Getting by with English in Laos

Getting by with English is not particularly easy in Laos, but it is possible. English is only spoken very sparsely and generally you will only find a local who can speak English in towns and places that attract a lot of tourists so challenges will await more adventurous travelers who like to get off the beaten track and go on to explore less popular, but equally astounding corners of this beautiful country. Good thing is that Laotians are genuinely nice people so finding a way to communicate, even if none of you can speak the language of another is easy.

Vietnam and China remain the most challenging countries of Asia where virtually nobody speaks English, and I’m talking nothing, nada, zero English – not even two or three basic words, like “Hello” or “Yes”. In countries like that, unless you are able to pick up the local language to help you along, you’ll be having fun times trying to get basic necessities, as even ordering food in restaurants will be a challenge. You won’t find any menus in English, only in native language so you’ll be shooting blanks when pointing at an item in the menu, hoping it’s not chicken stomachs spiced up with legs of cockroaches.

After Vietnam and China which are without doubt the most challenging countries for an English speaking traveler to visit, Laos lingers as close third. Thailand used to be a challenge where upon my first visit I would talk to two dozen taxi drivers in Bangkok none of which spoke a word of English. And that was Bangkok – imagine what it was like in rural areas. But strangely enough, another visit a year later and all of a sudden those people in countless 7/11s tell me the total price in English or ask me in English whether I’d like a bag with my purchase. I was there a year ago and nobody would ever have a clue what I was talking about when I asked for a bag. Thailand is now much easier a country for an English speaker to get by than it used to be just a year ago but Laos still has a long way to go to reach similar levels.

Either way, friendly nature of Laotians along with their genuine smiles and undying willingness to help will make any visitor’s stay enjoyable and fulfilling. From my own perspective, even though there was constant language barrier, I’ve never actually felt lost. Instead, wherever I went, the embrace and appreciation of my presence was evident with many hands and mouth ready to interrupt whatever they are doing to offer their help should you look confused or somehow feel uneasy. Best of all, in Laos, the people will help you with genuine intentions to help, not to scam you or rip you off like it happens in Cambodia where I was prior to coming to Laos.

All in all, even though few people speak English in Laos, you’ll find that genuine will to help goes a long way even if language barrier prevents verbal communication.

Traveling Solo vs Traveling with a Friend – Advantages and Disadvantages

I went to Cuba with my good friend Barb. She’s an enthusiastic young woman who’s both smart and attractive. Because accommodation and car rental prices would remain the same whether they serve one person or two, I thought that if I were to take that trip with a friend instead of going solo, the price would be more bearable and we could both enjoy an affordable, yet action packed vacation. This was in fact true and having Barb with me proved to have further advantages. If you’re in a country where average monthly wage equals to what you spend on a nice dinner for two back home, you get hustled a lot. This is understandable because one dollar is a lot of money for those people. However, regardless of how much you can relate and how much you would like to help, there is only so much you can do before you run out of resources and patience to put up with this. Hustling in third world countries is overwhelming and follows you on every step of your trip. Sooner or later it’s bound to get extremely irritating.

Photo: Me and My Friend Barb Traveling Together to Cuba. Picture Taken on a Plane to Varadero
Photo: Me and My Friend Barb Traveling Together to Cuba. Picture Taken on a Plane to Varadero

Having a friend by your side is a huge help in such cases. Not only does it allow you to use your friend as an excuse when all other excuses are countered, you are also less likely to fall for shady tricks because one of you two could pick up on it while the other one is talking. There is hardly ever such thing as a friendly local whose sole interest is to help you – even though that’s the way they present it. They are only and solely looking to help themselves, however they are ready and willing to say anything that will make you spend that dollar. And after spending a lifetime of trickery pulled on foreigners visiting their land, they know very well what works and what doesn’t so you can count on right psychology to be used against you. Having a moral back up in form of a friend who’s on your side is invaluable and could save you from a lot of disappointment.

However after Cuba, I went to the Dominican Republic solo. While Cuba was mind-blowingly awesome, The Dominican Republic was even better. Yes, I had to pick up the tab for car rental and the rooms myself with no one chipping in and yes, I had no one to help me out when locals were trying to take advantage of me, but I had no one to discuss where we’re going and what we’re doing next, whether we’re going to pull over and have a beer where those hot chicks are or not, etc. There was no one to compromise with, no one to be telling me that hitting on random chicks was boring, no one to go through their backpack while I was feeling like taking a nap.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both traveling solo and traveling with a friend (or a group). I have learned overtime that traveling solo strums my cord better than traveling with someone else. But it truly is nothing more than a personal preference. The best way to take it is by having your mind open. For me personally – I know that I will start each travel on my own, however if I was to meet someone interesting along the way who wishes to explore the same place as me or is heading in the same direction as me, I would not mind for them to join me for as long as they don’t mind me joining them. We’ll enjoy each other’s company and when we hit the place where our paths part, we will simply go each our own way.

I do personally like travelling solo better than traveling with a friend but that doesn’t mean I would ditch latter for former. Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to traveling with a friend as there are advantages and disadvantages to traveling solo. You will probably figure out which works best for you after you have tried them both.

