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  • Writer's pictureMaureen Pfaff

Elephant trekking, zip-lining & river tubing through Laos

Updated: May 21, 2020

Laos is the only South-East Asian country that is completely landlocked, making it less of a tourist destination than its neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand. That's exactly what gives it its charm. Laotians welcome tourists with open arms and are excited to show them their culture. Trip Plan here.

This trip was definitely one of my longer ones. It was a total of eleven days and our schedule was packed, as we tried to explore this fascinating country as much as possible. Our first stop was a popular tourist destination, Luang Prabang (due to direct flights from Singapore!)


Luang Prabang

The first thing we noticed when we got to Luang Prabang was how welcoming the locals were. Everyone smiled at us whilst they were riding past. Even the hotel asked us where we were from and what made us decide to come to Laos. Once settled in we were ready to explore! I think for me there were three highlights in this cute little city. The bamboo bridges, Kuang Si Falls and Elephant trekking.



Bamboo Bridges

The bamboo bridges are one of the most iconic sights in Luang Prabang. They are constructed by a local family to connect the old quarter of Luang Prabang to the main markets, and are made solely out of bamboo. That means no nails or steel, and the bamboo is only tied together by ropes. This is actually very safe, as bamboo is 2-3 times stronger than other timber. It is used for scaffolding all over Asia even!


Kuang Si Falls

The famous Kuang Si Falls are a three-tiered waterfall about 50min outside of Luang Prabang by tuk tuk. You can also rent mopeds! We asked a couple of tuk tuk drivers on the street for prices and went with the cheapest. After a small entrance fee we started our hike. The start of the waterfalls are already so impressive that not all visitors make it to the top, but I can highly recommend you hike up. The main 60m waterfall only reveals itself once you’ve made it to the top, but there is no swimming in that area. You can swim in some of the lower levels, but be warned that the water is freezing cold. The main waterfall was a sight to be remembered, the colour of the water looks like it’s painted in turquoise.


Elephant Trekking

Laos is known as “the country of one million elephants”. Those days are long gone. There are only around 400-600 wild elephants left in Laos today. A lot of them were used for logging activities (like in most areas in south-east Asia) and when regulations changed and forbid the logging, all of these gentle giants suddenly became unemployed. Most of them mistreated, broken and after years of hard work were now being used as tourist attractions. Companies offer elephant shows and riding all over Laos. The riding, especially with a fitted seat, is very bad for their backs and can even influence the reproductive system in females (as the

ovaries are very close to the spine). I’m always very cautious with any elephant activities that are being offered whilst travelling. Most companies don’t treat them well, as they are trying to exploit them. Even with the disclaimer “sanctuary”, make sure to check what they offer. If they were willing to let you ride an elephant you shouldn't support them. After some research we found one company in Luang Prabang that was suitable: Mandalao. They are a conservation company, who take in working elephants and give them a dignified life in a huge nature reserve. They offer tours for tourists where all you do is trek alongside them through the


woods. There is no specific route, as they let the elephants stop and eat whenever they want to. As most of them were born in captivity and used for logging services, they would never be able to survive in the wild unfortunately. Technically they are still in captivity, even with Mandalao, however, the difference is that they can roam around the perimeter to their heart’s content, get fed and are not forced into any sort of labour. Visitors can spend time with them by following their daily rhythm.

It was honestly one of the most humbling and incredible experiences to see these gentle giants walking behind us through the woods.



The two elephants walking with us were mother and daughter and their interactions were lovely to watch. It was obvious who the older one was, as she was quite clearly in charge. She would decide when they would stop to eat or continue walking. She would also decide when they would stop by the river to drink. All we had to do was make sure we didn’t get in their way whilst they were walking. They really are massive!



Speed boat to the Nam Kan National Park

The infrastructure in Laos is not where you’d want it to be for travelling, however, that just made the trip more unpredictable. We had read online that we could get a seven hour boat along the Mekong river from Luang Prabang to Houayxay (which was where our next adventure was waiting for us). The day before our departure, we checked on the availability of boats and were told that the water of the river was too low at this time and therefore they didn’t have any regular speed boats going to Houayxay. We had three options, take a bus for twelve hours, take a two day slow boat, or a private seven hour speed boat. As we were short on time we decided to go for the private speed boat and thought this would probably be the fastest and the most comfortable option. When we got to the pier the next morning the boat we were greeted with looked nothing like we had expected.

Boarding the boat with apprehension, the driver gave us motorcycle helmets. I didn’t think we would need them, but boy was I wrong. The boat left at high speed that I quickly put it on. It was such a low boat that it felt like we were on a roller coaster. We could feel the water rushing by underneath (that’s how thin the boat was). This way of transportation required strong nerves and a sense for adventure. There is no way I could have done this with my parents.

I’m not quite sure how, but after a lunch break and a couple of stops on the way, we made it to Houayxay after 7-8h and were still in one piece. Phew!


Nam Kan National Park

This is where the real adventure started. We had signed up for the Gibbon Experience. This meant three days of trekking in the Nam Kan National Park and sleeping in treehouses. It was as far from civilisation as it gets. We met the other four people we’d be sharing the treehouse with and off we went. The ride over to the start of the park gave us an inkling of how remote all of this was.

