SAVANNAKHET (known locally as “Savan”) is Laos’s third-largest city after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and the surrounding area that makes up Savannakhet province, stretching from the Mekong River to the Annamite Mountains, is Laos’s most populous region; for centuries the inhabitants fought off designs on their territory from both Vietnam and Thailand. The city is also southern Laos’s most visited provincial capital, its popularity with travellers due in part to its central location on the overland route between Vientiane and Pakse and between Thailand and Vietnam, the two countries linked to each other by a 240km-long road carved by the French. Aside from being an important junction, Savannakhet also possesses very impressive architecture, and is a major staging post for jungle treks and cycling tours.
Savannakhet’s inhabitants, as travellers who have recently arrived from Vietnam are quick to note, are much mellower than their neighbours east of the Annamite Mountains, despite the fact that a large percentage of the town’s population is ethnic Vietnamese, descendants of entrepreneurs who migrated to Laos during French rule. Most have been living here for generations and consider themselves to be more Lao than Vietnamese in habit and temperament.
Savannakhet province is packed with options for environmentally sensitive trekking, cycling and wildlife tours – many of them still in their infancy. Staff at the Eco Guide Unit can offer advice on what’s available and, if you’re interested, find you an English-speaking guide.
If you’d rather stay closer to town, a bike ride out in any direction from the centre gives an opportunity to view the difference in lifestyles between the ethnic Vietnamese of the town and the ethnic Lao in the countryside. As you head out, brick and stucco give way to teak and bamboo, while rows of shade trees come to an abrupt halt and fruit trees – mango, guava and papaya – begin to appear in every yard.
A much revered Buddhist stupa dating from the sixteenth century (although some locals claim it’s over a thousand years old), That Ing Hang is located just outside Savannakhet and can be reached by bike or motorcycle: follow Route 13 north for 13km until you see a sign on the right and follow this road for a further 3km. The stupa is covered in crude yet appealing stucco work, and the well-manicured courtyard that surrounds it offers a pleasant opportunity for a stroll and photographs.
The stupa is best visited during its annual festival in February when thousands make the pilgrimage, camping in its grounds. During the celebrations, the door to a small chamber at the base of the stupa is opened, and male devotees queue up to make offerings to the Buddha images inside. By custom, women are prohibited from entering this inner sanctum.
When Lao prime minister and communist leader Kaysone Phomvihane died in 1992, party leaders commissioned 150 bronze statues of him, which have since been erected in pavilions across the country. Whether these busts are a faithful portrayal of Kaysone remains irrelevant to most Lao, since from 1958 until 1975, the leader of the People’s Revolutionary Party was rarely seen in public. Only now that the state has begun remaking itself in his image is the cloud of secrecy surrounding him dissipating, but the lack of biographical details about his life makes it difficult to discern the private Kaysone from the state-cultivated one.
What is known is that Kaysone was born in Savannakhet in 1920, the only son of a Vietnamese civil servant father and a Lao mother. As a teenager he left for Hanoi, where he studied at a law school under the name of Nguyen Tri Quoc before dropping out to devote himself to the life of a revolutionary. By 1945, he had attracted the attention of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, who instructed him to return home and infiltrate a Lao nationalist movement supported by the American Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.
Later that year, Kaysone and his followers deferred to the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong, whom he followed to Bangkok after the French returned to power in 1946. Soon after, Kaysone joined the newly formed Committee for Resistance in the East, coordinating anti-French guerrilla raids along the Lao–Vietnamese border and responsible for liaisons with the Viet Minh, a tie that was to earn him the trust of the North Vietnamese, who eventually recruited him into the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). After training at the Viet Minh’s military academy, Kaysone became commander of the Latsavong brigade, the guerrilla unit in southeastern Laos that marked the beginnings of the Lao People’s Liberation Army. By 1950, Kaysone had been named defence minister in the Pathet Lao resistance government, where he spent four years recruiting and training members for the Pathet Lao’s fighting force, of which he formally became commander in 1954. When the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party formed in 1955, Kaysone became secretary general – a post he would hold for the next 37 years. His control of the revolutionary movement was further solidified in 1959 when Souphanouvong and other Pathet Lao leaders were jailed in Vientiane. Though Kaysone relinquished his post as commander of the army in 1962, he continued to direct military strategy until the end of the Thirty Year Struggle in 1975.
It was only fitting that Kaysone – a man who disdained the perquisites of military rank, indeed who was never even referred to by rank – should emerge as the first prime minister of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in December 1975. For the next seventeen years, Kaysone firmly held the reins of power in Laos and, among diplomats, earned a reputation as a clever man, eager to learn and willing to acknowledge his mistakes. He earned praise for ditching botched policies and initiating economic reforms, and by the time of his death at the age of 72, Kaysone’s Laos hardly fitted the mould of a typical socialist country at all.
Since his death, the image of Kaysone’s greying hair and full face has been employed by a party reaching out for symbols of nationalism. But more striking than the party’s decision to transform Kaysone into a “man of the people”, who relished simple food, are the pedestals upon which his bust has been placed. Shaded by red and gold pavilions topped by tiered parasols, Kaysone’s monuments exude something of the regal splendour once reserved for the Theravada Buddhist monarchs who ruled over the kingdom of Lane Xang.