During our three-night stay we uncovered some great places to eat in Savannakhet. The city’s compact central zone has a bit of everything for travellers, from spicy local favourites to international classics.
Wherever we ate in Savannakhet, we found a relaxed atmosphere and dedicated, friendly service. Here’s a little recap of our self-guided food tour of the city.
Food and music at Lao Chaleun Bar
Our first evening in Savannakhet followed a long and stressful day of travel from Kong Lor village. Anyone who has used local transport in Laos will know how confusing and laborious it can be for ‘falangs’ (foreign nationals).
After checking into our guest house we went in search of some quick and easy food, and perhaps a beer. On the corner of the main square we found the perfect place: Lao Chaleun Bar.
The open-facing bar and restaurant area spilled out into a cute little courtyard, with a good view of the night market. Perfect for enjoying the warm evening air and watching people come and go. We ordered a large cold Beerlao to share, which came with some free nuts for us to snack on.
The menu offered all the classic Lao dishes at good prices, and some international options for a little more. We kept it simple with stir-fried chicken and rice, mine with chilli, Lisa’s with basil. Neither of us were disappointed.
The combination of the tasty food, chilled setting and good music – this was the first place we’d experienced for a while playing western music without having Ed Sheeran on repeat – was enough for us to order another beer.
The bill: 74,000 kip for two stir-fry dishes and two large beers
A taste of India at Pilgrim’s Kitchen
On our first full day we hired bicycles to explore the city and its surroundings. To break the trip we returned into the centre for lunch, and found Pilgrim’s Kitchen, a trendy-looking backpacker hangout a couple of hundred metres from the night market square.
At the centre of the dining area was a wooden shelf stacked with travel and story books, inviting guests to take one. We placed our order and had a leaf through some Lonely Planet guides.
The menu specialised in Indian food, although local and Mexican dishes were available too. We decided to go for what they did best and ordered chicken thali sets. For drinks, Lisa had an iced tea, and I a homemade lemonade.
The thali came in large metal plates with rice, flatbread, pickles, dahl and curry. Each portion appeared small, but the combined sum of food was surprisingly filling. We could see why this place had a reputation for good Indian food – it was some of the best we’d had on our travels.
The bill: 102,000 kip for thali dishes, iced tea and lemonade
A Japanese treat at Café Chai Dee
Café Chai Dee is a popular eatery in the middle of Savannakhet we’d heard about before our trip. After reading glowing online reviews we’d tried to go earlier that day and the night before, but found it closed – probably because of preparations for new year celebrations, which were imminent. Finally on the third attempt we found the shutters open, and a warm, homely vibe waiting inside.
This place is known for its Japanese food, especially katsudon, the house speciality. While sushi is our Japanese cuisine of choice, we thought we’d diverge and see what the fuss was about. We ordered katsudon bowls, mine with pork and Lisa’s with chicken, and a couple of local beers.
Katsudon consists of rice topped with strips of battered meat, egg and vegetables. Our bowls came served with complementary miso soup. The meat was full of flavour, and the portion sizes just right.
As we left, an old Japanese man, who had been quietly sitting and reading a newspaper, rose and thanked us for our visit, smiling. He appeared to be the café’s owner. It was a friendly finish to a thoroughly enjoyable meal.
The bill: 89,000 kip for katsudon bowl sets and a small beer can each
Tourist hangout at Lin’s Café
Back on that first morning when we’d hired our bicycles, we went to find the tourist information centre to ask for ideas for our route. After we saw it was closed (maybe permanently), we detoured to Lin’s Café, a centrally located establishment we were told offered tourist advice.
The staff were eager to help us, providing us with a map and drawing popular local sites on it, and recommending places for bicycle hire. We mulled over our options over a coconut coffee and mango shake, which were excellent in both taste and presentation. I particularly liked the quirky curvaceous glass my mango shake came served in.
Impressed, we came back the next day for lunch. I ordered Lao salad with pork – my favourite of the national dishes – and Lisa a green papaya salad set. Our food came on giant plates with the trimmings arranged artistically around the edges. This time we both went for fruit shakes to drink, Lisa for watermelon and I for blueberry and yoghurt.
We could see why this was one of the most popular spots in town for eating, drinking, working and relaxing. While the food was great, it also had a strong wifi connection and a clean, comfortable environment. Whenever we passed by during our stay the tables were amply populated with laptop-wielding nomads.
The bill: 101,000 kip for salads and fruit shakes
Spicy local flavours at Numphu
For our final meal in Savannakhet we decided to try an interesting-looking bar/restaurant joint close to our guest house. We had cycled past Numphu a few times as we came and went, and noticed its large wooden balcony seating area, flashing lights and western music themed decorations.
From outside it seemed to be a place geared towards tourists, but what we found was the opposite. The menus were in Lao only, and the staff spoke little English. Trying to order our food was fun – thankfully the menu did have pictures! The staff were keen to overcome the language barrier and help us.
We resolved on two stir-fry dishes to share, one with beef and chilli, another with shrimp and vegetables. “Spicy?” Inquired the woman serving us. Lisa and I looked at each other – it’s always a risk to ask for spicy food in local Laos restaurants. “Go on then.” I nodded back to the woman.
The beef dish was without doubt the hottest food we had yet experienced in south-east Asia. The flavour was fantastic while our taste buds lasted, but after a while we were battling the heat to finish the plate. The staff had a friendly giggle watching us struggle.
I would eat in this place again for sure, but perhaps be a little bit more cautious on the spice!
The bill: 100,000 kip for stir fries and two large beers
Other options if you have more time
As we cycled around Savannakhet we saw a lot of attractive dining options and would’ve happily spent several more days exploring them, had we not a race against time to get to Cambodia for Khmer New Year.
The scenic Mekong riverfront was lined with food stalls and cafés teeming with people. If the locals like the food, it’s usually a good sign. Further along the bank to the south there were also some riverfront restaurants.
On the side of the road opposite the riverbank we saw a restaurant called Tamarind Café, complete with a rooftop that would be great for a sunset view. Its menu featured some adventurous local dishes, such as fried bugs.
One of our cycling excursions took us out to Bungva Lake, a beautiful sprawling body of water surrounded by rolling farmlands. In a couple of spots around the lake, restaurants in wooden bungalows were raised on stilts in the water. We passed through in the mid-morning before they were open, but it looked a great spot to relax with a meal and watch the water buffaloes grazing. If only we had timed it better.
Are you travelling to Laos from northern Thailand? Check out my guide to the slow boat to Luang Prabang.
Do you have any other experiences with food in Savannakhet? I’d love to hear about them – please share in the comments below.