Savannakhet is not a pretty place. Not by physical structures, natural endowments or cultural proclivities. It doesn't have the trappings of a bustling metropolitan either. In fact, the term “hustle and bustle” will never apply when describing this beautifully named city. I sparingly use “city” solely for official reasons.
The city sits placidly beside the southern grandeur of the Mekong. And navigating around Savannakhet would entail a little leap of faith to appreciate it. The few temples dotting the dusty grounds are even unremarkable.
FINDING A RIDE
It was 4AM when my bus pulled into the Savan Bus Terminal. I figured staying for a couple of hours wouldn’t hurt until daylight comes. By now, I have mastered the art of getting myself preoccupied, letting time fly in the midst of my solitary ruminations. At 6 AM, I went to a tuktuk driver and asked how much it would cost me to go to Leena’s Guesthouse. He said 20,000 kip ($2.50 or P117.50). That didn’t feel right. Even Vientiane’s point-to-point tariff only asks 15,000 kip – and this is far from being the capital. I won’t even haggle this early so I left and approached another who asked for half the price - 10,000 kip ($1.25 or P58.75). I am not fond of locals who see tourists as a walking monetary unit. Besides, I could pass for a Lao! I hauled my backpack into the tuktuk then we scampered through the stretch of Chow Kim Road. At this hour, everything felt calm and the air was fresh and clean.
A LONELY PLANET RECOMMENDATION
Leena’s Guesthouse is tucked away from the main drag of the city. Lonely Planet (LP) has a knack of recommending great but far-off dwellings, and this is one of it. I would have thought that a great recommendation would have to consider not just the price and amenities, but its accessibility and distance from the city center. From the main road, my tuktuk made a right, and from a side street, he further drove through a smaller street that lead to a compound - Leena’s Guesthouse. I chose a fan room that stood solitary between 2-storey buildings. No next door noise. Before my tuktuk (which they call sakai laep in this area, which funnily translates to skylab, much like the skylabs-motorcycle rides of Mindanao) left, I asked him how much he would charge for a return trip to the That Ing Hang , which is a revered Buddhist site way off the city limits. He said 130,000 kip ($16.25 or PhP764). I haggled and got it down to 100,000 kip ($12.50 or P600). This is still a far cry from Lonely Planet’s suggested haggle-price of $8, but then books don’t always reflect reality. (Or it might be that my LP is simply outdated. I bought this one for a measly $8 on my way to Halong Bay last March.) Anyway, I told my driver to pick me up at 8:30. I needed to freshen up, shower off, charge my batteries (cam, cellphone, myself) and maybe take a nap – a tall order for 2 hours, but hey, I just got off a 450 kilometer ride from the arctic, remember?
Wat Rattanalangsi - This Wat is conveniently hidden in some side street near Leena's Guesthouse. This was built in 1951 and houses he monks' primary school. The ordination is quite unique coz it has glass windows. Most temples are unglazed. The sermon hall has a 15m reclining buddha which I wasn't able to see coz it was closed that time. It took me awhile to get this shot!
Brahma shrine of Wat Rattanalangsi.
I am not the haggling type of guy. I get embarrassed doing so, I dunno why. Everytime my mother haggles, I shrink into a 3-inch troll. Most times, when I don’t get the price that I expect, I easily move on and look for another. That way, no time wasted for both the seller and myself. I think I have somehow learned the art of haggling - out of necessity.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK – THAT ING HANG
Most of my morning was spent at the That Ing Hang, which is an adventure in itself since it is off the beaten track and not a very cheap endeavor. The place is the second holiest religious edifice in southern Laos after Wat Phu Champasak further south. The Buddha is believed to have stopped there when he was sick during his wanderings back in the ancient times. He rested (ing) by leaning on a hang tree (thus its name Ing Hang). The relic of the buddha’s spine is believed to be kept inside the thaat. Having mentioned that, I shall post a separate piece on That Ing Hang to highlight the site. However, I am posting 2 sample photos from Ing Hang here.
