Making my way down Lane Xang Avenue towards the Vientiane Riverside I begin at the Presidential Palace – a handy marker for the start of the riverside stretch. I follow a lightly lit side street to find busy riverside parks and a long stretching promenade. I start at the presiding Chao Anouvong Statue which towers over the banks of the Mekhong River. The Vientiane Riverside already bustling with youth and excitement.
Following the edge of the Mekhong Riverside the promenade area looks to be central to local youth’s entertainment and recreation. It reminds me of coastal paths back home (UK) minus the boozing and hooliganism. Joggers, walkers, cyclists, musicians, skaters. This is what public parks should be used for.
Running parallel to the riverside promenade are lines of red pavilions which host Vientiane Riverside night markets. Locals pick snacks at food stalls and feed at seated eating areas. The young and trendy pass between clothes stalls and the odd tourist haggles prices for scorpion / snake whiskey and the usual tourist junk. Again this area is very popular with locals and isn’t tourist focused (as I had expected). It brings everything for the family as younger kids play arts and crafts, painting cute, anime model sculptures.
While scouting for food in backstreets, not far from the Vientiane Riverside, I am drawn by the boom of a nearby drum. The drum continues and repeats seconds apart. Following the call I stumble onto the courtyard of Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan temple where smartly dressed locals bearing candles and gifts follow a procession of orange robed monks. I recognise the procedure of circumambulation, the parade would follow a circle of the temple three times clockwise. Knowing this I hide beneath the drum tower (Hor Kong) and wait for the procession to pass capturing a few (blurred) snaps with my camera. I snigger as bewildered travellers join the back of the procession many failing to see the monks lead at the front. As the procession returns to the central temple I join a loner monk sat on the boundaries, we sit listening to the Sanskrit chants and I avoid temptation to question his exclusion. The circumambulation and prayers were to mark the “New Moon” as I had learnt of during celebrations earlier on my Vientiane City Tour.
In a quiet side street near Vientiane Riverside and Wat Ong Teu Mahawihan I find a great family run restaurant. I sit out front with locals avoiding the back area which is unnecessarily dressed up for the backpacker crowd (hippy lanterns etc). I choose my seat precisely (strangely) and face open doors leading onto a quiet side street. It felt a bit like eating in someone’s garage. I nibble while watching local life pass by as occasional motorbikes or group of kids scampering towards the Vientiane Riverside and Night Markets. On my right shoulder is a family portrait and homely nick-nacks. The menu is a mix of Vietnamese and Thai cuisine (as is Lao food). I start with a large carafe of red wine – cheap in Laos compared to Thailand. Appetizers of fresh spring rolls (summer rolls) and deep fried laab wontons. For main the recommended fried beef with herbs (Pa Kao Lao) with sticky rice.
Fresh Spring Rolls, very Vietnamese yet better than any I found in Vietnam with the perfect spicy peanut sauce (ground peanuts, chilli, palm sugar, fish sauce). Deep Fried Laab Wontons while inventive they fail to compare to a spicy laab salad. For those new to laab it is a sour and spicy pork dish, a favourite in Isaan and Laos, and should top the to-eat list. Fried Beef with herbs (Pa Khao Lao) fried with herbs in soy and oyster sauce with holy basil, lemongrass, galangal and chilies. Very similar to Thai food. One for the road I order the infamous and scarily potent Lao-Lao rice whiskey. A hefty serving in a Champa Blended Whiskey glass (my bravado scoring it for free). A fruity fudge nose and plum pudding finish (Note, I was a little wonky at this time). Knocking it back I stumble out back towards the Vientiane Riverside.
Being Saturday night I check out the party scene bypassing the tourist and backpacker hangouts in search of something local. One of the better areas on passing was the Nam Phou Fountain, the Hi-So (high society) area of Vientiane; interesting but overpriced. Back towards the Vientiane Riverside and night market I find a nightclub lined by scooters, a grungy youth crowd, a Chivas sign and some Lao fella frying squid on a barrel barbecue, perfect. While inside every table is topped with Whiskey bottles and everyone is drinking yet I fail to find a bar. I try summon a waitress with no luck. After 15 minutes of Lao / Thai pop rock I call it a night and stagger back to my hotel via That Dam Stupa.