While hitchhiking in Thailand is really easy despite the communication problems, but hitchhiking in Laos is not that simple. In Thailand seeing a farang at the shoulder is weird and many people stop for curiosity or trying to help because they think you’re in trouble (so sweet! ). In Laos a farang at the shoulder is not weird, it’s very weird and most of the people will either look at you with curiosity not knowing what to do and not stopping because they don’t speak English or look at you like a dollar with legs from whom they can get some profit; the last ones use to speak a bit of English. Indeed many of the drivers who stop ask for money and not, it’s not for sharing costs, it’s even more than the bus whether one would have taken it from origin to destination.
Of course there are a lot of people who are not like that (more in the South than in the North) and thanks to them I could travel hitchhiking around Laos:
- The driver of a regular bus (yeah, one of the big ones), who stopped without calling him while I was walking and offered me to go for free to my destination, Km 52. In the bus I met Erik, a Belgian guy who I met again in Vang Vieng and thanks to whom I could work there in exchange of accommodation and food.
- A business man with a bad-ass car who stopped for me on the way between Km 52 and Vang Vieng because he said it’s his obligation as a Buddhist to help whoever needs it (that’s not as frequent as one could imagine; most religions say the same but very few people really do it). He was going to open a new resort in Vang Vieng. He only set one condition: if the police stopped us I would have to say that he is my friend, otherwise he would have to pay money to the police (a bribe, of course) because only official buses can do that. This significant data was very important some days later to get rid of an asshole who tried to charge me after agree about taking me for free.
- A minivan-bus that brought me full throttle from Luang Prabang outskirts to Pakmong through the narrow and bumpy mountain roads being afraid of falling down one of those terrible cliffs if he didn’t break in time.
- A Vietnamese who saved me of walking many hours on a dusty and not very busy road on the way to Muang Ngoy.
- Three Laotian girls who took Belén and me for several kilometers between Thakhek and Pakse.
- On the same route a couple who bother to call their daughter to translate. They drove us several kilometers too.
- And many, many trucks, vans and pickups that I cannot remember anymore.
However I found some problems too, especially in the North where I already read that many people ask for money so I always took care of make the drivers understand that I was traveling without money and I couldn’t pay. The worst moment was on the way between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. I was traveling with Elena, an Italian hitchhiker I met in Vang Vieng.
On this route two minivans gave us a lift (I would understand later that this kind of minivans are the most common local transport and can be stopped everywhere, “hitchhiking” and paying at destination, similar to Romania). Both drivers could speak a bit of English, they were Hmong (the same ethnicity I enjoyed the Hmong New Year with in Km 52). We told the first driver that we were traveling without money and asked if we could travel for free with them. He gave us a ride for the first half of hour journey, until the town Phoukhoun, but he asked for money when arrived. I reminded him that he accepted to take us for free before getting in and we couldn’t pay him now. He made a face but nodded.
On the outskirts Phoukhoun, after eating very cheap in a local restaurant, a similar minivan stopped for us. This time we made sure several times that the driver and his two companions understand we don’t have money to pay. After looking each other meaningfully they said yes. What would be our surprise when arrived to Luang Prabang the driver, who was only talking to and looking at me as if Elena wouldn’t exist (it’s not infrequent in this region of the world that men, more especially monks, don’t even look at women if they think they’re married), asked if we could help him with 130000 kip (around 14€). That was more than the bus from Vang Vieng. Of course we said no to him, they accepted to bring us for free so now they could not ask for money and we were not going to pay. They pretended that it was not true and it was a misunderstanding due to their little English (very typical this kind of trick), but they perfectly understood, they just wanted to make profit of us. So we told him no again and start to walk to the center of the city. They followed us with the minivan and called us again. I approached to him again:
- Ok, ok, can you help me with 100000 kip?
- No 100000 no 20000, nothing. If you would have asked for that money at the beginning we wouldn’t get in. You accepted to bring us free, now don’t ask for money, we don’t have.
The guy replied something I didn’t understand so I got closer, from up to down, and ask him to repeat it again. Laotians are small people and in that moment when I moved my face closer to him we both realized that I was 2 times his size. He shrank a bit and finally he said that if we don’t pay we would go to the police to solve the problem. He was trying to pin us down but, as my parents say, experience is a rank in itself.
- Ok, go to police and tell them that you gave us a ride and want to charge us, let’s see how much you have to pay them because it’s illegal.
- Eh… yes… let’s go, let’s go to the police – not so convinced now.
- Go. You go. I’m not.
And we started to walk again. They continued with the minivan, cursed/threatened us from there and left. No problem anymore.
P.S.: ADVICE FOR HITCHHIKERS (most of them are also on the post about Thailand):
- Here it doesn’t work to wait with the thumb up, instead you must hold up the arm and move the wrist up and down, like calling a taxi. In Thai that’s boglot, in Laotian is probably the same word although I never learned it.
- You’ll frequently see the gesture of turning the wrist with the open hand. That would be interpreted in western countries as “maybe”, but in Asia that means “no”. You’ll find that gesture useful for tuk-tuks
- Traffic rules in Laos are hardly used so you can hitchhike almost everywhere.
- It’s better if you walk and turn when cars come instead of waiting on the side of the road. That way they can see you’re going somewhere else, otherwise they can easily think you’re just waving at them
- Most of people don’t speak English but they can understand a bit. In any case explain yourself with gestures telling them where are you going and asking them if they’re going there and if you can go with them.
- Name 2 or 3 towns you’re passing through, maybe they can give you a lift to any of them.
- Pickups are the easiest to get a ride since you can go behind. They feel safe and don’t have to talk to you if cannot or don’t want to.
- Don’t try to stop minivans, they have their route programmed and will not stop.
- Say hello (pronounced “sa-wai-dee”) with respect putting your hands together, like praying, and nodding once.
- Bring with you a hitchhiking letter written by a Laotian friend and learn some useful Lao sentences. This is mine for Laos (it tells who am I and what am I doing in the road stopping cars):
Although once you get used to express yourself by gestures and to understand what they want to say it’s not so necessary. And a lot of people in the countryside don’t know how to read.
- Use a GPS when you don’t have clear where they’re taking you, to know where they dropped you off or even to show them where are you going in the map (but show your phone as few times as you can). The best free offline GPS app for Android is Sygic, but it has not map for Laos so I recommend Maps with Me, also available for iPhone.
- Even though Laos is safe for traveling (I’d say that even for solo girls, but you’ll probably know that better than me), everywhere you can find bad people. If somebody wants you to get up with him but he still doesn’t understand where are you going or check all you with greed, don’t trust him. It’s very nice that people stop for you, but remember you’re not obligated to get up. Follow your instincts!
- ¡IMPORTANT! Make sure they understand you perfectly when you tell them you cannot pay and have not money BEFORE get in. You can say «Bo kip» (No Kip).
- Don’t be surprised if they want to have a picture with you or ask for your mobile number. Hitchhiking is just other way to meet new people and make new friends
- Hitchhiking is one of the best ways to travel around places that typical tourists don’t even know they exist. Enjoy with the curiosity and smiles of all that people not used to see farangs. You’ll be the target of a lot of photos, laughs and glances, participate in that and smile back warmly.
- Learn to accept what is given to you. Sometimes you don’t have other option than taking a bus.
- More advice on HitchWiki.org where I’ll also try to participate when I be able.