May 06 2013
In 2012 Vientiane completed a massive redevelopment project along the riverside. Previously it was home to little more than rustic sunset shacks and simple eateries. At times, the river was higher back then, as the Chinese had yet to complete their many damming projects upstream on the Mekong, and during some wet seasons the many businesses lining Fa Ngum would flood. The western strip of Fa Ngum was a small dirt road, lined with outdoor patios and the ramshackle restaurants extending out over the water.
Today, all of the vegetation has been cleared, and replaced with cement re-enforcement. The patios and restaurants lining the embankment have been torn down to expand the dirt road into a two-way paved river road. A large park has been erected and massive concrete steps lead down to the Mekong, which remains low all year round, forming a sort of beach.
It has been a favourite topic among expats to lament this development and reminisce about the wild and rustic aesthetic of yore. However, anyone who takes a wander down to the riverfront will see that the Lao maintain a far more enthusiastic attitude toward the redevelopment of the riverfront, which has, particularly in the evening, become a hub of activity.
At the far eastern end of the park is a large statue of King Settathirath, watching over the Mekong in a proud salute. Settathirath with the king who established Vientiane as the capital city in the 16th century and is revered today, particularly in group photographs by the many people who visit the statue every day. Photographers often lurk around the statue offering to take your photo and frame it at a highly inflated price. Additionally, stalls selling refreshments and portrait photos of prestigious comrades are set up daily at the foot of the statue.
The park features grassy lawns with shade-giving trees, which make for lovely picnic spots on cool days. A decent amount of exercise equipment has been installed to be used by the public, and is frequently occupied by playing children and tracksuit-clad old women alike. If you’re up for a little cardio as well, aerobics classes are held around 17:00 every day further along in the park, and cost 5,000 kip to attend.
A children’s play area is a central gathering point later in the day when the park becomes a popular place for families to take their evening walk. The climate and the national temperament render strolling a favourite form of exercise, and at dusk, friends, families and couples come to see and been seen by the waterfront. A prominade along the riverbank is popular among joggers and cyclists, and has provided an avenue for skateboarding and BMXing to become more widespread in Laos.
At the west end of the park is the Vientiane night market. Stalls cater to tourists and locals. Many sell the standard hilltribe fabric merchandise found all over Lao, although the selection is smaller and less impressive than the Luang Prabang night market. Other stalls sell tourist T-shirts, clothes, slingshots, snacks and plaster cartoon figurines to be painted, a favourite activity among people of all ages.
A few stalls are set up by local art students. Some sell the classic monk and Buddha images on hand-made paper found in most markets. Others sell original work, often wood-prints, some of which are very impressive and at around 50,000 kip, very cheap.
At the far end of the market is what looks like a food cart, but is actually a bar cart. This party on wheels is a cheap place to buy a drink, if you’d like something to sip on while watching the sunset. The riverfront is certainly a spot to see the sun go down and everyone comes together to do it.
The riverfront is a symbol of progress, of which some have been more skeptical than others. While the ecological effects have been questionable, forming such a central and expansive gathering place for the residents of Vientiane has had many social benefits; many Laotians are puzzled by the common desire of Westerners to leave their homes to be immersed in silence and greenery. The Lao have developed their city in accordance with their own standards of enjoyment, and for better or worse, joining in with the hubbub is more fun than complaining about it.
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