The main joy of Savannakhet is simply walking the streets and enjoying the atmosphere. The French left their legacy here in the city’s now-decaying colonial structures. The central square of the old town, remains at the heart of the grid that made up the original town. Despite its appearance most of it is fairly modern, dating from the 1930s and 1940s. The pretty Church of St. Theresa,dating from 1930, is at the head of the square and is well maintained with a pale ocher facade and exterior. It is still very much a functioning church. The whole square would be impossibly pretty in a very Provençal way if it weren’t actually falling down.
Wat Sainyaphum is the largest and oldest of all the wats in the area. It was first constructed in 1542, although most it is far more modern. Farther outside town is Tad Ing Hang Stupa (about 13km/8 miles heading northeast on Rte. 9; admission 5,000 kip). It dates from the 16th century and is second only in significance to Wat Phou among religious monuments south of Vientiane. There is a major festival here in February. Women will need to dress modestly and are also forbidden from entering the inner sanctum.
At the northern end of town is Savanxay Market. This reflects Savannakhet’s status as a trade and transport hub for three nations. If you are sick of staring at the river, head east up Rte. 1 to Bungva Lake. It’s a good place to relax by a different stretch of water.
A sign of Savannakhet’s changing status is the area growing up around the bridge from Thailand including the brash and luxurious Savan Vegas Hotel and Casino (www.tycoonresort.com/main.shtml). This bizarre luxury complex will leave you feeling suitably starry-eyed if you have just come in from a remote area. It is glitzy, trashy, and utterly inappropriate. I love it. It is hard to guess what they will come up with next in this very un-Lao piece of Laos.
Dinosaurs in Laos – Quite strangely, the Savannakhet district has been the scene of some major dinosaur discoveries. The Dinosaur Museum (Thanon Khanthabuli; tel. 041/212-597; open 8am-noon and 1-4pm; admission 5,000 kip) displays some of the discoveries with captions in French and English. The biggest fossilized dinosaur is dubbed the “Big Lizard” and is an unfathomable 110 million years old.
There formerly was also a Provincial Museum at the southern edge of town containing artifacts of interest largely concerning more recent history. At the time of writing the museum is closed indefinitely, the mysterious explanation solemnly delivered being that “something is broken with it inside.”