BootsnAll Travel Network

In the Jungle: The Gibbon Proposal

If someone had told me ten years ago that I would propose to my girlfriend in the north of Laos, in the middle of the jungle, at the top of a tree in a private treehouse that could only be reached via a zip line (just hook your harness onto the cable and let gravity do it’s thing. Like this…), my reaction would have been something like “That’s crazy! As if I’ll have a girlfriend!”

But on Thursday July 26th, that’s exactly what happened. Here’s how it all went down…..

I checked my email on Wednesday morning. The Gibbon Experience had responded; “Yes, we have two positions available, you’re booked in for the 26th of July, please check in the day before.”

I turned to Bec at the computer next to me, “Crap, we better get over the border!” We were still in Chiang Khong. The office for the Gibbon Experience was not just in another town, it was in a whole other country. We quickly packed our bags and headed down to immigration, catching a lift with our mate Sayan. We had to cross over the Mekong to the Laos village of Huay Xai, a trip that takes little more than a minute in a longtail boat.

Soon we had left Thailand and arrived in Laos, found a guesthouse, and wandered up to the office of the Gibbon Experience. What’s that? What’s the Gibbon Experience, you ask? Well, we didn’t know a whole lot about it before we got to the office. It had got a mention in The Observer’s travel section that we’d read back in Edinburgh about a year ago, just a brief few lines that contained words like ‘treehouses’, ‘zip lines’, ‘jungle’, ‘Laos’ and ‘waterfall’. When we were in Chiang Mai the memory hit me as suddenly as a Nepalese bowel movement.

“Bec, do you remember reading that thing about those guys who stayed in treehouses in Laos, and zipped around through the jungle?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so.”

“Where in Laos was that? What was that? How do we do that?”

“Not sure where it was. I think it had something to do with animals. Monkeys or something.”

“Yeah, right.”

And so with this rusty old thought floating around in our heads we headed to internet cafe and began searching. Less than a minute later we somehow landed at and our questions were answered. It’s a program that promotes conservation of the forests of the Bokeo Province in northern Laos, by providing employment and income for the local villages through use of the forest in a sustainable manner. What we’d signed up for was a trek into the jungle, accommodation in a treehouse, access to an extensive series of zip lines that carry you over and through the jungle canopy (up to 150 metres above the jungle, and up to 1000 metres long!), and guides from the nearby villages to take you into the jungle in search of the elusive black gibbon, a monkey-like animal that was once thought extinct. And it just happened to be run out of the town that we would reach in a few days (Huay Xai). Talk about luck.

In our rush to get over the border, we’d failed to get much cash out in Chiang Khong, and Huay Xai on the Laos side had no ATM. When we first arrived we exchanged some US dollars to get us by for a while, but not enough to cover the cost of the Gibbon Experience. When we got to the office, the phone lines were down and so our credit card wouldn’t work. No problem, we’ll go back to the bank and get a cash advance on our credit card. We walked back to the bank. Nup. No cash advances on credit cards. Not too sure what they actually do at that bank there in Huay Xai.

“It’s ok,” said the friendly young Laos lady back at the Gibbon Experience office, “we’ll try again in the morning.”

There were twelve people booked in for the three-day, two-night Experience, all of whom had already paid their way by the time we arrived on Thursday morning. We tried the credit card. Nup. Didn’t work. Hmmmm, a few days ago we hadn’t even thought about this Gibbon Experience, then it’s location and timing of the booking worked more perfectly than we could have hoped, we got super excited, and then couldn’t pay for the thing. We were screwed.

“It’s no problem.” Again, the local girl was so calm and unperturbed. “We’ll try again when you get back. The phone line should be fixed by them.” And so with that reassurance, and having signed a waiver saying we wouldn’t sue them should we fall off a cable 150 metres up above the jungle, the twelve of us piled onto the two bench seats in the back of a Land Rover, and we headed out towards the jungle.

An hour-and-a-half along the smooth, newly paved highway, and we stopped at a small village for a ‘ten minute break’, according to the driver. Forty-five minutes later and the driver, having disappeared for the entire time we’d been stopped, gave us the nod. Turns out he’d been inspecting the river and mud track beyond that ran behind the store where we’d stopped. This was where we had to go. Through the river. Through the river.

None of us in the back really understood this until the driver asked us to close the windows, the car turned past the store, cruised down the bumpy bank to the brown water, and dived right on in. The water rushed up over the bonnet of the 4WD and crashed into the windscreen. It splashed onto our windows as we drove through water that was almost five-foot deep. The vehicle spluttered through the gushing water. The driver fought with the wheel. If the car conked-out, we would be swept away with the powerful current of last-night’s monsoonal rains. There were twenty-five metres or so to get across before we reached safety.

Hoots and hollers rang out from the Canadians, Americans, Australians, and British that filled the back seats as we reached the river-bank on the other side. Brett, a dude from Saskatchewan (wow, I spelled that right first time. Cool) in Canada, got it about right; “That,” he exclaimed, “was fucken awesome!”

But it wasn’t over yet. At the other side of the river the muddy bank rose steeply up. The path was scarred with a deep channel caused by water run-off. The driver, upon exiting the water, floored the accelerator and the wheels screamed as they spun on the mud. We rocked halfway up, the passengers in the back bouncing on our seats, before rolling back down into the water.

