Trouble's a brewing in laid-back Laos


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Asia » Laos » West » Vientiane
July 1st 2011
Published: July 1st 2011EDIT THIS ENTRY

Nong Khiaw  Nong Khiaw  Nong Khiaw

View from my bungalow
The French have a saying about the nations comprising former Indochina, it goes like this: The Vietnamese grow the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laotians listen to it grow. This is a reference to the nature of the people in their former colony. Now I personally think that they have over-rated the Laotians diligence. I doubt that a Laotian would actually bother listening to the rice grow, that seems like far too much effort for them. No, I would say that the Laotians would just let the rice grow and not pay any attention to it at all. They would instead be making good use of their hammock, bed, or comfy chair.

So let's talk about these Laotians, shall we? And there is a lot of talk about Laos these days among the backpackers. It is the place to go and has been for the last ten years or so. People say you must go because it is so relaxed and the people are so friendly and it is so beautiful and cheap. The question is, does it live up to its reputation? Is it all that I expected it to be?

Laid-back and relaxed? Yes,
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Scenery
that it is for sure, and just for that reason it was the perfect anti-dote for China with its fast paced lifestyle and its noise. In Laos there is hardly any noise. No people shouting on phones, no barrage of music coming from various devices, no constant gurgling and spitting. The Laotians are in fact quite soft spoken and being on a bus is a revelation when coming from China. Being in a town or just walking around the village is a revelation for that matter. Here one can walk around and hear the birds sing their song, or the wind blowing through the trees. It is so quiet here and nothing seems to happen, which is just wonderful. My ears are slowly healing from the wall of sound that was China.

Is Laos beautiful? Yes that is true as well. It is beautiful, simply because it is still so rural and the population density is small enough for it not to feel crowded. The hills are dotted with small villages and farms and lots of jungle. Lazy rivers criss-cross the land slowly meandering away into the distance. Limestone karst scenery supplements it all. It is indeed gorgeous.
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Looking towards Muang Ngoi

Are the people friendly? Sure they are, but here comes my first hesitation. They are friendly and laid-back, but there is a bit of a drawback to all this. And this has to do with the last question, is Laos cheap? No!! Relatively yes, but in comparison to some countries which are higher up on the development scale (Laos belongs to the 20 most impoverished nations) like Vietnam or even India it is expensive. It used to be cheap so I have heard, but that has changed.

Transport especially is ridiculously priced. Paying 15 dollars for a 180 kilometer bus ride is just stupid. Those are Chinese prices, but without the quality you get in China. Basically Laos charges you more for less. But also food is mediocre and expensive. I am sure there is good local food, but everybody seems to be catering to the backpacker market. So what you get is not very good and not very cheap. I can get a better and bigger meal in China than in Laos. Accommodation? Cheapish, because it is off-season, but again, not as cheap as you would think.

So how does this reflect on the people you may
Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi  Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi  Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi

Sleepy young monk
ask? Why the hesitation? Well because the Lao mentality has changed towards the falang (foreigner in Laotian). We are now seen as easy cash cows, at least that is my perception. The falang will pay anything, even if it is unreasonable because he is rich. I will highlight this mentality with two examples.

The first one I witnessed as a British girl came of the boat in Muang Ngoi, a sleepy little backpacker village. We were accosted by people offering rooms and that is where I will start.

Local: "Room madam, room?"
Girl: "How much?"
Local: "40000 kip for a bungalow. Very cheap."
Girl: "It is off-season now, I have heard from my friends I can get a bungalow for 20000."
Local: "Where are you from madam?"
Girl: "England"
Local: "England people are rich. Why you complain. 40000 kip is nothing for you."

I must say this is the first time in a very long time that somebody has actually said out loud what probably most locals think. You are rich, so just pay up! It is however very typical of the atmosphere I have encountered here among the local tourist industry, though it hasn't been so blatantly expressed as in the example. I have found it very hard to bargain in this country. You go around and hotel proprietors stick to their prices, no matter if their hotels are empty. There seems to be this collective thought that even if I am not going to pay the price, some other falang will come along and will pay it. And if not, there is always the high season! Competition I have found is rare, most restaurants have the same food and the same prices. The falang dollar will roll whether we compete or not, whether the food is mediocre or not, so why bother?

