Savannakhet Outskirts Circuit: Savannakhet’s most sacred site, That Ing Hang, headlines the province’s attractions. Some say Indian King Asoka created a monument in 225 BC to sanctify the site where Buddha is believed to have delivered a sermon resting under a Hang tree, thus the name. It is also thought that the Phathat (funeral reliquary) houses parts of Buddha’s spine.
Research shows that a Mon Empire king erected a stupa at the site some 1,500 years ago. This smaller monument and area surrounding it were enhanced by King Saysethatirath in the 16th century. In 1930, a 9-metre-tall, three-tiered carved stucco stupa was constructed in Lane Xang style with the upper level symbolizing a lotus.
Just east of That Ing Hang is Ban Phonsim with a short trail to the ruins of the original Phonsim settlement. The foundations of a pagoda and the town wall sit atop a hill surrounded by bamboo forest.
In Savannakhet Town, you’ll find the residence of Kaysone Phomvihane, the first prime minister of Lao PDR, who was born and raised here. Kaysone met Ho Chi Minh while studying in Hanoi. He went on to become one of the co-founders of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and a leader of the Pathet Lao armed forces.
Founded in 1542 near the Mekong River during the reign of King Saysethatirath, Vat Xaiyaphoum is Savannakhet’s oldest Buddhist temple. Though today’s structures were rebuilt in 1906, they maintain their original architectural style.
The Savannakhet Provincial Museum, located in a renovated colonial administrative building on the town’s south side, houses a collection of the province’s natural, ethnological, historical, and revolutionary artefacts.
The Dinosaur Museum displays pieces of Savannakhet’s pre-history including dinosaur bones, fossils and meteorite fragments. The collection was started in 1936, when French geologist Josué Heilman Hoffet discovered fossilized dinosaur bones about 120 kilometres east of town. In 1990, a joint Lao-French team rediscovered Hoffet’s site and found more dinosaur remains in the Ban Tangvai area.
Other must-see attractions in downtown Savannakhet (Historic Downtown Savannakhet Circuit) include:
- Talat Yen Plaza and its surrounding French colonial structures
- Lao Chaleun Theatre’s Art Deco façade
- Soumpholphakdy House, the Art Deco residence of a French officer
- Sala Savanh Guest House, the former Thai Consulate built in 1926
- Saint Theresa Catholic Church at Talat Yen, built in the 1920s
- The Deer House, an excellent example of a French colonial house
Mekong River South Circuit: South of town, visit That Phonh stupa, where Buddha is said to have passed after leaving That Ing Hang. According to legend, he took only one step to reach the sacred spot, which is more than 40 km away. It is believed That Phonh was erected between 557 and 700, and then reconstructed in the 16th century during the reign of King Saysethatirath.
Along the Mekong, you’ll find Heuan Hin (Stone House), which is believed to be one of 121 stone rest houses constructed by Jayavarman VII (1181-1218) along the roads that connected all corners of the Khmer empire. The Mekong riverside structure is in ruins but well worth a visit.
Champone Circuit: Hotay Pidok Library, the country’s most important repository of palm leaf books written in ancient Lao, Burmese Pali, and Khmer was originally constructed in the late 18th century as part of the Nonglamchanh Temple. The library houses some 4,000 books containing 361 different stories, which are kept in good condition by monks and locals.
Located at the intersection of Route 9 and Route 13, Seno was selected by the area’s French occupiers as a garrison town due to its strategic location. The remains of the former airstrip and barracks are still visible. The name “Seno” is the French abbreviation for the four compass points: sud (south), est (east), nord (north) and ouest (west).
Ho Chi Minh Trail Circuit: Prince Souphanouvong, one of the founders of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and the first president of the Lao PDR (1975-1986), designed and supervised the construction of the Prince Souphanouvong Bridge crossing the Xe Bang Hieng River in 1942. The bridge, located in Tad Hay Village, was destroyed by U.S. air raids in 1968, but remnants of the structure are still scattered along the riverbank.
Visit the new Lao-Viet Commemorative War Museum and its display of battle memorabilia such as tanks, guns, bombs and other weapons, as well as photos of soldiers and local people. Local history experts, who have a first-hand knowledge of the fighting, were consulted on the design and content of the exhibitions.
A few kilometres past the museum is the Lam Son 719 battlefield, the site of a decisive 1971 confrontation during the Indochina War, This was the only land battle in Laos that the US Army supported by supplying tanks and other ground support to the South Vietnamese troops. Despite this support, the South Vietnamese lost the battle and recorded heavy casualties. Nearby, see the suspended cable bridge that was one part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
During the dry season (November-April), visitors can observe dinosaur footprints on the Xe Xang Soi riverbed at Phalanxay, about 100 km east of Savannakhet Town on Route 9.
While on the Mekong River South Circuit, visit the Laha group of Phouthai weaving villages, and watch them hand-spin and naturally dye cotton textiles in traditional and modern styles. This community sends its high-quality crafts to markets in nearby Pakxong on Route 13 and Vientiane. Some can be found in museum collections worldwide.