Photo: Girl from the Dominican Republic I Wouldn't Have Met If I Wasn't Traveling Solo
Photo: Girl from the Dominican Republic I Wouldn't Have Met If I Wasn't Traveling Solo

There is one specific advantage to traveling solo, though which applies particularly if you are on the road for a long time. As you move from place to place, you meet many interesting people – both locals and other fellow travelers. Some happen to be interesting to a point that you would like to get closer with them. Having a partner traveling with you could hold you back and prevent you from exploring this part of local culture. Whereas if you travel solo, you are on your own devices and you decide what you do with your time and who you spend it with. If you want to get to know someone you have met while traveling, as a solo traveler you can do it without issues. But if you travel with a friend or with someone you’re in a relationship with, you are likely to give in on the opportunity without even trying or else it could cause needless tension. And that strips you from some of the most joyous experiences you could stumble across while traveling.

I’m not necessarily talking about having sex with people you meet on the road. People engage in all sorts of activities many of which could not be presented to you because you are there with somebody, or you could feel awkward explaining the wheres and whys. Being with somebody, regardless of what type of relationship is between you makes each of you feel as though you are responsible for answering to one another. But being on your own leaves you answering to no one but yourself. You don’t need to explain anything to anyone if you want to do something spontaneous.

When you travel solo, you don’t have to take care of anyone. There are no rules, no restrictions, no boundaries, except from those you set for yourself. On the other hand, traveling solo also means that there could be no one for you when you need to talk. There could be no one to offer different perspective when you could be opting for something that may not be good for you. There are advantages and disadvantages to both traveling with a friend and traveling solo. You should always explore both possibilities and find one that works best for you. And keep in mind that the universe likes change. If you’ve been on the road on your own for a while, don’t oppose the offer to explore the city you have just got to with someone who just got there too.

You Are At Your Most Vulnerable When Helping Someone

Theft of my laptop taught me a valuable lesson – you are at your most vulnerable when you are helping someone. You are simply never more prone to exploit by dishonest people than when you are helping them. Out of your sincere will to help, you go all out to make the world a better place and when you do it, when you offer your unconditional help, you do it believing that receiving party will appreciate your efforts and will be grateful for what you have done for them. And most people would. When you are stranded and can’t get yourself to a destination with your own devices, you will rely upon unconditional help of a random stranger and if such random stranger does offer their help – they will have taken a big weight off your shoulders. If I were in such position, I would make damn sure the person who helped me along knows that I am endlessly grateful for what they’ve done for me.

Trouble is – when you are helping someone, the last thing you expect is for them to take advantage of you and rob you while you are doing your good deed. Whether gratification is expressed or not, it is experienced. At least you who are the one helping subconsciously believe that because you are providing that other person with something they can’t provide themselves with, that they would be sincerely grateful. You know you would be grateful and you just wouldn’t fathom the possibility of them stealing from you (as happened to me) or worse.

Last thing you anticipate when you are helping someone is that they will take advantage of the situation for their own, selfish enrichment at your expense. Thieves have no class nowadays. They’ll stop at nothing and will intentionally put themselves in the situation of being in need of help and if someone who has the means to help stops and offers it, they will abuse it because they know that the helping one is at their most vulnerable, not even in their wildest dream anticipating it from a person they are helping.

It’s truly sad that this is really happening in the world today. When you would least expect it, when you should be receiving endless gratitudes, some people won’t hesitate to steal from you. This makes further helping much trickier. I’ve seen this happening to volunteers in South East Asia. Same thing – they flew across the big pond to help underprivileged people. Those people, people who were receiving financial support as well as support in form of work and shared know how did not hesitate to steal from those helping while they were around improving their lives. It does get worse though as I have also known a girl who was raped while volunteering by the very people she was helping.

Just as was with me, also this girl would never have prepared herself for the fact that an attack against her could be orchestrated by the very people she was helping. She was not ready for it, because you expect people to be grateful for putting your own life and interests aside to help them along. And they abused it.

You naturally tend to be suspicious with people you don’t know or have nothing to do with. If they are around you, you will be looking after yourself and your stuff eagerly because that’s a natural response to such situation. However when you are in a position of helping someone, natural response is to expect gratitude. You don’t actually anticipate them to start singing praises in your name, but you naturally expect them to feel thankful and will be glad they got help. Because of that you are likely to drop your guards. You believe those you are helping will react to help offered the same way you would – by showing appreciation to the person and their belonging and guarding them with your life. And that’s why you are at your most vulnerable when you are helping someone. It’s a lesson I took for my own too late and paid for it immensely.

There are more dishonest people out there than I would like to admit. They make helping others difficult but for as long as the society around them remains poor, they know that others will be willing to help and that means continuous supply of potentially easy victims who do not yet realize that they are at their most vulnerable when they are helping. The results are devastated lives and loss of faith in humanity. It truly is hard to get over it when someone you were helping takes such savage advantage of you while you are expecting their gratitude. This kind of limits your future options and you’ll think twice before you help someone again. In my case – I know I will not let that stop me; however I will limit this type of unconditional help in less civilized societies. I won’t hesitate giving a lift to hitchhikers in Europe, but will pass right by them in Central America or South East Asia.

