I'm currently settled into the lovely city of Vientiane, Laos for the Christmas holidays. I love it here - everything from the colonial architecture, the garishly colored temples, the wonderful food and the lovely, friendly Laos people. It has been a bit of an adjustment coming from Japan where you rarely see a foreigner and people move very quickly to this place that is absolutely brimming with Western tourists and where everyone takes their time. Many of the tuk tuk drivers have hammocks installed in the back of their vehicles and in the hot afternoon sun, can be seen napping away the afternoon.
After the 25th we'll be heading out to more rural areas of the country, in an attempt to get away from the huge number of tourists. It's not that I don't like running into other travelers or hearing a familiar language, but because it's so cheap, Vientiane is also packed with the kind of people who are here only because it allows them to live on less that $20 a day, and it's warm. If I hear one more nineteen year old backpacker try to argue down the cost of her $.80 beer, I'm going to scream. There are also lots of really good people traveling here, people who may not have a lot of money but who still strike a balance between being frugal and being respectful. But then there are the others ...
A few nights ago we were sitting outside at a beautiful beer and food garden enjoying some cold BeerLaos. It seemed to be a family operation - a young boy and his mother serving people, an older man working the kitchen. They were friendly and welcoming and their menu was plentiful and cheap. We were chatting with a nice man from Germany who was telling us about his plans to go to Thailand for New Years. In walked three German girls.
Some people carry an energy with them that is immediately negative. They couldn't have been much older than 20, pretty girls but with very sour expressions on their faces. After looking over the menu they called over the young server and in English ordered their beer and dinner - plates of rice and pasta.
"Is it going to be good? Is there a lot? We're hungry you know!" The boy didn't speak a lot of English and just smiled and nodded his head. They didn't say please, they didn't say thank you, they just did all that they could do to set the scene for their inevitable disappointment. Sure enough, when the first order arrived (fried rice) the girls started speaking and gesturing frantically to one another in German and then called the boy over. Pointing at her plate, "is this all?! This isn't enough food. This is not a normal portion. I want more!"
I could see her plate and it was a very respectable portion of rice with vegetables, prawns and chicken. It looked hot, fresh and well prepared. And it cost less than $1.50.
The boy, looking a bit distressed now, went to take her plate back to the kitchen. Instead of thanking him, one of the girls said, "Hurry up! We're hungry! This better not take much longer!"
Within about five minutes the boy brought back the rice - now a larger portion - and two orders of pasta, one for each of the two remaining girls. As soon as the plates were put down, one of the girls who had ordered pasta began, "This isn't enough. I'm so hungry! I need more food. This isn't a normal portion! Look I've only got three prawns in my pasta!"
At this point, the entire beer garden is looking at them like, "are you seriously complaining to a Laos boy about not having enough food you ungrateful, privileged ass?" One of the German guys sitting at a nearby table actually tried to interject and argue with the girls, but they ignored him saying, "Mind your own business, this has nothing to do with you."
Eventually the poor waiter, scurried away (again - hurry up! we're hungry!) and brought back portions of pasta that would make the Pillsbury Doughboy feel overwhelmed.
When the time came for the bill, I knew that they would find a problem with it. Sure enough, the man in the kitchen had added an extra 30,000 kip to their bill (about $3) because he'd given them all double portions. The boy had understood that they weren't happy and wanted more and the kitchen made more, but it didn't make any sense to these restaurant owners to give away more food for free - they thought that obviously the girls expected to pay extra for their enormous plates of food.
So the girls argued, they whined and the restaurant owner relented and discounted the 30,000 kip from their bill, which was well under $10 for all three of them to have beer and food. They paid, sulkily, and they left without saying thank you. And I couldn't help but feel embarrassed to be in any way grouped in with this kind of person. I wanted to immediately reassure the staff that they'd done nothing wrong and to not think all tourists act that way. I also wished that they'd called the police or just kicked the girls out. The fact that they got away with their behavior makes me pretty sure that they'll do it again.
There is definitely an appropriate time and place for haggling, but it is important to know when that is. In Laos, you can argue down the price of an unmetered cab or tuk tuk and you can do the same at market stalls. If you go into a restaurant with a printed menu - their prices clearly listed - you are choosing to accept their terms of sale. It is completely unethical to go in and then try to get more food without paying for it.
This is an extreme example of behavior I've seen over and over again here. The other night it was a table of young Australian guys complaining that the cold beer wasn't cold enough and asking to be taken to the fridge so they could touch the beer bottle to ensure it met their standards. Seriously?! If this is your biggest problem, you don't have problems.
It is an absolute privilege to travel and to be welcomed into these countries. Even in Vientiane, which is a fairly large and modern city, you can live very well for less than $10 a day - our money goes a long way over here and the people deserve more than to be treated like servants as we suck their resources dry.
Gratitude Reminders for Travelers
- Say please and thank you, preferably in the local language.
- Learn some basic words in the local language. At minimum hello, thank you and please.
- Understand when it is and isn't appropriate to haggle. Read up on the place you are visiting, ask people who've been there, talk to other travelers. Sometimes bartering is a core part of the transaction and it is important to do it, even if it feels awkward. But sometimes it's completely out of line. Learn the difference.
- Don't ever tell someone in an impoverished country that you - a privileged Western traveler - are hungry and expect a hand out. If you can't afford to pay for your food, beer or accommodations, then you can't afford to travel and you should go home.
- Make sure you understand the terms of a transaction up front - this will protect both you and the provider of the service. Once you've agreed to something, consider it a contract and don't try to get more off the price later on.
- Tip where appropriate. In larger cities like Vientiane, tipping is generally expected in service oriented restaurants although it's still very much discretionary. If you've had a nice meal and good service, consider rewarding your waiter/waitress with a tip. If you can afford to drink beer and eat restaurant food, you can probably afford a small tip.
- Understand that you are visiting a foreign country because you want a different experience. If you go into a pizza place in Laos expecting it to be exactly like what you're used to back home, you'll probably be disappointed. Be realistic, be gracious and try local foods. Laos food is absolutely delicious and is extremely affordable. The Internet is another variable factor - please understand that it's unlikely to be as fast in Laos as it might be in New York and that complaining about it won't get you much more than a confused smile.
- When language is a barrier, smile at people. Show them that you're a nice person and that you're going to try and make the best of the situation.
- Give something back. Many countries have local charitable organizations that are happy to have Westerners come in for an afternoon to help out. If you can give your time, or a small amount of money to support those who might be struggling locally, then do it.
- Don't be a knob. This means: don't get drunk and throw up on the street or in a bar; respect the curfews of your guesthouse or hotel; don't yell, scream, laugh or sing loudly after midnight in areas where people are trying to sleep; and put your rubbish in the bin (even when locals don't).
But most of all, take a minute to appreciate where you are and the immense position of privilege you hold in that you are able to explore this amazing world. Let that manifest in gratitude for every glorious, strange moment.
Image: Source unknown but found on Samimi-Extremie