Many travellers pass through the provincial capital of Savannakhet due only to its convenient location 240 kilometres due west of the Dansavanh/Lao Bao border crossing with Vietnam, and five kilometres south of the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. But with its charming old town, great local food, relaxed Mekong riverfront and unique nature/culture experiences in the outlying province, Savannakhet is much more than a crossroads to somewhere else. The town offers just enough to see and do without giving up that laidback air southern Laos is famous for.
'Savannakhet' translates roughly to 'Golden Land', and it was historically touted as the place to find the 'best of the best' in Laos. While we wouldn't go quite that far, the area is a classic leftover from the French colonial period and is well worth a few days.
Quiet streets are lined with crumbling but picturesque 100+ year old buildings, constructed during the town's heyday as a French trading outpost. Wandering around you'll still find the occasional trader's house -- both French and Chinese merchants made Savannakhet their home. The town's many Vietnamese residents and Thai visitors are also easily noticeable, and Savan even has a Western expat community.
The outlying province is home to large swathes of forest and three NBCAs (Natural Biodiversity Conservation Areas), making Savannakhet a budding centre of Lao ecotourism. A range of trekking and mountain biking trips can be arranged at the eco-guide centre just south of Saint Theresa Church in the old town.
On the complete other side of the tourism spectrum is the recently opened and ridiculously named Savan-Vegas Casino. This gaudy monstrosity is thankfully far enough from town that you'll never have to see it if you don't want to, but it could make for an entertaining night of testing your luck and enjoying a free beer or two along with the mainly Thai clientele.
The streets of Savannakhet are arranged in rectangular blocks from the Mekong River to the south up to Latsavongseuk Road, which is one of the town's main east to west running thoroughfares, and hosts the largest number of eating options. North of Latsavongseuk the blocks get much larger and it almost feels rural down some of the quiet sidestreets, until you hit the enormous but hardly used airport to the east.
Although charming old French-built houses are found all over town, an official historic downtown area surrounds Talaat Yen plaza, a sort of town square in front of Saint Theresa Church. Talaat Yen is the heart of town, and it's in this neighbourhood that you'll find the highest density of old heritage buildings, a few of which are being tastefully restored.