The alarm rings at 5.45am, but I don’t need it. I’m already awake. A restless night fretting about what I’ve let myself in for. The mini-bus is picking me up at 6.30am and it’s too late to back out now. A 50-year-old man with a fear of heights who agreed to go ziplining with a group of friends. What was I thinking? And not just one zipline. Oh no, that would be too easy. The Flight of the Gibbon ziplining venue I’m heading for has 7kms of ziplines. My ordeal isn’t going to be over quickly. With 30 different stations suspended in the tree canopy, some as high as 70 metres above the ground, this is going to be an entire morning of slow torture. If all that wasn’t enough to get my bowels moving, I’d also discovered the night before that Flight of the Gibbon have Southeast Asia’s longest single zipline flight at 800 metres. I had to double-check it wasn’t a typo. Not 80, but 800 bloody metres! That’s 2,624 feet in old money. I was seriously starting to dread what was supposed to be an exhilarating and ‘sanuk‘ experience.
I’ve always said that it can be good to get out of your comfort zone. In my younger days, I used to do stand-up comedy so I thought if I’ve got that experience in my locker I can handle ziplining. But when that morning alarm went off, dying on stage in a comedy club in London trying to make 300 alcohol-fuelled strangers laugh was a more inviting prospect than driving out through the Thai countryside with a group of friends. Too late now, sunshine. I’ve promised myself I’d do it so I have to go through with it. There is no backing out. I can’t be the one who lets everyone else down. I can’t let myself down. Accompanied by eight people and hundreds of butterflies who have taken up residence in the pit of my stomach, it’s off to the mountain village of Mae Kampong, an hour’s drive east from the city of Chiang Mai.
Flight of the Gibbon, Mae Kampong
The main reason I initially agreed to consider ziplining was because I met two Thai ladies at a travel conference in Chiang Rai, Khun Golf and Khun Ann, who work for Flight of the Gibbon. Of course, they’re going to say good things about their company, but they didn’t try to give me any sales patter. It was like talking with old friends the first time I met them and because they were so bubbly and passionate about what they do, it was hard to say no when they invited me to try out Flight of the Gibbon in Chiang Mai. I agreed to visit the location and check out what they are doing, but told Ann and Golf I couldn’t promise that I’d have enough nerve to go through with the ziplining. They laughed and reassured me, ‘mai pen rai‘. Flight of the Gibbon is more than just ziplining; they also support the local community and carry out conservation work. I was keen to take a look at the conservation work and the eco-tourism aspect of Flight of the Gibbon so even if I didn’t go ziplining it wouldn’t be a wasted journey. As it turned out, meeting Ann and Golf resulted in me enjoying one of the most memorable days I’ve experienced in my 10 years of travelling around Thailand.
safety briefing from the skyranger
Taking the plunge
Safety instructions digested, toilet visited (three times), waiver form signed, safety harness fitted and helmet on. Right, let’s do this. Some of my friends had ziplined before, but the majority were virgin zipliners. And as I discovered on the short walk through the trees to the first station, I was not alone with my fear of heights. I’d been told that I could take a look at the first two or three stations and if I decided I want to back out, it would be easy enough to return to the office and let the rest of the group continue without me. But I’d told myself I was going to do it and after meeting the skyranger guides and listening to the safety briefings I was feeling slightly better about the predicament I was in. But only slightly better.
I keep telling myself, children do this. Don’t be such a lightweight. I’m a middle-aged man with enough physical lumps and bumps on my body and mental scars to remind me I’ve lived a life. I’ve been out of my comfort zone plenty of times in the past. Climbing up the stairs to the first skyline platform my heart is pounding, but I know I’m securely attached to the safety rope. Nothing can go wrong. Can it? I don’t want to go first, but I do want to get it over with quickly. I’m third in line. Don’t look down. Eyes firmly fixed on the horizon and before I know it, I’m up next. With six people waiting behind me there is only one thing to do. Listen to the advice from the skyranger guide and . . . whoosh! A few seconds later and I’m standing on the other platform high-fiving anybody in sight. That was when I began to start enjoying myself. The nervous tension released and the adrenaline flowing. Better than sex some would say. The similarities are certainly there for me; it was all over in a few seconds and I was smiling from ear to ear at the end. Fortunately, this wasn’t to be a one-shot, roll-over and sleep affair. It was three hours of high-adrenaline action that had all of the group whooping and laughing until our cheeks hurt.
yours truly trying to conquer his fear of heights (a big thank you to Cadu Cassau for the photo)
With the first couple of zipline runs safely under my belt, I knew this would be a good day. A short diversion along a trail made it a special day. I didn’t see them at first, but I could hear their sing-song chatter and whoops echoing around the treetops. The branches swayed high in the canopy and I spotted the first gibbon. Then another. A third gibbon was lazily stretching and looking down at the group of ungainly weirdos in orange helmets. The gibbons at Mae Kampong have seen it all before.
A day at Flight of the Gibbon is more than just having sanuk on the ziplines. You are helping to support wildlife conservation in that area. A pair of gibbons that were rescued by Flight of the Gibbon and rehabilitated to the jungle in 2007 have already produced offspring and the family of primates are thriving in their natural habitat. And there are benefits too for the local economy with all the forest guards and many of the skyrangers employed from Baan Mae Kampong eco-village.
Working alongside local specialists, the conservation team at Flight of the Gibbon are also planning to reintroduce hornbills to the forests of Mae Kampong. The birds were once common in the area, but gradually disappeared through hunting and poaching.
