The Dark Side Of Laos
This submission could also be titled "Think twice”. It's about what I experienced, unfortunately firsthand, in the country almost everybody is raving about, Laos. Relaxed atmosphere, very friendly people, good and cheap food, almost everybody has more than a good time over there. I had too. Until now.
I'm a somewhat over aged backpacker, upper thirties, that started travelling in June 2002, starting in Asia, Bangkok. I had a RTW-ticket, and yes, I used all of my flight coupons. I didn't get stuck in the LOS because of some lady of the night, above all because I didn't meet one. By the way, Thailand is not a sex tourist destination, but more about that in a later submission.
Anyway, after a couple of months I ended up in Laos, Vientiane, where I met this very nice and friendly girl, a non BG (there are no such things as bars in Laos). I have to admit that you have to be extremely lucky to find a good girl without investing too much time or money). Me and an English guy I was travelling with at the time ended up in Samlor Pub, talking to a girl that was having a birthday party. She introduced me to her friend. Later it turned out that the birthday girl was up for more partying and that her friend was in fact her niece, someone who hardly went out, except on special occasions.
Anyway, we hit it off, went on to a disco called Chess Cafe (nowadays a place apparently teeming with ladyboys, homosexual falang and working girls), then to the house of a long termer we got acquainted with until the morning light. Did you know that last year all bars closed around midnight and a few nightclubs remained open until very late, but since this year EVERYTHING CLOSES AT 11 PM ! This is supposedly to keep the youth from going out and drinking (as if they don't have any parents to keep an eye on them). Everyone has to pay the price… so stop complaining about the 2 AM closing time in LOS.
A few days later I travelled on to Vang Vieng and Louang Prabang and asked her to join me. She agreed. At this point I was still not convinced she wasn't a working girl, although she repeatedly told me she wasn't. Looking back on things, she was right and I was probably too suspicious.
After that I went alone by slow boat to Thailand and she returned home. I promised her I would come back. By the way, I had a whole year off, so time was no problem. Somewhat to her astonishment, partly due to the fact that her niece had told her that falang are nothing but no-good liars and cheaters, I turned up one morning on her doorstep unannounced six weeks later, after having toured Chiang Mai and Myanmar.
I wanted to travel to the South of Laos and back into Thailand. We got her a passport, a visa and off we went. Does it strike anyone as odd that people here need two visas for travelling, the first from their government to be able to leave your own country…? We travelled all around Laos and Thailand and had a great time. Afterwards I went on south overland to Bali, Australia and South America. But that's another story and another website.
I returned a bit early from South America and went back to LOS and Vientiane in April 2003. Again we had a good time and I told her I was thinking of settling down in Thailand or Laos. I was fed up with my job back home and thought about taking up a teaching career. I thought about it hard, and yes I have an English degree and teaching experience (with adults and not for English though), but still haven't decided, the money has not run out yet.
To cut this long and possibly boring story short, I went back to Laos in August of this year with the thought of marrying and possibly buying some property. We were thinking of buying or building a small house and looked around everywhere for land (btw, a decent piece of land on the outskirts of the capital can be had for about 200,000 baht, a new 8×10 house for about 400,000 baht – very cheap compared to Western Europe). And yes, like in Thailand falang cannot own property in Laos. I have the following advice (probably valid for Thailand as well as Laos) :
- Be prepared to lose everything you invest (financially and emotionally) in the relationship.
- Be prepared to leave the country on short notice, leaving everything behind.
- Don't think you have any rights, this is NOT a Western society.
- Be prepared to deal with scams, double pricing and kickbacks.
Now why did I become a little bit embittered after a while, one might ask. Let me tell you first of all that I still like and enjoy this part of the world more than anywhere else. But I had a few "incidents" in Vientiane that made me one angry falang. The first one was relatively minor. The motorbike I bought for us (a new Chinese bike for 17,000 baht) didn't have license plates because the shop hadn't provided the invoice and customs clearing form yet. This can take up to two months. And I was driving on this sunny Sunday morning with the headlight on (in some European countries this is obligatory). For these two "offences" some cops lurking around wanted 75000 kip or 300 baht (7 USD). We paid, no receipts and it pissed me off. What can you do if they threaten to impound your means of transport?
Me and my girlfriend had rented a nice two room apartment (2,500 baht/month), somewhere half October because that was cheaper than guesthouses and provided much more privacy. She also bought the marriage documents to fill out which we started doing. It turned out you need a hell of a lot of documents (but I was prepared as I had done some internet research) and a lot of patience (many papers have to be approved by some ministry first). I told her to take care of everything, not really wanting to pay a middleman some 600 US dollars to speed things up. We had time.
Everything was plain sailing until last week. Some village people (no, not funnily dressed queers 🙂 and a copper from the office of the head of the village (Vientiane is divided into a lot of small entities called ban or villages) came by our apartment to see who was living there. My girlfriend was out getting a license plate for the bike. I told them everything they wanted to know. They wanted to have a look and told me everything was OK. They would come back later that day to have a chat with my girlfriend.
