For a country with an average monthly income of around $100, there are an astonishing number of late-model sport utility vehicles – and more pickup trucks than you’d see on an Alberta highway. There is a tax of 100% on these so the price must be around $50,000 for the ubiquitous Toyota Hilux pickups. (Note: the Hilux is not an SUV but an IMV – innovative multi-purpose vehicle!). There is clearly money in Laos that doesn’t filter down to the average person on the street.
An example is a female minister, who has a different luxury vehicle for each day of the week. (I did see the Lamborghini roar past but can’t remember which day it was.) Corruption is rife.
It is not a good country to be critical of those in power, or with power. I heard of a worker for an NGO who voiced less than flattering opinions of government in relation to the distribution of development aid; the worker simply disappeared (this was a year ago); he may be dead or in a work camp somewhere in the country but no-one knows.
Nicolas and I climbed for a couple of days with a French lady who is working in the north of Laos for an NGO and she provided some insights into the (male) Laos approach to relationships and fidelity. She works with a team of Laos men, who are married. But when they are working in the capital of their district they, without exception, regularly visit prostitutes; they put pressure on anyone who would like to remain faithfull to his partner to ‘be a man.’ One of her co-workers is quite angry with her because she will not sleep with him; he is married, visits prostitutes when away from his wife, and is used to having whoever he wants.
Foreigners, it appears, are only incidental to the sex industry. The vast majority of the market is home-grown. Many young Laos girls also go to work in Thailand, in Bangkok and Pattaya.
Often, at night in Vientiane, I have been approached by young prostitutes on motorcycles (dressed convincingly as women but of indeterminate – to the casual inspection – gender) with the offer: “I have room.”
Nicolas and I are waiting for ride to the train station where we catch the overnight train back to Bangkok to proceed with the next stage of getting Nicolas a new passport. Neither of us is particularly excited about more days of bureaucracy, or Bangkok for that matter; we are hoping that Nicolas can get some paperwork that will allow him to travel about the country and not be confined to the capital for the fifteen working days that it will take for the paperwork to go through. With any luck, we will be able to head south to Tonsai (near Krabi) and do some more climbing. We can buy a rope there to replace the one lost (or misappropriated) in the fire.