We changed our entire itinerary in Laos to come here to the Nam Kan National Park in the hope that we’ll see the critically endangered black crested gibbons on the Gibbon Experience. Limited availability on the trip we wanted – the Classic Gibbon Experience – meant we had to delay arriving in Huay Xai (or Bokeo) for three weeks, which led to us transiting through Laos from South to North, pretty much against the regular flow – and that definitely worked in our favor.
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Laos is a pretty cheap country to travel in (so long as you’re prepared to travel on buses, tuk tuks and stay in cheaper accommodation), so we were pleasantly surprised that even after we’d paid for this three-day, a two-night trip we STILL came in under our daily budget of US$50 per person per day. Enough about the budget, what about the gibbons?
What is the Gibbon Experience
The Gibbon Experience is a conservation project in the Nam Kan National Park in Laos. The Gibbon Experience both builds treehouses and sustainable tourism projects to provide local employment and protection of the area that supports the endangered Lao Black Gibbon.
Visitors trek into the National Park and then join a series of ziplines through the forest canopy to eventually arrive at treehouses that they will stay at for the duration of their visit – sleeping and eating in these treehouses that overlook the jungle and rainforest canopy.
All Gibbon Experiences start in Huay Xai and so will want to stay the night before in the town.
Huay Xai Hotels and Accommodation
Where to stay in Huay Xai depends on whether you are starting your trip from here (you’ll want to be close to the boat dock), or if you’re heading out on the Gibbon Experience, or just over the river to Thailand. Here are our recommendations for where to stay in Huay Xai.
Houayxai Riverside Hotel Phonevichit Guesthouse
Ban khonekeo Ban Houayxay, Huay Xai, Laos
Situated right next to the Mekong Slow Boat dock, this is a great spot for an early start or a late finish on the river.
- Onsite restaurant
- Swimming Pool
- Free Wifi
- Double and Twin Rooms
Ban Huay Xai Neu, Huay Xai, Laos
Right next to the Gibbon Experience offices and a great location for bars and spots to ear in Huay Xai.
- All rooms with AC
- Private bathrooms
- TV with cable/satellite
- Wifi on site
The Black Crested Gibbon in Laos
The black crested gibbon is an endangered species of gibbon found in China, Laos, and Northern Vietnam. They grow to 54cm long, weighing 10 kilograms. Males are black with white or beige-colored cheeks, females are golden with black patches and a black streak on their heads. They tend to live in small family groups (male, female, and offspring). They’re known for their singing, which can last up to 30 minutes and which usually happens in the morning.
The Laotian black crested gibbon (noted as a separate subspecies) lives in northwestern Laos in an isolated population in the Nam Kan National Park. The black crested gibbon is classified as critically endangered with an estimated population of 1300 to 2000 left in the wild.
The Gibbon Experience Huay Xai
The company that runs the Gibbon Experience took a different path when it came to the protection of the Bokeo Rainforest. They chose to invite tourists in and since 1996 have been building a sustainable future – they’re currently providing full-time jobs for more than 120 people through tourism-based conservation. By visiting, we’ve learned about the issues of the area, the wildlife and fauna of the area and in writing this, we’re helping to sustain the future of the project.
The Gibbon Experience doesn’t just provide guides for the experience – they fund forest rangers, tree planters, and local educators – more than 100,000 trees come out of their nursery EACH YEAR to go back into the forest.
The Gibbon Experience is the only way to access the Nam Kan National Park and what a way to access it. By a series of short hikes, and then from the treetops, on a zip line. There are three different trips you can take with the company – each works out to around US$100 per day per person, and prices differ slightly by season.
The Gibbon Experience Price
The Gibbon Experience cost depends on the option that you take. Our 3-day and the 2-night experience was US$310 per person.
- The Gibbon Experience Prices are:
- Gibbon Experience Classic: US$305
- Gibbon Experience Waterfall US$305
- Gibbon Experience Honeymoon US$320
- Gibbon Experience Express US$190
Options for the Laos Gibbon Experience
Most people who travel with the Gibbon Experience don’t come to see Gibbons, because this is about more than wildlife spotting, as you’ll see further in this article. You get to hike in the Nam Kan National Park, you get to zip line through it and you get to sleep in magical treehouses. If you’re lucky you get to hear and see the black crested gibbons.
