Take a wander
Published/Last edited or updated: 31st March, 2017
Savannakhet doesn’t appear on many tourist itineraries. It’s thin on sights and the decline in tourism interest over the years means that many of the programmes are currently not operating. The draw is the city itself, the historic downtown being the highlight. A showcase of languid ambience and quaint architecture, it can be atmospheric and utterly charming.
A wander around the historic downtown is a must. At the heart is Talat Yen, a square where a food market pops up nightly; it’s a great place to graze on nibbles, people watch and wind down. In the 1920s, the French began to settle in Savannakhet, developing it into a commercial and administrative centre. Shipments travelled up the Mekong from Cambodia to Pakse and Don Kho island before reaching Savannakhet.
With the French settlement came Vietnamese and Chinese tradesmen and merchants, the area around Talat Yen and the Catholic Church becoming their commercial hub. You can still see the old wooden shop houses, mixed in with later 1970s modernist pebbledash and terrazzo homes and buildings. Buildings have been touched up with new roofs and some restoration work but much of the architectural details remain as they were, crumbling, dilapidated, imbued with a nostalgia long lost in cities like Tha Khaek and Pakse.
There are many buildings to gawk at on the streets running off from Talat Yen, all laid out in a neat grid. Check out Sooksavan Cafe Bistro, which is beside the abandoned modernist Khounsavan Cinema, Savan Cafe and the shops all along this street, Vivanouk B&B, the now closed Sala Savan Guesthouse and Lin’s Cafe, which in late 2016 still had a small exhibition on the old town upstairs. Look for battered, faded Chinese sign boards, along with a Chinese and Vietnamese temple.
At the northeast corner of Talat Yen is Saint Theresa Catholic Church, an important landmark built in the 1920s. The church is still active and services are held from 05:30 to 06:30 Sunday through Friday.
After initial set up by NGOs a few years back, the tourism and homestay programmes never really took flight. In late 2016, we were told that the trekking and eco-guide services were suspended as they were training new guides. Hopefully at some point in the future it will be revamped but don’t hold your breath waiting.
Those who want to explore the province by motorbike or simply have time to kill, it’s still worth visiting Savannakhet’s tourism information centre. While treks to Dong Phou Vieng, Phou Xang Hae and Dong Natad NPAs are extinct for now, the centre is loaded with brochures with suggested itineraries.
There’s the Xe Champhone circuit which takes you in a loop through Champhone wetlands, east of Route 13. It can be done in one long day by motorbike or more comfortably with a songthaew which the tourism office should be able to help arrange. Highlights include Ban Dong Muong, home to the aptly named “monkey forest” which has a forest and temple overrun by wily monkeys (homestays are available in the village), 200-year old Hotay Pidok Buddhist library with a repository of ancient palm leaf books (admission 10,000 kip) and Wat Taleo, a temple that was bombed out during the war. We visited the eerily beautiful ruins in 2012; in 2016 the staff at the information centre informed us that the temple was being rebuilt.
Other leaflets promote sights in the outskirts and further afield, like along the Mekong river south of town and way to the east in Sepon and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Find the tourism office between Talat Yen and the Mekong, open Mon-Fri 08:30-11:30 & 13:30-16:00.
Otherwise, content yourself with lazy strolling or rolling beside the Mekong, stopping to check out Wat Xaiyaphoum, the oldest temple in Savannakhet. Dating back to the mid-1500s, the wat now produces Buddha statues. See it in various stages, from concrete beginnings to the final coats of paint giving it a golden gleam. Enjoy some of the town’s tasty eats, have a riverside beer gazing at a stunning setting sun and don’t forget to pop into the Dinosaur Museum before you leave.
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.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.