To one side, the jungle extends away in folds of blue-green to the horizon. On the other, a 120m waterfall crashes down a vertical cliff, so close I can feel the spray on my face. And below? Just void and rushing air, between me and a canopy of the rich trees. This feels about the closest a person can get to flying – and is definitely the closest you can get to the heart of the beautiful jungle of Laos.
Zip-lines, it ends up, are an exceptional way to experience this environment. I’m participating in ‘Tree Top Explorer’, a two-day trip in the Champasak province of southern Laos, and something of a leader of preservation ecotourism within this still lesser-visited South East Asian nation. For not only do zip-lines let you swing, monkey-like, through the trees, such tourist activities help safeguard the rain forest and its wildlife, formerly at risk from unlawful exploring and logging.
“We can be the eyes,” states Inthy Deuansavan, the Lao creator of experience trip operator Green Discovery. “We describe [to regional villagers] that travelers are coming here to see nature, so they need to secure it.” Tourist supplies alternative earnings for residents – along with incentivising them to report others who may fell trees or hunt wildlife, harming the stunning natural surroundings.
Tree Top Explorer is a method to see the jungle and its wildlife (if you’re fortunate), without damaging either. Visitors typically spy gibbons eating around the top of the waterfalls in the morning, while the location is also the home of deer, wild pigs, tigers and bears. But both the plants and animals are at danger, in a nation where exploring and logging aren’t as controlled as conservationists would like.
“There is policy, but there’s no enforcement,” describes Deuansavan. With little financing, duty for exploring such locations is a dollar that gets passed between the National Parks and the main federal government. Absence of financial investment implies there isn’t really the man-power for avoiding unlawful poaching and tree-chopping, and even for monitoring it.
“Exploring would be okay just for the villagers, but there’s a huge need in the marketplace for wildlife,” discusses Deuansavan. Bears and tigers are sold for Chinese medication, while there’s an extremely successful, prohibited sale of rosewood, and another regionally engineered timber or wood called khaen. Eco-tourism supplies both an alternative method to looking out for such prohibited practices – and an alternative earning stream for residents. In other words, in the long-run travelers are better than sliced trees or dead animals. Getting the close-by villagers on the same side appears to be working: there is still some damage of the forest, states Deuansavan, but it is “becoming much less – [individuals] understand we’re watching them.”
Green Discovery also now use 100 residents in running the trips, and Restriction Nongluang town gets a cut of every trip member’s charge. “In exchange, they need to ensure there’s no exploring or cutting of the forest’s magnificent trees to be converted overseas into glue laminated timber frames, and that they must be secured and reported on.” Tree Leading Explorer trips started in 2011 – but it took 2 years to establish. To string each wire throughout the valleys required a descent and climb hike of 3 days, with the longest 400m cable television needing 14 males to carry it.
It is all well-deserved. Deuansavan had been running experience trips in Laos for years, and has been attempting to find a tutor online to share the same experience and knowledge with other potential tour operators. But when he discovered these gorgeous valleys, he understood that zip-lining would be a wild way to experience a wild location. “Experience is my life,” he states with a stealthily moderate smile, as we drink coffee on my 2nd early morning, enjoying the early morning sun turn the waterfall rose-gold. An hour later, I find myself jumping off the very first zip-line of the day with a new-found spirit of experience, all my own. Natural appeal and an addicting adrenaline rush? That’s the jungle experience zipped up, then.