Nobody came. Until the day before yesterday, when someone started bouncing on the door at 12.30 at night. It turned out to be some of the same people, accompanied by a dozen militiamen with rifles patrolling outside. Apparently the building was being raided. They asked for passports and ID cards, lease contract, and the marriage papers. Of course these weren't ready to roll yet. Asked questions about the neighbours too, people we didn't know. They took my passport with them (yes, they gave me a receipt) and told us we had to stop by the head of the village office the next morning. They wanted us to come right away, but my girlfriend managed to avoid that.
The next morning we were separately (but in sight of one another) interrogated by an immigration officer. He asked just about everything concerning my visits and trips to Laos (what dates, what border, which guesthouse, which cities etc.). I tried to recall everything as best as I could, but wasn't really pleased with his behavior. He wrote everything down on a piece of paper. He also wanted to know every detail about my girlfriend. At one point I was thinking maybe they wanted to know if I was a good partner, and then I thought they were suspecting her of being a working girl.
After what seemed an eternity we were brought together and the immigration asshole started reading what I thought to be some rights but were marriage regulations and showed us a tattered photocopy dating back to 1997. The only thing I could make out were the numbers 500 – 5000. As we were living together – according to him illegally (the fact that we had already purchased the marriage forms didn't matter one bit) – we would be fined, the fine ranging from 500 to 5000 US dollars (still beats me who decides and what the decision would be based upon). I told him in other words he was a perverted son of a bitch. Why didn't they tell me during their first visit we couldn't stay together? It was all a scam to me. I know why now, it was the smell of money.
He wanted to fine me 1500 US dollars! We got into some haggling (as if I was buying a shirt in Chatuchak!) about the importance of the fine. It went like this:
* first he wanted 1500 USD, I told him no way, impossible, I don't have that kind of money.
* he came down to 1000 USD, the minimum because 500 each he explained; I told him no way.
* he then told my girlfriend I could pay 500 USD, but had to leave Laos and could not come back (i.e. being blacklisted).
* finally we got him down to 600 USD, 500 for me and 100 for her, without the blacklisting; we had to go back in the afternoon to deliver and retrieve my passport.
Not paying at all would probably have meant being deported on the spot and blacklisted. I didn't enjoy the thought of that and didn't want to burn all my bridges yet. Was is for real or just bluff? That's anybody's guess, but what can one do in a situation like this where they seized your most valuable asset, being your passport? Consulting my embassy was no option, as there is none in Vientiane.
I told my girlfriend to get some advice from her mother. She also went to the head of the village where she lived before. Her mother, sister, brother-in-law and the landlady came with us that afternoon to plead not guilty, but of course all to no avail. I got legally robbed of 600 USD, probably a year's salary for most of the not-so-nice and quite disrespectful people working in the shitty office. They probably thought it was okay to steal a falang's hard earned money that way.
Now where does that leave us? Nothing has changed between my girlfriend and me. We still love each other very much. I'm 600 USD "lighter", not a catastrophe but still a lot of money. The worst of all is my state of mind. What if a similar thing happens in the future? Maybe after a (minor) traffic accident. Or when I have to extend my visa. Will fines or kickbacks be needed to keep on living here? I am not talking here about the 80s or 90s, but of December 2003!
This nice and friendly country, the place where I wanted to settle down, sip my beer while looking at the swinging rice fields, have a good time, a family and maybe a job (although I've been thinking of going to Korea or Taiwan to do that) has turned overnight into the last place on earth I'd like to be now. I know this is largely an emotional reaction, but still, part of my dreams for the future were shattered that day. Marrying and going back to live in Farangland is not an option for me. I don't think Asian people can easily adapt in such an environment (hell, I don't even like it there) and would probably freeze to death (and not only in winter, sometimes in summer too).
Could this only have happened in Laos, one of the world's last communist countries (not really that communist anymore, but still a one-party state) or also in LOS? I think Thailand is somewhat better in that respect, but I still think it could happen. I lived in Surin for a month and thought it very laid back (yes, after finding the best imaginable girl, I couldn't resist the pull of my hormones and got into a fling with a BG, got into a soap opera and ended up with her in Isaan for a month, something I would call short time :-), but that's maybe a story for later, I won't go into detail here). Maybe it wouldn't happen there, but you never know what the men in brown are up to.
How many falang get freaked out when they have to go to immigration to get their visa extension? What if they say no? There's not a bloody thing you could do! So fellow falang, be warned when you're shacking up with your darling north of the Mekong, as you could be in for a nasty surprise (I suppose even the same could happen when you're caught red-handed doing the horizontal limbo in a guesthouse with a local dame).
I'm planning to go Bangkok and on to Cambodia to get some more info and have a break from Laos. I really need some time away from there. I'll be travelling alone and my girlfriend will get to the bottom of the marriage forms. Will I go back? Definitely. Probably. Maybe. I'm still thinking, but I don't want to disappoint her (and myself).
Goodnight and keep having fun.
One hears rumours of Westerners who have fun with girls in Laos experiencing problems so I am not altogether surprised at this, but it must be a horrible thing to have happen to you. And yes, I can see how it would really make you think twice about havign a future in a country where something like this is possible.