‘What is WRONG with you??! Don’t you understand I’m a V.E.G.E.T.A.R.I.AN.?!’ the pretty blonde Swedish girl screams out at the top of her lungs. Skinny mamma, the owner of the local eatery, just looks at her bewildered then shrugs her shoulders and proceeds to pick the meat off the top of the fried rice dish. This does nothing but exasperate the blatantly indignant tourist. ‘NO!’ she yells even louder ‘I WON’T EAT IT!’
If I were the owner, I would want to stand over her, force her to eat everything on her plate and remind her that just a metre away, children are literally salivating at the sight of her meal.
Something tells me I wouldn’t make a very good restaurant owner in a Third World country.
If I were vegetarian and travelling through a developing country, I would be much more inclined to state that I am allergic to meat, not that I don’t wish to eat it. Locals are much more likely to understand this concept, rather than vegetarianism. And if its impossible to overcome the language barrier, and I would still end up with a dead animal on a plate, I would accept it as my problem, say thank you, ask to have it wrapped to take away…and offer it to someone who would appreciate it more. Then, perhaps, I would beeline it to the local vegie market for a late-night carrot.
As I watch the embarrassing spectacle, my legs begin to twitch under the table and I have to literally put my hand on my mouth to stop myself from reacting. Chris’ hand is on my lap. A gentle tap. Enough to tell me that I shouldn’t interfere. But I want to. Oh how I want to! These are the rare times when there is a colossal abyss between Chris and I. His aim in life is to be a respectful and invisible observer. Only then, he believes, can one really grasp the true essence of a foreign country. I certainly agree for the most part, yet my instincts are far too strong. I find it incessantly difficult to hold myself back when I see someone behaving in a manner I deem inappropriate. They way I see it…god granted me a loud voice for a bloody good reason.
The whole kafuffle is over in a minute. It ends with Mamma being very apologetic and the Swedish girl rolling her eyes and choosing to share her friend’s vegetable soup instead. I desperately want to tell her that the soup stock is most likely made with chicken bones, but I hold my tongue. Perhaps it’ll be more appropriate if I enlighten her after she’s finished her meal.
This is certainly not the first time I have been left bewildered by a foreigner’s behaviour in a developing country but it is, by far, one of the most extreme cases of disrespect I have ever encountered. And it has ‘Lao’ written all over it.
Over the past three months, I have personally witnessed more travellers donning invisible horse’s blinkers, than I’ve seen in years. Much like stallions forced to concentrate on nothing more than the straight path ahead, and bolt through it at top speed, they wander about completely oblivious to their surroundings. Does young Miss Svenska just not see the living conditions of the family we are all staying with? Does she not observe when they sit down for their meal, long after ours has been served, and feast on only a bowl of sticky rice and boiled greens? Did she really not notice the holier-than-thou clothing of the 3 year old girl? Or the fact that none of them seem to even own a pair of shoes?? Nope, she mustn’t. That’s the only explanation for her behaviour. She’s Western born, Western bred and Western educated, yet seems unable to put 2 and 2 together here. Telling a poor person that you are so rich that you can afford to say NO to meat is a wee bit inappropriate, in my humble opinion. Vegetarianism is a luxury of the rich and a choice of the righteous. It’s all fine and good to be morally progressive when you live in a country that grants you that freedom, but know that if you choose to flaunt your wealth in an impoverished country, it will be seen by many as a slap in the face of your gracious hosts. Well…at least by me anyway.
We’ve been privy to quite a few cringe worthy and infuriating moments during our sojourn here, courtesy of tourists, and Chris hasn’t always been there to placate me. He wasn’t there in the front garden of our guest house in Luang Prabang, when I was eavesdropping on a conversation between young English 20yo female backpackers. There were four of them but, collectively, had only enough clothing on to dress one respectfully. As I chatted to a French woman, who’d been working for an NGO in some back-of-beyond village in northern Lao, we both simultaneously stopped our chat to turn around and check out our neighbours. With miniscule, strappy tops apparently meant to cover up their bikini tops (they didn’t) and shorts so damn short they couldn’t possibly hope to cover their bikini bottoms, they loudly discussed the pros and cons of going to the temples first, then having a beer later…or whether they should do it the other way around.
Five minutes later it’s decided: temples first. As they gathered their belongings and asked the guesthouse owner to book them a tuk-tuk, they stood in unison and started to walk towards the front gate. JUST as they were walking past our table, I heard one ask ‘Hey, so, like…do you think we should cover up for the temples?’