The second example happened when inquiring about a bus ticket out of Luang Prabang.

Me: "When does the local bus to Vang Vieng leave?"
Agent: "There are no local busses to Vang Vieng. Only VIP and Express." As a side note, VIP and Express busses are rather expensive, and I can't see how a local could afford it.
Me: "So locals don't travel to Vang Vieng?"
Agent: "No"
Me: " How about to Vientiane?"
Agent: " Only VIP and Express."
Me: "Aha, locals don't travel between Luang Prabang and the capital
Muang NgoiMuang NgoiMuang Ngoi

Main street in Muang Ngoi
of your country either?"
Agent: "No."

Again, it shows a rather diffident attitude towards the traveller. Clearly this must be a lie, they just want to make more money on us by selling us a more expensive ticket. Even at the bus station it proved impossible to get a ticket for the local bus. The same lie was perpetuated in Vang Vieng, but there we managed to actually flag down the local bus as it drove passed.

Do I blame to Laotians for this? Not really, I find it sad. I think it is the outcome of the discovery of Laos by the first backpackers, its subsequent quick rise up the tourist ladder, the replacement of backpackers by the so called 'flashpackers' who have more money to spend and subsequently care less about value for money (yes I know that this is a generalization, it stems from my jealousy of not being a flashpacker). The end result is a tourist industry that has realized that they can get away with more for less.

To return to the title of this blog. Why is trouble brewing in Laos? Simply put, the buzz I am hearing as I am
Muang NgoiMuang NgoiMuang Ngoi

View from my balcony
travelling down the backpacker trail, which as I quickly discovered encompasses most of Laos, is that Laos is too expensive! Everywhere I go, with everybody I talk to and every conversation I listen into the same thing pops up: "This country is much more expensive then I thought." or "It is not worth the money!"

Clearly everybody has there limits, and Laos is pushing the average travellers limit. How long will they keep coming if prices rise and quality lags severely behind? In the end backpackers might move on to greener pastures. You can find the same hill-tribes and jungles in Vietnam and spend less. A jungle trek costs less in Thailand, and you can get of the beaten track cheaper in Myanmar. So why pay a lot of money for it in Laos?

But perhaps the Laotians are right, the falang dollars will keep on rolling, even if some of the backpackers will leave, there will always be enough coming in. There seem to be many out there that don't care that much, they just want a cold beer, western food (even if it isn't that great) and a bit of nightlife. Maybe too we just deserve it. Looking at the crowd in Vang Vieng, I don't feel sympathetic to our plight. When boys and girls don't care about the local culture, don't want to know about it and don't respect it, but rather go around misbehaving in a drunken manner it seems only right that we all get ripped off. We reap what we sow and we have sown badly I think.

However the Laotians are sowing at the moment too and if they don't look out what they reap will be just as bad. The backpackers will move on. What will be left is the bikini top and bare chested folk (despite signs asking them not to wear a bikini top or walk around bare chested because the locals don't appreciate it) who care little about Laos or the Laotians but do indeed spend a lot of money. Will the Laotians one day wake up and find that the cost was too high?







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Around Muang NgoiAround Muang Ngoi
Around Muang Ngoi

Well camouflaged frog
Around Muang NgoiAround Muang Ngoi
Around Muang Ngoi

Me at the entrance of a cave
Luang Prabang  Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Centre of Luang Prabang, temple on the former Royal Palace grounds
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Luang Prabang

Wat Pa Huak
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Luang Prabang

Frescoes inside Wat Pa Huak
Luang Prabang  Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

James and Liz, my travelling companions
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Luang Prabang

Golden reliefs
Luang Prabang  Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Golden stupa's
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Luang Prabang

And golden Buddha's
Luang Prabang  Luang Prabang
Luang Prabang

Buddha statue
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Luang Prabang

Wat Xieng Thong
Around Vang Vieng  Around Vang Vieng
Around Vang Vieng

Karst scenery around Vang Vieng


1st July 2011

Nice Writing
Nice blog and you have put into words exactly what we found in Laos, although at the time we couldn't quite put our finger on it. We found the general feeling to be a little disconcerting also. Well written but even better observed! Happy travels.
1st July 2011

