With the introduction of Flight of the Gibbon’s treetop adventure course, Angkor Park now offers more than its historic temples. Writer Joanna Mayhew takes on the country’s first zip-line. Photography by Anna Spelman.
Standing on a tree house suspended 40 metres high, I briefly survey the brush-covered ground far below before stepping off the edge. My stomach drops in the milliseconds it takes for the pulley to tighten, securing my harness to the cable above, while propelling me forward and down. “Fly like a bird,” trails the guide’s voice behind, as my speed picks up for the whirlwind 300-metre ride.
Set in Angkor Archaeological Park’s dense forest, Flight of the Gibbon provides educational adventure canopy tours encompassing 10 zip-lines, four hanging bridges and a 30-metre abseil. Opened in 2012, having established two courses in Thailand, the tour outfitter is the first of its kind offered in Cambodia, and was the first zip-line built in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, according to the company’s senior consultant, Todd Anthony.
“In one day, you can have the experience of soaring through trees that are 150 years old, and visiting temples that are 900 years old,” says Anthony. “The adventure and cultural aspect tied together is unlike any other zip-line in the world.”
In Cambodia’s driest season, the landscape stretching from the towering platforms remains green and lush, set to a background chorus of cicadas. Though the tour is located near several of the iconic temples, not a stone, structure or road can be spotted while in the trees—and this is no accident. In setting up, one UNESCO compliance requirement was that zip-lines not be visible from any temple, and vice versa. This involved a complicated tree-selection process, with staff stationed at temples with white flags and others in trees, radioing back and forth with, “Can you see me now?”
“We had to make sure we didn’t affect the natural beauty and the environment that comes with the history of the park,” says Anthony, adding that it took a year of groundwork for the approvals, followed by a nine-month building period. The 21 platform stations that bookend the zip-lines, along with the maze-like sky walkways, were constructed using an innovative friction-wrapped system to protect the trees supporting them. As such, no bolts or nails are used in the trees, which are inspected monthly by the Forestry Administration, APSARA Authority and the International Co-Coordinating Committee for Angkor, according to Anthony.
Siem Reap’s flat landscape presented a unique challenge to the construction. As zip-lines naturally descend, the team had to build numerous wooden staircases to snake around the sturdy trees—meaning participants climb a total of 257 steps throughout the two-hour course. “It adds to the adventure,” says senior operations manager Glenn Bignold, or Bigsy.
The course is the brainchild of former architect, David Henry Allardice. A company founder, Allardice had to return to his native New Zealand mid-construction due to cancer, and in 2013 passed away, never having seen the finished product.
But his legacy lives on, through Flight of Gibbon’s 16 guides, or “sky rangers”, who proudly usher visitors from all over the world through the six-hectare course. Outfitted with white helmets and orange T-Shirts, they expertly clip Petzl carabiners to the mesh of thick steel cables while making frequent cracks about it being their first day on the job.
“When I first started, I was crying,” guide Lon Tola says, laughing now as he recalls learning to work the zip-lines. The 22-year-old was drawn into the job, considered bizarre by many of his friends and family, for the chance to interact with foreigners and spend his days outside.
But Tola, like all guides, had to pass a stringent series of tests to qualify, following an intensive month-long training. The company takes safety seriously, from using top-quality gear to performing daily pre-operations checks and monthly “deep” checks of harnesses and pulleys, says Anthony. “It’s safety first, education second and adventure third.”
With zero incidents reported so far, the managers say few are deterred by the zip-line being in Cambodia. “Some are scared, but usually the guides talk them into it,” says Bigsy, adding that only eight people have ever not completed the course. “Once you’re on that second zip-line, you’re laughing.”
Flight of the Gibbon hopes an additional draw for visitors will be the chance to see gibbons in the wild. Coincidentally, a program to re-introduce the apes to Angkor Park began around the time the company set up. The initiative, run by Wildlife Alliance, the Forestry Administration and APSARA, has successfully released one pair, and is preparing to release another, along with more in the future. The released gibbons, which have since had a baby, often approach the company’s outpost. “They like to say good morning to everybody,” says Tola.
The goal of this reintroduction is not tourism but conservation, says Nick Marx, director of wildlife rescue and care programmes at Wildlife Alliance. “However, it cannot do any harm if visitors can also see native Cambodian wildlife once again,” he adds.
With combination tours offered alongside the treetop expedition, such as quad biking and cycling, those thirsting for adventure in the Kingdom should find a welcome antidote in Flight of the Gibbon—at least for now.
Asked about next projects, Anthony alludes to stepping adventure up a notch. “Call me in six months,” he says. “We always have something up our sleeves.”