why I had to do it, being the arachnophobe). Cue a not very good night's sleep, especially as on further investigation we discovered that the inside of the roof was absolutely covered in them (there were only 3 - Pam!). On the bright side, it kept the number of mozzies down.

Steve experienced the other wildlife in the house, with a mouse chewing through both the not-so-protective sheet and his bag in order to get to the food that he had left in there - doh! We later heard that Will had had a couple of rats running up and down his arm in his bed, but I do not think that this really worried him as much as it should have any sane man; me thinks he will make a good vet.

Day 2 - breakfast was served in the same way as dinner, and then we prepared ourselves for another 3-hour trek to the waterfall, where we would be staying for the second night. We had all wondered why it was called the Gibbon Experience as we had not encountered any. As if on cue, a whole host of gibbons started to sing all around our tree house. Although we could not see them, just sitting there looking out over the rainforest canopy, listening to them calling and singing to each other was an awesome experience, and one not to be missed.

After breakfast, our guides had to return to Tree House 1 in order to get supplies for our trip, so we were left to entertain ourselves on the zip wire network. Our chosen zip line also transpired to be the biggest one, being a reputed 150m high and 1km long. In any case, it was big, fast and a whole lot of no scary, no fun! It was a great photo and filming opportunity that we all took full advantage of.

The trek in itself was uneventful, apart from walking through stunning countryside and picking up the odd leech or three. By now, we were all hardened experts at how to deal with the slippery little suckers, and came to the conclusion that as they did not hurt, they would eventually drop off when they had had their fill, so there was no point in worrying about them until it was time to get changed in the evening.

Upon arrival at the waterfall, we discovered that there was in fact no shower facilities in this particular tree house, and the toilet was actually a hole that held the washing up bowl during the day. It could not really get any more basic than this. The shower that had been referred to was in fact the river down below us. Now that is what I call going back to nature. Fortunately for me, this tree house seemed to be devoid of any spiders so I was happy regardless. Dinner was once again served to us by the guides swinging through the trees, but this time they left us to it over night and slept in the hut by the river. The evening, as always, was passed away marveling at the experience we were having, before hitting the sack, again exhausted. An update on the shoe contest, our cheap-and-cheerful plimsols were extremely good for grip in the constant mud, in comparison to the more expensive boots in the group. Score - plimsols 1: boots 1.

Day 3 - Pam and I have been away on our round-the-world trip for a full 6 months. Half-way has been achieved without so much as an argument or falling out. Not unusual in itself, but pretty good going considering we have been living in each other's pockets day-in, day-out. So here's 'cheers' to us. It’s been fantastic! A good sign for a very happy marriage.

Our final day was a more leisurely affair, not getting up until a more agreeable 7am (?). Following breakfast, we had a final three-hour trek back to the village where we were to be (hopefully) picked up by the jeep, otherwise it meant a further three hours trekking back to the main road. By day three we were so exhausted that it would not exactly have been welcomed. As it was, we spent a lot of our time wading across rivers up to our chests, trying to avoid being washed away due to the strength of the current. This was all highly amusing to our guides, if not a little disconcerting for the rest of us. However, as always, no scary, no fun, and we all agreed (apart from Ade) that it was a great way to end the trek, even if we were soaked through to the core.

Upon reaching the village we were met by the happy sight of the jeep awaiting our arrival, which we assumed meant no three-hour trek, akin to your first pint on a hot summer's day, or just plain heaven! We completed our final de-leeching session (the plimsoles proved a better barrier than the boots; score - plimsoles 2: boots 1) and jumped in the jeep. For most of the trip back to the main road, the vision of a cold pint held true, although we did have to vacate the vehicle a number of times (except her ladyship, Pam - in her defence the driver would not let her out because he lurved her) in order for it to be winched up a hill or two.

On our way back down the track we passed the new recruits. They were pretty easy to spot as they were all sporting pristine white clothes, had brushed hair and were full of energy. We, on the other hand, were a bedraggled, filthy and stinking bunch who could not wait to crawl under a hot shower and into bed.

Thinking the fun was over, our trip back to Houay Xai had threw one more curve ball. Rain over the last few days had made the mud road even more treacherous than before, and the weather contrived to make it even worse. The mud was easily knee deep, and with the rainstorm, water was just torrenting down the hillside, ensuring traction was nigh on impossible to achieve. Our driver was superb, but even he was struggling. It finally got so bad that the jeep got stuck, but not before trying to tow another jeep up the hill who was also in trouble. At this point, to all of our amazement, a very normal looking bus came around the corner above us, and promptly lost control and started to slide side-on towards us. For a very long second it seemed that the bus would collide with us, but fortunately the mud did its job and stopped the bus clean in its tracks. Unfortunately for the bus it also inflicted some serious damage, and it looked like it would not be moving for a while. To make the proceedings even more surreal, a JCB caterpillar appeared (bearing in mind we were in the middle of nowhere) and gave us a tow to the top of a hill, pulling the jeep via its bull bars, with its bucket. As an indication of how bad the conditions were, even the JCB was having trouble getting traction, and at one point almost looked to have got itself stuck! Beats any off-road day back at home, that is for sure! The rest of the journey home was, alas, uneventful, and all of the no scary, no fun moments were over. But what an experience. Definitely, definitely recommend it to anybody. What is also great is that the project has been set up to support and involve the local villages with the idea being that once the project is up-and-running (it has only been going for 18 months), and can support itself, the local villages will take it over completely, with current project leader, Jeff, stepping down. Great idea and something that I doubt we will do again in our lifetime (but never say never).

Leaving Laos on a high, we made our way back into Thailand to spend a few days in Chiang Mai. Supposedly, Chiang Mai and the surrounding area is a stunning place, but to be honest we could not be bothered to leave the sanctity of our hostel, considering our exertions of the previous week, and instead played on the internet and caught up with washing. We also took the opportunity to gorge on such home comforts as chocolate and 7/11s which we had been deprived of (no bad thing, but you do not really notice that you are missing them until they are back in your grasp) since leaving Thailand two months previously. No doubt the hardcore traveller tree-huggers would probably have spat on us for shaming the cause, but our view is, if it is there and you want it, have it (within reason, obviously).

The final night of week 26 was designated as our leaving party. Two days later, Pam and I were to leave Ade, Steve and Bex to go on our separate way to Malaysia. This was a significant milestone, having been travelling together for over two-and-a-half months, since meeting up again back in Koh Tao, in Thailand. We also needed to impart some travelling knowledge onto Ade and Steve, i.e. how to read a guide book, before we let them fly the nest, so we wanted to make the last night a good one. And in true style we did just that. Lots of beer, lots of crazy dancing, and to top it all off as we started, karaoke! A fantastic celebration that did not end until a very commendable 6am.

And on that note, we wish Ade, Steve and Bex a fantastic time on the rest of their travels and wish to thank them for all the incredible memories that we will forever cherish. All that is left to be said is:

"NO SCARY, NO FUN! (Hans Blix)"

Next stop, Malaysia!

 

VegasBrittney says:
What an amazing adventure!
Posted on: Sep 27, 2006
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The boat trip
The boat trip
Treehouse 3
Treehouse 3
A poo with a view
A poo with a view
Pam swings through the trees
Pam swings through the trees
James swings through the trees
James swings through the trees
Steve swings through the trees
Steve swings through the trees
I think I might need a new shirt!
I think I might need a new shirt!
The survivors...just!
The survivors...just!
No way back now.
No way back now.
The JCB lends an extended arm.
The JCB lends an extended arm.
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Chiang Mai
photo by: Stevie_Wes