We all feared Laos before we got here. The elusive Laos with her endless mountains and probable lack of cell phone coverage. We had no idea what to expect, and the prospect kept us thrilled and terrified.
We have now been here for about 3 weeks, and the differences between Thailand and Laos have shown themselves – at times more stark and at others more subtle.
On a superficial level – in Laos we ride on the right side of the road, kway teoh is replaced with pho, we eat almost exclusively sticky rice, the table is adorned with a platter of fresh greens and herbs instead of marinated chili peppers. We replace the negation ‘mai’ with ‘boh’, ‘r’ becomes ‘h’, we stop using the gendered greetings of Thailand in place of the universal “sa bai dee.”
On a deeper level, however, the differences are, as expected, more subtle and difficult to express. I have found it particularly interesting to consider the relationship that each country has towards us -‘ farangs’, travellers, foreigners.
In Thailand we found a whole array of villages and towns, ranging from the tiny rural ‘boonies’ like Ban Mae On Ki, to hipster developing cities like Fang and Nakhon si Tammarat, to tourist destinations like Chiang Mai.
In Laos thus far, however, we have glimpsed only two ends of the spectrum – the extremely rural and isolated villages in the northern highlands, and the guidebook tourist hot spots like Luang Prabang and Vang Vien.
Perhaps we have missed the Lao equivalent to those middle-sized cities, or perhaps fewer exist. I personally really enjoyed the atmospheres of the fairly developed towns and cities in Thailand that had been built up from the inside – with hipster undercurrents – and in a seemingly ‘Thai’ way, by and for Thai people.
In Thailand, my Facebook friend count went up by probably 5%. We were asked, almost every day, to be Facebook friends with the people who helped us, gave us directions, served us food, etc.
I have not had this pleasure in Laos. In some ways it feels like, in asking to be Facebook friends, the Thai people assumed an equality between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This equality led to a jovial atmosphere, with rapid mutual trust and curiosity. Most people were eager to share their homes, their friends, their lives, and this helped us to feel comfortable and open too.
In Laos this contagious openness seems to be replaced with a hierarchical patron-client relationship, often complete with elements of suspicion or reverence. (n.b. This is, of course, not to ignore the many many people who have been warm and helpful and welcoming to us in Laos. It is rather that the general sentiment feels, to me, more skeptical than in Thailand.)
While in Thailand, having ‘farang’ friends was a symbol of social capital (I was paraded through several villages on the back of a motorbike), in Laos there seems to be more of an emphasis on the nuclear family and community. ‘Farangs’ represent the temporary, those who are passing through – not dependable or accountable with continued presence (not to mention the fact that ‘farangs’ also represent countless misfortunes, like the recent heavy bombardment of thousands of Laotian villages by the US army during the Vietnam War). Indeed while in Thailand I, being the only Caucasian of the Chakrayan Chums, was often sent to ask for help, as usually my presence was regarded with pleasant surprise at worst. In Laos, however, I walk behind the others, am introduced later, do not stand by the road if we want to catch a ride, etc.
The other day, I spent several hours at a Mama-shop-cum-one-roomed-house waiting for the rain to stop. The very young couple who managed the shop sat watching a Laotian comedy TV show. I watched along, chuckling and trying to understand the plot from the exaggerated facial expressions. At one point in the show, I ‘farang’ approached the house of the protagonist. He was tall, blonde, and wearing a nifty backpack. He held is DSLR camera in one hand and motioned stupidly, asking if he could take a photo of the perfectly normal Laotian family as they led their perfectly normal everyday lives (I think they were eating dinner). They told him, in English, to “get out!” and he just kept standing there looking confused, gesturing with his camera, and occasionally wai-ing to show respect. They finally resorted to throwing a shoe at him, at which point he apologetically flailed his arms around and ran away, but not before snapping a few photos on his way out.
We all laughed out loud at the TV, and the young man looked sheepishly towards me, glad to see I was laughing too.
I feel that Laos, historically and presently, has no major reason to feel welcoming or particularly enthusiastic towards ‘farangs.’ We have done more harm than good, and we often come with many assumptions of what we will find, and then hope that Laos and Lao people with fulfill our expectations.
While riding through Thailand, I very often thought “I could spend a long long time here.” I do not feel that in Laos – instead she intrigues me, bores me, sedates me, shocks me, calms me, irritates me, inspires me. My appreciation for Laos feels more present, unconditional, distant.
I no longer fear Laos, and I cannot claim to understand her either. I hope she feels the same.