From Ing Hang, it took me forever to explain where I wanted to be dropped off. He didn’t understand what I was saying. I wanted to visit the Savan Tourist Center located in the city center. He asked a few bypassers and they huddled in perplexity. I figured it was up to me to perform sign languages, point him to a miniscule map from my Lonely Planet, explain what a tourist office is, and so on. It was at times frustrating, but guess what? We made it there. Before he left, I made another deal for an early pick-up the next day - to take me to the bus station for my border crossing bus to Mukdahan. I like this guy. He is trust worthy and we didn’t deal much with money. It comforts me.
SAVAN TOURIST CENTER
The Tourist Center is a tiny blue-and white office located at a corner street, just a block away from the Mekong. I wanted to check out if they have a complementary map to help me navigate my way around the center. They did! It was a hand drawn map as big as a long bond paper.
It has to be mentioned that this office is famed for their diligent staff and well-organized operations. If only they have the sights to truly back up their very professional operations. Sigh. From the Tourist Center, I walked towards the riverside. There was a railing for onlookers facing the more progressive city of Mukdahan just across the Mekong. However, the Lao side had almost nothing but a Police Station, a guesthouse, a turo-turo restaurant-cum-tindahan.
Savannakhet Hue Trade Center - most stalls are close. As night time falls, restaurants (like below) come alive!
IN A STUPOR
Savannakhet is a sleepy town. No! Make it a stuporous town. It was a place that time forgot. There’s not even a lot of souls walking the streets so there’s hardly local colour to be observed or enjoyed. It somehow feels like their local inhabitants have migrated elsewhere. People seem to be staying indoors – and a lot of the “stores” (if you can call them that) are close. There is absolutely NO activity around! I was thinking, what a perfect setting for the sequel to “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. I thought even the dead will grow tired here. LOL. I tried looking for one of the few Catholic Churches in Laos but the map would lead me to dead-ends that aren’t supposed to be there, it was frustrating! I found a bench and wrote off my frustration. Here’s what I wrote: “Is it safe? The only way to get hurt here is to die of illness or inflict pain on oneself, which would at least stir activity in this forsaken place. That is, if people would find their way out of their homes to even check on you!” Harsh! But that was how it felt then.
I found a Post Office so I sent a postcard to a few friends. The stamps were more expensive than any of the Lao cities I’ve been to – 7,500 kip ($0.94 or P44). Coke and pepsi in can are also more expensive here at 4,500 kip ($0.56 or PhP26.50). They’re just 3,000 kip elsewhere. For a proverbial ghost town, the cost of living here seems steeper – at least for tourists like myself! I had my lunch at a small store facing the Mekong. How Quaint. It was a Pumpkin dish (10,000 kip or $1.25) with steamed rice (5,000 kip or $0.63). After lunch, I decided to go to the Savan Bus station to buy my Friendship Bridge bus crossing ticket (tuktuk was 10,000 kip).But it was such a disappointment that they wouldn’t sell advance tickets – which is stupid! I wasted my time and money getting there for nothing.
My tuktuk ride back to the center was even more frustrating. They would ask for 25,000 to 40,000 kip for the same distance that I earlier paid 10,000. Silly greedy idiots. I’d rather walk the whole stretch, so I did. I crossed some street and went through a maze of hinterlands, not actually knowing where I was headed. I just knew I was heading south. After an hour of walking, I flagged down another tuktuk and named my price – 5,000 kip, take it or leave it. I was already being silly. My ride going there was 10,000 – yet I was asking for 5,000. LOL. I went crazy. And succeeded! He nodded and we went back to the city center to buy an SD card for my camera (a Kingston card that you also find here in Manila worth 690 thai baht or roughly $20 for a 1G memory card. Our CD-R King sells 1G cards for just $8.50 or PhP400).
