Worldly travellers escape to southern Laos
JUST as my pickup was about to whiz off to the site of a waterfall, two Frenchwomen stopped to ask if they could hitch a ride on my rickety vehicle.
They weren't your typical backpacker crowd, but were elegantly decked out in eye-catching costume jewellery instead.
Friends for three decades, Deborah and Claudine had waited all these years to travel together.
Curious, I asked what had attracted them to ultra-laidback Don Khone, one of the 4,000 Islands (also known as Si Phan Don) spread along the Mekong River in the Champasak province of southern Laos.
Deborah said: "We didn't want the usual beach-resort destinations in Asia. We felt the 4,000 Islands were ideal as they weren't overrun by tourists. We love how they're so tranquil and relatively untouched.
"And, of course, the French connection is another draw," she said, referring to how the French built Laos' first railway there in 1917.
Indeed, the region's raw, timeless beauty makes it a refreshing getaway for those who are city weary and searching for a lazy-hammock vacation.
In addition to placid islets, and picturesque waterfalls whose roar can be heard from a distance, southern Laos intrigues with a host of other natural as well as cultural attractions.
Pakse is the main hub and gateway to your southern adventures, and the city is only a short 45-minute domestic flight from the capital, Vientiane.
THE LUSH PLATEAU
The south can get extremely hot, sticky and humid, so the cooler climate of the Bolaven Plateau in the highlands offers a welcome respite.
This area is a waterfall paradise, with gawk-worthy sights like Tad Fan, also known as the Twin Waterfalls. Surrounded by lush vegetation and plummeting from a height of 120m into a deep gorge, Tad Fan is the highest waterfall in Laos - and a sight to behold.
The Bolaven Plateau is also known for its coffee and tea plantations.
A tour of the plantations can be easily arranged, and visits to the villages of ethnic minorities are one of the region's highlights.
The south is home to one of Laos' Unesco World Heritage sites. Wat Phu, the ruins of an Angkorian temple dating back to the 11th to 13th centuries, sits at the base of Mount Phu Kao in Champasak province.
The 4,000 Islands boast three main gems: Khong Island, which is the biggest, and sister islands Don Khone and Don Dhet, which can be reached via a two-hour boat ride from Khong Island, and are connected by a French colonial multi-arched railway bridge.
While Don Dhet is rife with backpackers, Don Khone is a picture of laidback, rural serenity, with charming resorts facing the Mekong River. It's 100 per cent kampung life here, but with a French flavour.
You can get around the island on foot, on bicycle or by motorbike.
LEGEND OF THE FALLS
Don Khone is home to Laos' two most awe-inspiring waterfalls, Liphi (also known as Samphamith) and Khone Phapheng, the largest waterfall in South-east Asia.
Liphi is located to the west of Ban Khone Village. Its falls have a drop of only a few metres, but what they lack in height, they make up for with sheer volume and power.
A calmer section of the river below the falls is a natural habitat for the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, found only in this part of the Mekong River.
In the east of Don Khone lies Khone Phapheng - Laos' Niagara Falls - which is more than 20km in width, and is where the Mekong River takes a drop before continuing on its course to the South China Sea via Cambodia and Vietnam.
Here's where you'll find yourself standing in front of the falls, admiring the gushing rapids for the longest time.
Jacqueline Tan is a freelance writer. Her trip was sponsored by Lao Airlines (www.laoairlines.com) and Spot Laos Consortium Singapore.