Interesting
Thanks for an informative blog entry. I'm going to read back through your other pages as well now. I often get wound up when traveling when its assumed your well off because your Western. Ok you may well be in a much better financial position than them but when your on a shoe string back packer budget and you still feel like a walking cash machine it can get very annoying. I have only traveled to a few places in India but my big trip starts in Aug. I'm sure this sort of attitude will start to grate on me. Hope your enjoying your travels. Regards
1st July 2011

Fair Trade
Backpackers expect everything in developing countries to be dirt cheap. It's about time for poor countries to demand fair trade for their services and commodities. Don't you guys feel guilty for taking advantage of your host country ? Every person deserves to be paid fairly to enjoy the fruit of their labor.
1st July 2011

So true...
We found ourselves nodding along to your blog as we were reading it. It's very true we reap what we sow. Unfortunately this is the logical conclusion and progression of tourism in SE Asia. The locals think foreigners are rich, the foreigners pay the prices because they think they are getting 'something special' due to the buzz of that particular country on the backpacker trail. The country then gets too expensive and poor value for backpackers and a lot of them leave, but as you say there are always more coming to pay the prices. Although with Laos, we can't see that happening due to the aforementioned 'buzz' about the country. Honestly, when we were in Laos in 2007 it was bordering on silly prices for some things and we noticed the 'foreigner can pay anything' attitude creeping in and reluctance to haggle. We aren't completely surprised and think your analysis is spot on and could apply to areas of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam equally.
1st July 2011

Deep!
As you know, I always enjoy reading your blogs but I particularly liked this analysis! It's interesting to see what trends in "travellers" do to the local culture, how it can help or damage a lot of things, sometimes in the short term and sometimes you cannot guess how long or deep the damage really is! You should start a forum discussion on this, see what people think in various parts of the world!!
2nd July 2011

Re: Flashpacker
Nothing wrong with fair trade, but that is just the problem it isn't fair trade. I can get a 3 pound bus from London to Brighton in England but for about the same amount of kilometers I have to pay 15 dollars in Laos on a rattle trap bus. Even this would be fine if it weren't that it is just the traveller who is paying this price. The locals pay different. Is this what you mean by fair trade?
2nd July 2011

Ah Ralf...
"jealousy of not being a flashpacker" ?? !! Are you selling out? Come on you know that you would never want that. It's too easy for your tastes :)
2nd July 2011

Re: Fair trade
Although, I agree that there are some people who bargain to absurd levels to a point that is just rude, I think if you are somewhere who just charge you ten times the price, that's not great either! It will eventually put you and others off going to that place. Reading Ralf's blog, Laos hasn't popped up as first place I want to go next. I travel with my small child, I don't really want her to have to witness that on a daily base. Whereas when we went to Samoa, where there aren't huge numbers of "trendy travellers", the locals had huge smiles were really helpful and charged us reasonale prices. Other locals would look out for you and make sure that every one kept to a fair price. We went round one of the islands hiring a taxi, now although he probably charged us more than he might have a Samoan. It wasn't an exagerated amount, (we found a couple of other people to help me paydivide the price and everyone was happy) Once we'd agreed the price, that was it, there wasn't, oooh and of course you can afford this and this cos you're European. And because he didn't overcharge us we wanted to buy him lunch etc.... The whole experience was much more pleasant. So I think, yes, we can pay a little bit more but not stupidly high prices. I think maybe it should be a balanced relationship, we don't try and bring the prices pathetically low and the local doesn't try and push the prices beyond the sky! And not lie about basic things like transport. Yes, say, oooh, I think you would be more comfortable in deluxe class and yes try and sell the higher priced one first and you will get a few people on this but then the tourist who has done his research will say, no, no I would like a basic bus and then the bus employee should then agree to sell that ticket. And I'd say that would be pretty fair! That tourist is not trying to cheat the local, just trying to save money by going on the basic bus, something completely reasonable I'd say!

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