I bet many of you have not heard of Savannakhet. It is more popular among expats crossing borders from Thailand and Vietnam to renew their tourist visas.
Savannakhet, officially known as Kaysone Phomvihane, is the capital of Savannakhet Province in Southern Laos.
Prior to my visa run in Savannakhet, I was told not to expect anything amazing down there. A friend even dubbed Savannakhet as a “dead city”.
I figured I will have to do something touristy at least, while I wait for the release of my new visa.
Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos.
What I saw, however, doesn’t seem like it. I finally understood why my friend would describe Savannakhet as a dead city.
Locals are holed up in their homes at daytime. The sleepy atmosphere is too obvious. No kids playing around, no loud music playing from houses or business establishments, no fanfare at all.
Snarly dogs are more visible on the streets than people! Make no mistake, Savannakhet has the most aggressive dogs, especially during hot season.
Some roads are badly paved, dusty even. Not all main roads are well-lit in the evening. The easiest way to get around the city is by foot, rented bicycle or motorbike. If you choose to go by foot or bicycle, go back to my warning above about dogs.
Tuk-tuks are also available but set the price in advance or get ripped off. It is recommended to drop by the Savannakhet Tourist Office first, get a free map of the city and check on local walking tours and eco-tours offered. The office is located at Khantabuli Road, just before the Post Office. It is closed, however, on weekends.
To get the traditional feel of Savannakhet, there are ways to pull off a short visit:
Visit the museum and temples
All the temples of Savannakhet are free to access.
The That Ing Hang Stupa, the ruins of Khmer at Heuan Hinh (Stone House), Wat Xayaphoum, and the Dinosaur Museum are the not-to-be-missed sites in Savannakhet.
The 16-century old That Ing Hang Stupa is the most revered in the country of Laos. Every year in December, many Buddhists travel to this holy site for the annual ‘Boun Pha’ ceremony.
Wat Xayaphoum, the largest and oldest temple in Savannakhet, is located along the bank of the Mekong River. It is serving as both temple and high school for novice monks of Savannakhet. I didn’t have the chance to go inside the Ho Tay Pidok library where preserved manuscripts (200 years old), made of palm leaf are kept.
Vietnamese and Chinese temples located around the city are also worth visiting. The exterior façade of the colorful Chinese temple is decorated with dragons and Chinese motifs.
Dinosaur fossils or ‘big lizard bones’ are on display at the Dinosaur Museum. They were excavated from Xonbouly District. The museum opens daily from 8:00-11:30 a.m. and 1:30-4:30 p.m.
Pay visit to the Church of Santa Teresa
The Church of Santa Teresa is the only Catholic Church in the city of Savannakhet. It was built by the French in 1920. Masses are held in the morning daily, except Saturday. The Church of Santa Teresa is right outside the square and Talat Yen plaza.
Visit the Old French Town
It’s time to put out your camera and take snaps of Old French colonial buildings. Old French Style buildings can be seen in the central city area, especially around the Catholic Church and the central plaza. These buildings are legacies of the French colonists in the mid-20th century. Some of these buildings have deteriorated with the passage of time, but leaving it “untouched” makes the architecture more alluring.
For travelers who want to know more about the colonial buildings and the historic center of Savannakhet, a private exhibition is free at the second floor of Lin’s café (which is next on my list). Lin’s café is actually part of the Walking History Tour of the city. The tour gives tourists a good idea of the richness and cultural diversity of Savannakhet’s architectural history.
Sip a cup of authentic Lao coffee
In Laos, coffee is pronounced as to how you would say “café”. If you want to order for the local brew, say “Café Lao”. Normally, coffee shop hopping is my thing once I get to a new city or town. In Savannakhet, though, the “canine animosity” stopped me from doing so.
Many local cafés serve traditional Lao coffee with sweet condensed milk (similar to Vietnam’s milk coffee). If you make it to the Old French Town, look for the Western-style Lin’s café. It operates from 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. Lin’s café serves Western, local and a wide selection of vegan dishes. Unlike most urban coffee shops, Lin’s café has a calm and quiet atmosphere. If you take a tuk-tuk, tell the driver to go to Talat Yen Plaza. From the plaza, walk towards a small street next to Dao Savan French Restaurant and you will easily find Lin’s.
The other coffee shop that I have been to in Savannakhet is Pilgrim’s Kitchen and Inn along Lathphanith Road. Pilgrim’s Cafe serves up a bottomless cup of brewed coffee.