The driver tried again. Half way up the steep muddy track was as far as we could get before the wheels spun on the spot. A third attempt was made. Nup. We were defeated. If we couldn’t get the 4WD out of the river, we would be faced with a seven or eight hour trek into the jungle to get to the treehouses. At this point, the driver reversed the vehicle back out into the river, did a three-point turn, and backed up onto the track so we could all get out without putting on swimwear. Now minus the weight of the twelve foreigners and a couple of Laos guides who had been riding on the roof, he tried the path again and conquered that devil. Another round of cheers erupted, and we piled back in.

It was then an hour-and-a-half of the most exhilarating off-roading you could imagine. Well, the most exhilarating that I could imagine, I’ve never really been off-roading before. The Land Rover ploughed along the muddy path, up and down hills, through huge dirty puddles where we left tire tracks a foot deep. We got bogged a few times, and once skidded off into the bushes. But each time a group effort enabled us to escape back onto the track and make our way further into the jungle.

Eventually the Land Rover could go no further, and we prepared to proceed on foot. It was then a two hour trek to get us to the treehouses. We walked through small streams, and stopped in a tiny village of thatched huts where the kids ran around with no pants on and horses chased pigs that chased chickens.

Beyond the village we were back in the jungle, walking along a single muddy path up the side of a mountain. The chatter of earlier in the day had ceased; the strain of the walk was beginning to tell on everyone. We came upon a small shack, where we stopped and were each handed a harness. I thought back to the words of the instructional video we had watched earlier that morning back in the office; ”Step into the harness like you would a diaper.” I guess I didn’t realise incontinence was so prevalent amongst backpackers in Laos.

After some fiddling, tightening, and rearranging (ouch), the harnesses were fitted around our waist and upper thighs. Things were about to get very interesting.

Five minutes further along the muddy track, and we saw a small platform attached about four feet up a tree trunk. Also attached to the tree was a steel cable that ran horizontally out away from the mountain-side. At the end of that cable, perhaps 70 metres away, at the top of a huge tree, was a wooden treehouse that had a bathroom and could comfortably sleep six people.

Once by one, each of us stepped shakily up onto the platform, and clumsily hooked our harness to the cable with a carabiner, and a some rollers. I was the last to go. I’d just seen Bec fly through the jungle and land safely at the other end. I sat down in the harness, letting my weight be taken by the cable, and pushed off from the platform. The land disappeared beneath me, and I was whizzing past treetops like a bird. The cable buzzed in my ear, and the wind rushed up under my glasses and brought tears to my eyes. It was brilliant. I made it to the other side, where the eleven others sat with big grins on their faces.

It was now that my plans to propose would be put to the test. For the twelve of us doing the Experience, six would sleep in the treehouse we were now in. Further into the jungle were two other treehouses, one to sleep four, and one private treehouse to sleep two. We’d emailed ahead to ask if we could book the private one, but were told it should be arranged with the group once we arrived. This was that time.

There was another Australian couple, Catherine and Simon from Perth, who we’d met in Huay Xai the day before and gotten along with really well. Today was Catherine’s birthday. I looked up at Simon, ”Mate, you guys can have the private one if you like, given that it’s Catherine’s birthday.” Please say no please say no please say no.

”Nah, that’s cool, you guys booked ahead, so you can have it.”

”Thanks mate.”

Whew! Dodged a bullet there.

The six of us who were heading further on left the treehouse via another cable, skipping through the air well above the jungle canopy. We trekked for twenty minutes, then crossed a huge valley on two massive zip lines, I’m guessing up to five hundred metres each in length, stopping in the middle in a tree with a single platform a hundred metres up that allowed you to switch your carabiner over from one cable to the next. Each zip line took well over thirty seconds to cross, and the views were astonishing. Forested mountain ranges ran along to our right. To our left was the mountain side we’d just left. And when I looked down I saw my feet dangling in fresh air, and the top of the jungle 150 metres below.


We reached the other side of the valley. Our guide pointed up at a tree ahead of us, fifty metres up was a treehouse. Our treehouse. We walked past its base, and further up the hill. Once we’d reached the height of the treehouse, now 80 metres or so back behind us, we came to a platform, hooked ourselves onto the cable, and zipped into our new home; a split level apartment with living quarters upstairs and bathroom downstairs. Sweet.

We chilled out for a while, admiring the stunning views out over the valleys and mountains that extended into the distance. Soon a guide came with a bag of food. Rather than walk past the treehouse and zip into it, he hooked the bag to a rope at the bottom of the tree and we hauled up the food by hand; sticky rice with four different delicious vegetable curries/stir fries. Also provided in the treehouse were some cigarettes (no thanks) and some Laos Brown Ginger Whiskey (hmmm, that could come in handy).

It was a bit early for dinner just yet, so we poured a few whiskeys, and, as the light began to fade, I somehow I managed to propose to Bec. Amazingly I even managed to do it before drinking any whiskey. She made it rather easy for me: as we gazed out over the jungle, she mentioned something about not wanting to share this experience with anyone else. Well, there was my moment.

”You know the only thing in the world that would make me happier right now?” I asked. At this point the next words out of my mouth were either going to be ”if you gave me the honour of being your husband”, or ”if we had some ice cold Beerlao”. I went with the former, but it was touch and go there for a second. Tears came to Bec’s eyes and a smile flashed across her face. I asked ”will you marry me”, and then I think I actually kissed her before she could respond. Damn, if she said ‘no’ it was going to be one hell of a long night!

A ‘yes’ slipped out of her mouth, and with that we were engaged. A day more brilliant, more exciting, more outrageous, more amazing than any I have experienced before.

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