Culture Shock :: Laos

27 02 2009

Laos is the most laid back, easy going culture that we’ve been to yet. The people are typically very friendly and the pace of life, even in the capital city, Vientiane, is almost sluggish. This has been a great country in which to wind down after the chaos of Vietnam. The culture here, although not very shocking or in you face, is probably the most different from our Western way of life. The difference is difficult to explain. It’s actually easier to explain relative to Laos’ neighbors. Thailand is shocking, but rather western because of their own efforts to modernize. Cambodia has a country wide case of amnesia (for good reason) and it appeared to us that their main goal is to act as western as they can. In Vietnam they have so much western influence from being colonized by the French that some parts of it almost seemed European. Laos had the French influence as well, but didn’t get the money that came with it. They retained much of their Buddhist culture and peaceful way of life. Though the country wasn’t as shocking as it was a pleasant surprise, there are a few things we thought were worth mentioning.

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:: Beautiful Landscapes ::

There are beautiful landscapes in every country. Some are especially beautiful and yet a few amongst those are actually shockingly beautiful. Laos is one such country. Yes the water villages in Cambodia were breathtaking, and the coasts of Vietnam quite charming, but every time I look at at the limestone cliffs around Vang Vieng I am truly awe struck. I grew up near the Rocky Mountains, so normally these features don’t impress me much, but these mountains are straight out of a different world. I haven’t seen anything like this before. The high cliff mountains with the river winding through and lush greenery almost covering the houses scattered about which are connected by a series of bamboo bridges. Wow. I keep expecting a pterodactyl to sweep over the village and fly up the cliff to perch on its nest (after all this is dinosaur bone country). The best part is that Laos seems to be well aware of the value of these natural wonders. With hundreds of natural parks to tour, this is probably the world’s foremost eco-tourism hub.

Stunning Scenery at Every Turn

Stunning Scenery at Every Turn

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:: No thank you, No thank you, No thank you ::

This is what you get really used to saying in Southeast Asia. In Thailand it’s the tuk tuks honking at you at they drive by to see if you want a ride, in Cambodia its all the moto drivers who want to take you on a tour, and in Vietnam it’s everyone. We’ve been in Laos for over three weeks now and I’ve probably said “no thank you” about five times in total. Three weeks. And the only place we’ve had to use this phrase is in Luang Prabang while walking near the main street market tour group offices or by the Mekong river boat tour stand. That’s it. And when you say “no thank you” to them, they’re okay with it. They just smile and walk away, sometimes even saying “kop jai” (thank you) right back.

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:: Umbrella SPF ::

One of the major differences we’ve noticed between the Eastern world and the Western world is that the Asians seem to want stay as light skinned as possible while we in most western societies prefer a nice dark tan. When Westerners finally realize the damage they’re causing their skin, they go out and buy sunscreen lotions. The Asian people however, being a little more poor and a lot more clever, adopt the reuse policy and carry around their rainy season umbrellas on particularly sunny days as well. This way they get to bring the nice cool shade with them wherever they go, and they get to stay light. Being a red head with easily damaged skin, I am shocked at the fact that I never thought of this myself. When we sit outside at cafes, we want to be under the giant umbrellas. When we want to shade our porch, we get retractable awnings. Why don’t we ever use this same technology and give our umbrellas a year round job, instead of just seasonal work? The Lao people can teach us much. Though I guess we would have to want to stay light skinned first.

Reusable Sunblock

Reusable Sunblock

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:: Guinness Book of World’s Friendliest People ::

The people in Laos have rewritten the book being friendly. In all but the most touristy places, we’ve felt completely welcome and we see nothing but happy people with smiles brightening their faces. Savannakhet was our first introduction to this culture and it was so comforting to see people who looked happy to see us and who remembered us each time we walked by or visited their shop. Even in Luang Prabang, one of the most visited cities in Southeast Asia, we met so many people who were so polite, and sweet, and happy we were there that we almost forgot we don’t speak the same language. We can ask questions about tour packages or items in a shop without being pressured to buy something. We’ve even had guesthouse owners give us directions to another guesthouse we were looking for without trying to dissuade us from going there. These people are truly amazing.

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:: Hassel Free Bargaining ::

Each culture has their own way of bargaining, some a bit friendly, others play hard ball. Laos prefers the no-nonsense method. Most of the time, they just give you give a great price to start with. No bargaining needed. On a few occasions, when we think they can do a little better, we might say “Fifty thousand? Hmm. Could you do forty thousand?” with a inquisitive smile. The typical response we get to this is a quick and pleasant “Yes” accompanied by a smile and slow nod. They don’t even counter offer. Now of course we aren’t exactly throwing unreasonable prices out there, just what we would want to buy it for. But even so, the ease with which they agree to our price is shocking – and beautiful. (Just don’t take advantage of this system and everyone can continue to enjoy it.) The Lao people won’t always budge though, when they think their price is right, they stick to it stronger than super glue. That’s when you know you’ve just found out the standard price.

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:: These Roads Weren’t Made for Busing ::

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately depending on how you look at it) for the further away cities in Laos, the roads in this country leave many tourists second guessing that next 12 hour bus trip. That is exactly what happened to us when we decided to skip our Plan A of doing a loop around Northern Laos to visit as many cities as possible. After one long grueling trip we rethought our plan and decided to make the shortest hops we could and therefore go up North from Vientiane and then come back down the same route. You see, the bus trips on the best roads go at notoriously super slow speeds and stop every 10 minutes to let someone on or off. You can pay double for a fancy bus, but you’ll still probably be tortured with insanely bad music videos and zero leg room, only to arrive an hour earlier. Then, the bus trips that go through the mountains and over bumpy roads that buses shouldn’t be able to handle, the driver decides to slam the pedal to the floor and scare everyone on the bus as they fly around windy roads overlooking rocky cliffs. But hey, the scenery is quite nice.

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3 responses

27 02 2009
Geoff

Fantastic post, I think you’ve captured so many of the things that make Laos unique, and such a special place to visit. I can’t wait to go back.

27 02 2009
dad

I remember that earlier on in your travels you posted a picture of the two of you outside an ice cream shop that you mentioned had some very unusual flavors. I commented that by virtue of the color of the ice cream that Gage was eating, possibly he’d found the mother-load: jalapeno ice cream!

While that turned out not to be so back then, at least as a close second, if not as complete compensation, must have been that beer ice cream at the German ice cream shop. Beer Ice Cream! Heaven knows what wonders might have been wrought if they’d actually won.

While I can appreciate that the two of you could well be ready to come in off the road, I can tell you that I could go on living vicariously through your adventures endlessly. I know there are a lot of the attendant hassles and discomforts that you only make light of for our sakes, but it’s all been so fascinating and enormously entertaining. Not that I ever wouldn’t want to hear about how you’re doing and what you’re up to, something tells me that the read-outs from Des Moines (or wherever back here) won’t be quite exactly the same.

What an incredible adventure it’s all been, even for those of us just reading about it and viewing the pictures. So thanks, you two, for all the many moments you’ve reminded us of how much more to life there really can be.

28 02 2009
Jacqui

I miss you guys!! Come visit in Oz!! I always read these when they get sent to my inbox… I dont usually read ppls blogs that often but i read yours as soon as i get it!

miss yoooooooooou and our cheesy adventures in holland!!

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