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.