There are four different trips you can take – there’s more detail about each of these on the Gibbon Experience website – and that’s currently the ONLY place you can book this trip. Take a look here.
- The Gibbon Experience Express – one night only, steeper initial walk, maximum zip lines, the biggest Lao tree, and no gibbon
- The Gibbon Experience Waterfall – more trekking and zip lining in a stricter schedule, you swap tree houses overnight, and few (if any) gibbon encounters.
- The Gibbon Experience Honeymoon – this is the same as the Classic Experience, only you’ll get a small refurbished tree house to yourself!
- The Gibbon Experience Classic – the most relaxed overall schedule with maximum gibbon and wildlife sightings.
We wanted to go on the Classic trip to maximize our chances of seeing gibbons, because, well, this is the Gibbon Experience after all!
Gibbon Experience Classic Tour – Day One
Our first day started with check-in at 0815 – as we’d arrived in Huay Xai on the Slow Boat from Luang Prabang via Pakbeng too late to call in the night before we hustled up in the morning and paid the balance due on our account. You can pay by credit card, PayPal, Lao kip, or in US dollars. We paid in a combination of kip and dollars, as even taking into account the ATM fees you pay in Laos, the exchange rate worked in our favor (when you pay via Paypal you’re quoted a SET amount in EUR or US$)
We stored our bags in the Huay Xai Gibbon Experience offices, and just took day packs with us, watched a safety and information video, and were organized into our groups for the trip. On the day we left there were 15 of us leaving on the Classic and a big group heading out on the Express that day.
Our transport to the Nam Kan National Park was in multiple trucks – depending on which truck is used there are seats in the double cabs (for four) and then in the back, songthaew style – so if you want a cab seat, go get in the truck as soon as the video is finished. The trip in the songthaew part is great while you’re on the sealed/tarmac road, but once you get off the regular road, it’s definitely bouncy and requires both hands to hold on!
The trip to the National Park took us 2.5 hours. The first 1 hr 20 mins on the regular roads, after which you have a quick stop, and then go “offroad” for the other hour or so, beginning with a drive through a river.
It’s exceedingly bumpy and if it’s been raining, muddy and very slippery – but the drivers that we had both ways (because you come back out the same way on the classic) were great and very professional. In the back, we shared our truck with several bags of rice, which might have started stacked up, but they definitely slid around a lot once we started bumping!
So just before 1300, we set off trekking. The trek to the Gibbon Experience treehouses starts with a wade through a calf-high river. We wore Merrell hiking shoes, some of our group wore sports sandals and our guides wore flip flops/thongs/jandals. My hiking shoes got pretty muddy (it was dry when we arrived, but on our three-day trip we had 28 hours of rain), but I was glad I’d opted for shoes as there were some leeches around.
On our Gibbon Experience Classic Tour, (after a 20-minute hike and a sandwich for lunch) we arrived at the “village” stop to get into our zip lining harness, this is where you’re split into groups for the different tree houses.
On this trip, we were offered either Treehouse One or Treehouse Seven. This is where you need to have done your homework as you’ll stay in this treehouse both nights of your stay. Treehouse One (TH1) is the closer tree house, and Treehouse Seven (TH7) is a 30-minute longer hike further on from TH1. We originally wanted TH7, but ended up in TH1 – and it WAS AMAZING.
Accommodation in TH1 is over three levels – and much, much more spacious than in TH7. TH7 has most of the sleeping accommodation on one level, although two folks might be able to stay on the top level. So you’ll be sleeping right next to your new best buddies.
In TH1 we had three levels of sleeping space – two couples were up on the top floor, we were on the middle landing and a fourth couple was on the first level – in a separate section away from the eating area.
The bathroom in TH1 is fabulous – a great cold water rainfall shower, squat toilet, and incredible views. For more sublime views from water, check out these awesome hot tub views from Devon and Cornwall!
