As previously mentioned in a few of my earlier posts, we were fully expecting to be ripped off at some point in Vietnam, but the thought of scamming in Laos was not at the forefront of our concerns. For the most part we hadn’t heard any horror stories about the country, other than the infrastructure being quite poor. Many people even boast about the friendliness of Laos individuals, but our first impressions (which unfortunately remained a lasting impression), was not so good. We felt more cheated and scammed in Laos than any other country travelled to so far, and by the end of it all we wanted to do was board the nearest bus back to Bangkok. Granted, there were some amazing experiences in Laos, but I’ll save that for another post (this is a rant after all).
Scam #1: The Longboat Adventure
Immediately after crossing the border from the north of Thailand into Laos, we paid for our longboat ticket to Luang Prabang, and boarded a tuk-tuk which dropped us off with about 30 other tourists waiting to depart. A man who was (presumably) in charge of the longboat company then informed the group of what to expect from the journey ahead, so we listened intently with the hopes of picking up a few tips on the best way to make the most of sitting on a rickety boat for two days before reaching our destination. Our first stop was Pakbeng, a small village beside the Mekong River where we would be spending the night, arriving at about 7pm that evening. Apparently, according to the man, the town was quite small (believable), with a lack of guesthouses (also believable), with many of them charging high prices since the town is the main spot all longboat tours rest before the last leg of the journey to Luang Prabang (definitely believable). He also mentioned the petty crime that took place here, urging us to watch our passports and belongings, and always keep our guards up. Again, we had no previous experience with this country and no information to indicate that all of this was a big stinking pile of horse crap, so we decided to book a hotel through him ahead of time to avoid any chance of being left out in the cold in Pakbeng.
Now, you have to keep in mind that when you’re being “scammed” in these countries, the most amount of money lost is no more than a few dollars. This does not bother me so much as the blatant lying to your face, as well as throwing your fellow country’s business men and women trying to make a living off tourism under the bus without a second thought. We arrived in Pakbeng to find plenty of accommodation, and the next day learned that most people found a hotel for half the price that we paid.
Scam score: Laos 1, Canadians 0.
Scam #2: The Arrival in Luang Prabang
The destination point on our longboat ticket clearly stated Luang Prabang, and after looking at our Lonely Planet map of the city and clearly seeing a port for landing, we naturally assumed this is where the end of the road would be. We had set off from Pakbeng that morning after a decent nights sleep in an overly priced “hotel,” and endured a full day of sitting on the longboat, watching the endless jungle of Laos go by (that I’m not ranting about – it was pretty damn cool). One can imagine the confusion of everyone, then, when cruising along the driver suddenly stops in said jungle on a muddy bank proclaiming that this was the end of the ride. Luckily by that point a group in the front had been playing drinking games all day, and allowed their drunken confidence to take over for an all-out protest. No one moved, and we sat on the boat demanding to be driven to Luang Prabang.
“The government closed that port,” they said. “You get off here.”
“But we’re in the middle of nowhere,” we responded.
“No, tuk-tuk up there, they drive you.”
“Free?” we inquired doubtfully.
“Oh no, not free, you get off here.”
And here it goes again. With our bargaining power at zero percent considering we were stranded in the middle of the Laos jungle, everyone’s confidence soon wore off and before long we were all on solid ground. A few of the drunken protesters stayed on for a bit longer, but when they started chucking our bags off the boat onto dry land we figured it was time to move. Up we clambered on the muddy hill to the tuk-tuk station, only to be charged 20,000 kip for a ticket to Luang Prabang. Again, this is only about $3, but it’s about the principal. It was as if they stood there one day and thought, “what’s the easiest way I can rip off these tourists for my own benefit?” We were far enough out that it was impossible to walk, and one French couple (after shouting profanities at the people running the tuk-tuk service), decided to attempt this distance on foot. In the end they probably paid more for a tuk-tuk after walking halfway to town.
Scam score: Laos 2, Canadians 0.
Scam #3: The Bridge in 4000 Islands
In the 4000 Islands at the very southern tip of Laos, there’s a very short bridge built by the French when they occupied the country. The bridge connects two islands that most tourists stay on, Don Det and Don Kon, and the structure takes a mere one minute to walk across. Nothing fancy, just your average bridge connecting two islands. Instead of leaving this as an average bridge for people to walk across, the lovely people of Laos now charge a 25,000 kip ($3.30) fee for crossing (only to tourists of course). If you’re coming from the Don Det side to Don Kon, this fee doubles as your entrance ticket to the waterfalls on the island, however, if going in reverse, you still pay the same amount to literally get from one island to the other on a bridge that wouldn’t even be there had the French not colonized the country at one point in time.
If by some miracle this money actually went towards maintaining the bridge or even preventing garbage from being thrown off it into the Mekong River, I would not mind forking over the cash. However, as far as I can tell these people literally sit on their ass, get up to demand money from people crossing, then sit back down again and repeat until they’ve had enough. After 5pm Kyle and I crossed the bridge free without any hassle, since the “workers” had called it a day and couldn’t be bothered to keep charging people after dark. At no point did we see any work being done to maintain this bridge, nor any indication as to where this money was going other than straight into the pockets of the scammers.
The most hilarious part was that even the setup of the scam was lazy and just plain stupid. Instead of building a small hut actually on the bridge, they constructed it beside the bridge, so that every time someone crossed they would have to walk up the steps and ask for money. Being the motivated individuals that they are, it was too difficult to consistently stand, so after collecting money they would go back down to their hut (which did not even face the bridge), and hope to hear the footsteps of the next unsuspecting tourist. We eventually realized that the best way to get across was just to zip past on a bike as fast as possible. Heaven forbid they’d have to break into a run, so most of the time they would stifle a few yells then let us on our merry way.
Scam score: Laos 2, Canadians 1.
Scam #4: Paying a Visit
With British parents, I’d heard the expression “pay a visit” when one has to relieve themselves in a public washroom. In England, it’s common in the bigger cities to pay under a pound for the toilet, however when doing so you are guaranteed toilet paper and a floor that isn’t the same color as the substance coming out of your rear end (for the most part). Whenever we stopped anywhere on a bus in Laos, there would be a woman sitting in front of the toilet collecting money. It wasn’t much, maybe 3000 kip at most, but as I feel with every scam outlined in this post, it’s about the principal. I do not want to reward laziness. Those bathrooms are cleaned once a day at most, with no toilet paper and no flushing power. To send down the contents to the depths below, one has to use a bucket of tap water until gravity does its work. I did not once see someone in these washrooms mopping the floor, refilling the non-existent toilet paper or even come in to top up the bucket of water used for flushing. Like most scams in Laos, Kyle and I did our best to avoid them, so eventually we just walked as fast as possible past whoever was sitting in front of the toilet, went to the bathroom, and jetted out of there just as quickly. Again, getting up proved too difficult for the person sitting guard, so usually this worked. There was one time when a woman then yelled at her kid to chase me down, but putting on the whole “I can’t understand what you’re saying” face seemed to work quite well.
Scam score: Laos 2, Canadians 2.
I guess you could say we broke even on the scamming in Laos. This doesn’t change the fact that it put a bit of a damper on how we felt about the country. I tried to put the first couple days out of my mind, attributing it to a minority group of people in Laos, but since these petty scams usually born out of laziness continued, Kyle and I couldn’t help but leave the place with a tainted impression. At least we managed to avoid a few rip-offs, and can laugh and just shake our heads about it now.