Savannakhet (commonly abbreviated to 'Savan') and more officially known as 'Kaysone Phomvihane' (district name), is the capital of Savannakhet Province in Southern Laos and is located alongside the Mekong River. With an estimated population of 120,000 it is the second largest city of Laos. The city is an important hub between West (Mukdahan, Thailand) and East (Vietnam), and between North (Vientiane) and South (Pakse).
Travelers visiting Savannakhet are often surprised by its old French colonial architecture and the friendly, sleepy atmosphere of the town which conserves many aspects of Lao traditional culture. The small but blossoming tourist sector offers various eco-trekking programs to the outskirts of town and to preserved forests and other places of interest in neighbouring districts (such as Champhone). The welcoming and generous character of the local people makes you easily feel part of the community. Although recently a large casino was established, Savannakhet has no touristic night-life scene. Over the last two decades dinosaurs have become a theme of Savannakhet, with a Dinosaur Museum and decorations in the streets.
Savannakhet probably was founded in the 17th century by forty families who immigrated from Phonsim village around twenty km to the east. It is said that the settlement at the Mekong riverside was called Tahae village, and researchers assume that Buddhist Temple 'Vat Xaiyaphoum' is an important remainder of that era.
France expanded Indochina by obtaining the eastern bank of the Mekong after a border dispute in 1893. Initially the French used the Mekong river as the main street of transport. Soon afterwards a network of water transportation, post & telecommunication facilities and a railway were completed. A road, connecting Savannakhet with Quang Tri (Vietnam), was also established. In the 1920s and 1930s Vietnamese and Chinese people started to settle in Savannakhet. Nowadays, the Chinese and Vietnamese still live in the same parts of the city, while other parts are still redolent of the French administration that was located at the Southern part of town.
Recently an important chapter was added to the history of Savannakhet, with the opening of the 1600-metre Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge II in 2007. The bridge connects Savannakhet (and Vietnam) to Mukdahan (Thailand). Foreign investors and NGOs are considered to be crucial for the development of the town and province.
The easiest way to get around Savannakhet is by foot or bicycle. Tuk-tuks are also available around the city and are an easy way to get quickly to a specific location. Be cautious about the fee for the tuk-tuk, and always set the price in advance. Because the minor roads of the districts around Savannakhet are often badly paved, a reliable cheap motorbike for rent in Savannakhet town might be hard to find.
· The Tourist Information office is located between the Mekong riverside and the 'Plaza', the central square of the French historical town. A must visit for those wishing to see the city/area. The office offers many different local walking tours as well as a wide variety of eco tours. They also have a comprehensive free map of the city (extremely important). The staff is attentive and speaks English well. Lin's café (100m north of the same Plaza) is connected to the Tourist Information and offers the same service. The office is closed at the weekend!
· That Ing Hang Stupa - 5,000 kip. This 16th century stupa is one of the most revered in the country of Laos. Each year in December, many Buddhists travel to this holy site for the annual 'Boun Pha' ceremony. It is located 13 km north-east of Savannakhet. There are two roads that lead to the stupa: the first one is the busy main road to Seno. Tuk Tuk rides should cost 70,000 kip for a round-trip. Far more recommended is the alternative road through the green rural outskirts, passing the Beung Va lake, which is best experienced by bicycle or motorbike.
· Kaysone Phomvihane's House Part of the Historic tour. See the former Laotian leader's residence.
· Wat Xayaphoum - a 16th century temple located in the centre of the city along the bank of the Mekong river. Now serving as both temple and high school for novice monks of Savannakhet. Pee Mai Lao (The Lao New Year celebration) and Boun Suang Huea (boat racing festival) following Buddhist Lent are held here.
· Dinosaur Museum - 10,000 kip. Exhibits dinosaur fossils or 'big lizard bones' as called in Lao. They were excavated from Xonbouly District. Three kinds of dinosaur bones have been discovered; Pode, Iguanodon and Sauropode. It's likely a staff member will show you around and explain the exhibits to you. If you're lucky he'll even take you out the back and show you a pair of French scientists cleaning (?!) a (more or less) complete skeleton. Strangely, photos aren't allowed of them working. The museum opens daily from 08:00-11:30 and 13:30-16:30.
· 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 building are heritages from the French colonization of Laos in the mid 20th century. You can find a free exhibition about this history on the 2nd floor of Lin's cafe.
· UXO SVK is the abbreviation of 'Unexploded Ordnance Savannakhet', an American/Lao organisation. The exhibition found at their office intends to raise awareness among the citizens of Savannakhet, who generally spoken don't care much (not even know) about the severe UXO problems in the Eastern side of their province, which was heavily bombed during the Vietnam war. A lot of UXO accompanied with photographs and information about demining projects can be found here. There is English reading material available as well. Located south-east of town at Makhaveha rd, next to Mama's Home restaurant.
· There are many different street café's and restaurants that serve a variety of drinks, especially the ubiquitous Beer Lao.
· Many local cafés serve traditional Laos coffee with condensed milk at the bottom and the coffee on top.
· For traditional cappuccino, latte or ice coffee, there are two Dao Hueang coffee shops, one in the court yard in front of the Catholic Church, the other on Sisavangong Road just down the road from the bus station.