People on the streets weren’t wearing shoes anymore, kids were walking around naked and toilets were pretty much non-existent. Our guide was the father of three and introduced us to them and his wife when we got to his village. It struck me how different their ‘normal’ was to mine, whilst I saw his four year old chasing around a piglet.


Without further ado we left for our trek into the park. It got steep, very steep, very quickly and we were all exhausted when we got to the first break point.


The zip-lining

This was where we suited up and started zip-lining. Finally! That’s what I had been so excited about whilst planning this trip. The Gibbon Experience introduced zip-lining as a way to cut down on hiking time. An 8h hike was shortened into 2h through a couple of zip-lines. These zip-lines span from hill to hill, and cover around 15km within the National Park. The longest one (which we took!) is 600m long. It’s the most exhilarating feeling to get hooked up, jump on and swing at marvellous speeds above the treetops in the middle of the deepest jungle towards a tiny platform.

When we started using the zip-lines, the trek got a whole lot easier. We’d trek for half an hour then take two zip-lines, and then do another hour of walking etc. Within around six hours we got to our treehouse for the night, which, of course, was only accessible by zip-line. It was the coolest thing ever.


Our “room” was an area, which was completely open and surrounded by jungle, as far as we could see. The treehouse even had a shower, which faced out into the jungle. Not much privacy here, but then again, who cares if a monkey watches?


In the evening our dinner arrived by one of the guides zip-lining into the treehouse. How else right? We played cards, drank whiskey (which one of the guys had brought along) and talked until darkness fell over the jungle. Obviously there was no wifi and no cellphone reception, which was quite lovely actually.


The treehouses

There are three different types of treehouses that the Gibbon Experience built in the Nam Kan National Park. They've all been built as high as possible. We stayed in two types of houses, which I'll quickly describe now.

The first one was a suspended treehouse. Suspended treehouses have fascinating builds.


They are typically composed of several platforms suspended at different heights on strong boughs growing quite flatly outward. If your host tree is a giant strangler ficus, you may end up with surprisingly large surfaces.

The second one was a treehouse set on wooden consoles. This type of construction usually circles around the tree, following an octagonal shape, with a combination of several floors. Entrance and exit cables join where the landing platform stands. At this level, a circular corridor surrounds the trunk, allowing passage in and out of the tree house and providing access to the bathroom and the stairway that leads to to the main platform. The latter consists of a kitchen area and a living room that turns into a series of semi-private rooms for the night. A railing runs all around the main platform for safety and to optimise the view. Another stairway leads to the more private canopy room.

I decided to take some drone photos of the treehouses, which was a lot easier said than done. Without line of sight of the drone, I was relying solely on the image on this screen to take the photos and videos. What made things even more difficult were the wires that surrounded each treehouse. Some were for safety and others for the zip-lines. There were times when my friend was holding on to me, just

so I could step onto the very edge and reach out to grab the drone (as it wouldn't come back in). Definitely got the adrenaline pumping! The photos show how high up the treehouses were built and how far into the jungle we were come. I'm so happy with how the photos turned out, as I think they truly capture our adventure.


The next morning we woke up to the sounds of the jungle, an orchestra of birds and monkeys. We made our way to the top of the treehouse where some of the others had spotted some gibbons. Gibbons are a species of apes (with very long arms), that are home to a lot of countries between India, China and Indonesia.


Over the next three days we saw a lot of gibbons, however, all of them quite far away where it was difficult to get a photo. I'm adding in a photo from Google photos on the right, so you know what they look like. This is not a photo we took on the trip (unfortunately).


They are really weird looking apes actually. Being part of the so called "smaller" or "lesser" apes, they differ from the great apes (gorillas, orang-utans, humans etc) and have a more monkey-like anatomy. Gibbons can also be pretty much any colour between black and white, but most of them are black or brown-ish.

Overall I have to say that my favourite part about this experience really was the zip-lining. It was a feeling of absolute freedom when we were above the treetops flying towards our next destination.


monkey bite

When I had told my boyfriend, Lukas, about the trip he had jokingly warned me “Don’t get bitten by a monkey”. I had laughed it off and thought to myself, that I wouldn’t be that careless obviously.


Two days into our trek through the National Park we got to an area where some locals were living and making food. There was a little monkey tied to a leash (so she wouldn’t steal the food), and the locals said we could pet her. Very carefully we got closer and started petting her little head. She seemed to really enjoy this. When it was my turn she suddenly grabbed my hand and bit my wrist. It was really painful and the wound was deep enough to draw blood. Great. Here I was in the middle of the jungle, had just gotten bitten by a monkey, and was nowhere near any civilisation that might have a rabies shot. I was annoyed at myself, and in pain. Once we got back to the treehouse the wound was blue-ish and our guide (who barely spoke any English) gave me something called “monkey balm”. I asked him if the monkeys here had rabies, but he just laughed. I’m not sure if that was because he didn’t understand the question, or because monkeys having rabies in Laos was ridiculous. Given that I had a rabies vaccination six years prior to the trip, I wasn’t too worried, as I knew that it would give me some extra time to get the post-exposure shot.


