Saturday, September 8, 2012

Invading nature’s canopies harmlessly

Brazilian journalist Marina Gomes of Corremundo enjoys the ride of her lifetime as she zips across a span to reach one of the 23 platforms of the Flight of the Gibbon, a zipline in the forests of Mae Kompong, a Thai village in Chang Mai. Photo: Rhony Laigo

Flight of the Gibbon gives zipliners a breathtaking view of Thailand’s forest cover
One of the most sought-after extreme sporting activities for vacationers nowadays is the thing we call zipline. It is a ride on cables where you zip through mind-blowing heights harnessed in a way that will make Six Flags a place for the amateurs if you’re doing it say, in Thailand’s Flight of the Gibbon.

Installed way atop the forests of Mae Kompong, a Thai village in Chang Mai, Flight of the Gibbon is a daunting adventure that may not be for the faint of heart. And why not? Not only is the sport gliding through the forest cover seem precarious, you will have to keep on climbing up trees as if one huge drop of height is not enough while you negotiate the cables in a heart-stopping ride to reach one platform after another.

Flight of the Gibbon has 23 platforms, mostly makeshift landing stages around a tree, in the jungles where mostly monkeys, birds and other forest critters are the official residents, except for the sky rangers who have made Flight of the Gibbon their home – the bunch of Tarzans who make a mockery of scaling heights while earn a living from it, many at the “expense” of nervous wreck tourists.

Consider this: There were 11 of us who went to Khao Kheeo, Chonburi, where animals roam free as if they were ordinary pets or in most cases just doing their daily routines as if they were ordinary individual village residents because of their size. However, only seven of us dared to take the challenge of trekking deep into the forest amid the shortness of breath climbing the trail made worse by the mountain’s dizzying heights.

Of the original five journalists in our group, one didn’t join us because, he claims, he’s already “done it before.” But isn’t “done it before” supposedly makes it easier to do it again, apart from conquering other wuthering heights? Although obviously the roaring sound you will hear is your own voice screaming and that of the pulleys zipping through the cables.

Scream the seven brave souls did. [I didn’t (ehem)? And my six fellow gibbons can attest to that! And so did Jason Li. I mean, he never made a sound, I think in all the 12 days that we were together – he was so quiet!]. Well, Marina Gomes of Corremundo, the prolific Portuguese writer from Brazil, mostly did the screaming and by Terry Regan (president of Berkeley’s Northside Travel up there in Northern California), who I’m pretty sure hid his screams in what other folks would describe as swearing. 

At first, I thought Terry directed his “kind words” to Paworn (Paul) Chatrungnopakun, our Thai host from the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Marketing Officer for the Los Angeles outfit, until I realized that it was probably his way of casting away the evil spirits of the Thai jungles. I think Terry uttered his famous line more or less 20 times, which made us laugh and helped calm our nerves each time we heard him deliver the words “holy s _ _ t” even when we were hundreds of feet above the jungle below us. 

I admit it was a little intimidating at first. But volunteering to be the first to ride the zipline ahead of the six others was a “feat” I’d do over and over again. Seeing others ride the cables while witnessing in their faces how scared they were, or pretended not to be, added to my own evil pleasure while I clicked those pictures for their own selfish posterity. One setback though, you keep to be the photographer, and if I didn’t ask the Brazilian amazon Marina to go ahead of me at one time, I may never see myself moving forward if you choose not to purchase the official photographer’s shot, which of course will cost you 100 baht for a copy as I found out later.

But it was all worth it (and I bought the picture), especially upon learning that one of our fellow gibbons struggled to keep his poise as he suffered from a wedgy after each cable ride (right, Nick Winfrey?), which added more excitement for him and probably from other female primates in the area, homo sapiens included. Oh, I should probably mention that a big part of the proceeds go to the conservation efforts of Thailand’s wildlife so your zipline ride goes a long  way.

Truly, the mere thought of having to climb gigantic trees, up where nature photographers only used to go (thanks to zipline now anyone can be a jungle air tourist) was an experience of a lifetime. It was as exhilarating as probably scuba diving with equally dangerous depths, especially in instances where the dangling cable is so long that sometimes it takes more than 10 seconds to reach the next platform, as you see the glider becomes smaller and smaller while they reach the other end of the cable.

It’s a “shame” that the others didn’t come with us. Just ask Certified Travel Counselor Mary Ann Mari, who was more than willing to conquer yet another zipline in one of her tours. So, next time you’re in Thailand, please don’t pass up on the Flight of Gibbon. It’s an adventure you’ll never forget.

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