Swooping in to help Laos
Zip lines carry fresh hope for saving a jungle
Dong Hua Sao Zip-lining. (Henry Wismayer / June 23, 2011)
The sense of revelation is appropriate, for in the world of jungle zip lines, this one is a pioneer. Ever since the first hippies stumbled along the route that would evolve into the Southeast Asian overland circuit, tourism in landlocked Laos has always centered on the Buddhist temple towns and karst wonderlands of the north. But you have to travel another 700 miles farther down the Mekong River to reach the newest flagship on the tourism trail. Here, deep in the jungles of Champasak province, a trailblazing ecotourism outfit's latest offering is bringing thrills, spills and much needed tourist revenue to a more southerly locale.
The adventure begins in Nong Louang, the isolated scattering of wood-slat homesteads that forms the gateway to the National Protected Area of Dong Hua Sao, about 680 square miles of dense jungle spilling over the rim of the Bolaven Plateau. Better known as the heart of Laos' coffee industry, past efforts to attract tourists to the region have foundered, the forest deemed too impenetrable, the escarpment too steep.
Opened in early 2011 by Laos' leading travel company, Green Discovery, the three-day Treetop Explorer aspires to change all that, and the tour that friend Tom and I have come here to sample is fully booked, a dozen-strong group of well-to-do Laotians and wise-cracking Hawaiian 50-somethings "on a break from the wives" joining Inthy Deuansavanh, Green Discovery's hands-on founder, on what essentially is the Explorer's inaugural run. Trussed up in top-spec harnesses, bright orange helmets and grippy, fingerless gloves, we set off down the trail, which plunges into dense forest before switchbacking over the edge of the plateau.
It takes an hour to reach the first zip line, a 50-foot wire strung between tree trunks. "You have to trust the line," says Inthy, swooping across the void with practiced ease. Tentatively, we take it in turns to follow his lead, hooking the ball-bearing pulley and dropping off the wooden launch pad; controlling our speed with the "brake," a wishbone twig that creates drag when pulled down on the line, before hitching up our feet for a smooth landing.
Practice over, relief soon turns to trepidation at the sight of line No. 2, which bows endlessly over a deep chasm before vanishing into tendrils of mist. This leap of faith marks our introduction to three hours of high jinks on a series of ever longer zip lines, all stitched together by short treks, rappelling descents and canopy walkways. With each traverse, the chorus of joyful whoops grows louder as everyone gains confidence, until we are all jubilantly whizzing to and fro before the network's spectacular showpiece: the Kamet Falls, a multitiered cascade that plunges for 400 feet into the river basin far below.
The thrill is all the purer for being totally guilt-free. Though pristine to the eye, Dong Hua Sao is a region under siege, its periphery eroded by slash-and-burn coffee farming, its animals poached to cater for the Asian medicine market. By allocating a portion of the proceeds toward conservation, projects such as the Treetop Explorer are helping to safeguard the surrounding environment like no amount of forestry officials ever could, while a strict policy of cooperation with villages is providing alternative livelihoods for locals, such as the boys overseeing our safety.
In Laos, a country whose government extols ecotourism as a cornerstone of its "Millennium Goal" to drag the population out of the world's 20 poorest by 2020, Treetop hits the mark.
It is a theme continued at journey's end. In gathering dusk, we shimmy down a final rappel and into the Treetop Explorer's central hub. Perched among the canopy like an Ewok Village, the Jungle Hotel Paksong comprises six treehouses containing basic but comfortable bedrooms orbiting a central tree trunk and all offering unimpeded views over the surrounding jungle. Each room is accessible only by zip line, with landing platforms and winding walkways leading down to a restaurant area, situated at the base of the falls.
In keeping with the project's low-impact credo, every bit of this organic village, from the bed frames to the grass-thatched roofs, has been constructed from indigenous materials. The electricity in the rooms is driven by a waterfall-powered turbine, while the banquet we enjoy that evening — all sticky rice, marinated meats and chili condiments eaten communally, straight from a banana leaf — has all been sourced from among the villages that dot the park's periphery.
The next morning, we wake to the smell of premium Bolaven coffee and the sound of people zipping off for breakfast. After the previous day's exhilaration, it's tempting to take the morning in a lower gear, relaxing by the plunge pools. But the opportunities to extend the adrenaline rush are many. While the zip lines hold sway as the project's headline caper, yet more intrepid activities await at the escarpment wall, where a via ferratta — a vertical climb of iron pegs and hand grips, an idea imported from Italy's Dolomites — ensures that the journey up to the plateau is as exhilarating as the route down.
Tom and I opt for trekking, an experience that soon turns into an object lesson in how zip-lining is surely the pre-eminent method for moving through the jungle. We spend the day meandering along barely perceptible trails through dense underbrush and splayed pipe organs of bamboo, stopping now and then to detach leeches from our calves, all the while wondering how Ham, our young and necessarily patient guide, can do it all while wearing flip-flops.
It's impossible not to be struck by the effort it must have taken to establish the project in such challenging terrain. On the way back to camp, we bump into the team of long-haired Thai engineers who helped to make it happen, putting the finishing touches on the secondary network of zip lines that forge a whole new flight path deep into the basin.
The longest of those is more than 400 yards, although Inthy, a natural social entrepreneur, wants to break records.
"Asia's longest zip line measures 840 meters," he enthuses later that evening as we recover from the day's rigors over a bottle of lao lao, a throat-shredding local whiskey. "One day, I'd like to beat it!"
Having seen what Inthy already has achieved in Dong Hua Sao, I wouldn't bet against him.
If you go
When to go
The best time to visit Laos is between November and February. March to May tends to be very hot, though this isn't such a problem on the Bolaven Plateau, where the elevation means cooler temperatures. The rainy season runs June to October.
The jumping-off point for trips to Dong Hua Sao is Pakse, the provincial capital of Champasak. Pakse can be reached by overnight bus from Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Bangkok. Lao Airlines (laoairlines.com) runs regular flights to Pakse from Bangkok; tickets start at $206 one way.
Two- and three-day trips on the Treetop Explorer, including rooms and food at the Jungle Hotel Paksong, cost $187 and $241 per person respectively, based on a group of four or more. Green Discovery Laos also runs tours in every corner of the country. Their safety record is impeccable, and the company prides itself on its responsible ethos. See greendiscoverylaos.com for more information.
Where to stay
Like elsewhere in Laos, accommodation in Pakse is very cheap, with a plentiful supply of guest houses offering basic rooms for as low $5 per night. For something more up-market, try the Champasak Palace Hotel (champasakpalacehotel pakse.com), where doubles range from $26-$150 per night.