Laos is a stunningly beautiful country.  I’m constantly taken aback by the lush greenery, the endless mountains, the loving culture, deliciously spicy food and the ever flourishing Mekong river.  I wanted to get out into the jungle to be one with the nature and fully immerse myself in the land.  I first started looking into jungle treks and landed on a company called Green Discovery Laos.  They are the most well known and highly regarded adventure and Eco-tourism tour operators and one of the few social enterprises in the country.   Their countless raving reviews boasted great tours, unique itineraries, excellent service and high quality, maximum safety equipment.  They offer several different types of excursions that include, hiking, kayaking, abseiling, rock climbing, ziplining and so much more.

After much consideration and research I booked an excursion called the Tree Top Explorer.  It was advertised as a 3 day 2 night zip lining tour where you sleep in tree houses at night.  I had never zip lined before and the thought of sleeping in a tree house, in the jungle, beyond excited me.  I was torn at first on spending the money being $329 USD for the entire tour.  As you all know that’s more than triple my daily budget per day.  However, I decided to go for it.  I never want to look back on this adventure and have regret for not doing something I felt so compelled to do.

After booking and paying for the tour I started to research reviews on this specific experience.  I was shocked to read that I would be climbing a rock face on the last day, I hadn’t read that in the original advertisement.   I just thought I would be zip lining.  I’ve never rock climbed in my life and it seems really out of my realm of comfort.  But if that’s the worst thing, I believe I can do it.  I also read reviews about a tour that went south when the group was freak attacked by a swarm of bees.  Many people had to be admitted to the hospital.  This terrified me, I hate bees. Lastly, I read that it is quite common to pick up many leeches while trekking through the jungle.  I have never had a leech on me and I never want to.  I researched leeches online and was sick to my stomach reading about the way they latch on and suck your blood until full, sometimes taking up to 20 minutes to fill.  Luckily I read these reviews after I had already paid, otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have booked.

Pakse was the pick up point for the tour, which is located in the south of Laos.  I had been in the North so I took a night bus into Pakse where I stayed one night.  The tour left at 8am from the Green Discovery office the next morning.   I was able to leave my big backpack in the office while we were away, which totally stressed me out because I had to leave my computer, hard drive and tablet behind.  I would be devastated if I lost them.  It was all safe though!  We had to carry everything we wanted to bring with us, so I tried to pack my daypack as light as possible.  We were told we could pay one of the guides to carry our backpacks but I wanted the challenge.  Actually, no one chose this option.  At the office we filled out general paperwork then loaded a bus that reminded me of a little school bus.

I sat next to the only other solo person.  Her name was Audrey, which I just loved because my sweet angel of a niece is named Audrey.  She is from Holland, traveling solo, also 33 years old and on a 3 week holiday in Laos.  I instantly liked her, we became quick friends, stuck together the entire time and even shared a tree house at night.  We chatted the whole 2 hour ride into Nong Luang Village where we would embark on our tour.   When we arrived we had a final opportunity to use the restroom before we put on all our zip lining gear, which isn’t light mind you, and we also had our backpacks.   We were given two bottles of water and off we went.

We walked through the village and past the construction of a new dam and off into the jungle.  The first couple of hours was all hiking downhill which was very slick and I slipped a couple times, but managed not to hurt myself.  Hiking in the zip line equipment was a challenge in itself.  We stopped at a little tree house camp and had a delicious lunch prepared by the women in the village  served on huge leaves.  We had sticky rice, hard boiled eggs, sautéed veggies, a chicken dish of some sort, fish cakes and a meat similar to jerky.  I was so impressed by the quality of the meal served to us out in the middle of a jungle.   I was excited to see what the remaining meals would be like!

After lunch we left the tree house and started hiking again.  Our first feat was a canopy walk, which is a walkway from tree to tree suspended in the air.  This one was old, many boards where missing, loose and rotting.   I was connected to a cable above my head as I walked and the more people on the bridge the more wonky it became.  I had no idea we would be doing any canopy walks, nor have I ever done one before.  I was so frightened but just kept on going.  Little did I know that I would be doing two more of these the next day, one being the most terrifying thing I have ever done.   That day we did a total of 12 zip lines as well as dropped down off 3 platforms by ropes.  The guides were so helpful and I could tell they knew what they were doing and took every possible safety precaution.  Although I was scared, I was comforted by the guides who I knew were doing everything possible to keep us safe.

