Stickman Readers' Submissions January 6th, 2004

Laos Pitfalls And My Experiences

By Dean

Finished reading the interesting post on 12-12-2003 titled "The Dark Side of Laos" which did not surprise me, and thought I would share with you some of my experiences while traveling in Laos. So far, made six trips to this country in the past few years seeing most regions and still enjoy returning each time.

He Clinic Bangkok

I too have had my share of trouble while in Laos which I will post, fortunately nothing major, mostly petty stuff that I could deal with. The reason why I continue to visit this country is simply because the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Perhaps if I should encounter a real bad experience, I will pass on it but so far, the problems have been manageable.

First off, the police are very corrupt in Laos and anything short of violence can be expected. By law, a Lao citizen of the opposite sex is not permitted to spend the night with a foreigner, so understand the risk before you plan on this type of engagement. I would not fear violence from the police, they are not butchers, will not manhandle you, but at worst, a fine and/or deportation is possible if you resist paying up. The Lao people are for the most part; shy, timid and open displays of aggression are very rare to come by. By far, the Lao people are the most reserved when compared to peoples of Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam where I have seen violence in public.

While motor biking in Laos, I have been pulled over and ticketed by the police on average 2-3 times on each visit (very common at night while in the remote provinces). I have had my motorbike confiscated at a checkpoint and the police would not return it. That was in Xieng Khouang, in the north central region, known as the Plain of Jars. I was also warned not to "mess with the gangs in town" by the guesthouse owner the night I arrived. I had no idea what he was talking about and he then explained to me, "not to fight over girls with the gangs". I left Xieng Khouang the following morning.

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If you see other motorists driving down a block and then try to do the same thing, it is very possible you will be whistled to pull over, and then ticketed by the police. The police pick and choose whom they wish to ticket, and make up some ridiculous rule to justify the ticket, such as saying the block is only "one-way" and you "broke the rule". Usually the fine will cost you no more than U.S. $4-5 and I have paid it and moved on. Keep in mind, the police are in charge and it is best not to argue with them, especially since you have no rights while abroad. I just swallow it and bite my tongue. Sometimes the police hold me for 20 minutes and then just let me go with no fine. Often I show them my driver's license, and international driver's permit, they look at it, can't speak or read English yet just have something official looking to show them. They don't know the difference, nor care for the most part. By the way, very, very few people in Laos speak a word of English. The police never spoke English to me on any occasion, only way I could understand them was when my Lao guide occasionally arrived and interpreted for me what was happening.

If you are American and encounter a real, major problem, the U.S.A. does have an embassy in the heart of Vientiane, the capital. The place appears like a fortress, from the street level, with a half dozen Lao guards outside the place, 15-foot walls on both sides of the street, along a very narrow block. Not sure if the embassy will be of any help, but they are there.

On another occasion, my Lao friend's father had a Lao police officer crash into his motorbike meanwhile both police officers present at the time, were drunk. The police were furious at the innocent Lao guy, blamed him for the accident, of which he was the victim and later he complained to the top of the police admin and all charges were dropped against him.

On arrival at Luang Nam Tha airport, a remote province in the north of the country, I was pulled aside by a Lao official and he demanded money, everyone else exiting the airport could pass but me. I was the only Westerner on-board the flight and so he felt he could take advantage of me. Total cost of this charge came to just over U.S. $2 so I paid it and moved on. Is it worth fighting over this amount? -I doubt it when they can't communicate in English, I don't speak Lao and my guide was not there to help.

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If you plan to rent a motorbike which is possible in the capital of Vientiane, make sure you get a copy of paper showing who owns it, their name, and phone number. Never carry your official passport while about, make a copy and keep the copy with you at all times. Most likely whoever is renting their bike out to you will want the official passport, which is legit to give to them. The police can take your passport from you at anytime and to get it back later- will likely cost you a hefty fine. If the police take a copy of your passport, who cares?

It is very hard, but possible to rent a motorbike in the provinces, you will need a Lao citizen to arrange it in most cases and most times I visited markets with my guide and he asked around approaching merchants if they were willing to rent out their bikes. Anything is possible if you have cash.

Word of warning, in the past year, there have been several violent attacks in the north of the country, by Vang Vieng, a popular tourist area and on the road to Luang Prabang. Rebel Hmong groups have attacked buses using AK-47s. Most buses were filled with local unarmed citizens and killed as many 20+ at a time. Westerners were not targeted in such attacks but have been victims of such attacks. The anti-communist Lao Hmong residing outside of Laos are quick to blame the Lao government for anything bad that happens in Laos, while the Lao government blames the Lao Hmong. Not a common occurrence to get caught in this situation but can happen.

Laos has a lot to offer, one must be very flexible, but know the pitfalls before going-it is not Thailand.

Stickman says:

It has been some time since I went to Laos but always liked it. The police there did resemble the army in their green uniform and I have to say, unlike most people I met in Laos, I never saw a smiling policeman.

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