The hub of my front tire was bent at a worrisome angle. The brakes screeched so loudly they forgot to perform their intended function. The bell did not ring and my feet did not reach the ground, but paying 10,000 kp, or $1.25 per day, I couldn’t complain about my rented bicycle. It carried from the northwestern tip of Don Dep four kilometers along a wide dusty path to the southern side of the island, across a bridge to Don Khone, around, and back—about 25 kilometers in total—and never once muttered about the heat of the midday sun, which is more than I could say. Don Det and Don Khone are two of the largest of the four thousand[i]islands that break up the Mekong River at the south of Laos. I stayed on Don Det for four nights instead of my expected two, lolled into oblivion by the heady lotuses of palm trees, green water, good company and late-night bonfires.
Both Don Det and Don Khone are incredibly flat, and my bicycle and I managed to navigate them easily enough. I stopped to see the Phapheng Falls—the massive series of cascades and rapids that thwarted 19thcentury French efforts to chart a water route from Vietnam to China. I still haven’t seen the Phapheng Falls because when asked to pay a 25,000 kip entrance fee (approximately $3 and by all accords an inconsequential sum) I had a minor breakdown and went on my way instead. Let me explain… I am more than happy to give my money to fledgling tourism industries, support the countries I am visiting within my means, and in normal circumstances I would never forgo a stunning natural sight over three measly dollars. However, at that particular moment, something inside me snapped, perhaps triggered by the cold and offhanded attitude of the ticket taker: I wanted my humanity back! I was tired of being a wallet on legs, and I could not bear, at that moment, to pay for one more thing.
A few hours later, repenting somewhat and feeling rather silly, I thought about doubling back, but the distance left to travel and the thought of the ticket taker’s face deterred me and I continued on without another thought for the waterfall. I am not the only foreigner to lose patience with the aggressive profiteering in Southeast Asia, and I think I conducted myself relatively well. In my two weeks in Laos, I witnessed shameful shouting matches between backpackers and tuk tuk drivers over a couple of dollars’ misunderstanding; I watched haggling turn ugly over the last quarter, and I saw smiles turn to anger in countless market interactions.
In most of Asia, where haggling is accepted and even expected, the problem lies not in the bargaining itself, but in its tenor. Backpackers especially complain that the locals try to cheat them and see in them only potential profit; locals complain that backpackers, who measure their poverty by a different scale, are stingy, want everything “cheap cheap” and ask rudely. Both sides give reasonable cause for the other’s accusations.
Everyone wants to be treated like a person. No one wants to feel like a tray of samosas or a wallet on legs, or a scheming villain. In my opinion, for tourism to truly succeed someplace, a country’s motivation for drawing visitors cannot be solely monetary. Obviously tourism is an industry and its purpose is to generate income, but when the desire exists to share one’s culture with outsiders, welcome them into it and benefit from their presence not only in a financial sense, transaction takes the leap to interaction. In this best case scenario, we break the too-common boom-bust cycle of the tourism industry and see the birth of a new sustainable development model, with tourists returning regularly to places that are welcoming— neither “untouched” nor “ruined,” but real, warm, and human.
[i]An approximate measure which I suspect was chosen for its poetic appeal in collusion with the ministry of tourism.
|Another beautiful waterfall in Laos, which I did pay to see. 🙂