Vientiane is the quietest capital I have seen, and the only one I have visited entirely by walk.
It did not start very well, though. When I was in Luang Prabang I learnt that I had to go to the French embassy for some paperwork. I was not happy. I did not have a lot of days left in Laos and going to the embassy would delay me since I had initially planned to visit Vientiane during the weekend.
I got annoyed. And sad. Why did this happen to me? Why around New Year? But then… it hit me: I was actually lucky. Lucky that it had happened only a few days before my arrival to the capital. Lucky that I got an appointment on Monday morning, allowing me to move on in the afternoon.
With this realization, I felt calmer and more positive. Even more, this gave me an idea: I would visit Vientiane in an alternative way, I would do an experimental travel.
What is experimental travel?
Experimental travel is a novel and alternative way of exploring a place. Instead of visiting the tourists attractions or randomly walk around, it consists on following some guidelines or ideas. For example: going from the street which is alphabetically first in a map to the last; or keep turning right and then left, alternatively, at each crossing. Or you can create your own game, as I did.
My experimental travel in Vientiane
The fact that I had to search the embassy of France gave me the idea for my experimental travel: I would try to find as many embassies as I could. In addition, I would move only by walk, and I would pay attention to daily life as much as architecture and temples. Where do people study? Where do they go for shopping? Which toys do they buy for their children?
Saturday: center and north east
My guesthouse was in the center, by the riverside, and just nearby there were a few temples (by now, you might know I cannot resist visiting the colorful buddhist temples). After the visit, I headed to the closest embassy in my map which was, casually, the French one. And, oh surprise, I found another one on my way, which was not marked: Brunei.
Vientiane is quiet for a capital. Its streets are wide and calm, without a lot of traffic, specially on weekends. The buildings are low and there is some street food. It is in indeed a city version of Laos.
I passed by a beautiful building surrounded by gardens and a high fence: the presidential palace. Nearby I found the embassy of France, one of the few that are located in the center. After that I saw a church, the first one since Kerala, and the faculty of pharmacy.
I could not resist the temptation to enter a mall, even though I did not need to buy anything. It was interesting to see the jewel shops, displaying golden necklaces and earrings. There were clothes shops with traditional dresses as well as casual wear. In the toys shops, I spotted Hello Kitty, Doraemon and Winnie the Pooh (some things are international!).
After the mall I reached the wide avenue that would lead me to several embassies. I was happy to find Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand. As a bonus, I saw a United Nations building and the residence of the ambassador of India. On my way back I went to the US embassy, but did not take any picture since there were a lot of security guards (*).
Sunday: south east, along the river
The second day I explored a different part of the city: I went further south along the river, far from the center. I wondered what I would find. Would it be a residential area? High buildings? Small houses?
I started by following the riverside with the Mekong on my right. It was December, dry season, so the water level was very low. On the left, there was construction work ongoing, it seems like the city will change in the next years.
This second day was more challenging: the location of the embassies in my map did not always correspond to their location in google maps. The first ones were Singapore and Australia. The area was even quieter than the center, with some contrasts. Some streets were wide and looked quite residential, while others had small houses and shops and looked like a village.
There were also several temples that I could not visit. They were all guarded by dogs that let me know that I was not welcomed as soon as I approached them, and there was no one else in sight.
I had to turn several times around the small streets, but I finally found China, Brunei (yes, a second one), Myanmar and Korea. Russia was supposed to be next to China but I could not located it. I also missed Sweden who should have been Korea and Myanmar’s neighbor. On my way back I took a different way so I could end the day with Germany and Cambodia.
In the evenings, the riverside becomes the most lively past of the city. Both locals and tourists go there to see the sunset over the Mekong, with Thailand on the other side, or stroll around the night market. This is a local market, with clothes, shoes, electronic devices and other daily stuff, surrounded by some street food (there were crepes, very popular among the local children).
For me, the highlight of Vientiane was the aerobics class that took place at 6pm facing the river. That is something local, I did not see any other tourist (even though I might have missed it – we were more than 50 people!). It started during the sunset over the Mekong, and ended when it was dark and you could see the small lights in the Thai side. Wonderful, amazing. After this, I wonder if I will ever be able to take an aerobics class in a small, windowless room in a gym again.
(*) For the embassies pictures, I only took a photo of the sign, never the building, and always from far or across the street – I did not want to look as I was spying or something… these are official buildings. Since it was a weekend, there was no one around most of them.
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