travel bite: Vientiane to Savannakhet, Laos

VIENTIANE was a shock to the system. Having arrived from the intensity of Hanoi – a city that constantly induced in me rapid switches between love and hate for the place – Laos’ capital seemed like a joke. This relatively sleepy Asian city, boasting  a significant lack of motorbikes and touts  (in fact just a lack of traffic, human or other) and an almost non-existant nightlife (unless you were a ladyboy, prostitute or sex tourist) surely couldn’t be the country’s capital?

But then capital city does not necessarily mean prime hub; of tourists or  residents. And it did offer a satisfactory breadth of local foods in the markets and Western luxuries in the supermarket, which was not to be found anywhere else in Laos.

salted river fish ready for the BBQ

brilliant market find of fresh spring rolls filled with green beans, lettuce, mint and soft salty pork scratchings, served with crushed peanuts and a sweet chilli sauce

But when I arrived in Savannakhet I understood. In comparison to Vientiane, this town – often ignored by tourists – felt deserted. I had read that Laos was a laidback country, which I welcomed this contrast to Vietnam, and Savannakhet was epitomising this perfectly.

The bus journey from Vientiane brought views of stilted wooden houses above parched earth and babies rocking in wicker baskets hung from ceilings. The open windows sucked in the scents of eucalyptus forests, steaming sticky rice, foods smoking and meats grilling.

By the time I arrived in Savannakhet it was cloaked in darkness, but its charm swiftly revealed itself by morning. Wide empty streets were dotted with fuchsia bougainvilleas and flanked by large colonial buildings. At each turn faded, crumbling houses came into view, characterised by tall shuttered windows, arches and balconies.

My previous evening’s stroll to the riverside night market had been underwhelming, but in daylight this made sense as wandered through what felt like an American mid-West ghost town. Sitting at a cafe on the corner of the central square, I could easily imagine two cowboys emerging from opposite ends, holsters securely fastened, hands on guns, fingers on triggers.

Yet these types of reveries of being anywhere but Asia were soon broken when passing unmissable temple structures, ornate and colourful, gleaming gold.

Back on side streets again I admired more dilapidated but charming structures.   And I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of how sought after buildings like these are back at home, with many scouring the French countryside for the perfect country villa to renovate.

Heading east of the river though – in search of street food – was when I found life. No chance of a dual here on the bustling (in Laos terms) main street, offering the usual selection of snacks, clothing and electrical goods.

Savannakhet was exactly the kind of place I like to find. A town with no pretense. The odd guesthouse, the odd Western influenced restaurant or cafe, but otherwise no tourists, no touts. Just a peaceful Laos town, perfect for passing through; and the perfect antidote to Vietnam.

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