And yes, back to the rainforest, you do have cold running water, from a nearby stream, so you can shower and wash. Water from the taps can be drunk without further filtering, although we carry a filter water bottle – check out which is the best filter water bottle you can buy.
Each treehouse has a “nearby” kitchen that provides the food – which has to be flown in – zip line is the ONLY way to access the treehouses – there’s no ladder from the ground, no bridge to walk across. And, yes you are, truly in the middle of the rainforest.
The treehouses are absolutely spectacular. Incredible feats of ingenuity and you truly do feel that you are living in the rainforest, because of course you are. We get to eat all our meals here now until we leave – so our trips around the rainforest, hiking, and zip lining bring us back here in time for lunch and dinner.
We all go barefoot (or actually, wear our socks as protection against biting insects (there are a few here) in the treehouse, as our shoes are muddy and later wet after it starts to rain. There’s one rule. No zip lining after dark.
It’s slightly eerie when our two guides leave us. We’re just alone here, in the middle of the rainforest, with birds, animals, and insects for company. We have a solar light, which lasts a short while after dinner, and a beer each, which we were given on getting out of the trucks, so it’s pretty warm when we get to drink it.
The Gibbon Experience Sleeping Accommodation
Our sleeping accommodation is on thick mattresses with good pillows and clean sheets with a warm duvet. There’s a tent-like heavy black-out mosquito net that stops everything apart from the dampness and rain from getting in. Here in Treehouse One, you’ll be glad of them. The Gibbon Experience spiders are HUGE.
When it begins to rain, our small space on the middle landing becomes pretty wet and we’re almost convinced to move down to the lower level. The size of the spiders convinces us to stay put, but just to edge closer to the stairs and avoid the fact that we’re sleeping in a corridor – this is definitely the worst sleeping option in this tree house – if you get to stay here, head for the space on the LOWER LEVEL – behind the stairs, or up at the top. You’ll just be lucked out if it rains and you’re on the landing corridor like we were.
The Gibbon Experience Food and Drink
The food is good – rice for all bar one meal – with a variety of veggie and pork/beef dishes – tasty and there’s plenty of it. They also provide constant fresh fruit and snacks (the peanut brittle will get you hooked). It’s basic, there’s no spicy element to it at all, and there were even fried egg sandwiches for one breakfast in French bread sticks.
Water from the tap is drinkable and each morning the guides bring boiling water and prepare Lao coffee and tea – which they also prepare mid-afternoon as well and leave full flasks.
We spotted our first gibbons on that first afternoon a hundred or so meters away, playing in the rainforest canopy at around 1430. And while the photos might not look great, the experience was superb. So too was when our guides left us and said – go on, go ziplining, just not after dark. And, feeling a bit like a 17-year-old new driver being given the keys to a Ferrari, we did. Well four of us did. The others, who stay behind, I think, must have a lot more money than we do, to come all this way, and spend all those dollars to not maximize the time.
Breakfast is provided at around 0800, but we were awake at around 0500 – we woke to the sound of the gibbons whistling and singing to each other and spotted them again on the second morning (amazingly, we were the only ones to get up to see them out of 8 of us in the treehouse!) – seeing them in the early morning is even more magical. It really does feel like you’re the only people in the world.
Gibbon Experience Classic Tour – Day Two
On our second day, we headed off on a trek to visit all the treehouses. It was hot – not hard – work. The trails were a little muddy, and it was a lot of up and down to get between the various lines, but the experience of zip lining across such amazing rainforest is incredible. Even when you don’t get up enough speed to get all the way across and you have to pull yourself in at the other end.
It’s a long morning – and we visit the most incredibly sited tree house – which sits on the tallest tree in the area.
The only way in on a zip line, the only way out? Clipping our harness on and jumping out of a tree house for a millisecond of weightlessness before you speed high above the canopy and into the trees in the far distance.
