Already two months ago I, Rebecca Dengler, moved to Savannakhet to do research for my PhD at Savannakhet University. On the one hand the two months flew by very quickly, but it also feels like I have been here for a long time already. Savannakhet almost feels like my second hometown.
I have stayed in Laos as a volunteer twice before, in Team IV and Team V, to teach at Ban Phang Heng Secondary School near Vientiane. However, at that time I only stayed for two months and then three months. Knowing I would not be there for a long time, I did not really think of it as my home in Laos. Here, in Savannakhet, it has already been two months and I will stay for six more. It is not my own apartment or the city itself that make me feel at home here, 9,000 km away from my actual hometown in Germany, but the people I got to meet and became friends with. I was so warmly accepted by my colleagues at university and also by other people I met in Savannakhet that the homesickness I felt in the first few days is completely gone.
Maybe you have never heard of Savannakhet before (unless you are a regular reader of this blog), since it normally is not the first city on the list of places to go when planning a visit to Laos. Savannakhet (in Lao letters: ສະຫວັນນະເຂດ) is the capital of Laos’ biggest province, “Savannakhet Province”. The city’s official name is “Muang Kaysone Phomvihane” because the former president Mr Kaysone Phomvihane was born here. “Savannakhet” actually is the name for the province! However, the name is often used to refer to the city as well and I will keep referring to the city as “Savannakhet” and add the word “province” when I write about the province.
Savannakhet is situated on the Mekong River in central Laos. It is connected to Mukdahan, Thailand, by the 2nd Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. When you go over the bridge to Mukdahan, it feels like you travel forward in time. In contrast to Savannakhet, Mukdahan has big shopping malls, big streets, and a lot more that makes it seem more modern.
Savannakhet is the second largest city in Laos after Vientiane, but you cannot “feel” its 120,000 inhabitants. It feels very sleepy and not at all touristy. Compared to Vientiane, there is very little to do and see for tourists. However, following a mix of bumpy, dusty, and very straight concrete roads you can find great spots to explore.
All over the city, especially along the Mekong, old French colonial-style buildings catch your eye. They are the remains of the former French occupants in Laos. Many of the buildings can only let you guess their long-gone grandeur. One day my new friends guided me into an old cinema, referred to as “Sengchaleun Cinema“. A grand entrance with pillars leads into the lower auditorium, which is not filled with chairs anymore. Where people used to watch movies, you can now watch trees grow. A set of stairs on each side of the entrance leads you to the upper auditorium and up onto the cinema’s roof. The size and the structure of the room as well as the mosaics floor testify to the cinema’s one-time greatness.
Many different temples are scattered all over the city, but no temple is as famous as “That Ing Hang Stupa” in Savannakhet. It is a very sacred and old stupa said to contain bones of Buddha. The stupa and the temple area around it can be found only a few kilometres outside the city centre. Buddhist go there to bring offerings, like banana leaf towers with flowers, or to ask nuns and monks to bless them, who do this by tying cotton strings around people’s wrists. When you visit That Ing Hang you might also want to try “Khao Gam”, dark purple sticky rice that can be topped with grated coconut, sugar, and sesame seeds. It is sold just in front of the temple.
Another one of the two most important temples in Savannakhet Province is “That Phone“. It is not exactly in Savannakhet but a one-hour drive away in Ban Phonethat, Xayaphouthong District. The stupa is said to have been constructed over a time of 150 years over 1,000 years ago, and it is a popular place for locals and foreigners to visit.
Even though Savannakhet does not offer many typical tourist sights, I have not been able to visit all the places that I have been recommended to visit in or near Savannakhet. If I have time I will definitely go and explore them all. These places include Bungva Lake, which is a short drive outside of Savannakhet but said to be a very nice spot for a picnic, the Dinosaur Museum, Dong Natad, also a forest and protected area just outside Savannakhet, and Heuan Hinh (Stone House), ruins of an ancient Khmer shrine 65km south of Savannakhet.
However, what really makes Savannakhet attractive for me is the hospitality and openness with which I was welcomed here. I was included in many activities, able to learn some Lao cooking and try weaving a fabric. Learning the Lao language also helped me a lot to get into more contact with local people. Even though I can still only speak short sentences and understand only basic conversation, people love to see that I make an effort to communicate with them in Lao. Since writing about all this will add up to at least one other blog post, I will write another one soon!
I am looking forward to spending the next six months here in this sleepy but charming city in Laos, to discovering all the places that I have not managed to see yet, and most of all to spending time with my new friends and colleagues here in Savannakhet.
Text & photos by R.Dengler