A few days in Savannakhet

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January 3rd 2010
Published: February 1st 2010
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Leaving Pakse (another five hour bus trip) - we seemed to be spending a lot of time of buses - took us further north to Savannakhet. I liked the town immediately though it was very quiet. It had great vibes! It is not on the tourist trail though as a new bridge has just been completed across the Mekong River (the third bridge across the river connecting Thailand to Laos) this may change. A big tourist attraction here is a Dinosaur museum (there have been many dinosaur bones found in the region) but we weren't planning on visiting it. We had chosen a hotel from the guide book to be dropped at - it stops the tuk tuk drivers pestering you upon arrival at the bus station - but it wasn't the best choice as it was a bit out of the way and we seemed to be the only people staying there. Next day we moved into a lovely guest house (Leena) - probably as far away but this one at least had some guests staying at it. Our first evening was spent as usual checking out the streets and surrounds. Once again lots of old French buildings, a wide paved area edging the Mekong River, a large central square with another legacy of the French (a Catholic Church) at one end and no tourist shops to be seen anywhere. In fact there were not a lot of people around during the day - tourists or otherwise - the whole town seemed to be very quiet. The many temples dotted throughout the central area were very well kept and at each one we visited we saw monks working - gardening or painting. At one riverside temple the monks were making large concrete Buddha statues. We ate on the riverbank that evening - again whilst watching the red glow of the sunset over the river. The riverside was actually very pretty after dark - some effort had been put into making the small food stalls attractive - with brightly coloured table cloths, lights and many areas with bamboo matting and cushions to sit on.
The tourist office seemed to be very organised in the area - they were actively promoting tourism with lots of well designed brochures and plenty of options re tours. We decided to take a country tour with them so on our third day in Savannakhet, with a lovely Danish family (two young girls and Mum and Dad traveling for 6 months around Asia), we set off for a day out. First stop was another salt mine, where the salt was evaporated by the salty water being pumped into metal trays over open fires and heated until the water evaporated. Our guide told us it was a very profitable business as each family made about 170,000 kip a week (AUD $2000 - a lot of money even in our country). From there we went on a wonderful walk through the forest with a local farmer as guide. In Laos and Cambodia all tours must be done with local guides - each village has a group of them who take turns at being guides. This spreads the money equally amongst the village families. Our guide was a tiny stocky man who through a translator told us about the plants in the forest. We got to taste many strange plants - some were pretty nasty - Jerry ended up next day feeling a bit sick, he thinks it was from a plant that quinine is made from. Lunch was a real experience as the guide put a mat on the ground and starting unpacking his shoulder bag - lots of plastic bags of some very odd looking food were soon spread out on the mat. It had all been bought at the local village market early that morning. Most of it tasted OK though some was a bit spicy for me. Lots of fish dishes, pickled vegetables, beef jerky (no buffalo skin though!) and some yummy sticky rice sweets wrapped in banana leaves. All eaten under then shade of a big tree next to a lake...
The forest was full of trees which provide the villages with oil for the lamps - a big notch is made in the trunk of the tree and a fire is lit in it. This causes oil to drip from the tree which is collected and then burnt in the lamps. We constantly passed trees with burnt holes in the trunks. Some other trees had spikes in the side which are used in the honey season for the farmers to climb up to empty the honey combs which we could see very high in their branches.
After a wonderful day walking in the shade of the virgin forest and around the edge of Nong Lom Lake we visited a village where we saw women weaving bamboo mats. From there we ended the day at another temple - That Ing Hang - a 16th century Stupa - which is supposed to hold a small bone from Buddha's spine. Most of the temples in Asia seem to hold bits of Buddhas bones..... This temple was busy with family groups praying in the late afternoon sun - women however were not allowed within the small fence which surrounded the stupa proper - the inner shrine was only open to men for praying at. We had such a great day that we decided to extend our visit to Savannakhet and go on another tour with the agency next day. They were starting a promotion the following day and were offering all their tours for free for the following few days - too good a deal to miss! That evening was spent as most were usually - sitting in a restaurant watching the passing parade of people - the streets just got busier and busier after the sun set as all the local families come out to eat at the street stalls and socialise together. We saw quite a few karaoke pavement parties in Savannakhet whilst we were there. They were very loud - music played at that volume on a footpath in Australia certainly wouldn't be allowed! Jerry bought a meal each evening for a man who was begging in the gutter. He was badly deformed and was being totally ignored by the locals. We've seen so many similar sad sights during the last ten months - at least here we can give a little without being swamped by others in want as well.
