Sunday, January 04, 2009

Welcome to My Treehouse in Laos

On the continent of Asia, in the little country of Laos, in a 123,000 hectare mixed-deciduous forest that lies just across the northern border of Thailand, there is a treehouse (referred to as "Treehouse Number One") where I spent Christmas 2008.

Treehouse Number One (one of seven treehouses in The Bokeo Nature Preserve) is reached by 1) a three-hour ride from the border town of Huy Xia in an all-terrain vehicle (second time in my life that four wheel drive has been necessary - first time in Venezuela - Karrie can confirm the necessity) 2) an hour-long hike through a bamboo forest led by local Lao guides who are mostly invisible (they keep disappearing along the trail) but when visible they never talk - they just kind of point the way if there is any question about where to go (along with their supply-carrying mules)- and 3) a short zipline (the video I was able to load is the last leg of the journey into the keep in mind that this is the shortest line and therefore the only video I could load, but I finally loaded a video!!).

The guides give a short demonstration of how to harness yourself in-how to clip your safety lines to the green taped cables - and then they say "goodbye." Then the forest, thirty zipline cables, and the network of treehouses is ours to explore for three days. No helmet necessary. No guide at the end or beginnings of the lines. It's just you and the forest, and one morning guided hike to look for gibbons.

As you can imagine, we spent the three days saying, "I can't believe this." It is such a completely cool concept, it is a definite Triple Hot Shower with English TV (see scoring guide on previous post). Treehouse Number One has three levels and sleeps six: our group consists of three AIS teachers - Katherine, Shannon and me. Shannon's friend Roberto is with us, too - he is teaching in Beijing. And we hook up with an Aussie couple from Melbourne, Hayden and Thea, who are also Triple Hot Shower People. They define a new lithmus test: Are they the kind of people you would want to live with in a treehouse for three days? That's a really good test.

Yeah, so, at mealtimes, guides zip into the treehouse with a bucket of sticky rice and multiple round steel containers of food - all stacked together for easy transport. The cooler on the main floor is also stocked with snacks, and the kitchen comes with a sink and a stove and a kettle for coffee or hot Milo (hot chocolate). Of course, there is no electricity, and the bathroom has a squat toilet, a sink and a very cold shower. When we first emerged out of the forest and used a ground toilet again, Katherine mentioned that "it would never ever be fun to use a toilet ever again." There is something quite thrilling about hearing waste drop over thirty meters.

After a whole day of zipping above the mountainous, cloudy forest - sometimes on lines that are more than 500 meters long- the food - which, in any other setting, would be rated "Bedroom with a Hot Shower" food- becomes "Triple Hot Shower" food. Everything about this experience is Triple Hot Shower. The grant for this project was awarded to end slash and burn farming (for rice), to build a sustainable local income and to protect the endangered black gibbon. The conservation group (called Animo) has been up for a Changemaker Award for their concept...and I think that perhaps when it is completely run by Laotians they will be strong contenders to win it.
We didn't see any gibbons, but we did hear them singing in the mornings. I hear that they are very, very shy.

Now for a story:
The first night, the six of us in Treehouse Number One light candles in the lantern and play euchre and tell riddles and stories and read comments left by other TNO guests. Many of them mention the Treehouse Rat. "Name him," they say, "feed him," and "play with him." We all agree that people are perpetuating the rat myth. Rats don't climb they? So we play and we laugh and we tell more stories and it's time for bed.

The "beds" are mattresses with thick, white "mosquito nets" that you tuck under the mats. K and I lift up our "net" to get ready for bed and what I see on my pillow is horrifying: it's my REI backpack, nibbled through, ripped apart, and the half of the sandwich that I didn't finish during the hike is scattered all over my pillow. Either we interrupted the treehouse rat midmeal, or he thought the sandwich had too much onion in it, too. Or maybe the high quality material of my backpack filled him up. In any case, the rat of TNO is no myth.

