Some years ago there was a TV advertisement in Spain that says “Marina d’Or, holiday city” to promote a holiday resort at the Spanish east coast. And that’s Luang Prabang, a holiday city for families and retired people. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m glad families and retirees have a place for holidays but honestly, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang is pathetic. Laos is one of the least developed countries in the world, however Luang Prabang (the center) looks like any other western summer city. An island of opulence which badly contrast with the local poverty. Only some few Laotians benefit from that, the rest still scrape by in the outskirts while westerns multiply business focused on westerns maintaining a community not integrated at all with the social and cultural reality of the country.
Vang Vieng, a small town on the way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang which has radically changed since 10 years ago when it was a peaceful place of idyllic landscapes and become later a town of drugs and alcohol with no control at all. That finished when 2 years ago the police closed dozens of bars. Now the landscapes are the same, but monetized to the point of exaggeration, and the young and festive atmosphere of backpackers is more moderated but intense though (similar to Pai in Thailand). By the way, in Laos there is curfew at 23:30 for all the business (although some of them bribe the police to avoid it).
That is the atmosphere where I’d change the way that I think about my trip.
The official name of Laos as a country is Lao PDR (Lao People’s Democratic Republic) but expats here created other meaning for that name: Lao People Don’t Rush. And what a true! In fact, the most repeated expression in Laos is baw-pen-nyan, translated as No problem or Never mind.
Before carrying on with my trip I’d like to share my thoughts about the people of this country which was a turning point in my adventure.
On the road between Vientiane and Vang Vieng/Luang Prabang, 52km away from Vientiane is sited a village called precisely like that, Km 52 (in Lao, the official language of Laos, that’s pronounced like Lak haa-sip-song). That originals are people here, and it’s not the only village with that type of name. Laos is full of them.
Since I left Vientiane I set Ban Km 52 (Ban means village in Lao) as my next destination. Firstly because it was a village in the middle of nowhere and no tourists stop there; and secondly because in CouchSurfing, surprisingly, there were several guys offering couch. But I arrived only to find that there was a big festival and every guest-houses were full or really overpriced (that’s why I didn’t get either positive replies to my CouchSurfing Requests).
I was wandering around, looking for a guest-house where I could sleep without paying too much when I walked a second time by a house where around 40 people of the same family were eating. One of the young guys made me gestures to join them and they invited me to eat, to party with them and to sleep in their home And that’s how I spent Christmas Eve in 2014
I was wandering around Vientiane, capital of Laos (it has almost nothing really interesting by the way), maybe a bit confused due to the new driving side (here the cars drive on the normal side, on the right), when that nice woman in her fifties waved at me and we started to chat away. She was from Malaysia and her daughter would travel to Spain to study (what a coincidence!). She was a bit worried about her because it was a totally different world and she wanted to know more about it. Her uncle joined us (she was meeting him) and they invited me to a drink in a terrace. After a nice chat they offered me to have lunch with them so that I could talk to her daughter/grandniece and give her some advises. Sure! Why not? It was a great opportunity to meet new people.
They called a tuk-tuk and we went to their house. A maid or a helpful relative welcomed us and then the uncle’s brother showed up with a permanent smile He also talked me about her grandniece and how worried was her mother. I told him a bit about the Spanish culture:
– Nothing to worry about, just the pickpockets! Hahaha
And about Mallorca:
– Beach is invaded by Germans, but inland is more local.
– Oh… Don’t you know where Mallorca is? Look — showing them a map in my mobile —, it’s that island.
+ Ah, it’s an island!
– Yes! — what the fuck are these people thinking about? Their girl is going there and they don’t know it?
I told him what my travel was about and that I was looking for temporal jobs while I was traveling to get some money to keep going so I’d probably stop for a while in Cambodia. Visa is easy to get there.
+ Really? I’m working in a ferry in Cambodian coast and you might be working there — coincidence!
– Seriously? That would be amazing!
+ I work as a pit-boss in the casino — uhhh —, so I could teach you some cards tricks and when you come to visit me just come inside through the VIP entrance — sure —. We can work together there, what do you think about that? — What the fuck? I’m not going to visit you and work scamming people in a casino. But… let’s see where is all this going, I’m curious about those tricks
– Sure! Why not?
We went up to the first floor and the pit-boss was teaching me some tricks about when to bet in Blackjack and gestures to tell me when I had to ask for cards and when not during the game.
He explained me that bets were normally with $5000 and he would give me that money to play in his table — imagine here my best face of WTF!!? —, but since I was a beginner he would give me only $200 so it wouldn’t be a real problem in case of I lose all that money — $200 or $1, you’re freaking out if you think I’m going to bet anything. He also told me that the first games would be played by his brother and I would only watch so I could learn.
Then he talked about one of his customers, a man from Singapore working with jewelery, gold and silver. He would probably come to have lunch with us and I could stay watching how they play — that’s weird. I just had to say that his brother was my tourist guide — sure, sure, whatever.
To my astonishment, oh what a coincidence, the maid knocked the door and announced a visitor. He was the customer from Singapore. In that moment my previous excitement about meeting new people completely disappeared and my scatterbrain understood what was happening there.
Great. So I’m not the one supposed to scam rich people in a ferry when I hypothetically visit him, but the one who is going to be scammed is me, here and now. Ok, too far. It’s time to run off!
After introductions the guy just sat down to play and gave the pit-boss a bankroll which pretended to be $2000 — yeah, sure — and the latter wrote down in a shabby piece of paper the round balance: in one side the Singaporean guy with $2000 and in the other one with $200 his brother and !?me!? Additionally his brother didn’t put the chips in front of him, but between we two (we were sitting together). So I noticeably stepped aside and said that I was not playing, only he was doing it.
The pit-boss, clever guy, said:
+ Oh, you maybe prefer to leave?
– Yeah, I think so.
Curiosity satisfied. I took my things and left accompanied by the woman who, before knowing what happened, asked me if I didn’t want to wait for her daughter. When realized she lost her smile. The cards were already on the table.
Whenever somebody tells me “Curiosity killed the cat” I always reply something I learned from my brother: “but saved the rat” (in English would be more correct to say “but satisfaction brought him back”).
However, sometimes it’s better to be careful just in case you’re the cat instead of the rat.
Coming back to the hostel I found a couple of cards laying on the ground. Now I keep them always with me as a reminder of the fact that appearances delude and that one can still trust people but must take care and don’t be reckless, even wanting to open up or meet new people.
P.S. (13/08/2015): In Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, several times similar people stop me, normally women or couples. I’m glad I lived this experience before (and it end up happily) because now I’m able to notice the scam attempt from miles away.