I am fairly convinced that Laos is a country filled with schemes brewing amongst the locals in every corner of inhabited land. Walking down any street in Laos is like being a star in the Ringling Bros. Circus. To them I am a clown and they greet me with yelps, woos and barking in all forms of broken English. But the most common greeting I receive comes in the highly annoying and extremely ineffective sales pitch. Silk scarves, jungle tours, long tail boats, watches and tuk tuks; everything under the sun consistently bombarding me. I really don't mind the effort, but after five men yelling, "tuk tuk" in high pitched voices within the span of a single city block, I think someone should inform these locals that this is no way to sell to a Westerner.
It isn't just Laos. I have been approached with the most terrible sales pick ups from, "excuse me miiiis, very good price, only five minutes" to the suspiciously dangerous, "I would like you to meet my uncle...in his carpet shop." Somehow, Thailand has discovered the secret; we are willing to buy things, but we want to be left alone to shop in peace. Maybe it's the mass throng of tourists or the fact that the average Thai makes five times as much as a Laotian ($10,000 vs $2,000 USD/year), but somewhere, an ah ha! lightbulb has been illuminated and a trip to the Thai market is relatively pain free.
It seems that each country has a unique sales scam trick they have perfected. In Morocco it was inflating prices to the high heavens, so much that any sane Westerner would clearly know they had been done in for and refuse to pay. The Jordanians have a unique "confuse the tourist" approach where they will quote a price, for example, a hotel room and it turns out the quote was per person, not per room. Laos has a little bit of everything but lying seems to be at the top of the list. The money exchange scam and bus misinformation are two examples of this. They also commonly spring the "I don't have change" excuse, but coincidently, always find change when I decide not to purchase the product. The most creative form of rip off I witnessed in Laos was a bottle of shampoo Rachel bought, only to find it was less than half full when she went to shower.
Another favorite is charging us for services we don't order and making us pay for everything from bathrooms to crossing bridges and walking down certain streets. Rachel and I went hiking to two caves in Vang Vieng and after paying the bridge fee, street fee and cave entrance fee we were guided by two 12 year old girls with flashlights assuring it was free. They did an exquisite job, but soon enough turned to us wide eyed, hands extended, asking, "money for the guide?"
This was a serious ethical dilemma.Suddenly the sweet and innocent impression I had of the girls vanished and I morphed into the rebellious image of a dissatisfied Western customer. There isn't much that makes me more livid than getting ripped off. In the United States, I could voice my frustrations and would magically be compensated by he wrongdoer, making me feel like a savvy consumer who had learned to outsmart the system. Unfortunately the "customer is always right" rule isn't in effect here and complaining doesn't do squat. This usually turned into a losing battle for me, so I had to get more creative with my responses. In Morocco I had satisfied my rip off anger by refusing to get out of a taxi until the driver returned my change, and by ignoring outrageous prices at food stalls and paying what I felt was fair.
Now these cheeky little girls were pushing my buttons and I didn't know what to do. They had put in the work fair and square, but in the Western world one simply can't charge another for unrequested services and the girls needed to learn this if they were to continue working with my breed in the future. I gave them a slight reprimand about needing to ask the visitors before providing any additional cost service and departed leaving a dollar-not a lot but enough to buy a meal in Laos.
I walked away feeling used and like a very unsavvy consumer, but at least I handled the situation diplomatically.
Looking back on the many rip off attempts I've experienced, I would love to instruct a class entitled "Highly Effective Western Sales Techniques Summed Up in Three Words: Leave Us Alone" but I wouldn't want to divulge all the secrets of the mysterious Western creature. We'll leave that for the Laotians to figure out.
Selling meat at a local market in Laos
If there was an award for the country with the worst infrastructure, Laos would get five gold stars. The roads are a masterpiece of dirt and rock winding its way through the jungle mountains just wide enough for one and a half cars to pass. The towns are a little better, boasting ten yard bursts of pavement between another hundred yards of dirt, the intermittent bouncing onto and off of pavement is enough to jar your brains out, not to mention the continuous curves that could make anyone carsick. Combine that with the zooish policies of the bus companies and you've got a full bred circus.
Everything that the bus company spews out is complete bogus. The ride will take four hours: false, there will be a bathroom on board: false, the bus is air conditioned: false!
I found myself en route to Vang Vieng stuck on a four turned eight hour ride, sweating profusely, trying to relieve my throbbing head on a bus that was clearly not designed for these roads.
Rachel and I finally pulled into the town, which looked more like a local dump than one of the famed "must sees" outlined in all travel guides. It was an arena of dirt--dirt roads, dirt fields, dirt hills--all of which fluttered a few feet above ground to leave you with perfectly bronzed skin and lungs after a short jaunt through the center.
It was a question of fight or flight and the inherent answer was easy, but we were determined to stick it out and find the true gems of Vang Vieng, which we knew were lurking in the nearby hills. This town is a backpackers dream. Well, maybe not the town itself, but the nearby Nam Song River that runs through is. Every morning, backpackers rise with one thing on the mind, get an inner tube and get to the river. The tubing is a four kilometer stretch of river lined with janky bamboo bars complete with zip lines, slides, dive platforms and rope swings all leading into the water. While I'm not one for drinking, the average tourist is well schmammered within a few stops and somewhere around 22 people die a year from sheer alcohol related stupidity.
I was skeptical at first, but had to see what this whole tubing thing was about. I decked myself out in Vang Vieng's finest tubing attire, hot pink shorts and my waterproof money purse purchased from the local general store, and hit the river. Rachel and I ran into ten people from the slow boat at the first bar and joined them for the day's float. The bars were blasting Rihanna remixes and old school Blink 185, and I laughed at the old Laotian ladies, hunchbacked with canes in hand, siting below the bar bobbing their heads to the beat.
As we tubed downstream locals would throw water bottles attached to a rope at us and reel the whole lot of us into their riverside bar. I cared less about the alcohol and was really enamored with the river playground--rope swings galore, yes please! I caught my mind wandering off as I sat dangling my feet in the water and gazing at the massive flatirons jetting up hundreds of feet along the shore. Exotic trees and vines wound their way up along the rock and green moss draped from every branch. The top of the pinnacles were hidden in dense fog, making me think I was nothing short of residing in a Disney movie. This place was truly beautiful.
I returned from my day on the river with a collection of bracelets from each bar we stopped at snaking up my arm, and several new spray painted on tattoos, both essential backpacker badges for surviving tubing.
Ok, I have to admit, this dump of a town was growing on me, if anything the playground had definitely won me over.
Me and Rachel decked out in tubing gear ready for a big day on the river!
Majestic cliffs rising from the outskirts of town
Vang Vieng; complete with gravel road, dusty air and Walt Disney style cliffs