Central Laos is a destination I wish I did not have to tell people about.
It is a strange comment to make, as I was invited to Laos to learn about and promote The Loop, a route that takes you east of Vientiane through the provinces of Bolikhamxay and Khammouane.
Over five days, my fellow travellers and I traced the narrow neck of land sandwiched between the Thai and Vietnamese borders, circling the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area before looping back to the capital city.
To date, the Laos Loop has mostly been a low-key route shared among adventurous Western backpackers, traversing the rural Laos countryside on their motorbikes looking to be the next Ewan McGregor on their own Long Way Round journey.
The Scottish actor and English television presenter and actor Charley Boorman embarked on a three-month motorcycle trip in 2004 that resulted in the hit television series, Long Way Round.
But Laos' tourism authority is looking to open up The Loop to more mainstream travellers.
With the opening of direct flight routes from Singapore in 2016, Laos has become easier to visit and more popular with time-starved Singaporeans, though most tend to stick to tried-and-tested destinations such as Unesco World Heritage gem Luang Prabang or the commercial capital of Vientiane.
But there is a lot of Laos left to see if you have a bit more time on your hands.
Travelling the Laos Loop is not going to be for everyone, especially for those who hate long road trips. Most of your day will be spent on the road.
Thankfully, most of the highways and roads along The Loop have been paved so it is less arduous a journey than before.
Still, there are certain stretches where you will be bumping along dirt roads, avoiding potholes and coming across the occasional herd of buffalo passing through.
Our first stop on The Loop took place about an hour into our journey - at Wat Phabath in the Bolikhamxay Province.
This is an essential stop as the temple is where most Lao people go to receive blessings for a safe journey, through a traditional Baci ceremony where a monk ties a piece of string around your wrist. The string is believed to keep your spirit from getting lost and should be left intact for at least three days.
Wat Phabath is also an important Buddhist pilgrimage site and home to a majestic reclining Buddha and a giant gold-plated Buddha's footprint.
With blessings on our wrists, we crossed into the Khammouane province, where wide expanses of land morph into dense forests of the Phou Hin Poun National Protected Area as we wound our way up through the hills.
On one of these hillsides close to the town of Na Hin, we stopped at a small platform that is still partially under construction. This is the Limestone Forest Viewpoint, which offers a splendid panoramic view of the limestone karsts poking out amid the green canopy of the surrounding Hin Boun forest.
Descending from the hills, we turned off the highway and entered a valley, with lush green paddy fields all around us - framed by majestic karst mountains rising in the distance.
At the end of this road was Kong Lor Village where we stopped over for the night, in preparation for our visit to the famous Kong Lor Cave the next morning.
The Kong Lor Cave is a 7.5km limestone tunnel carved out of the mountain by the Hin Boun river.
It is traversed on a skinny wooden boat with a small motor and a skilful boatman, who navigates the dark twisty cave with a large light. The entire boat journey, which takes you from Kong Lor to Natan on the other end, takes about half an hour.
Most of the cave system is left untouched, so take along a good torch or headlamp if you want to marvel at its impressive rocky interior, which reaches heights up to 100m at certain points.
We stopped briefly at the only part of the cave which is lit, alighting on a small beach and walking through a roped path where our guide pointed out several unusual-shaped rock stalactites and stalagmites.
Take your time to enjoy the wonders of Kong Lor.
When you reach Natan, most boatmen will leave you here for at least two hours, where you can enjoy the forested areas, hire a bicycle and ride to Natan Village and experience local village life or even stay overnight in a homestay in Natan.
In Kong Lor Village and several places on The Loop like Ban Phonthan and Ban Pakha in Na Hin, we got to see some of the local weavers at work, painstakingly creating traditional colourful patterns on the loom, thread by thread.
If you are contemplating a souvenir, I highly recommend a sinh - what the Lao people call the long tube skirt worn by most of the women on a daily basis.
Besides supporting the local craftswomen, women will have to wear a sinh to enter any temple even if they are already wearing long pants, so it is worth picking up the skirt early in your trip instead of renting one at each temple.
As we started on the eastern edge of The Loop and entered Thalang, vistas of forested hills soon gave way to bare tree stumps and flooded valleys.
I was a little mystified until I learnt that Laos is a major producer of hydropower in South-east Asia and most of this landscape was the result of the creation of dams in the area.
I learnt most of this when we stopped for a break at the Nam Theun 2 Information Centre as we passed through Nakai en route to Thakhek.
Thakhek is the capital of the Khammouane province and right across the Mekong river from Thailand's Nakhon Phanom province. It is where most of The Loop travellers will stop over in for a night or more, thanks to its proximity to many of the major attractions.
Our first stop was the Sikhottabong Stupa, a revered sacred site with an impressive 29m-tall golden spire and home to Buddhist relics dating back to the sixth century.
We happened to visit the day before Khao Phansa, or Buddhist Lent, which takes place on the full moon of the eighth lunar month and the start of the rainy season when monks will spend three months meditating in a temple retreat.
Some of our group returned to Sikhottabong the following day to participate in the festivities and offer alms of sticky rice in the early morning.
Caves are another main draw of Thakhek, with a 20km stretch of the highway north of the town known as Cave Alley because of the proliferation of them in the area.
We first checked out Tham Nang Aen, which translates roughly to the "Cave of Sitting and Flirting", thanks to a local legend about two lovers who did exactly that.
Nang Aen cave is a welcome respite from the humidity, with a distinctly cooler temperature all year round. It is also more tourist-friendly than Kong Lor Cave - with more signage, colourful lighting and some impressive-looking stone stairways.
I enjoyed the rowboat ride on the underground river - a quiet way to better appreciate the majesty of the caverns and its rock structures.
Nearby, we headed to the Buddha Cave or Tham Pa Fa that was discovered by a local villager in 2004.
A wooden boardwalk brought us to a staircase built into the cliff that lead up to a tiny cavern about 70 steps up.
No pictures are allowed in the cave - a small stuffy space filled with more than 200 Buddha statues where you can pay your respects and be blessed through a Baci ceremony.
Our final stop on The Loop was at Khoun Kong Leng, a little lake just north of Thakhek along Highway 13. Temporarily closed for construction, this lake is famous for its beautiful cerulean colour and is both a popular swimming hole and picnic spot.
The long road journey back to Vientiane gave me a lot of time to contemplate what I had experienced on The Loop those five days.
Aside from the obvious natural beauty Laos has to offer, what I really enjoyed about this journey was the serenity of my travel experience - not having to squeeze with crowds to enter an attraction, deal with competitive touts or witness the trash and trampling that happens when overtourism occurs.
I am thankful I got to experience The Loop in its current state, but here is hoping it does not lose too much of its quiet charm when I next return to explore more of Central Laos' beauty.
• Jaclynn Seah is a freelance travel writer and travel blogger at theoccasionaltraveller.com. Her trip was hosted by the Lao PDR Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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