One of the highlights of my trip to Laos in 2016 was my participation in an activity called the Gibbon Experience in the Nam Kan National Park. Read about it, and you would know that the activity centers on two things: the world’s highest treehouses and the world’s highest and longest ziplines. I tend to attach romantic connotations to treehouses: personal space, solitude of the forest, starry night skies, sounds of forest inhabitants, back-to-the-basics… Ziplining was not new to me. Having done Borneo’s biggest zipline a couple of times, I was quite confident about doing the Gibbon ziplines. Looking back on my entire Gibbon zipline experience, I would summarize it this way: I went with confidence, I whizzed through the forest canopies feeling absolutely defeated a lot of times, and I ended it with an elevated sense of capability and accomplishment …and some fun.
After several hours of trekking into the forest on the first day, we arrived at our first zipline. It was supposed to be one of the short ones. I chose to be the second last person to go. I watched those who went before me ziplined all the way to the other side. I repeated the safety measures again and again in my head. I still had my confidence, but as I was standing on the edge of the platform awaiting Valao (second guide)’s signal to go, fear started to creep in. My hands became cold. My heart raced. A few seconds later I found myself flying through the forest canopies. Honestly, I did not notice much of my surroundings as I was flying way too fast, and of course fear was an uninvited guest who would not go away.
The real bummer occurred when I came to a stop in midair. It was still quite a distance to reach the landing platform. Feeling a moment of sheer panic, I did what I was taught in the event of stopping in midair: crawled my way back to the end. After a while my arms became so exhausted that they hurt and I could not move on. So there I was hanging more than 100 feet in the air holding on for my dear life. Eventually Meng (first guide) had to hook himself to the line and crawl out to get me. Once I was at the landing platform, those who went before me tried to encourage me but I was seriously feeling defeated. This feeling was my faithful company for the rest of first day’s ziplines.
The first night in the treehouse was rather pleasant – getting to know the other participants, playing some game, enjoying the beauty of nature at night (starry night skies, trees’ silhouettes, sounds of forest inhabitants) – but a large part of me dreaded what would come the following day. I wondered what I did not do right that I stopped before reaching the end. Did I incorrectly position my legs? Was my backpack too heavy? Was I not physically fit enough? Was it the fear?
Second day arrived. My confidence level had plummeted to the lowest point. Fear got the best of me. I had never been the ‘weakest’ or the ‘last’ in group situations before. It was such a lonely feeling that everybody could make it except me. Still, I did not want to give up thinking ‘maybe it would be better this time’, and, I paid quite a lot of money for the activity so I might as well finish it. More ziplining. More hovering in midair. More crawling my way back. The good news was that the more I did, the closer I got to the end. I remember one participant said to me ‘practice makes perfect’ (I could not agree more!). I began to feel my confidence slowly coming back, and started to enjoy myself a little bit more.
Darkness fell without much realization. The starry moonlit night was a quiet and peaceful time for me. My friend was just a few inches away from me. But most of the time we were silent. It was a perfect time to do nothing but appreciate being so close to the nature. The beauty of it all was so enchanting that it drew me beyond myself and into rapt fascination with my surroundings. I would want to have a night like this for the rest of my life! The entire scene was precisely a manifestation of my romantic notions of treehouses.
The biggest challenge (for me) was to come on the third day: the longest zipline at the length of more than 500 meters. I reduced the load in my backpack as much as I could. The magical feeling that I had the night before was replaced by an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety. I kept thinking it would be a very, very long way to crawl my way back if I stopped in midair. Not convinced with the weight of my backpack, I humbly asked Valao if he could help me carry it. Without any hesitation he agreed. While waiting for my turn to take off, I tried to remember all the do’s and don’ts of successful ziplining. A few minutes later I was up in the air again. It was such a long flight that at some point of it my fear/anxiety subsided and I started to relax and notice, observe and enjoy my surroundings more – the trees, the blue skies, the silence. I saw my shadow moving alongside me and thought it was cute. Finally I came to a stop, but was close enough to the landing platform. Although I did not make it all the way through, it was still a moment of great feat and happiness for me. Some of us went back and repeat the longest zipline. I did too! At one point I even went tandem with Meng.
So does my Gibbon story sound pretty much like a fairy tale that has a happy ending? I guess that is one way to look at it. On a deeper level, I would say the entire experience was rather spiritual for me. The beauty of the place was captivating, dynamic as it was always changing depending on the time of the day, and was able to gratify all of my senses in that I could see, hear, smell, taste and feel it. The wild and vast expanse of the forest environment humbled me as it reminded me of how small I was in comparison to the Universe. Gibbon ziplining was a physically, mentally and emotionally challenge that compelled me to face my own limitations. Coming out of it alive had to some extent elevated my sense of capability and self-worth and endowed me with a great sense of accomplishment. This is my Gibbon experience.