For the rugged traveler, thrift is sport.
It is one thing to have traveled around China. It is an altogether greater achievement to have traveled around China at $10 a day. I like to imagine that you get a special stamp in your passport when you walk through immigration afterwards, your clothes wrinkled from handwashing and your shoes smelly from daily wear: “Departed China, summa cum laude”
For the student who travels, thrift is necessity.
Our time in Thailand taught us a thing or two about what should cost what. We knew when bargaining was unnecessary, when it was in order, and when it was futile. We could ride up to roadside food stall, order, eat, and then pay what we knew to be the price. If there was argument, it could be settled with a friendly retort in Thai: “Come on, pisau. Do we look like farangs to you?”
Things changed dramatically when we crossed the border and came to Lao. We no longer knew how much things should cost. The exchange rate was unhelpful: a Thai Baht is 250 Lao Kip. We struck out blindly. On our first day in Lao, our three meals cost 60000, 40000, and 300000 Kip.
For the traveler, thrift is luxury.
Thrift is not always a choice you make. Sure, buying snacks at 7-Eleven is a poor start. But what do you do when you’re presented with a hand-painted sign that says pho is 15000? What if every food stall in town has identical hand-painted signs that say pho is 15000? What are you supposed to do, argue with a hand-painted sign? What choice do you have but to pay?
Even for the rugged traveler, thrift is hard-earned.
It comes packaged together with familiarity and experience. Ten days in Lao and a chat with a friendly monk have taught us that pho is not 15, 25, or 75, but 10. When we now go to food stalls, we look not at the menu but at the eeai.
“How much for pho, eeai?”
“Can we pay you 10000?”
“Okay. Sit down.”
5000 Kip isn’t a lot of money. It is, on last calculation, less than 80 cents. But not paying those 80 cents is more rewarding than you would imagine. Not paying that money earns you a little stamp of approval in the eeai‘s head. She brings out the preserved fish paste and the cray-cray hot chilli that she doesn’t normally serve to falangs. She recommends dishes and later scolds you for dipping your sticky rice in your soup. She gives you a free banana for desert. You request a normal price. She treats you normally.
Thrift isn’t about leaving Laos richer by so many 80 cents. Thrift isn’t about a special stamp in your passport. Thrift is about bananas for desert, lessons in table manners, and burnt taste buds.