After lunch back in our amazing treehouse, we get to go out again. Surprisingly there are only three of us who want to. I’ll never do this again, so I want to wring every last zip, every last thrill out of it, regardless of whether it’s raining (of course it is) or not. I also want to get my dollar-per-minute cost to its minimum! People never fail to surprise me, but I’ve also come to the understanding since we set off, that being a little older than most folks who are traveling like this has its advantages (oh and it has a lot of disadvantages too) – while I am much more aware of my own mortality, it’s partly that which drives me to spend every minute I can doing things like this, while I still can.
Gibbon Experience Classic Tour – Day Three
On our final morning, it’s still raining. The excitement last night culminated, not in the spotting of the enormous spiders residing in the roof beams of the treehouse, but in one of them pooing on Nigel. At least we think it was poo. I’m not sure that being pooed on by a giant spider was on the bucket list, but zip lining in the rainforest and waking up to gibbons was. So, objective achieved.
There are no gibbons in sight this morning, but they woke us with their singing and whistling and it was a great send-off. Breakfast arrives, coffee is consumed, we harness up, strap on our day packs and head out again for the last time to retrace our steps back to the village where we picked up the zip line harnesses.
There are a few zips, some slippery hills and then rather too quickly, we’re wading through that river again, waiting for the trucks to arrive to take us back to Huay Xai. There’s the same bouncing in the truck, although this time we score a seat inside the cab until we get to the big river where we all need to get into one truck to drive across the – now swollen with the recent rains – river. The truck we’ve been riding in can’t get across and will wait here for the next load of folks.
There’s lunch at the place we stopped at on the way and by 1415 we’re on the real road heading back to Huay Xai, where we arrive at 1610, too late to get the bus to Chiang Rai, but it’s easy to check into the Thaveensinh hotel for one last night in Laos.
What’s Best about the Gibbon Experience Laos?
What’s best about this experience though? Well, there’s something very definitely cool about saying “we had dinner flown in” and that our home for three days and two nights was treehouse accommodation. Being left alone by our guides to zip line to our heart’s content was incredible. Scary at first, but incredible. Going to sleep and waking up with the sound of the forest around you was amazing and seeing the gibbons has to rate as a huge high, being that worldwide there are less than 2,000 left alive in the wild. As a complete experience, it is simply awesome. And I don’t use that word lightly. That there were only 8 of us in the tree house, that when left to our own devices there were times when I was launching off a tree platform, hundreds of meters in the air, and could see or hear no other person.
It was quite simply without comparison.
Gibbon Experience Alternatives
If you’re not lucky enough to find a space on the Gibbons Experience or if it’s just a little too expensive, then there are several alternative experiences in Laos and Northern Thailand you can take. If ziplining is what you’re looking for then you can find zip lines in Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, and Kanchanaburi in Northern Thailand or Vang Vieng in Laos – check these out.
Kayak and Zip Line in Vang Vieng
Kayak along the Nam Song River, Picnic by the Phar None Cliff, and Zip Line Down, finish your day trip zip lining in Vang Vieng by swimming at the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall – Check Prices and Book Now!
Dragon Flight Zipline Adventure – Chiang Mai
Take a 3-hour zipline tour across 55 platforms through the Northern Thailand rainforest – Book Now!
Zipline Adventure in Chiang Mai
Have great fun with 14 ziplines and 28 platforms, where you’ll fly over water and the rainforest plus abseil, and use sky bridges and staircases – Reserve your place now!
Gibbon Experience FAQs and Logistics
The Gibbon Experience departs from Huay Xai in Northern Laos. Huay Xai is also known as Bokeo and is the main border town close to Chiang Rai.
Bookings can only be made directly with the Gibbon Experience and cost around US$100 per person per day depending on the trip you take and prices also differ slightly depending on the season. You can pay cash on arrival or via PayPal in US$ or Euros. The shortest trip is a single overnight trip (the Express). The hardest trip from a trekking perspective is the Waterfall Trip and the Classic Trip/Honeymoon Trip has the best chance of seeing gibbons.
We booked four weeks in advance of our trip, which started on November 1st. We paid in cash on arrival.
There were 8 people (four couples) on our trip, all other couples were in their twenties and early thirties.
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