Sleepy in the day time, Talat Yen Plaza simmers in the evening when the night market awakens with vendors selling noodles soups, fried and steamed bites, spicy treats and desserts. Hunt and gather from many carts and enjoy on one of the plastic tables and chairs. Restaurants/bars around the perimeter offer al fresco tables, cold beer and live music. It’s all a happily low-key affair, and one can spend more than an hour enjoying the atmosphere and night air.
Savannakhet’s proximity to the border means a healthy dollop of Thai influence when it comes to what’s on offer. That means not only popular Thai dishes on the menu, but with cross border shopping available, it translates to more sophisticated and refined furniture, decor and atmosphere. One terrific example of this is Savan Cafe, which also doubles as a budget hotel. Opened in late 2016, the restaurant plays with the city’s Chinatown chapter with cool retro furnishings and vintage Chinese posters. It’s more Penang than Lao, though the riff suits the old building and history. They were just putting the finishing touches on it when we were there, and we noted coffee, shrimps cakes, spring rolls and other tapas-type bites on the menu. Find it a block west of Talat Yen Plaza (towards the Mekong) beside the Tourism Information Centre.
In a similar vein and just around the corner, Sooksavan Cafe Bistro is another historic building given life as a delicious, shabby-chic cafe serving Thai dishes and snacks like pork satay with peanut sauce, khai jiao Thai omelet on rice and pad kra pao, stir-fried spicy pork with basil, all around 25,000 kip a dish. Our sweet-sour-spicy pad thai was delicious. Find it near the southwest corner of Talat Yen.
Occupying a historic building at the northeast corner of Talat Yen Plaza, cosy Lin’s Cafe has an enormous menu of local and international cafe fare such as breakfast, salads, sandwiches, pasta, rice dishes and stir-fries, along with the complement of coffees, icy drinks and fruit shakes, all very reasonable priced. The air-conditioned downstairs is modern and has WiFi, while upstairs is an exhibition on Savannakhet’s historic downtown. The building itself was first built by a Chinese merchant in the 1930’s and was later a medical clinic. Except for a new store front and roof, many of the original elements remain. The cafe also has some tourist info.
Pilgrim’s Kitchen & Inn is another watering hole for nomads seeking some Western food. The excellent coffee, menu of Indian and Mexican food goes over very well with backpackers, as does the weekly open mic nights, welcome entertainment in a quiet city. Check their Facebook page for schedule. Find it three blocks north of Talat Yen, just a few doors down from Vivanouk Bed & Breakfast.
Now that you’ve thoroughly eaten your way around the historic quarters, don’t forget to strike out to the less touristy areas. A cheap, cheerful meal can be had at Sengsavang, good not only for the meal but also because you’ll be dining for a cause. Sengsavang is an NGO that provides rehabilitation, healthcare, support and training to victims of human trafficking. Rural poverty and lack of opportunity means young women and girls in Laos are high risk for being lured, tricked and forced into exploitation, often ending up in Thailand’s commercial sex trade. In some cases, victims have been lured or sold by their own family members. To help generate income and provide vocational training, Sengsavang has four social enterprises including a restaurant. Try Lao dishes like papaya salad (10,000 kip) or khao piak noodle soup (12,000 kip). There’s also chicken stir-fried with cashews, fried spareribs or red curry chicken for 15,000 kip. The simple eatery is located 6 km north on the Road 9 coming into the city. There’s no big sign but it’s directly across from the enormous Savan Logistics dry port (you can’t miss the ICD shipping containers). It’s a worthy pit stop for breakfast or lunch, especially when arriving into or leaving the city.
Both meat eaters and vegetarians will love cute Cafe Chai Dee. The comforting Japanese dishes like chicken katsu are a treat and the price is a steal—the filling katsu don rice bowls with egg or a set with miso soup and salad are only 35,000 kip. On a hot night, the chilled noodle salad with vegetables and egg might will satisfy. There’s also Thai curries, sandwiches, lassis, an eclectic tapas selection (from croquettes to samosas) and a list of vegetarians dishes starting at only 18,000 kip. The cute, loungey nook also has a book exchange and the Japanese owner, a longtime expat in Laos, is friendly and welcoming. Opening hours are listed as all day but we noticed some days they decide to only do dinner. Find it on Latsavongseuk Rd, one of the main roads running parallel to the Mekong, around the corner from Leena Guesthouse.
For a local experience, sindad is a must and Sabaidee Restaurant is one of the most popular places in town for Lao barbecue/hotpot. A 65,000 set, which comes with a plate of meat to grill and veg, noodles and egg for the soup is usually enough for two, or one hungry person. Find it on Chaimeuang Rd (runs east-west), east of Rd 9W and BCEL bank.
Savannakhet’s position on the Mekong delivers great views and terrific sunsets, but there are surprisingly few joints on the riverbanks to capitalise on it. One restaurant with an enormous concrete pavilion over the water is at the west end of Luanglom Road, a block west of the post office and a few blocks south of Talat Yen Plaza. A sundowner here is highly recommended.
We found the free English brochure “Savanh Food: Taste Variety of Food in Savannakhet” brochure from the Tourism Information Centre. Though a few years old, it’s still a handy intro to Lao cuisine and Savannakhet specialities such as sin savanh, grilled dried beef served with a spicy dip, iced lemon tea and khao piak pa-fish noodle soup. Keep your eyes peeled for these local eats at Savanxay Market and small food markets around town.
For all those souls doing the Thai-visa tango, Macchiato de Coffee is a seriously stylish respite located south of the Royal Thai Consulate, just north of the bus station on Rd 9W. The swish, industrial London-meets-Thailand space features WiFi, comfy chairs and steeply priced coffee (a latte is 20,000 kip), drinks and Thai dishes (50,000-60,000 kip). The 25,000 kip smoothie may be justifiable in exchange for bunkering in for a comfortable, air-conditioned wait. It’s hard to miss this place, unless you believe that red London telephone booths are a common sight in Laos.
Finally, given Savannakhet’s location at the crossroads connecting Thailand and Laos to Vietnam, expect plenty of Vietnamese restaurants, easily identified with signs using the Vietnamese alphabet.
Sabaidee Restaurant: Chaimeuang Rd, east of Rd 9 and BCEL bank.
Cafe Chai Dee: Latsavongseuk Rd; open Mon-Sat 09:00-15:00 & 17:00-21:00; T: (030) 500 3336; http://www.cafechaidee.com/
Lin’s Cafe: northeast corner of Talat Yen Plaza, in front of the Catholic church; open 09:00-10:00; T: (030) 533 2188; https://www.facebook.com/lincafesavan/
Macchiato de Coffee; Road 9W south of Royal Thai Consulate & across from bus station; open 07:00-23:00; T: (020) 9911 1298
Pilgrim’s Kitchen & Inn: three blocks north of Talat Yen Plaza; T: (020) 2213 3733; https://www.facebook.com/pilgrimskitchenandinn/
Savan Cafe: west of Talat Yen, same lane as Tourism Information Office; open 08:30-22:00; T: (020) 7656 0000.
Sengsavang: Road 9W, 6 km north of city centre, Ban Oudomvilay; open Mon-Sat 08:30-15:00; T: (030) 200 3160; http://sengsavang.org/social-enterprises/
Sooksavan Cafe & Bistro: block south of southwest corner of Talat Yen; open daily 09:00-22:00; T: (020) 2230 2338.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.