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.
- First of all, this post is longer than what I’m writing lately.
- Some declarations could seem hard but they must be understood within the context they belong to. Let’s remember that I’m talking in a generalized way and based on my own experiences which will be different of other people ones and are not an absolute reality, of course; they’re MY reality. Maybe in the future I could change my opinion if I live other experiences.
Just after coming to Laos, lower guard, not cautious enough and looking forward to meet new people in a new country I was about to have a serious problem. But that’s not the reason why I didn’t like much Laos.
I’ve been traveling one month around the whole country, hitchhiking, working for food and accommodation, and meeting a lot of interesting and wonderful new people, but indeed I left Laos with a bittersweet feeling. I’ve met awesome local people:
- Those who were celebrating a wedding and when watched Christoph and me riding around just told us to join them. They gave us a bunch of food, Beerlao (the most common beer in Laos) and Lao Lao (a homemade transparent whiskey).
- Those guys in Km52 who invited me to eat, party in the Hmong New Year festival and sleep at their home.
- That guy in a guest-house in Nong Khiaw who spent one hour translating a letter to Laotian for Belén (a Spanish girl I met in Pai and with whom I’ve been sometimes traveling around these countries) and me without asking for any money. This letter had to explain what were Belén and me doing in the middle of the road stopping cars
- And many people who gave me a ride when hitchhiking or people who just were nice and trying to help.
But I’ve also faced with the falseness, the institutionalized laziness, the corruption, the indiscriminate abuse of the tourists, the give-me-money-I’m-poor-you-rich-but-don’t-expect-I-do-anything, the if-you-don’t-like-it-I-get-furious, the let’s-see-how-can-I-scam-you-with-no-effort, the continuous disdain, the smile of farangs-are-assholes and the always-there faces of annoyance.
And the thing is that Laos, being a country recently opened to tourism, is experiencing a not at all productive transition. In all the countries of the region the most widely spread thought is that farangs are rich and they must therefore pay more for anything. Nobody cares about how long or how hard you had to work to pay your holidays, or about how you live in your own country or what’s your budget; and they cannot even imagine you don’t have money. We are just wallets with legs. And that’s a vision caused by ourselves, the tourists, making a show of our wallets full of money thanks to a very profitable exchange rate (although then we have to work as slaves in our own countries to get that money), paying prices much higher than the ones for locals without claiming or bargain, giving huge tips, etc, etc.
I’ll talk about sustainable tourism in other moment, it has more than meets the eye; now let’s go back to Laos.
What’s then the difference between Laos and the rest of the countries? Well, first of all we need to draw a horizontal imaginary line across the country at Vientiane’s latitude. South that line the people is more similar to Thais and Cambodians; north we’ll find the stereotyped feeling I described before.
Main differences are two: first, Lao people (always talking in a generalized and stereotyped way) don’t care a shit about you, don’t have any interest in you, they only want your fucking money; and here is the second one, they’re not going to do a shit in order to offer you anything worthy to spend the money, but they will demand you to give them that money that you got hard-working in your country (and which they think you just grow by yourself) because they’re poor and they have that right even when they don’t do a shit.
And in any case, Laotians don’t care at all about what you earn, for them we’re all the same.
In other countries, like Thailand or specially Cambodia, people will try to get your money, of course, but the general feeling is that they not only have interest in your money (they’re sellers after all) but also in you as a person. And hitchhiking I can tell you that the difference is clear.
By the way, when I say “demand” I mean that they really think they have the right to get your money just because they consider themselves as poor and if you don’t give them, even when they don’t deserve it, they will piss off. And that’s why one gets irritated, they don’t have any fucking interest in doing anything, but they demand money for absolutely everything.
And I can give several examples:
- In Vang Vieng one has to pay absolutely for everything: when crossing a bridge, pay; when hiking a hill, pay; when going inside the forest to enjoy the nature, don’t worry, there will be a Laotian in the middle of nowhere doing nothing with his/her life but waiting for you to pay for what he/she has not right to charge. Well, and if it would be only one Laotian. Normally they will be at least 4 Laotian doing nothing else the whole day the whole year than waiting for a fucking farang showing up and giving them money because they are poor.
There are many, many poor people in Laos. There are people really poor who have not any opportunity to escape from the poverty, but the people who I am describing are what I call fake poor. People who really live bad and don’t have anything but don’t show any interest in change their situation if that means to do anything else than dedicating to contemplative life. And there are also a lot of people like those in Laos.
- While I was wandering alone around the area of the Hmong New Year festival in Km52 some guys approached and talked to me to practice their English. They gave me a drink they won in one of the games, so nice. They told me to show me around and took me to the bumper cars. When they asked me if I wanted to go inside I said – Sure, let’s go! –, not because I really wanted (I actually didn’t want to spend my little money on that) but because it was a great way to interact more with them. However when I took out the money to pay my ticket I observed astonished how they started to shirk instead of paying and told the guy in the ticket window to charge me everything. WTF!? I kept my smile and didn’t say anything, enjoy the bumper cars and they took me around, but indeed every time they proposed me anything about playing whatever I said no.
