Getting fit in Vientiane

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Jogging at the Chou Anouvong park.
Jogging at the Chou Anouvong park.

VIENTIANE, Laos (MindaNews / 6 Sept) – It’s 5 p.m. here in the prefecture. In Vientiane Times newsroom, journalists take off work one after another, leaving the editors and layout artists to close pages of the paper. A few of them came out of the office’s comfort room after switching from formal shoes to sneakers, from uniform to dry-fit short pants and shirts.

They’re not taking their motorbikes or cars with them yet. Two-minute walk from the office at Pangkham Road sits the Chou Anouvong Park where a gigantic statue of King Anouvong, the last monarch in Vientiane, is enclosed by green patches, foliage and paved pathways for pedestrians and cyclists. A stone throw away from the statue, the Mekong River beside the park gulps the sunset. At the other river bank, Thailand unhurriedly lights up its street lamps.

I take my knapsack with me on my way to the park as I’m a bit shy to be seen by colleagues suddenly transformed into some kind of “sporty”. Inside a public toilet within the park, I changed my clothes and shoes for 3,000 kip (US$0.38). And, by running in a calculated slow pace (my first time to jog again after two months since I arrived here), off I joined the health enthusiasts of the capital. Non-electric exercise machines of free use are anchored to the ground in the shade of big old trees at another area of the park.

The asphalt road along the river bank stretches over a kilometer long. This road has no traffic rules; it’s not open to vehicles. My momentum has adjusted to run at steady faster pace when I abruptly halt as a boy in soccer shoes chases to kick a ball that rolls towards my feet. It’s a bit hard for me to keep the pacing while anticipating whether or not a bike exhibitionist would perform his next stunts as I pass by.

Some tourists jog in groups and others religiously finish their rounds to and from either ends of the road alone. Young people, usually wearing earphones and clad in bright color outfits, nonchalantly pass by couples and peers who prefer to watch the sunset squatting at the cemented dike. It resembles the benches in an Olympics stadium.

Flags of Lao PDR and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party alternately line in two sets of 10 poles in a platform like a center stage above the dike. Performing here are hundreds of women in pink shirts and headbands, dancing in Zumba. Another group of women, young and adult, perform their aerobic steps. They manage to synchronize their movements among members, without being distracted by overlapping music from other group’s sound box. The river is their backdrop and their audience is the array of red tents set up by bustling vendors in time for the night market.

Before darkness completely envelops the park, sodium street lights brighten the place. The small red tents are now full of almost everything that is saleable – handicrafts and garments from Laos, Vietnam, China, and Thailand; accessories with copied brands; pirated DVDs; media players and even mobile phones. Paintings are also sold by the artists themselves for as low as 50,000 kip each.

Four kilometers from the Chou Anovoung night market (seven minutes motorbike ride), the That Luang esplanade is simultaneously packed of fitness aficionados. With That Luang temple and the National Assembly building on the side, the esplanade has four-lane paved roads that connect Kaysone Phomvihane Avenue and Nongbone Road.

But, the vast pavement is not part of the city’s traffic. Both ends are temporarily fenced with steel bars. Several groups in aerobics sessions found their own spots at the side, while soccer varsity players are at the other. People jog in the middle undisturbed because drivers of motorbikes (either in a test drive or crash course driving lesson) change lanes to yield to the former.

It’s 8 p.m. in That Luang esplanade when I went there to jog after my Lao language lessons. I just did two rounds as I felt that I’d already run about three kilometers in 30 minutes. I left the place with still a few cyclists, runners, soccer players and by-standers. The place is open 24 hours.

Friday in Lao language is called “Wan Souk” and “souk” means “happy”. It’s 5 p.m. on a happy day. Let’s exercise in a form of sport that doesn’t require a change of outfit. Let’s play pétanque!

Men in their slacks and women in their Lao sinh skirts parade to nearby compounds that have pétanque courts. I sweat a little bit after several throws of those heavy metal balls that never hit the small one. But, it doesn’t matter as long as I sip enough beer. Yes, this is the sport that will help you gain back the beer belly that you tried to lose days before. You cannot see any pétanque courts here on Fridays without beer bottles or cans. Nevertheless, it’s a part of healthy lifestyle. This time your heart pumps regularly as you enjoy the start of the weekend laughing out loud with friends—usually with beer and some “pulutan” to go with it.

Or raw vegetables.

Anybody can use these workout equipment for free at the Chao Anovoung park. MindaNews photo by Lorie Ann Cascaro
Anybody can use these workout equipment for free at the Chao Anovoung park. MindaNews photo by Lorie Ann Cascaro

Dining in a noodle restaurant, I see a plateful of raw mint, basil leaves, cabbage, sliced string beans and lime served on my table ahead of the rice noodle (feu) soup that I ordered.

Then small bowls of raw bean sprouts and suki, a sauce made of ground peanuts and garlic cooked in oil with a dash of chili powder, arrived before I finally got my noodle soup.

Eating those raw vegetables piqued my appetite. I already knew though that Lao people eat raw vegetables, either with noodle soup or any dish. Despite my strong desire to try everything they eat here, it was totally different when you’re about to actually do it.

Lao people eat raw vegetables and leaves that we don’t usually eat in the Philippines, or at least in Davao City.

They wrap dumplings with wild betel leaves aside from cabbage and lettuce. They eat raw morning glory, string beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, dragon-bone beans and young leaves from mango trees.

Some people also eat bergamot leaves, which are often cooked with fried meat or insects. Most Lao dishes contain raw garlic, along with other seasonings.

Eating my first raw vegetables with a supposed “delicious” noodle meal was nostalgic—I felt like my mother was staring at me when I was a kid, chiding, “Eat your vegetables!”

As time passes by, I have grown to have a craving for raw vegetables every meal everyday. They really taste so good, especially if dipped in a variety of sauces or mixed as salads.

Health experts say uncooked vegetables contain higher amounts of folic acid and antioxidants, including lycopene, beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E.

As a city girl, I badly need detoxification from the processed and junk foods I eat almost every single day for lack of time and creativity. Surely, I will need much folic acid!

I don’t only regain my sense of wellbeing while enjoying a calm and stress-free life in the countryside, but I also restore my good health and youthfulness, thanks to raw vegetables.

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]

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