The next day we got back to Houayxay and I had to admit to my boyfriend over text that I had in fact been bitten by a monkey. By that point I thought it was quite a funny story, but his reaction proved me wrong. I still had about four days left in Laos, and we made a doctor’s appointment for the following Monday when I was back in Singapore, where I went through a full dose of post-exposure rabies vaccinations. After seeing the state of some of the hospitals later on, I’m glad I didn’t opt for getting the shots in Laos.


The monkey bite story has since made its way through my circle of friends and has received a lot of concern and laughter. It definitely taught me how important it is to get vaccinated! 100% of people, who show rabies symptoms, die. This means there is only a very small window to get the post-exposure vaccine. For people who have never received the vaccine that window is 24h after being bitten. Given the fact that most people are nowhere near a hospital when they get bitten, these numbers really put things into perspective.


The same afternoon we took a bus to the nearby city Luang Namtha, where we had a local flight booked the next morning to go to Vientiane, the capital.


Vientiane

When we arrived at the airport in Luang Namtha the next morning, we realised quite quickly that the flight I had booked was for the wrong month. Truly great organisation, if I might say so myself. There was no negotiating, even though we tried hard, which meant we had to purchase a new flight. It might be worth mentioning that national flights in Laos can only be paid for in cash (Lao Kip to be precise). No credit cards accepted. Once that problem was solved, we were finally on our way.... or so we thought.

Our 45min flight was about an hour and a half delayed, but we made it to Vientiane in the end and had decided (whilst waiting for our flight to depart) that we wanted to try a traditional silk scarf dyeing workshop. Not normally the kind of thing I’m into, but we had some time to spare and it turned out to be a lot of fun!


After our successful workshop, we headed to the bus terminal, ready to jump on the next bus to Vang Vieng, which was going to take around five hours. The bus was here, everyone was on it, but there was no driver. Apparently departure times in Laos are not taken very seriously. We left the station with close to two hours delay (no one knows why), and were headed to Vang Vieng, our final stop on this Laos adventure. Together with a chicken. Yup, somebody had brought a live chicken onboard.


Vang Vieng

Checked into our airbnb/hotel and fell asleep pretty much instantly. The bus was a night bus, but due to the "perfectly even roads" in Laos (jokes), it was impossible to sleep. We had a full day trekking booked for the next day, so sleep was very much needed.


My highlights of the next three days in Vang Vieng were Trekking, Kayaking, Hot Air Ballooning and River Tubing.


Trekking and Kayaking

These two activities came as a package deal, which was highly appreciated, as it was very hot. The highlight of our trekking was not the view, but the lunch break. We stopped near a waterfall and the area looked like a fairytale forest with butterflies fluttering all around us. Kayaking around the river of Vang Vieng, whilst stopping for snacks in some remote places was incredible. It was just the two of us and a local guide, who was trying to learn English with us.


Hot Air Ballooning

We had heard that the area was great for early morning hot air ballooning and thought we would give it a try. There are a lot of local companies in the city centre that offer this, if you are interested. It was my first time being on a hot air balloon and I must admit, I was excited like a little kid on Christmas Eve!



The issue was the wind. There was none. Apparently it was needed to fly. Who knew? We started flying, but unfortunately didn’t get very far and did a bit of up and down, but never got to the actual heights we wanted to. It was still a new experience with some great views (even if not from as high up as we had hoped).


River Tubing

Now to the grand finale. River tubing is something that Laos is truly famous for. The way river tubing used to be done in Vang Vieng was more of a 'party on water'. You’d float along the river and every couple of 100 meters would stop to have a

drink. When you got to the bar, you’d be offered two menus. One for drinks, and the other for recreational drugs, such as hallucinogens. Backpackers have written posts about this where they claim that they wanted to spend a couple of days in Vang Vieng, but lost track of time because of the river tubing extravaganza and ended staying months. This got serious quite quickly when some people died whilst doing drugs and floating on the river. I guess being high and rushing down small waterfalls was not the best combination. Those wild party days were over, and most of the bars had been closed. However, three were still open, and we were set on hitting each one of them.

There are two different areas for tubing, so make sure you go with the one that leads back into the city centre. I have to say that this was one of the most relaxed afternoons of the whole trip. We’d float for an hour, stop at a bar for a drink, and go back to floating after. Pure bliss. The river had low water, so the waterfalls were tiny and didn’t do much more to us than a little push. After a few hours it turned out that we had spent slightly too much time in those three bars and it started getting dark when we were nowhere near the end. After some disagreements in the group as to how to get back into the city centre, we decided to follow a fisherman’s instructions, who we met along the way. He led us to a van by the riverside that drove us back into the city centre in the dark.


The finish to this day wasn’t exactly what we had expected, but it had still been an incredibly relaxed afternoon. My recommendation: Start tubing earlier than midday.


Our time in Laos had come to the end. The next morning we took a car back to Vientiane with a few people and headed straight to the airport. Laos was one of the best trips I have done in South East Asia, and it definitely pushed my adventure spirit.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
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