About 7 km west of the weaving villages in Ban Lahakok village, stop at the square-shaped That Oumoung stupa, built between 1940 and 1950, and somewhat resembling That Ing Hang. The monument is topped with very unique ornamentation inspired by the banana flower.
Further south on Route 13 sits the legendary Tham Phaseng Caves. Legend recounts tales of tigers and giant snakes, which have battled at the site over the centuries. Local people have found tiger footprints in the area but no evidence of giant snakes. Many of the caves are home to scores of bats. A stone statue of Buddha chiselled from a natural fossil was found in one of the caves, making Tham Phaseng one of the most sacred sites in the region.
While on the Ho Chi Minh Trail Circuit, spend time at the Phouthai Lao Silk-Cotton Weaving Centre at Ban Nong Kadaeng near Vilabouly Town. Here, the descendants of the original Phouthai settlers continue to produce traditional cotton and silk hand-woven products.
About 18 km from Vilabouly, visit That Nang Lao stupa, which houses the remains of a Phouthai princess who was sent by her husband Prince Anouvong (1805-1828) to govern the local Phouthai people. Visitors to Vilabouly Town can also view a gold mine a few kilometres east of town.
Watch the Phouthai women in Ban Non Yang near Phine brew a traditional rice alcohol, which is available for sale. Some make a special brew infused with herbs that is said to have the same effect as Viagra.
Ponder ethnic Bru, Tri, and Katang women in remote Nong District as they weave distinctive textiles with highly complex patterns. If you don’t have time to visit the weaving villages, purchase a textile at the Craft Centre in Phine or the ODOP Centre in Savannakhet Town.
A 7-km ride north, reaches the Taleo Old Temple just outside Ban Taleo Gnai. The early 20th century structure temple resembles a Catholic church with a Buddha statue in its alcove. Inside colourful murals recount the history of the temple and Buddha. American bombing in 1969 took its toll on many of the surrounding buildings but the main temple remains intact.
Savannaket Outskirts Circuit: About 35 km north of Savannakhet Town on the Mekong River road, stop at the Kaeng Kabao Rapids, and watch the river crash over rocks. This short journey also provides an excellent opportunity to observe local life.
Mekong River South Circuit: The Kong Phanang Panorama presents one of the Mekong’s many natural wonders. Massive rocks jut from the river to create scores of mini-islands, with more than 10 caves at nearby Tham Pulan. Some believe that centuries ago, the area’s earliest inhabitants used these huge stones as construction materials. During the dry season, a walking path leads to an excellent view of this amazing natural site.
Champhone Circuit: Located about 2 km from That Ing Hang, the Dong Natad Protected Area presents an ancient forest of towering trees where traditional forest products such as honey and plants are collected for food and medicine. You can see locals extracting nyang oil from trees to fuel torches that light their homes.
In the centre of Dong Natad is Nong Lom Lake, which can easily be reached on a 3-km nature trail. On the way, you can observe birds, butterflies, rare plants and traditional village life.
A 3-km trail from Old Phonsim leads to Phonsim Turtle Lake, originally constructed to irrigate rice paddies. You can see beautiful lotus blooms, buffaloes bathing, and migratory birds, but unfortunately the turtles have vanished.
About 6 km south, stop at Bungva Lake to relax in one of the shoreline gazebos and enjoy a beautiful view of the surrounding rice fields.
A 3-km trail from the from the Hotay Pidok Library leads to the Sacred Monkey Forest with more than 3,000 simians inhabiting the 3-hectare reserve. To meet the monkeys, offer them food while walking along the trail. The monkeys can also be spotted feeding at one of the forest’s many spirit houses, where locals place food to make merit. Many animals make their home at the forest’s temple, where monks care for them.
While in Champone, visit Soui Lake and its stepped irrigation dam and small islands where villagers catch fish and snails during the dry season. Visitors can taste these and other local foods while viewing lotus blooms and migratory birds such as white storks.
Drive to Turtle Lake, where legendary resident ghosts are kept from harming the turtles by the natural lake’s spirit house. The turtles are of different sizes and ages, and local children are experts at luring them from the depths with food.
Ho Chi Minh Trail: Tad Salene Waterfall drops 80 meters in a densely forested setting. The falls are easily accessed from Route 9 in an area that was once part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Craters caused by bombing during the war can be seen along the way, as can locals cultivating fruits and coffee.
Nearby, Ban Sepon Kao (Old Sepon) sits on the bank of the Xe Bang Hieng River just east of present-day Sepon Town. The old village retains an atmosphere of days gone by. From Old Sepon, trekkers can hike the 10-km trail to the Sakhoe Waterfall and from there to Tad Salene. Another 8-km branch of the trail leads to the Sadee Waterfall.
The towering Stone Pillars, an amazing natural geological wonder, rise in the deep jungle, yet are easily accessed via a dirt road that was once a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail linking Vilabouly Town to Khammouane Province to the north. This area is excellent for experiencing the Trail’s rugged terrain.
Phalong Waterfall is located 20 km south of Vilabouly in Phou Xang Hae NPA, and is accessible from Route 28A. Trekking and home stays in the NPA are available during the dry season.