Let me prelude my somewhat longwinded "constructive criticism" with this. Waking up in a treehouse in the middle of the Laos jungle is an experience that you can't put a number on. "Priceless" is really the only word that springs to mind. However, I have a few bones to pick with the tour itself.
My best friend and I signed up for the "Express" 2-day-1-night experience. Unfortunately, we arrived in the office an hour late after plowing our way through chaos at Laos immigration having arrived in Huay Xai from Chiang Rai that very morning. We assumed that we would have to reschedule our tour to the next day, but the staff at the front desk assured us that it was still possible for us to go as scheduled. We dumbly assumed that this might mean we were getting a "private tour." So we packed ourselves into a truck with two unsmiling, non-speaking gentleman (one of whom promptly fell asleep) and embarked on the hour-plus drive to the starting point. An aside: our driver and his compadre were clearly in no rush as they stopped to run some personal errands and all of our polite inquiries were met with blank stares and grunts. We took this as confirmation that there were probably no other group members waiting for us. Guess again! The two other pairs in our group waited for us for over an hour with no communication from staff as to why they were waiting and for how long. This was pretty much a most appropriate precursor to the trip ahead.
Bones for picking:
1. Safety. We received no safety training. We watched our tour mates hook themselves up to the zip lines and followed suit. We didn't even know how to brake on the first line across the river. Apparently there was a safety video on YouTube. Good to know!
2. Safety (continued). My best friend couldn't figure out what was wrong with her ill-fitting harness. Well, what do you know?! It was missing a strap. The guides didn't seem too fussed. We're just a few hundred metres above the ground. No biggie!!!
3. Communication. Our guides could barely speak two licks of English. They couldn't answer any questions beyond whether the zip line was fast or slow or long or short. We had so many questions about everything from itinerary and food, to Laos culture, to the experience and the zip lines themselves, yet couldn't ask a single thing. For the price of the tour and the potentially dangerous activities involved, our entire group felt that all guides should absolutely be equipped with basic English conversation skills.
4. Communication (continued). Upon arrival at our treehouse, the guides told us something about four o'clock. We asked if what they meant was that we had free time and they would return at 4pm? "Yes." One of our group asked if this meant that we could now zip line on our own. "Yes." My friend and I stayed behind to relax and take in the peace and quiet while the other two pairs zipped off into the jungle. Upon return, one had broken glasses and a swollen foot due to an altercation with a tree after not braking in time. They had also run into another group whose guide had been surprised to find them roaming around without a guide. No kidding. Turns out our guides would be back at 4pm to TAKE US zip lining. Whoopsie daisies. Since they didn't seem overly concerned with our tour mate's broken glasses or swelling foot, they sprawled out on mattresses and watched us idly for a little while before taking a nap.
5. Food. The food was OKAY, but be prepared to eat a lot of rice and tasty but very salty, oily vegetable stews. Frankly, for the price of the trip, we all agreed that the food should have been a lot better. The stale, sweet, one-raisin-is-all-you-get rice cakes with the non-edible paper stuck to them need to go. We were first served these rice cakes as a snack and then again the next day for breakfast. I'm pretty sure we all collectively let out a defeated sigh when we sat down at the table. We were so hungry that we all sat there feebly peeling the stubborn paper off piece by piece while the guides expressionlessly watched us like we were a sitcom (but clearly not an entertaining enough sitcom). Bring snacks. Lots of them.
Tip: You can rustle up some survival dessert by making "Sweet and Sticky Rice Balls." A true delicacy, if there ever was one. All you do is mix the leftover rice from dinner with an appropriate amount of condensed milk (your treehouse will come equipped with a can or two)... roll into a ball, sprinkle with sugar and enjoy. One of our famished tour mates threw back like 17 of them. Making rice balls was our after-dinner entertainment.
The icing on the cake was on the way back to Huay Xai when another group's truck broke down and all those who couldn't ram themselves into our truck were left standing on the side of the road on a blind corner. Safety first!
Overall, the zip lining itself is awesome and the treehouse is lovely and idyllic... but for the price paid, the company really needs to up their game when it comes to customer service.
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