Pilgrim’s is actually a hotel and B&B but also features a restaurant and a coffee shop. It opens its Salad Bar Buffet for guests on Wednesdays. What I liked most about Pilgrim’s is its Open Mic night. Pilgrim’s Kitchen and Inn operate from 7:30 a.m. until 9:00 but Open Mic nights start at 10 p.m.
Try traditional Lao dishes
Small local restaurants are easy to find around Savannakhet city. Like Thai cuisine, Lao cuisine has many regional variations. The staple food of the Lao is steamed sticky rice. The most famous Lao dish is larb, a spicy mixture of marinated meat or fish that is sometimes raw with a variable combination of herbs and greens. I’m not really into spices so I always order for grilled chicken with sticky rice or Khao piak sen, a rice noodle soup that literally translates to wet rice strands.
Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese dishes are easy enough to find. As expected, French dishes (and baguettes!) are accessible on most streets because of the French colonial influence in Savannakhet.
Check out the Giant Dinosaurs
I have no idea why dinosaurs are very prominent in the city of Savannakhet. I didn’t expect to find dinosaurs not only in the Museum but also on the outskirts of the city. By mistake, the tuk-tuk driver took me first to the Rotunda of Dinosaurs (also called the intersection of dinosaur or dinosaur junction) instead of the Museum of Dinosaurs. The sculptures of two giant dinosaurs draw tourists too, on the way to the Bridge of Friendship with Thailand.
Try the Lao massage
It’s a no-brainer, you are in Laos so you might as well try the Lao massage. There are reasonably priced Lao Massage services at Dok Champa Khao on Ratsavong Suek Road. Alternatively, you can head to the Massage Association of the Blind, only two blocks away from the night market on the same street as Lin’s café.
Check out the Night Market
Talat Yen Night Market is located in front of the Catholic Church and one block away from the river. It opens every evening from about 5 up to 9:30 p.m. A variety of food, snacks, sweets, and drinks are easy to find. The popular street foods are grilled meats and vegetables. Later in the evening, the bars on the side of the market play live music.
Watch the sunset by the Mekong River
I must say being chased by surly dogs was a blessing in disguise, leading me to the Mekong riverside. Restaurants by the riverside offer not only food and drink but also impressive sunsets. The incredible scenery that stretches along the road running next to the river makes it a favorite destination for strolling tourists.
The city of Savannakhet was built on the right bank of the Mekong River. On the opposite side of the bank of Mekong River Savannakhet is Thailand’s Mukdahan province.
Enjoy a bottle of Beer Lao
Do not expect a touristic night-life scene in Savannakhet. However, there are a number of restaurants and al fresco bars along the Mekong River front serving ice-cold imported and local beers. It is a good place to dine and drink for the evening.
Eco-tourism treks are recommended. The Tourist Office has one, two and three-day treks for visitors. The treks include visits to the Ho Chi Minh trail and the Dinosaur Footprints. One must-explore site is the Dong Natad Forest, a ‘Provincial Protected Area’ which extends to 8,300 hectares and hosts two tribal villages. A tuk-tuk can take you there. If you want a DIY trek, consult first with the Tourist Office. By the beautiful Nong Lom lake in the center of the forest, you can observe wild birds, butterflies, and rare plants. The entrance of the forest is near the That Ing Hang stupa.
What else you should know:
- Everyday transactions are done with Lao Kip but Thai baht and US dollars are also accepted. However, note that one of the most important disadvantages of the Laotian currency is its low value. It is advised to dispose of all your remaining Kip before leaving Savannakhet, as it is nearly impossible to exchange Lao Kip in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
- Tipping is not customary in Laos except in tourist-oriented restaurants.
- Watch out for speeding teenagers on motorbikes, overtaking both left and right, not wearing helmets and not aware of any traffic rules. Speeding is easy as the roads are straight, there are not too many policemen, and there is a total lack of speed bumps and roundabouts. Riding a motorbike can be risky for a tourist. Keep right as much as possible.
- Don’t take pictures of the military base at Seno town (35 km northeast of Savannakhet). There are no warning signs telling that taking a picture is prohibited. However, some travelers find themselves in an awkward situation, losing their passport to the police, army, embassy and other parties that might be involved.
Savannakhet may not have a lot of tourist attractions to boast of. I can’t even say I look forward to another visit. However, its unique character from the rest of Laos is still worth knowing. My travel mantra is, “as long as it’s on the map, it is worth visiting”.
You can check out the official tourism website of Laos for more information about places and events.
Have you been to Savannakhet and got more recommendations on what to do around the city? Or do you plan to check out the city for the first time and need more information? Ask away, I’ll be glad to help you!
Sheila, a.k.a. The Solo Tripper. Former news desk editor, full-time traveler, freelance writer.