After a long day of hiking and zip lining, we finally arrived at the tree house camp.  It was nestled serenely in a valley next to a giant waterfall, with a total of over 8 different tree house buildings.  To my surprise there were western toilets, no hole in the ground and showers.  5 different tree houses for sleeping, some of which could sleep up to 10 people.  Audrey and I shared a tree house and we opted for the one that could only be accessed via zip line, which was beyond thrilling in the dark at night.  Our tree house had three beds.  Our two beds where setup with nice, big mosquito nets and also our own bathroom with a western toilet.  The large main tree house was the common area where the women from town cooked all our meals.   There were picnic style tables where we could sit and play cards at night and there were 3 house cats that I of course went crazy over.

 

That first night we were served another delicious meal of curry, rice, fresh spring rolls and sautéed veggies.  I can’t say it enough, the food these women served us was very flavorful, fresh and amazing!  We all sat and ate and got to know each other.  Our group was a total of 10.  5 young 21 year old’s from Denmark traveling together on a 3 month holiday through SE Asia.  3 friends from Malaysia on a quick one week trip and then Audrey and I, the solo females.  Luckily the Denmark group came equipped with cards, so smart.  We sat around playing cards until after dark when we split off into our separate treehouses.  Audrey and I were accompanied by two guides to ensure we got into our treehouse safely.   We both weren’t tired and stayed up chatting for awhile about our lives and what we would be doing the following day.  Also, daydreaming about pizza because we had been craving it.  We made a plan, as our reward to get pizza in Pakse when we returned.  Nothing wrong with a little motivation to keep us going the next couple of days.  Here is my video of Day 1.

 

The next morning Audrey and I were up early and ready to go.  We put on our zip lining gear and waited.  They had to come get us eventually, right?  We could have hooked ourselves up but we hadn’t been given much instruction and didn’t want to break the rules.  After waiting for awhile we started to call out.  “Can we come out now?’  “Mom, Dad, we slept good all night, can we come down now?”  “Hello, is anyone out there?’  “Can anyone hear us?”  Finally, our Malaysian friends next door heard us and went to fetch a guide to help us.  For breakfast we were served French bread, omelets, mango and coffee.  Then our wonderful lead guide named Phon (Pawn) went over the days events with us.  We would be doing a series of 16 zip lines in the earlier part of the day, 2 canopy walks and then after lunch we would be abseiling down the waterfall that was our beautiful background at the tree house camp.

We left camp and headed into the jungle for our series of 16 different zip lines, one of which was the longest one, being 450 meters.  I loved how each zip line was different, the scenery, the platform, the thrill was all unique.  Some of the platforms were just down right scary and dangerous.  Especially, when all ten of us were on them.  You’re always hooked to a cable for safety but there is never any ledges or banisters.  Just a platform, many of which were old and very rocky.  I lost my stomach several times looking down.  The worst part of this day was the canopy walks.  The first one was an obviously newer build and I wouldn’t have been as scared if the guide hadn’t alerted us to hurry across because there was a giant bee hive in the tree above the platform we were standing on while waiting to cross the bridge.  I could hardly breathe thinking about the possibility of being stung while trying not to pass out, as I was walking across a bridge, suspended millions of miles above the jungle floor.  Exaggeration, I know, but I was feeling pretty stressed out and pushed to the maximum level of fear.

The second canopy walk was the most terrifying thing I have ever done, up to that point in my life ( I had no idea what the next few days had in store for me).  It wasn’t a bridge with boards but instead it was only cables.  You had to hold yourself up while stretching and balancing from cable to cable.  The cables were far apart and obviously not steady.  I felt so scared and kept wondering what would happen if I fell.  I don’t know how I would pull myself up and how badly that would hurt.  My legs turned to jelly and I was shaking like a naked baby in a snow storm.  I tried so hard to focus on the task at hand but kept looking down which made me shake even more.  I couldn’t tell you how I survived, but I made it across. Video montage of Day #2.