Why I Never Give to the Beggars and Why Neither Should You

As you travel through the third world countries, you will encounter beggars a lot. As a budget traveller who’s on the tour around the world, I have to spend wisely and giving away may in return put me in a position of a hungry and a lost. Furthermore, beggars who sell trinkets of no value on a pretense of working so they don’t have to beg are a no no for someone like me as well. If you move from place to place and none is your long stay home, you carry all you have with you. In such cases there is simply no room for anything that’s not essential. But none of these are main reasons why I never give to the beggars and why neither should you.

Who Are the Beggars?

When you set foot in third world countries, you will notice that beggars are always people who are intensely difficult to say no to: children, old people, visibly disabled, etc. It is not unusual to see a 7 year old boy carrying his 2 year old little sister with big, beaming eyes locked on your food in his arms. He would gently tap you while you’re lavishing on your breakfast and would make a movement with his available hand to simulate the food putting in his mouth. He will bear a very sad face, often with cheeks visibly marked with tears and his little sister will add to it by delivering the look of a completely innocent, yet hungry child. How do you say no to that?

And that’s exactly it – “how do you say no to that?” People who send those kids after tourists to beg them out of money realize that it is near impossible to say no to children like that. That’s why they send them and don’t go begging themselves. Children are easy to exploit and so are old and visibly disabled people. When you see an old person who should be enjoying their retirement after whole life of hard work, but instead looks in bad shape, underfed, dirty wearing worn out clothes, you can’t help but feel sorry and willing to help. But sadly, more often than not, they are out there because their looks are so striking, they are more likely to succeed. And are easy to force into begging.

It is the same with visibly disabled people. When you see a person with both arms missing and a sign hung on his neck stating that he has no chance at getting a job being disabled in a country with extremely high unemployment, you can easily relate and feel sorry for the person. Fact is, they scarcely have easy lives no matter where they live, but their custom tailored “sales copy” with which they appeal to you clearly shows how well they are prepared for begging and how well polished their begging methods are.

Fact of a matter is, it’s always people who are strikingly difficult to resist because their looks will touch the soft spot of even the toughest of persons who go out begging. That fact itself should raise alarms and say a lot about how easy these people could be potentially exploited or abused to benefit from their misfortunes.

Things Beggars Say

There are certain things beggars like to say. They are in it for one and only reason – to get as much money out of other people as possible. This is their sole purpose and they are ready and willing to do/say whatever it takes to ensure maximum efficiency of their “performance”. They know darn well that if they said that they are only begging because their parents told them they would not buy them new bicycle unless they bring in $20 a day, it may not tarnish desired results. Hence they will say whatever appears to work the best, whatever appears to deliver results (make most people give most money). To say what they want to hear, instead of what you want to say is a known and safe method to achieve a goal not only among beggars, but also among many other professions.

When a lawyer makes closing speech before the members of jury, he/she will focus on highlighting things he/she believes will have the strongest impact on this particular set up of jurors. Picking up right lines to say is the key between winning or losing the case. And it’s no different with begging. Whether and how much is a beggar going to get from any particular person depends on what he/she says and how well he/she presents him/herself. Similarly, when hamburger company chooses the lines for their TV advertising, they will say what is most likely to get people to buy their hamburgers. They won’t base their sales pitch on how much MSG is stuffed in each patty or that occasional rats make it to the grinder where their patties are mass produced. No. They will say whatever is most likely to make your fat ass to get off the chair and buy one.

It is no different with beggars. Polished from talking to hundreds, maybe thousands of people each month, they already know what works the best and can even assess what would work best with which person. Believing that a sob story presented to you is true would be rather foolish. While some may be based on the truth, always keep in mind that beggars solely and strictly say what is most likely to yield best results (aka make you give them cash).

Why Giving to the Beggars Causes More Harm Than Good

The more easy money the beggars get, the more encouraged they will be to continue begging. If begging remains a profitable venture, why would they even consider trying something else? Parents will continue forcing their children onto the streets and pimps will continue exploiting the weak and disabled onto the same.

What To Do If You DO Have Money to Spare and Wish to Help Regardless?

The best thing to do is to take your funds to a charity with good track record of helping people in need. Local charities should have it down and know the people who really need help and also know those who just exploit children and disabled. This would distribute your contributions effectively and would target those you intend to target.

If you can’t help the urge and feel sincere need to help a beggar on the spot, buy them food or give them the rest of what you were eating when they approached you. Avoid giving them money or anything that has monetary value and can be taken to a pawn shop to sell. If you truly believe they are poor and need help, then there is nothing more important for them than good meal. Even inexpensive fruit would do the trick as it’s a tasty and nutritious snack. If you do give them money, they may not even get food as a result. Pimps could be watching from a car nearby and beggars would know it.

Don’t encourage begging and abuse by the pimps and parents. Don’t give beggars any money. You best not give anything to get these people off the streets because when there is no money to be made begging, no one will beg.