|Beware the Pontianak! (web image)|
Needless to say, if there is something strange, mysterious, and slightly dangerous to be done on this trip Molly and I will be all over it like tuk tuk drivers on a noodle stand (like white on rice, like a cheap Thai suit…). We booked a slot with a company called “The Gibbon Experience” in the Laos border town of Huay Xai. Founded in 2003, the company is a model for the new eco-tourism that is spreading across Asia. With their profits, the Gibbon Experience team makes a great effort to teach the villagers in the area that eco-tourism can be more lucrative than the way they had been using the jungle. For example, hunters who formerly stalked gibbons for their meat and organs have been enlisted as park rangers and guides. The company also pays villages to buy food instead of slashing and burning the jungle for farmland. So while we were contributing to such a worthwhile project, we also got to zipline through the jungle and sleep in tree houses. Sounds ideal, but like most things in Laos, there is a little gray area.
|Ya Tor gives demonstration of proper braking procedure.|
As we wound our way towards our shelter, Ya Tor told us about some of the animals that live in the preserve. Snakes, cloudy leopards, wild elephants, and even a tiger or two share the park with the gibbons. A sound like a loud table saw turned out to be made by a tiny tree dwelling insect. Meanwhile the honking that seemed to be a dog’s squeaky toy was really made by countless geckos that hunt insects in the forest.
“Maybe one or two percent of people see gibbons. They move very fast. Very hard to see. They scared of people,” he told us in slightly broken English as we neared our tree house.
When we arrived at the Tree House #1 everyone just started laughing. It was awesome— every child’s dream. Built in huge Ficus tree about 150 feet off the jungle floor, it was more like a tree mansion than house. It is four stories tall with a huge common room, kitchen, multiple bedrooms and an open air bathroom that looks out onto the valley below. Fresh water is piped in from a stream high in the mountains so you can take a refreshing shower while watching the jungle and drink the water straight from the tap. Electricity is provided by solar panels installed on the thatched roof. The Swiss Family Robinson's house has nothing on this place. We spent the rest of the afternoon zip-lining all over the park before our dinner was zipped in.
Before sunset that day Ya Tor took Molly and me on a hike over the mountain to look for gibbons and we discovered why it might be so hard to find animals. As we stalked through the trees, Ya Tor suddenly put a hand to his mouth indicating silence. A rustle in the trees about 100 feet away alerted him to the presence of animals. We quietly crept closer, scanning the canopy for movement. Suddenly three dogs burst from the underbrush and ran towards us. Shortly afterwards a man with a huge hunting rifle appeared from behind the bush and looked startled to see us. Ya Tor, in the local dialect, asked where he was from but the man and his dogs quickly retreated into the jungle. So much for no hunting.
|Misty morning in Bokeo Nature Preserve|
“Gibbons, Gibbons!” Ya Tor exclaimed pointing to the trees but none of us saw anything.
Then, just as suddenly as it started, the singing stopped. All we heard was the faint rustle of a few leaves and
“They are gone.” Ya Tor said solemnly.
We all felt exhilarated from getting so close to the gibbons but slightly defeated that we hadn’t seen one. It was now around six thirty and the sun was just beginning to crest the hazy mountains in the distance. On the way back down to our tree house I heard the faint echo of that familiar siren song in the distance. I looked at Ya Tor.
“They very far away. You want to go?” he asked with a smile.
The girls decided that they had had enough for one day and headed for the tree house but I was on a mission.
“If we go, we must go fast,” Ya Tor exclaimed as he jumped onto a zip line heading in the direction of the singing.
Before I knew it we were running through the jungle at top speed. Branches and leaves smacked me in the face as I jumped over exposed tree roots. Ya Tor, having grown up in the jungle, easily out-distanced me. He moved like deer. His light feet barely seemed to touch the ground as he bounded gracefully through the underbrush, in flip flops no less. For half an hour we ran up and down steep, vine covered hills until my lungs burned and rivers of sweat ran down my back. Then, once again, the singing stopped and we were plunged into silence. It seemed that the gibbons had eluded us for a third time.
Encouraged by our sighting Ya Tor and I ran to a nearby treehouse to try and find them again. Sure enough, as soon as we had zipped into Tree House #7 we spotted a family of seven gibbons feeding just across the valley. This time I was able to get out my camera and snap a few shots. After forty-five minutes, the gibbons moved away and Ya Tor and I headed back to Tree House #1. Although it was only eight in the morning I had already run three miles through mountainous jungles. I was very tired but ecstatic.
On our way back from the Gibbon Experience I reflected on what a rare gift I had been given that day. Most people in the world never even get the chance to enter a gibbon forest and of those who do, only a small percentage actually see the gibbons themselves. I had gotten to within a few dozen feet of these tree dwelling primates and watched them at length. Looking out from the back of the truck that took us back to town, I was reminded of how important projects like the Gibbon Experience actually are. Laos has few logging restrictions and those regulations it does have are often ignored. All across the jungle huge black and brown scars cross the land where locals have burned down the forest to make room for farmland and logging. The Gibbon Experience and other nature preserves offer the people of the jungle an alternative to this slash and burn lifestyle. By making biodiversity a commodity, they help the people to see the value in protecting their land and the things that live there. In the future, unless we can convince other communities and governments to start protecting their forests, the gibbons and the jungles they live in, will be only ghosts.