Laos & Bangkok: Being Fleeced and Following the Rails

So a week is past and for the first time in a while the mad house has screeched to a halt, allowing me some time to catch my breath, shower and scrape the toe jam off my feet. South East Asia, it seems, is dirty.

Laos itself was a stunningly beautiful trip, with amazing countryside and rolling mountains. Likewise, the society itself has been stunningly eroded to the brink of outright oblivion. The people poor, straw hut poor, with mangy dogs littering the roads, overflowing sewerage drains and appalling facilities. The comrades working for the communist-led government of course don’t suffer this indignation. They are the lucky few who get to live in palatial walled-in villas, safely separated from the dirt proletariat. If anything, Laos is a textbook example of why Communism is a hopelessly flawed ideology when placed in the hands of some exceedingly greedy people (ie just about any human being!)

But on the rickety 11 hour bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, the raw and painstakingly obvious beauty of Laos is thrown in front of you to stare at, mouth agape and eyes wide open. from the lush green rice paddies, misted rolling mountains, to the guard with the AK47 sitting at the back, the immediate sense of one’s mortality is made quite apparent.

But this is a country that, much like Thailand, relies on tourism for a good chunk of what little money comes into the economy, and that means tourists, LOTS of tourists. In Hokkaido, gaijin get funny looks simply because there aren’t very many of us there. Indeed, whenever I see a round-eye in Japan, I almost want to grab them by their shirt and speak to them in fluent English for a few minutes just so I can remember what it sounds like! In Bangkok and Laos, tourists are as prevalent as the street vendors peddling everything from pepsi bottles to tiny little fried birds on a stick. They’re everywhere, and so is the market that supports them. Finding a guest house is thankfully easy, tourist taxis do the rounds regularly, and haggling over what amounts to $1 or so difference on a purchase permeates the society. It’s not quite what I expected, but I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing for a foreigner to be surrounded by other foreigners. It’s just such a shame that getting off the beaten track is a lot harder than one would hope.

Luang Prabang, for all it’s majesty alongside the Mekong, is a tourist haven. the small town consists almost completely of tourist-related wares. It makes for an intensely exotic experience though, as finding the most commonly popular local attractions is extremely easy to find. From elephant rides to Lao massages it’s all attainable within a 10m radius of your accomodation.

Walking through the crowded streets, visiting one temple after another, watching my brother burn through camera batteries like a coke addict in Columbia is a great way to spend a few days. Everyone is friendly, of course, thanks to the tourist being many of the locals’ primary sources of income, and the characteristic Asian half-smile is constantly worn at all times, making the reading of their faces extremely difficult.

Bangkok is the tourist Mecca, with virtually every single inch of every single block in the city covered with taxi drivers, street vendors, con artists, prostitutes, “tour guides” and folks generally trying to pimp the tourist for as much Baht as possible.

What this does mean, however, is that there’s never a dull moment, as every waking moment is spent looking, searching, haggling or simply absorbing the atmosphere of the place. Clubs are free but drinks are expensive, and God knows how much the gender-ambiguous ‘girls’ who reside in every establishment charge for a night of company. Of course, one sees many middle to old-aged tourists with ‘companions’ roaming the streets at all hours. Interesting in and of itself.

But the first week here has so far shown me not so much the local people so much as how the local people interact with the tourists. I could say that this isn’t the real Thailand and Laos, but I honestly think that the tourist culture, as well as the interactions therewith is just as much a part of the culture now as sticky rice and poverty. I honestly had the idea in my head that Japan, Thailand and friends bore similarities that could cross borders within the region, but I now see that that little gap of ocean makes the world of difference!

There’s far more to the picture, but I’m too overwhelmed to write it all down at the moment, and my time on the meter says I don’t have long to write anyway. Needless to say again, but I shall anyway, Laos is a truly majestic country ruined politically and economically. A really harsh existence interspersed with injections of first world ‘foreign aid’. That there are no old people around says a lot (they generally die quite quickly due to the lack of healthcare), but Bangkok is the same but difference. A beautiful nation that loves their King, has a crapload of temples, enjoy fleecing the foreigners, but one that I would love to have seen 50 years ago even more!

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