The story continues. K and I tuck and tuck and tuck our mosquito net so very tightly under our mats, and I leave my Rat Pack outside of the tent - you can't really get rid of crumbs, you know, and we finally fall asleep. You know how when you're dreaming and something is happening in the real your dream incorporates that reality right into it in some wacky fashion?

Well, I am dreaming that I am in an Easter play and that someone is putting a crown on my head. Someone is Pat-Pat Patting my head, putting the crown on really, really well. (Kathy Clift, read no further).

Yeah, so (everyone but Kathy) pat pat pat pat...pat pat pat - tighten that Easter crown - and then I cross the threshold from the dream. There is no Easter play. There is no crown on my head. Rather, the TNO Rat is pat pat patting my head, through the thick white mosquito net.

I leap up and into Katherine's corner.

"Katherine! A rat was just patting my head!"

Woken out of a deep sleep, K says, "OK."

That's all I get, "OK."

I can assure you that if she or you or anyone else endured this horror and woke me up to tell me about it, I would give you more than "OK." I guarantee you.

Somehow, in my world of horror, I manage to fall back to sleep. Upon waking again and venturing out of the Rat Net, I find that TNO Rat did not get his fill of my REI Rat Pack during Round #1. He has nibbled through another section, and he has nibbled through the strap that attaches the whole pack together. Which was completely unnecessary.

So even if I tried to forget about the rat pat pat patting my head in the night, the crazy way I had to string the Rat Pack together for the rest of the trip reminded me of him every day.

Still, I must give the whole Gibbon Experience a Triple Hot Shower with English TV rating. After all, I was staying in the rat's tree. And the tarantula's tree (which we kept our flashlights on all night - hanging out on the thatched roof, because, what do you do if all of the sudden the tarantula disappears?)

On day three, we descend from our forest into the small village at the base of the preserve. We have come upon the beginning of a five day long New Year's celebration, and the village girls are dressed in their colorful dresses and hats adorned with pom pom balls. They are standing in two opposing lines, playing underhand catch with balls made out of soft material. They invite us to join in as the boys play soccer next to us. We don't take pictures, because "we are not from National Geographic." The handsome Frenchman who overseas the conservation project lounges in his baggy wrap around pants, cooly smoking a cigarette and interacting with the men in Laotian while we all wait for our all-terrain vehicle to take us back to town.

What is not Triple Hot Shower with English TV about that scene?


Amy T said...

I would have given you more than an "OK"... no I wouldn't because I would not have been anywhere near that TNO Rat. I couldn't sit through Ratatouille...

Brian Bowker said...

I was LAUGHING OUT LOUD by myself in a restaurant waiting for my to-go order while I was reading this, Marjie! HILARIOUS! Oh, I mean, HORRIBLE! Just horrible...

That place looks super cool!! I want to go so bad now!

Annette said...

Oh Marjie, and again you earn your title of super cool adventure traveler who everyone adores and envies. Even with pat-pat-patting, your Christmas sounds wonderful and very memorable.

The Norris Clan said...

Ok... so I was totally getting online to book MY stay in TNO until you mentioned the little detail of the "guest" living on the thatched roof... WHAT?! HOW did you even sleep? That would knock it down to at least b/room cold shower... come on!
However, I LOVE that you posted a video and the story of the squat toilets :-) Oh, I am so glad you are back.

Mungo said...

YOU are a Triple Hot Shower, my friend.

Anonymous said...

Once again-Mungo nails it! You are a Triple HOt Shower + English TV rating our friend! I am also cracking up OUT LOUD LIKE BRIAN after reading the "pat-pat-pat" rat story! Thank you for spending Christmas in a Tree House-can't wait to do an extensive interview with you. Love the vids-way to go!

Thea said...

I am thrilled to define a new litmus test. Love it.

Hayds is in Singapore visiting a friend but when he gets back, we'll send through photos.

We used Sok Phaep as a guide in Siem Reap. He was a gem. A great recommendation - thanks!

Pam Perry said...

Even with the rat, this sounds like an amazing adventure Marjie! I was cracking up, and imagining the sound of a rat dropping 30 meters... I'm definitely going to check out the Gibbons when in Laos!! See you in a few months...YAY!