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Savannakhet translates roughly to “Golden Land”, and while it was historically a prosperous, promising land for the French colonialists and the Vietnamese and Chinese merchants who followed them, the city has moved on from that bygone golden age.

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The city and provincial capital is located on the Mekong River across from Mukdahan, Thailand. Savannakhet doesn’t appear on many tourist itineraries, and its location 25 kilometres off of Route 13 is partially to blame. Those travelling through southern Laos bypass it completely and you will only end up there if you make a point of it.

Classic old bones. Photo taken in or around Savannakhet, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Classic old bones. Photo: Cindy Fan

A large number of “tourists” find themselves in Savannakhet due to the fact that there are two important border points: the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge just 6 km north of the city, and the Dansavanh/Lao Bao border with Vietnam, the most convenient point of entry to connect Hue and Da Nang to Laos. Both are popular spots for expats and travellers to do a visa run.

Bridging worlds is nothing new for Savannakhet, which has historically been a transit point and trading post. The French began to settle here in the 1920s, developing it into an important commercial and administrative centre. Shipments travelled up the river from Cambodia through the 4,000 Islands to Pakse and Don Kho before reaching Savannakhet (read our coverage of Don Khon for history on the steamship and railway efforts). And with the French came Vietnamese and Chinese tradesmen and merchants, the area around Talat Yen flourishing as their commercial hub.

Really old bones. Photo taken in or around Savannakhet, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Really old bones. Photo: Cindy Fan

You can still see the old wooden shophouses mixed in with later 1970s mod buildings with pebbledash exteriors and terrazzo floors. The structures have been touched up with new roofs and some have been lovingly restored but much of the architecture remains as it was, crumbling and dilapidated, imbued with a nostalgic quality long lost in cities like Tha Khaek and Pakse. The historic downtown is utterly charming and it is the best remaining example to be found in southern Laos. Some time devoted to wandering this area is a must, as is a bite at the food market that springs up in Talat Yen plaza every night or several bites at one of the playful retro-cool eateries. While many longstanding hotels and restaurants have closed down in this area, there has been a small renaissance of new cafes, B&Bs and restaurants.

Savannakhet has one foot in the past and one foot firmly in the future. The future fortunes, unfortunately, do not seem to include tourism except for attractions like the gauche Savan Vegas Casino. The province is focussed on its natural resources like copper and gold—it has one of the largest mines in the country—as well as tobacco. You’ll get a whiff of the cigarette factory if you ride into town. Tourism is languishing and the province is thin on things for visitors to do. As of late 2016, the trekking programmes into the National Protected Areas weren’t running. We were told it was on hold for improved guide training; more likely it was suspended due to low interest.

The rarely seen Lao traffic-island-saur. Photo taken in or around Savannakhet, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The rarely seen Lao traffic-island-saur. Photo: Cindy Fan

Borders, good roads and bridges bring trade and prosperity, however, there’s a dark side too, as highlighted by the work of Sengsavang, an organisation that assists victims of human trafficking. Rural poverty and lack of opportunity mean young women and girls in Laos are high risk for exploitation. Most are lured across the border, sometimes even tricked or sold by their own family members, then forced into Thailand’s commercial sex trade. Sengsavang provides rehabilitation, psychological care, healthcare and education to repatriated victims. One of the ways you can support them is by having a cheap, tasty breakfast or lunch at their restaurant, their social enterprise that helps generate income and provides vocational training. It’s 6 km north on Road 9W coming into the city. There’s no big sign, but it’s easily found directly across from the enormous Savan Logistics dry port/shipping yard.

In addition for dining for a cause, or dining ’cause there’s good eating in this city, days can be filled with lazy strolling or cycling, stopping in at a few wats, the local market, the landmark Catholic Church and the Dinosaur Museum along the way—yes, dinos once roamed Savannakhet. Try sunset beers on the Mekong, movie nights at The Bored Room or a cooling swim at Phonepaseud Hotel’s public pool, 40,000 kip per person.

Charming in a run-down kind of way. Photo taken in or around Savannakhet, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Charming in a run-down kind of way. Photo: Cindy Fan

Savannakhet flies under the radar and is one of the most unsung of cities in Laos; we’re smitten. A visit here is not about ticking sights off a list, it’s soaking up the languid ambience. You may find yourself drifting through out of necessity. Give it some time and it can be a pleasant place to do so.

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Savannakhet is situated on the banks of the Mekong, a 25 km diversion off of Route 13 with Rd 9W leading into the city. Though road signs are practically non-existent, the roads are laid out in a neat grid and it’s difficult to get lost. It’s fairly easy to get around on foot, though distances and the baking heat of southern Laos mean bicycle or motorbike is the more practical way.

One busy hub is the northern edge of the centre, where Rd 9W comes into the city. This cluster has the Savan ITEC mall, Royal Thai Consulate, bus station and local Savanxay Market in that order. The other focal point is the historic downtown centred on Talat Yen Plaza with the concentration of old buildings, restaurants, food night market and the Tourist Information Centre.

You never know what you'll find. Photo taken in or around Savannakhet, Laos by Cindy Fan.

You never know what you'll find. Photo: Cindy Fan

The Tourism Information Centre is located directly west of Talat Yen plaza (a block from the river). There’s free maps and brochures, suggested DIY itineraries and the staff speak English. As of late 2016, trekking programmes into the province’s National Protected Areas were suspended and the separate “eco-guide” office which signs still direct to was closed. We were told it was to improve the programmes and guide training; it’s likely due to low interest. Open Mon-Fri 08:30-11:30 & 13:30-16:00.

WiFi is standard at hotels and cafes; the city is connected with 4G.

The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 2 is only 6 km north of the centre and naturally, Savannakhet has become a popular spot to apply for a Thai visa. The Royal Thai Consulate General is located in the northern part of the city, past the bus station on Road 9W leading out of the city.

Office hours: Mon-Fri 08:30-16:30 (except Thai and Lao holidays)
Visa application hours: Mon-Fri 09:00-11:00
Visa collection hours: Mon-Fri 14:00-16:00 next working day
T: (041) 212 373; see website for up to date information:


What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Savannakhet.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Savannakhet.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Savannakhet.
 Read up on how to get to Savannakhet.
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