The danger of traveling with expectations is simple – your expectations can crash and burn dramatically or dance wildly with unanticipated glee. Savannakhet has crashed and burned. I came on the promise of a beautiful old town on the Mekong River. I found an old town disintegrating into the weeds and littered in trash. I wanted to turn around and endure the torturously hot and bumpy bus ride back to Thakhek.
I laid in the full blast of my guesthouse air-con, guzzled water, and decided to give Savannakhet a chance.
It’s day three, and while the city hasn’t charmed me, she has slowly revealed her gentle graces hidden behind the faded shutters and forlorn rusted concrete (yes, concrete can develop a yellow-red rust patina from exposed, rusting rebar.) Due to the heat (high of 37 Celsius yesterday), I am moving slowly. As I saunter street by street, shade patch by shade patch, stopping to breathe and inhale water, I notice the tiny vignettes of everyday life.
Kittens playing in an overgrown, broken-down children’s carousel.
Raucous matches of bocce ball on carefully groomed courts tucked behind what appear to be abandoned villas, but are functioning provincial government offices. The Lao are enthusiastic about bocce, badminton, football, and ping pong. The local newspaper staff set up their ping pong table every evening and a nearby rusted corrugated tin warehouse vibrates with men and women diving with their badminton rackets at sunset.
The music of children laughing, babbling, and reciting floating out of the schools, simple rows of classrooms with their shutters open to catch the breeze.
Hanging strands of fresh sausage, curing in the withering sun.
The carefully tended gardens, whether a few rows of corn along the Mekong beneath the simple bamboo stilt house or a swathe of green in front of a brand-new gleaming concrete monstrosity. Every morning and evening people water their forests of potted flowers and prune walls sporting lush green tapestries. The rest of the house or sidewalk might by dusty or scattered with trash or construction materials, but the gardens are always pristine.
The efforts at reviving the beautiful old structures, shophouse by shophouse. My favorite effort is a little café just down a side street from the main square. Instead of a complete remodel, they cleaned the space, kept the original floor and walls, even leaving the brick exposed where plaster had fallen away, repaired and painted the original accordion doors and shutters, and left a metal sliding gate door in place, covering it with original artwork. Pull up a bistro chair to old sewing machine tables, add modern coffee equipment, and voila! A modern café that doesn’t overshadow its historic bones. They also don’t mark up their prices with the “modern” coffee on offer – 12,000 kip for a quality cappuccino is reasonable and explains the mostly local clientele. “Falangs” and tourists frequent the pricier cafes of the 18,000 kip cappuccino that’s mostly foam. (I pay 18,000 kip for coffee, not a giant cup of steamed milk frothing over the edge…)
The town square in the center of old town, once the hub of social life under French colonial governance, is forlorn during the day, but reawakens at dusk. Food carts open, tables and chairs spread out, strands of lights blink on, and the hanging vines of orange flowers suddenly perk up in the cooling night as families and friends sip smoothies and share spicy noodle dishes.
The city is still unappealing in the hot daytime, still piled in trash, still a sprawl of broken, abandoned buildings, dusty new construction, and old buildings withering away under the sun and humidity. I cannot deny this. But Savannakhet is really a city of the sunrise and sunset. This is when she thrives and her people emerge from the dark recesses of their shops and houses to walk, shop, haggle over amazing crusty loaves of bread, laugh, share a glass of beer with friends, and slurp noodles. She lives with the birth and death of the sun.
I’m glad I came after all.