Crumbling colonial buildings everywhere around Savannakhet.
Above: A view of the Mekong facing the Thai city of Mukdahan and the unnamed restaurant where i had Pumpkin Soup
A quiet corner leading to my room at Leena's Guesthouse
Now, Savannakhet is the last place in the world one would expect a Dinosaur Museum. This isn’t the Patagonian desert, is it? But – lo and behold! – one of the city’s pride is their Dinosaur Museum. The reason behind this is that the province of Savannakhet has turned out to be an exciting paleontological treasure – having dug dinosaur bones from 5 sites in the area!. Dinosaur bones have been unearthed and preserved in their museum, located at a colonial building along Khantabuli Road. With a 5,000 kip entrance fee, this is one of the museums that allows you the free use of your camera. The museum artifacts are placed in one airconditioned room. Though the wall displays are a bit tacky, the bones are well preserved, and the people manning the museum are enthusiastic.
It was also the perfect time to just roam around the center. Unfortunately, there’s not much to see. The whole city has run-down and crumbling colonial buildings that have seen better days – and they are sadly in various states of decay. Such is the fate of these French colonial structures that despite the resurgence of manual traffic after the opening of the Friendship Bridge 2 last April 2006, not much trading activity or infrastructure boom has happened in Savannakhet. I finally found the Catholic Church – another first visit, another hopeful wish! Hehe. This is where I lay my dreams, not in some dried up wells.
I came out of the church with lifted spirits. I navigated to where there was a park towards the river. And then hell froze over. About 50 meters from me was a mongrel that was ready to lunge at me. I slowly headed to the right lane but it was fastly gaining momentum. Fuck! There was another dog along where I was headed. And I have never envisioned myself as dog food! Never in my most adrenaline charged nightmares! My heart was beating fast! This was an unprovoked wild beast and it was setting his sights on me! Then the other dog got sidetracked! I saw them in a growl contest - their fiercest towards each other. Much like two predators fighting over a single prey. I made a dash away from my own slaughter house. Phooey! That was a close call!
Tourists! Beware of Laos’ canine dangers!
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Savannakhet aka Muang Khantabuli
The city used to be the French’s largest trading and administrative centre south of Vientiane.
Three-star hotels (the nice looking ones that I saw) – Hoongthip Hotel, Nanthai Hotel
The city center has 4 temples (wats) – Wat Chom Kaew, Wat Rattanalangsi, Wat Sainyaphum, Wat Sayamungkhun
Cheap but yummy Restaurant – 24/7 Restaurant, located along the main city road of Ratsavong Seuk Road. This is owned by a Caucasian guy who closely follows his customers. Beside this restaurant is a convenience store and an internet café, also owned by the same guy.
There is an interesting Korean website containing some photos of hotesl and restaurants that people might derive ideas from. Go check it out: http://www.travelg.co.kr/tg21/savannakhet.html. It's in Korean but some photos are labelled in English.
· Tuktuk ride from Savan Bus Station to Leena’s Guesthouse - $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP58.75
· Leena’s Guesthouse, fan single room – $5 or 40,000 kip or P240· Hired tuktuk to That Ing Hang – $12.50 or 100,000 kip or PhP600
· Postcard stamp - $0.94 or 7,500 kip or PPhP44
· Coke/Pepsi in can - $0.56 or 4,500 kip or PhP26.50
· Lunch : Pumpkin Dish - $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP58.75
· Lunch: Steamed rice - $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP29.40
· Tuktuk fare from the Riverside to the Savan Bus Station (at the other side of town) – $1.25 or 10,000 kip or PhP58.75
· Tuktuk ride from Savan Bus Station back to the city center - $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP29.40
· Dinosaur Museum entrance fee - $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP29.40
· 1G memory card for my camera – 690 baht or $20 or PhP940
· Dinner: Fried Chicken with Garlic and Pepper – $0.63 or 5,000 kip or PhP29.40