- When wandering around Km52 I observed some people trying to unload some fruit boxes from a van very high for them but good for my height. I helped them to unload everything and then I just continued my walk but the owner of the shop come in and return running with a bunch of grapes offering me them. So nice! I smiled and rejected but she insisted a couple of times so I extended my arms to take the grapes that I apparently earned. The woman simply got stuck staring at me. She shook her head, cut 3 grapes and gave me them. Damn, she wanted to sell me the grapes! You maybe think it’s just a trifle but when you see that you have to pay for even breathing and you help them for free, just help, and then they try to sell you even their own mother just because you’re a farang, that breaks your balls because everything here is for sale.
- Hitchhiking between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang with Elena (an Italian girl who I met in Vang Vieng) we got two vans which gave us a ride, but even when we make clear that we were traveling with no money and they agreed to take us for free, both drivers demanded money when arrived to the destination. And this is something that applies not only to hitchhiking. They don’t give a shit about what you agreed before, they will pretend what you say is not true to get more money; and if they don’t get it they will go mad. I think they’ve developed an innate skill for erasing selectively what they want from their memory.
- Coming back from Muang Ngoy, a small village famous for being reachable only by boat, they spent 1 hour for fitting around 25 people in a boat of 10. They didn’t care if we couldn’t move at all (the trip is 1 hour-long), don’t think even about the safety, although the price was the same for farangs and locals didn’t pay anything. But worst of all was how the locals (those who didn’t pay anything) were rudely requiring the money from all the tourists to make sure that everybody pays and demanding we to squeeze.
- In Luang Prabang, with some friends I made in Vang Vieng (Anya, Liam and Elena), we cross to the other riverside of Mekhong so we could lost ourselves in the countryside and walk around the villages. When coming back, just before the sunset, some very nice locals invited us to drink beer and lao lao and to eat some fish they got from the polluted lake where they were living. We told them we only could stay 10 minutes because we had to take the last boat back, but they offered to take us to the other side so we could stay more. We were singing and enjoying the evening with them and they with us. When it was already night we left and they were coming with us, but Liam wanted to give them some money for the beers and in the moment they saw the money they suddenly changed. Now they were demanding more money from Liam and then they just stopped walking and let us continuing without any means to go back to the city. Fortunately other locals took us back by paying the same price that we paid when came (double than locals)
- In Vang Vieng, Liam and Anya paid a night bus to go to Luang Prabang. However they ended up squeezed in a minivan. Do you think the responsible even considered giving them back part of the money? If you don’t like, fuck you, you’ve already paid, don’t mind if it’s for something completely different.
- Kids coming to you and directly saying “one dollar”. Just so. Fucking scot-free. Because their parents teach them to demand (not even ask) from the tourists.
- Also in the south I found some of these examples, as when I was doing with Belén the Thakhek loop (a motorbike tour of 3 days). In one of the cave-temples there were 4 people not doing anything else other than charge a fee to the tourists coming (well, one person was charging and the other ones were just looking). With the entrance was also included the possibility of hiking up a cliff with a nice a viewpoint but if you didn’t want to go there you didn’t have to pay that part. We didn’t go up because the access was hidden and difficult to find so we asked for the money back. They suddenly went mad telling I don’t know what kind of nonsense in Laotian and looking at us with such a disdain face that I was flipping out. Finally some guys show us the way for going up, but we had the right to ask for the money without those people behave like vermin. I’m not violent at all but I can tell you that those people deserve somebody beats the crap out of them. One can be poor not being a moron.
- In Don Khong, one of the 4000 islands of Mekhong in the south of Laos, both the owner of a guest house and her stupid son, who was controlling the boats for moving from and to the island, externalized their disdain for the tourists whose money they happily demand. Belén and me asked for price to the woman and when we told her – okay, we’re going to check around and come back -, she just dog-faced and turned her back on us. That’s not bargain, that’s to be an asshole. Of course we didn’t go back and when she told us a lower price we just told her to go to hell. When we asked for the price of the boat to her son (he was in other place) and told him we wanted to check around anyway he rudely told us that when we come back he would charge us double since he was controlling all the boats. What a douchebag. Finally we bought the ticket to the owner of our guest-house, the same price, but the guy was quite nice.
- And… well, about the borders I’ll better write in other post because there is quite a lot to tell about these countries.
All of these are examples of the Laotian way of being that I found so frustrating. Does all of that happen also in other countries? Indeed it happens, specially in Cambodia, but in Laos the perception of the disdain for you versus their love for your money and the laziness with no limit is something that overcomes me.
In the colonial times, French, who controlled Indochina, stated a saying about their colonies: The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow. In my opinion, even though I’ve not been to Vietnam, that saying is a self-explained mirror of the three societies.
Indeed Laos took me to the limit of my patience with the human moronity. However I could meet a lot of backpackers traveling around this region, learn a lot from some of them and make very good friends. Laos meant a change on my way of traveling and enjoying. Something similar would happen one month later in Cambodia, although more significantly. But in order to know more about that, you’ll have to wait a bit more