As my French companion fights back a belly laugh, I see the four girls turn around and stare right at me. Oh shit, did I say that out loud? Apparently I did. To be honest though, there’s no way that Chris’ reflexes would have beaten mine, in this instance. He would not have been able to prevent me from stating the flamin’ blatantly obvious.
But we’ve also noticed something utterly unique here in Lao: unmatched tolerance and acceptance, stretched to sometimes maddening extremes. The complete lack of reaction by locals, to blatantly disrespectful behaviour, has left me dumb-founded.
Lao is an inherently conservative country. Laotians are meek, respectful, tolerant and quiet. They are not big drinkers either and, from what I’ve observed, are among the most peaceful and unaggressive people I have ever encountered. But can relaxed and laid-back ever be taken too far? As an outsider, one would even think that this pretty little country is a glutton for punishment.
I’ve written at length about Lao’s enduring hardships during and following the US’ bombing campaign of the 60s and 70s (remember this post?) yet I’m certainly not the first to comment about the apparent lack of animosity towards foreigners by the local populace. We met a traveller a few weeks ago who commented that it’s a very, very lucky thing for the US that Laotians are mostly animist-Buddhists; pacifistic acceptance and tolerance, not revenge, being their primary dogma. It is quite eerie, in fact, to have never come across a single, resentful individual in the entire country. Not even in Vang Vieng, where the revolting antics of some tourists should have all falangs cowering in complete shame.
But nothing. Nothing is ever said. Nothing is ever done. These peaceful people have perfected the art of turning the other cheek. They don’t say a word when scantily clad back-packers get wasted on weed and alcohol in Vang Vieng, float down the river drunk as skunks, and parade around town in a manner reminiscent of Spain’s Ibiza island. I’ve yet to see anyone reprimand an inappropriately dressed tourist in a temple and never could I imagine a local asking a foreigner to ‘quieten down’ when they got too rowdy in a restaurant. No. Some say the lure of the dollar is far too great. And so they greatly adjust. But surely there’s something inherently cultural about this apparent submissiveness. It’s a harsh thing to say, I know, but isn’t that what we would say, if someone allowed a tenant to come into their home, wreck the joint and piss all over the furniture? Wouldn’t we tell them to stand up for themselves and demand respect? I would.
As a tourist, rest assured that you can come here and act as you will, do whatever you want and buy as many drugs as your wilted brain can cope with. You’d be quite unlucky if you encountered problems doing any of the above-mentioned three. But just because you can…does it really mean you should? Is respect only granted when we think it is expected? As one of the many party-goers in Vang Vieng told this Guardian interviewer: “If the locals don’t care how we dress or behave, why should we? Besides, they make a lot of money from us.”
The way we see it, Laotians are anything but greedy but it’s obvious that they have become so dependent on the tourist dollar that they don’t want to do anything to stop the steaming train-wreck from bulldozing through. They’ve become so reliant on our holiday cash, that they’ll invite us to come and drink their beer, tube down their rivers, wreck their once-peaceful villages and then, in the end, they’ll even thank us for coming.
We came here with open eyes and a clear vision, knowing well that we would be encountering the very first well-trodden tourist path since we left Europe, in 2012, but never could we have imagined the extent of this almost toxic tourist trail. It’s called the Banana Pancake Trail, in case you didn’t know: a path which runs the length and width of South East Asia. At every major stop is where you’ll find a plethora of portable pancake stands, ready to entice tourists with their evil offers of Nutella and banana yumminess for $1 a piece.
The cunning tactic succeeds, with me, at least once a day.
It’s easy to see why Lao is becoming an increasingly popular backpacking holiday destination. It’s accessible, cheap, sunny and warm all year long, compact and full of fun places to get drunk in (sorry, to explore) and plenty of drugs offered on every street corner. Tourism is Lao’s second largest income earner and brings in $200 million a year. While I certainly understand the desire to bend one’s morals in order to improve one’s standard of living, I am left wondering how beneficial it is, in the long run.
I know it can be tiresome to be constantly scrutinizing one’s behaviour when abroad, but I believe it is an essential thing to do if you happen to notice that the country you are visiting is almost willing to sell its soul in order to appease you. Do we not have a responsibility, as tourists, to do the right thing by our host country?
We hold an invisible power in our hand, every time we take a dollar bill out of our pocket. We need to respect the fact that it can be seen as a lure, as an incentive, by the people who need it most. So we need to spend it wisely, and respectfully. Because although we’re all ultimately out here for the same reason (to have fun!) I really don’t think it should come at the expense of the local population.
I think we’ve done enough damage to this country already, don’t you?