Flight of the Gibbon also maintain a team of conservation experts led by Demis Galli dedicated to sustainable environmental practices. In 2008, the company started planting a variety of native tree species in deforested areas close to their zipline operation. Since then, they have planted more than 30,000 trees in the Thai jungle. Within the next 20 years they plan to plant one million trees.
The local community is fully involved in the conservation program with schools in the area gaining valuable first-hand knowledge about the importance of conservation and caring for the environment. Visitors also have the option to stay overnight in the eco-village of Ban Mae Kamphong which helps to support the local community.
The Flight of the Gibbon course is cleverly designed to make it as varied and exciting as possible. It isn’t just a case of ziplining from one platform to another. The length and height of the ziplines vary and they are interspersed with Indiana Jones-esque rope bridges to add to the action. Just when you begin to get comfortable with the ziplining, something new is around the corner to keep you on your toes.
Ian & Nest crossing the smaller of the two sky bridges
You’re eased in to the action gently with a couple of short ziplines to make you feel comfortable before the ‘Big Daddy’ faces you. And when you see how fast the people in front of you appear to be going, the blood starts pumping through the veins. By the time I landed safely on the platform 800 metres away I wanted to do it again. The entire course was an incredible adrenaline rush with swinging rope bridges, abseiling, a double zipline and the ‘Superman’ zipline where you can dive head first with arms stretched out in front of you.
Concerns about safety
If you spend enough time in Thailand you soon realise that there are major differences in attitudes towards safety compared to the West. Living in Chiang Mai and writing about Thailand, I’m also well aware that there have been a spate of serious incidents at ziplining venues in Chiang Mai in recent months. This is one of the first things I raised with Ann and Golf in out talk. They acknowledged it was a problem with some zipline operators not having sufficient investment in training staff and safety procedures. This in turn reflects badly on the reputable zipline operators with all companies tarred with the same brush. The Thai authorities have inspected all zipline operators and withdrawn licences from some companies. Flight of the Gibbon pride themselves on their safety procedures and operating record established over a number of years. No adventure activity can be guaranteed 100% safe, but my own personal experiences and research of Flight of the Gibbon means I’d be happy to use them again.
a skyranger is always on hand to help you land safely
One of my other concerns as a novice zipliner was that my nervousness would mean that I’d mess up the clipping of the carabiner or touch the wrong cable. I was relieved to find out you don’t have to worry about any of that. Two fully trained guides known as ‘skyrangers’ accompany every group and do all the clipping and unclipping for you. One of the guides goes ahead to help you at the next platform and the other remains on the launch platform making sure you are safely clipped on. At all times you are securely attached to your harness and a safety rope. A safety video is screened in the van en route to Flight of the Gibbon and another briefing is given at the venue. The skyrangers also give advice, explanations and reassurance at each station on the course.
Despite my fear of heights, the zipping adventure proved to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. The fact that I was securely attached at all times made a big difference. I think it also helped that I was with a group of friends which made things more relaxed and we all encouraged each other along the course. I’m still not sure if I’d be able to do a balloon flight or bungee jumping, but I’d definitely go ziplining again with Flight of the Gibbon.
my friend Paul enjoying the ride
Flight of the Gibbon ziplining FAQs
- Price approximately 4,000 baht (depends on which experience you book)
- Includes pick-up and drop-off at your hotel or guest-house
- Any age from approximately 5 and up can participate
- Minimum height of 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches) tall to fill the harness
- Maximum weight of 126kg (ziplines and rigging systems are engineered to hold much more than this & exceed international standards)
- Flip flops and loose-fitting shoes are not allowed
- Takes approximately 2.5-3 hours to complete the course
- Maximum group size is 9
- Recommended to wear longer trousers
- Lunch is included
- Flight of the Gibbon Chiang Mai is open 7 days a week, 365 days of the year
- Lockers are provided free of charge
- Skyrangers have the final say on what items can be carried with each guest while on the course for safety reasons
- Use of sunscreen is recommended
- Hats can be worn to and from the course but a helmet must be worn while on the course
- You don’t need to be that fit, but there is some climbing up stairs to reach platforms
I took a small camera that fitted into a zipped pocket although my hands weren’t always steady enough to use it! Some friends in my group were confident enough to use their smartphones as they whizzed down the course. If you’ve got a Go Pro or similar that is ideal to record your adventure, but you can also rent a Go Pro if you need to from the Flight of the Gibbon office before you start. And if you haven’t got a camera, there are places on the course where photographs will be taken of you ziplining which you can buy at the end of your day. Safety regulations in place mean that the skyranger guides are not allowed to take photos using your camera.
This experience with Flight of the Gibbon was genuinely one of the best I’ve had in Thailand. I had major concerns before going because of my fear of heights and reports of accidents at other zipline operations in Thailand. The cost at Flight of the Gibbon is more expensive than some alternative zipline companies in Chiang Mai, but in my opinion worth every single satang. Safety procedures were first class and with the eco-tourism aspect of Flight of the Gibbon you aren’t just ziplining. You are also helping to give back to the local community and assisting wildlife conservation in the area. Full details of the Chiang Mai ziplining experience and eco-tourism at Mae Kampong can be found on the Flight of the Gibbon website.
Flight of the Gibbon also have another ziplining location close to Pattaya and Bangkok. Bookings for Flight of the Gibbon in Mae Kampong can be made directly via the company’s website or via most tour offices in Chiang Mai. Please note there are numerous zipline operators in Chiang Mai, so be careful not to get them mixed up.
I was a guest of Flight of the Gibbon Chiang Mai, but under no obligation to write a review. As always, thoughts expressed here are my own.