Next day's trip was a long day out in a tuk tuk - most of it was spent on dirt roads (120klms!) so we were caked in dust by the end of the day. A tuk tuk is a motor cycle taxi - open trailer with seats pulled by a motorcycle. First stop was at Monkey Forest - full of ugly monkeys - not my favourite animals. We had big bunches of bananas to feed them, but which I ended up throwing at them to keep them away! My favourite part of the day was our visit to the 200 year old Hotay Pidok Library, a vast collection of Buddhist books written on bamboo sticks and stored in black and gold lacquer cupboards within a room at the Nonglamchnah Temple. Many of these books contained the lyrics of folk songs which are still sung today. Because it was a tourism agency tour we were warmly greeted with flowers when we arrived before dressing in special clothes so as to be allowed into the inner library. It was a large complex and well looked after - in fact they were still constructing a wooden bridge over a nearby lake. At this temple they were also making Buddha statues. We visited another old temple - in ruins - but with lovely wall paintings most unlike art we've seen elsewhere in SE Asia .The paintings were similar to a lot of Hindu temple art. Lunch followed after a village tour - the villages are all very similar to others we've seen - simple bamboo and palm leave houses with electricity, satellite TV but no running water. The houses have tin roofs added as families can afford them - they are permanent unlike the banana leave ones which need to be replaced yearly. You could tell the families which were even richer as there walls had also been replaced with unpainted timber. Not too many houses were like that though. By the time many families could afford that one of their sons was probably married and they would have had to extend the house to give him a room to start his married life in. All the families lived together within the same house. A lady cooked us up a big bowl of tasty noodle soup and afterwards we were shown how to make the fine noodles used in the soup. They put the runny rice liquid into a cloth (like a Christmas pudding cloth) which is then squeezed, causing streamers of mixture to come through the cloth, into a pot of boiling water. Fun but harder to do then it sounds! Mine came out in short lengths not long strips.
After lunch the guides decided to have a Lao nap and chat and left us to wander for a while. From there we went to Turtle lake which surprisingly was full of large turtles all munching on crisp sweetened rice cakes which the villagers made as well. The rice cakes were nice to eat - though probably not too good for the health of the turtles. A fabulous day but on the return trip we started to doubt that we were going to get back to our hotel - our tuk tuk kept overheating and really sounded like it was struggling. We did get back in the end - where we headed straight to the massage parlour for a shower (it took a while to scrub all the embedded red dirt off our skin!) and a massage as we had already booked out of our hotel room. We were leaving on the bus later that evening to go to the capital city of Vientiane. We had been there eight years previously when most of the cities roads were still dirt - we were sure much had changed since then.
So far we were enjoying Laos - I think I preferred it to Cambodia - it felt more relaxed (and I didn't think I would find any place more relaxed then Cambodia). Laos actually has more land mines then Cambodia but so far we were yet to see people with the terrible injuries from them that we had seen in Cambodia. Most of the women were wearing the traditional sarong made from cotton and worn with T shirts or blouses. For more formal occasions they are woven from silk (in mainly muted tones) and worn with a belt made from linked squares of hand beaten silver. Very pretty! We had been told that Laos was a US dollar society too but so far had found no evidence of that. All the business people only wanted kip (local currency) and even though hotel prices were in dollars they preferred payment in kip as well. The ATM's gave out kip (not US dollars as in Laos) but as we had been warned that the maximum amount given from them was only the equivalent of AU$75 - this was correct - we had stocked up on US dollars and ended up not using an ATM whilst we were in Laos. It was very easy to convert dollars to kip - there were money changers everywhere! We left Savannakhet on the night bus north - it was the only way out other then very slow local buses - however neither of us were looking forward to sitting up all night! Another sleepless night followed before we arrived in Vientianne in the gloom of the early morning.

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