Slowing Down In Savannakhet
With its massive stupas, vast eco-reserves and relaxed vibe, Savannakhet is a must-see in southern Laos, but to really understand the region be prepared to slow down and take it all in, one laid-back day at a time.
By Hal Amen
Savannakhet was quiet. Shockingly quiet.
Coming to it as I did, direct from the shrill buzz and agitation of Vietnam, I was taken aback by the palpable tranquility that surrounded my little guesthouse, the one with the spacious second-story patio looking out over the Mekong River and Thailand beyond. I sat there in the darkness of Laos that first night, gazing at the bluish glow of lights on the opposite bank, imagining where I’d rather be.
Before a day had passed, my restless traveler’s eyes had already tired of spiky-roofed wats (temples found all over Southeast Asia) and the muted pastels of crumbling colonial architecture. A lazy lunch spilled into an aimless walk through the deserted town center and a half-hearted search for the bus station. Maybe I could book a seat south, I thought to myself as I wandered, on to the city of Pakse and then further down to the acclaimed 4,000 islands region, where the Mekong opens up just above of the Cambodian border. Or perhaps I’d simply jaunt over the bridge to Thailand — backpacker’s paradise.
Instead, I stumbled upon the Savannakhet tourism office. Its excursions required little marketing, and I quickly signed up for a day hike through the nearby Dong Natad Protected Area, the region’s prime destination for eco-tourists.
The next morning, against a backdrop of perpetually gray drizzle, a tuk-tuk arrived at my guesthouse, ready to transport me into the jungle. Aboard the motorized version of the traditional rickshaw was my young guide, Soumphone, probably younger than me, wearing a camouflage jacket and a smile. Eager to show off his command of the English language, Soumpohne made sure not an instant of silence transpired as we motored through the city on our tuk-tuk.
Our first stop was Talat Savan Xai, the marketplace north of town that overflows with all the activity central Savannakhet lacks. There, we threaded our way through a maze of food vendors hawking cuisine both familiar and eye-popping, including everything from heaping bags of pellet-shaped short-grain rice to pickled tea eggs and grilled lizard kebabs. Soumphone deftly selected a mix of items from the confusion, stowing them in his fraying olive-green backpack for our lunch later that day.
Supplies procured, we tuk-tuked east a few kilometers and came to a halt next to a man who was evidently waiting for us along the side of the road. Boodna, a stout man belonging to one of the communities that still inhabit Dong Natad, shot us a quick grin and with a shake of his machete motioned for us to follow as he made his way to an unmarked, overgrown trailhead and through a wall of vegetation marking the edge of the reserve.
As we entered, leafy vines immediately converged from all sides, slapping our arms and faces with the wetness of trickled-down rain. Massive, serpentine dipterocarp trees that curved gracefully towards the sky stood along the trail like massive pillars supporting an overhead canopy. Through gestures and some translation from Soumphone, Boodna showed me how the oil from the trees is used to make torches and demonstrated the technique for scaling their thick trunks to reach the honey from the beehives perched high above.
A few kilometers in, the vegetation subsided to reveal myth-enshrouded Nong Lom Lake. We sat together — the three of us — cross-legged by the water, resting on improvised mats of broad, thick leaves and feasting on the market takeaway: slices of grilled pork, fresh green veggies and balls of sticky rice dipped in chili sauce, all eaten with our hands. As we ate, the sky began to clear, allowing me my first glimpse of the Laotian sun. Its warmth was refreshing after the clinging dampness of the jungle, and it caused dozens of colorful butterflies to emerge from their hiding and take flight into the air around us.
After the meal, Boodna dashed off into the woods, returning a few minutes later with his pants wet and rolled up to his knees. As he slowly smoothed them back down, dozens of tiny fish fell out and flopped around in the dirt. He laughed loudly over his catch, and Soumphone explained this would go towards his family’s dinner that night.
Another hour’s walk brought us to the other side of the forest; Boodna nodded a farewell, quietly turning to retrace his steps into the leafy wilderness. Soumphone and I continued along the road to Ban That — literally “stupa village” — a reference to the adjacent That Ing Hang Stupa that commemorates a stop the Buddha is said to have made during his wanderings some 2,500 years ago.
Stupas (massive Buddhist monuments built to commemorate sacred events or locations) are always impressive sights to see in person and Ing Hang is no exception. Stand back and you absorb the grandeur of its height, while up close you admire the details of its ornamentation. Once a year, the towering obelisk marks the nexus of a rollicking full-moon festival, one of the biggest in southern Laos.
As daylight waned, we strolled through Ban That, its traditional houses set high on stilts to keep wild animals and floodwaters out. Groups of women sat in the shade beneath them; one pair invited us over for a chilled cup of water. The cement foundation of the home was littered with large, brittle husks, the result of a day’s work on the hand-powered rice thresher resting in the corner. I’d never seen rice in its pre-processed form; before the chaff is removed, the individual grains are surprisingly large.
Smiles, waves and laughter were heaped on us as we departed and made our way to the idling tuk-tuk.
That evening, sipping a cool Beer Lao on the guesthouse patio, I felt a fresh appreciation for the languid lull of Savannakhet. From an alley somewhere nearby, the echoes of playing children ricocheted off pockmarked stone walls. The smell of sweet egg cakes, hot off the griddle, wafted up from a pushcart just down the road. Out of some corner of darkness, a hollow voice shouted in its incomprehensible but somehow musical language. A dog barked.
As the Mekong rushed along below me, unchecked in its travels to distant and disparate locales, I realized maybe I wasn’t in such a hurry to leave.
Freelance writer Hal Amen has been an avid traveler for as long as he can remember, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. 2009 is his volunteer year in South America. Follow along at Matador Travel, where he is a frequent contributor, and on his personal travel blog, WayWorded.