Something is happening on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane – a joyful kind of energy building behind a half-empty commercial development near the city centre. On any given night, you could drive right past it and not notice the flickering lights, wonder about the sauntering figures or clock onto the chilled out beats piping through various speakers.
It’s not a festival, because it happens every night, and it’s not a night market – that title is reserved for the stalls that line the main road by the river every evening after 5.00pm.
No, this is something different. It’s a strange sensation, alighting from a car (you can’t really walk until you get there) and making your way through the narrow space between the buildings at Vientiane New World, a new shopping district facing the river. If night has fallen, the lanes and courtyards between the buildings will be filled with pop-up food stalls, funky open-air bars and racks of vintage clothes. Clusters of people – mainly hip young Lao, savvy expats and a smattering of tourists who probably can’t believe their good fortune – mill around on crates, benches and avant-garde seating. Many of them are holding drinks that actually glow, and settle in for several hours.
Welcome to Walking Street, the unexpected – and yet, when you think about it, completely inevitable – sensation lighting up the pristine, darkened facades of what would otherwise be a dead space after dark. It’s the brainchild of Anouza Phothisane – AJ to his friends – a local entrepreneur who, in his words, just wanted “to create a new chill-out space for people to hang out – not too fancy”. A Vientiane native, AJ has travelled the region extensively and seen multiple open-air night festivals, car-free and making the best use of urban spaces.
“A lot of Lao people spend a lot of money outside just for this kind of experience – for example in Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam,” he says.
“My idea was, why don’t we make it in Laos, so you guys don’t need to go outside the country?”
So AJ – the man behind the Lao-Pride event management company and the Lao Bangfai dance project – set about searching for the right space in Vientiane, after a successful practice run in the Vientiane Centre mall last year. But he knew he had hit on the perfect venue when he happened across Vientiane New World.
“It was the spot that I’m looking for, close to the riverside, where people can do their own activities, so I think this is a perfect fit for the idea,” he said.
“We thought, let’s try this.”
And the owner of the development, while initially uncertain, didn’t take much convincing when the space launched first in just one courtyard.
But with the right lighting, mix of stalls and music, the event was a steady success from the start, and over the five months since it launched, has spread through several lanes and courtyards in the development.
And while AJ runs the event as a business, he says it’s important to attract the right mix of motivated young people to set up food stalls and bars – people with bigger long-term plans, many of whom have been drawn to Walking Street through word-of-mouth.
“Mostly we encourage young business people here, and 70 per cent of the stallholders are young entrepreneurs, students doing part-time shops here – that’s what I like, that’s my personal inspiration.”
While the event is somewhat off the beaten track when it comes to the city’s well-worn tourist trail, AJ says he’s gratified to see more and more expats and tourists wandering through. And, even as the event’s first rainy season looms, he’s optimistic that his plan for temporary canopies for as many of the stalls and bars as possible will make Walking Street the city’s first outdoor market to run all year, rain or shine.
In many ways, Walking Street embodies a new Vientiane, defined by youth, innovation, and burgeoning cool.
But most of all, it’s about what Laos does best – chilling out at the end of a working day, and reclining with a drink
and some beats well into the evening.
“We want everyone here to just enjoy,” AJ says.
Walking Street is on every night from 6:00pm until late at Vientiane New World.
Words: Sally Pryor
Photos: Sithideth Ounkhamvorachith, Xayyaphone Thammavongsa, Saphaongern Vongthavilay