Swooning over Savannakhet

11 02 2009

Savannakhet, Laos

The bus ride from Hue, Vietnam to Savannakhet, Laos was another one of those reminders of how crazy it can be to travel in Southeast Asia. Perhaps it is because the people are smaller or maybe it is due to living in a society with too many people and not enough space or maybe it is a lack of public transportation, but whatever the reason, the people of Southeast Asia often find it acceptable to be packed into a bus like sardines. Actually, since I don’t speak the language, perhaps I shouldn’t make this statement. I can at least say for sure that bus drivers in Southeast Asia find it perfectly acceptable. This particular 10 hour bus ride had Gage and I sitting in the very back of the bus with various people’s luggage wedged between our knees and the seat in front of us, while children’s plastic chairs lined the middle aisle for extra seating. The best part was that this bus would continually stop on the side of the road to pick up more people. It was both astounding and horrifying.

Smashed in like sardines.

Smashed in like sardines.

Since both Vietnam and Laos are socialist/communist countries, they are a bit touchy about letting people take pictures of government facilities such as trains, police stations, and border crossings, so unfortunately I have no pictures of this little adventure. There wasn’t too much to report except that the Lao border guards give pretty lousy exchange rates when you purchase a visa. However, we were ripped off much less than at the Cambodian border, so we were pretty pleased over all. It’s amazing how after several months of travel you find an acceptable level at which you can get ripped off and not feel murderous. Several hours of winding through dried out rice patties and bumping over unfinished roads that would challenge a Hummer, and we arrived in the very ugly town of Savannakhet.

Savannakhet, Laos

The main square in Savannakhet, Laos

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though, because it only took three hours for us to fall in love with this city. Deliriously in love. Don’t know why we ever left it, in love. There are occasionally those cities that we have left behind with great reluctance – Wroclaw, Torun, Brussels, Chiang Mai – and now Savannakhet. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think what sparked the first wave of fuzzy feelings was the noodle bowl stall we found on the first night. A group of four rowdy and giggly middle-aged women were manning three stoves and attracting a steady stream of customers. We walked up and were met with a happy chorus of Sabai-dii!, the Lao version of hello. The greeting took us back a little. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore. One lady stepped up to the plate and listed off the various ingredients with excellent pronunciation. I complimented her English skills and she instantly flushed and fell into giggles as the other ladies laughed and teased her. It was like encountering an all-female Lao version of Friends. Oh and the noodle bowls they served…divine. The homemade noodles were made from sticky rice, making them thick and chewy, and the bowl was topped off with a healthy dose of shredded carmelized onions. No pictures were taken. Too busy eating. This stuff can only live in memory.

Look closely, its a stalk of bananas!

Look closely, it's a stalk of bananas!

We found a bunch of delicious and inexpensive food and drinks. The Chinese vegetarian place around the block from our guesthouse. The cheap riverside stands serving up grilled river fish and cold Beer Lao. The cream doughnut vendors along the main road. The sweet, fruity drink stands around the center square. All of these things could be had for about a dollar or less. Aside from the savings and flavors, what made Savannakhet really special was the people. Nothing but smiles and happy greetings. Not once were we asked to see some sights or take a tuk-tuk. In fact the only tuk-tuk we did take offered us a fare so reasonable that I didn’t even bother to haggle. Our guesthouse owner happily doled out information and directions. The young guy whose internet cafe we frequented waved to us like an old friend every time we walked down the street. Even the tourism office lady sat down and chatted with us for thirty minutes and showed us her wedding pictures on the office computer. And despite the size of the city, the streets were often empty of cars and I don’t remember hearing a car horn once. Lazing the day away on the side of the river instead of wandering off to see the sites was not only expected, it was encouraged, and we were willing participants.

Lazing the day away.

Lazing the day away.

For more pictures of Savannakhet, click here.

Suggestions:

  • If you have a book to read, a novel to write, a scene to paint, or whatever project that takes time, Savannakhet is a good place to do it. Aside from some jungle trekking, there isn’t much to do, but the very atmosphere of the city is filled with enough good vibes to fuel any project.
  • We found a great room at the Souannavong Guesthouse, north of the Catholic Church, for only about $7 a night. It put us in the middle of everything and I would highly recommend it.
  • There are no street names, no address numbers, and the streets look a lot alike, so show up with a map (or get one at the Tourist Office) and mark down any landmarks you see as you go.
  • If you head out at night, bring a little flashlight. A lot of roads are not well lit, but just about all of them have dogs:)
  • For sunset, head to the center square of the city, walk to the river, then head south until you hit the big cement platform that juts over the river hillside. Grab a cheap Beer Lao, a couple of chairs, and relax as the sun sets.
  • The BCEL bank ATM on the north side of the main road in town is occasionally out of commission, so visit it early on so that you don’t get stuck without any cash.
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2 responses

12 02 2009
dad

So you left Savannakhet behind. Well that’s understandable. After reading your description of the lifestyle and the people, I wouldn’t want to have stayed there more than a year or two myself.

There is the possibility that some day back here in the world you yourselves may marvel at the memory of your having had the luxury of leaving behind one idyllic location after another, confident that back then you were only on your way to discovering yet another one.

12 02 2009
Kathy

I know many folks like to wake up to a fresh, hot cup of coffee. Personally, I prefer Living Spree. Gets my day off to a great start. Thanks guys!! 🙂

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