After hiking back to camp we had lunch and prepared for our abseiling.  I had no idea what abseiling was, which probably helped so I didn’t chicken out.  Abseiling, also called repelling, is a controlled descent off a vertical drop, such as a rock face, using a rope.   Basically, you are descending backwards down a drop, connected by a rope around your waist, you feed the rope through a little device called a rack.  You are the only one with control as you descend.  The first drop was a mini practice drop.  It was quite easy and I thought “oh yeah, I got this”.   But then our guide leads us walking across the top of the waterfall, where we are not connected to anything, slip and fall and off the top of the water fall you go.  In the middle of the water fall they start to prepare the ropes.  The guides are so comfortable and walking around the edge and throwing the ropes down the side of the falls.  They aren’t hooked to anything and scaring the crap out of me leaning over the edge like its nothing.  I feel like I’m going to die, my heart is racing, everything is shaking and I feel like I’m having an asthma attack.

The first guy goes down, show off.   Then I decide I have to be next or I’ll lose my shit up here.  They hook me up and give me the signal to start my descent.  The first part is a rocky terrain but its the middle of a waterfall, so its seriously slick, and I slipped and hit my knees and shins several times.  This part I hated because it was slippery and I felt really out of control because I couldn’t get my footing, the severe shaking didn’t help either.  The second half was a complete suspended drop.  Meaning I wasn’t touching anything except my rope.  This seemed better to me and I was surprised how little I had to depend on my own arm strength.  At first I was just suspending myself inch by inch but then I became more comfortable and started to crank it.  The view from this point was the most amazing view I have ever had.  I spun myself around so I could look outwards and not just at the waterfall rock face.  I felt very free, strong and brave for facing fears and giving myself the opportunity of experience.

When I reached the bottom I was elated.  The rush of adrenaline mixed with fear and the pride of my accomplishment sent me to cloud nine.  From there I had to walk through the rocks at the bottom of the waterfall that are slimy and slippery, which was another real challenge, to reach a view point where I could watch Audrey come down the falls behind me.  After Audrey made it down safely we climbed our way back to the waterfall camp.  We zipped to our try house, with no assistance this time, because we are pros now, and changed into dry clothes.  We set out our shoes and clothes for drying and then zipped back to camp to wait for the others to come back to celebrate everyone’s victory!  Another delicious dinner was served late, after dark that night and then we played cards for a short bit, but everyone was so exhausted from the days events that we all retired early to bed.  That night Audrey and I zipped alone again, in the dark, to our tree house, SO thrilling at night!!  Full video here of me abseiling.

Our third and final morning in the tree house fort was a little bittersweet for me.  I honestly could have stayed there for weeks.  We ate breakfast and got all our gear on and prepared for the all up hill hike out of the jungle.  This final hike was very challenging because my whole body was extremely sore from the last two days of strenuous activity, we had to wear all our gear, as well as carry our backpacks.   It’s very humid in the jungle making it a challenge to breathe.

After about an hour or so of hiking uphill we arrived at the rock face that we had to climb in order to get out of the jungle.  The rock face has metal steps built into it with a cable system running along the path.  You must climb up the steps while unhooking and hooking yourself to the different cables.  Audrey went second and was ahead of me.  I was beyond terrified and my entire body was shaking.  In the beginning Audrey stopped and said “I don’t like this”.  I told her “JUST GO!!”  I had to get this over with and I couldn’t be behind someone who was second guessing themselves or I would freak out more than I already was.  She persevered and I followed her lead.  I’ve never had my body convulse and shake the way it was as I climbed.  As my entire body was shaking I had to hold on with one VERY sweaty palm and unhook and rehook my cables.  I kept begging my limbs not to fail me.  I had already come so far in the last few days, I couldn’t fail now.  At the top of the rock I felt like the world would never be the same for me.  So much intense adrenaline was coursing through my entire body, which continued to shake for a good 15 minutes.  Watch the whole video of my terrifying rock climb.

The view from the top was beyond words and we stopped for a quick break to take photos and rejoice before we made our final jungle trek back to the village.  Trekking back with sore, tired legs was no easy feat, but I was driven by an inner fuel of satisfaction, accomplishment and pure happiness.  We were served our final meal in the village before we loaded the little bus back to Pakse.  Audrey was so kind and invited me to come stay with her in her very nice hotel in Pakse that night and then we left the next morning for the quite sleepy little town of Don Khoun in the 4,000 islands.

Reflecting back on this experience I am overcome with joy because I faced so many fears and pushed my mind and body past limits I never knew I had.   I will never second guess my abilities ever again.  I have gained so much experience and now have a new passion for outdoor and recreational sports I never would have pictured myself doing.   A very valid reminder that I am strong, brave and I can overcome any obstacle that is placed in front of me.