Blissful Blisters on a Walk Through Vientiane
By Dave Fox
At first glance, Vientiane seems smaller than it really is. Few buildings in the town center are over three or four stories. The pace is slow. It feels unlike any other capital city I’ve visited – which is part of its appeal.
I’ve just arrived on the overnight train from Bangkok. Rooms are cheap. For 100,000 kip (US$12.50), I score a clean hotel room with a bathroom and balcony. After that, I wander. I get lost for a couple of hours. It’s my favorite thing to do in a new city.
Guys cruise around selling fruit on bicycles specially fitted with glass cases in the front, and picnic-table umbrellas for shade. The rumble of an occasional tuktuk breaks the Sunday afternoon lull, then gives way to quieter sounds. Electric wires crackle above faded stop signs. Birds chirp. Children shriek. A late afternoon downpour brings a whooshing white noise.
The city shuts down early, and when it does, it feels disconcerting. I’m a night person by nature, used to other Asian cities where restaurants are open at all hours. By 11 p.m., most of Vientiane is closed for the night.
I take a much longer walk the next day and discover Vientiane is bigger and more bustling than I realized. I swing by Big Brother Mouse, an organization that promotes literacy in rural Laos, and COPE – the Cooperative Orthodic and Prosthetic Enterprise – whose visitors’ center addresses the issue of unexploded cluster bombs in Laos. (Stories on both coming soon.) I pop into a couple of Buddhist temples, pass through a local park, and finally double back along the Mekong River. Five hours later, I’m back at my hotel in time for the free afternoon coconut cake.
I’ve done all of this walking in part because there’s an annoying side to Vientiane that I haven’t felt like hassling with. Tuktuk drivers here, like in many other places, charge inflated prices and harangue solo male travelers endlessly about renting some female or imitation-female company for the evening. I get sufficiently annoyed with the sales pitches that I walk so as not to have to endure the tuktuk drivers.
But there’s a deeper reason why I love urban hiking no matter where I am. Walking takes me down side streets I wouldn’t see from a tuktuk or taxi. It brings me past people’s houses and roadside businesses at a slow enough pace that I get a fuller picture of what life is like. It enables me to exchange quick hellos with random strangers – something that might sound trivial but that helps me feel emotionally grounded and connected with the world around me as I wander through northern Laos alone.
By dinnertime, my Copenhagen blister has emerged. I’ve named my blister after Denmark’s capital because when I used to guide tours in Scandinavia, on a route that started in Copenhagen, I would walk all over the city, and consistently, at the beginning of every tour season, a blister would form in the same spot on the same toe. I’ve had this blister so many times, I’ve become nostalgic about it. No matter where I am in the world, I still refer to it as my Copenhagen blister. When I need to break out the Band-Aids, it tells me I’ve been getting lost to my fullest potential.
What are your favorite cities to get lost in, and why? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.