Savannakhet province: a land of hidden gems

Laos is well known as a country of simple beauty, stunning landscapes, charming traditions and intriguing culture. But how well do we, as citizens, actually know our own country? Savannakhet province is a good place to start an exploration of the many attractions that Laos has to offer. After a recent visit to the area, I came to realise that Savannakhet – our largest province – has many hidden charms and I’d like to share what I discovered with readers.

I travelled to Savannakhet on a so-called Fam trip organised by the Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA-Asean Lao Pilot Programme Tourism Promotion Component in association with the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department. This fascinating trip brought together reporters and TV crews from Laos and Thailand. Our journey began in That Phon village in Xayphouthong district. We visited Souy Lake, the monkey forest, Hor Tai Pidok, Ta Leo temple and ended up at Turtle Lake in Champhone district.

Our group was led by Savannakhet province’s Information, Culture and Tourism Department Deputy Director, Mr Somchanh Chuangbaikham.

That Phon temple is 30 km from the provincial capital and just 12km from the heart of Xayphouthong district. It is easy to get there by private vehicle, but songtheows or trucks also go there from time to time.

As soon as we arrived at the temple, we gathered to hear about its history as related by the village authorities. Of course, we also paid homage to the much venerated stupa and prayed for good health and prosperity.

We made a short tour around the village to observe the daily routine of the inhabitants and to see how they make a living.

Our convoy of cars then departed for the monkey forest but on our way there we stopped off at a restaurant to sample some local food.

The owner had prepared some excellent laap pa (fish salad) for us, along with fish soup, grilled fish and boiled snails – all taken from Souy Lake, a natural body of fresh water.

This tranquil lake is home to numerous fish species and also a large flock of wild ducks. The ducks are protected by the local authorities and may not be hunted, either to eat or to sell. This is a concept that should be applied to more places in Laos.

Our two-day trip seemed to be racing by. We could spare only 30 minutes for lunch and then we had to rush off to Dongmeuang village where we embarked on a wonderful overnight home-stay.

We arrived quite early in the afternoon and were pleased to be able to have a rest and drink some cold water. We also enjoyed some locally made whisky, or lao khao – after all, it would have been rude to refuse. For the first time I really began to relax and feel at home among these hospitable folks.

The area is known for its wild monkeys and visitors often come here to stay overnight.

The Dongmeuang village authorities certainly made us feel welcome with their hospitality, food and the cultural performances they staged for us at dinner time.

On the evening of February 2, our gr oup had a wonderful time together with the villagers after finishing our tasty dinner and taking part in a traditional Baci ceremony. The Morphone, or leader of the ceremony, did his best to invoke the spirits and heap good wishes on our heads.

Some of the older v illagers tied cotton strings around our wrists to further ensure our good fortune and we much appreciated this show of kindness.

A performance of Morlam folksongs then followed, enabling us to be lulled by their lilting rhythms. Musicians sang four songs typical of Savannakhet province – Lam Tang Wai, Lam Khonesavanh, Lam Ban Xok, and Lam Phou Thai.

In my opinion the original Savannakhet accent is perfectly suited to the lyrics of these enchanting songs. More should be done to make the younger generation aware of them, so that this kind of music continues to be appreciated long into the future and does not die out.

The following morning, the village authorities led us on a walk through the monkey forest. This area of woodland covers about 11.1 hectares and is home to some 1,000 wild monkeys.

During the trek, the village chief told us the forest contains numerous plants that can be used as traditional medicines. Both small and large trees are well protected so they provide a home for the monkeys and also for the wild honeybees.

Visitors to the monkey forest should not forget to bring some food with them to feed the monkeys. They will certainly expect it! Steamed sticky rice, bananas and cake are their favourite.

Like all monkeys, they are very mischievous but no one is allowed to hurt them. Local belief holds that if anyone hurts one of the monkeys something bad is bound to happen.

After our forest trek, we moved on to Hor Tai Pidok, a structure that houses old palmleaf manuscripts. We then visited Vat Ta Leo Kao, an old temple that was badly damaged during the Indochina War.

Our next stop at Turtle Lake in Dondaeng village was the highlight of this awesome trip. The lake attracts visitors from Laos and other countries on a daily basis, most of whom enjoy feeding the turtles with steamed sticky rice, biscuits and other food.

“Savannakhet province has great tourism potential in terms of its cultural interest and nature but we don’t have strong enough cooperation between village and district authorities and funding providers to promote tourism here,” Mr Somchanh commented during a group discussion.

He said the provincial authorities will do more to promote the province’s attractions and provide more information, as well as encourage local people to take part in community-based tourism development. According to the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department, more than 1 million people visited the province last year, with most coming from Thailand. The department expects that about 1.2 million people will visit this year.