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.
South-to-north running Phetsarat Road turns into Makhasavan Road when it turns northwest in the northern part of town. The bus station and Savannakhet's largest market – Savansai – are two kilometres up this road, and Friendship Bridge 2 is another three kilometres in the same direction.
To the west, Tha Hae Road runs along the Mekong River and there's an easily noticeable immigration office at the ferry terminal where Thai and Lao citizens can cross the river by boat. The office is due west of Talaat Yen plaza and is another landmark that's helpful for keeping your bearings.
Although road signs are still practically non-existent in Savannakhet, it's a small enough city that you can get around fairly easily on foot, though it's especially conducive to bicycles.
If needing to pick up a visa while in Savannakhet, the Thai consulate is a good three or four kilometres outside of town on the way to the Friendship Bridge 2. The Vietnamese consulate is out in the city's east-central reaches near the corner of Sisavangvong and Chao Kim Roads. If you can't find either of them, a skylab (the Lao word for 'tuk tuk') will be happy to take you.
A tourist information centre directly west of Talaat Yen plaza is a good place to begin your visit as they offer a solid range of maps and information on the area. Around the corner on Latsaphanit Road just south of Talaat Yen, the eco-guide centre is also extremely helpful not only for arranging treks to the NBCAs but also for info on Savannakhet and Laos in general.
Internet cafes aren't hard to come by, especially on Latsavongseuk Road. SIM cards for cell phones are also widely available at convenience and phone shops on Latsavongseuk and elsewhere. The police station is at the southern end of town near the river on Khaluang Road. The provincial hospital is just south of that near Daosavan Resort.
A small number of ATMs accepting major foreign cards have popped up in recent years, including at BCEL bank on Latsavongseuk Road between Udomsin and Chaymuang Roads. The classic currency exchange booths are also scattered around town, including near the immigration checkpoint by the river, around the bus station and more than a few on Latsavongseuk Road.
Royal Thai Consulate PO. Box 513, Savannakhet T: (041) 212 373
Visa application hours: 09.00-11.00 hours Monday-Friday
Visa collection hours: 14.00-16.00 hours on the next working day
By David Luekens. Last updated on 16th November, 2016.