As a traveller, dining in Laos is also not as cheap as in other SE Asian countries. When it comes to food, Laos adopted that crappy discriminating practise widely popularized throughout Cambodia. Just as it is in Cambodia, Laos eateries believe that it is perfectly justifiable to overcharge (rip off) foreigners so getting food for the price a local would pay is rare.
Restaurants in popular tourist areas have menus in both Lao and English, but don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s bilingual. This is just an illusion created to make you believe that you are getting a local deal, but the prices on the menu only apply to foreigners. A local would come, look at the menu, smile at it, put it aside and ask in a language you cannot understand how much it was going to be for him which will never end up being the same as what you as a foreigner would have to pay.
Out of this part of South East Asia, Thailand is the best country when it comes to the availability of locally priced food available to foreigners. Prices in Thailand are often clearly marked and visibly posted, even if you go to the most non touristy market in an area where you will have been the only foreigner in ages. Yet the price posted will apply globally – this is how much this particular item costs and everyone, regardless of their color of skin will pay this amount. There is no such thing as different price for different people. Sadly, that’s not how it works in Laos. As a tourist, aside from finding transportation and accommodation vastly overpriced compared to other countries in SE Asia, I also found lack of inexpensive foods available to foreigners financially exhausting.
Bowl of fried rice with squid and shrimp can be had for $1 in Cambodia. That same amount will buy you steamed rice with nice dose of (really spicy, mind you) chicken stew in Thailand and in Vietnam, you could also almost throw a beer in it with food but forget about getting a decent portion for an equivalent of $1 in Laos.
Pakse in southern Laos was the only place where white bread sandwich with friend egg and veggies could be had for 8,000 Kip (roughly $1) but be prepared to shell out more everywhere else.
Overall, even for a skilled budget traveller capable of finding the means to travel, sleep and eat on the cheap, Laos happens to be an expensive trip. As a foreigner, the cost of food will be out of proportion to what locals pay but that’s a sad reality of many places in the region.
Supporting local economy by buying from small local businesses is definitely a good thing and is both rewarding and empowering. I always follow this golden rule to the last letter and strongly encourage all travelers to support local businesses any way they can but as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, unless Cambodia puts an end to open discrimination their society is riddled with, I will maintain that supporting local Cambodian businesses is equivalent to promoting racism.
Unless you pop in a business that’s part of a nationwide chain, you are unlikely to see any prices posted visibly next to the items they apply to. There is a very good reason for that. Prices are not clearly displayed to allow for racial profiling which results in business owners applying different prices to different ethnic groups.
This type of racial profiling is not practised in any of the neighboring countries but then again, most businesses in the neighboring countries try to establish themselves by offering quality product and/or service whereas most Cambodian businesses specialize in ripping the customer off at any cost the first time they come to buy something.
Not all Cambodian businesses are like that, though. Visitors to Cambodia have an option to do business with non discriminatory companies and support good business practices, instead of scam and racism. Examples of good businesses to shop with in Siem Reap are Lucky Mall, Angkor Market or Angkor Trade Centre. In these businesses, prices are clearly marked and visibly posted and apply equally to everyone, regardless of the color of their skin.
Aside from wider selection of items, these businesses also offer better pricing on most items however when it comes to fresh produce, you will always end up paying more when buying it from any of the non discriminatory businesses. Going to a local market and haggling for a price with a vendor there will land you a significantly better price. For example an average price for a water melon (an excellent source of energy and hydration in this heat) in Lucky Mall is $1.05 – $1.50 whereas the price for the same in Center Market or Old Market would only be 2,000 to 3,000 Riel (equivalent to roughly $.50 to $.75) or somewhere in that neighborhood. However in my mind, I will gladly pay a premium for the privilege of being treated equally than to be subjected to racial discrimination even if it saves me some money.
Unfortunately, you will also get local Cambodians shopping at these malls and Cambodians believe lines don’t apply to them. If you go shopping during a busier time of day, you may have a few people at every open cash register, so you just step in line and wait your turn. Other foreigners will step in line behind you or behind whoever the last person in the line where they want to wait their turn is, but when a Cambodian comes, they will simply step in the personal space before you and start rudely piling their stuff on the counter, completely ignoring everyone who have been politely waiting in that line for their turn. Cambodians are naturally rude and disrespectful so this type of behavior is normal.
By supporting local businesses in Cambodia, you will be directly supporting racism and discrimination. Small local businesses are an essential part of local economies, but if Cambodians care about their local economies, the change must start with them. I would never pass by the business that displays their prices visibly and gives me room to look at their merchandise without pressuring me into buying something from them. The formula is simple – you either leave me alone so I can carefully evaluate what I want to buy, or I’m not buying anything from you at all. I continuously need stuff to sustain my travels yet no business that tried to pressure me ever succeeded in making me to buy from them. I always go where I feel comfortable and am granted with space to breathe and time to decide.
Cambodians like to whine that business is slow, yet they don’t try to address the reason behind it. Nobody likes to be discriminated against and treated like crap. Many foreigners who come to Cambodia end up spending less money that they would if they were not constantly under pressure from aggressive touts. They go to local markets, but end up just passing from one stall to another, avoiding eye contact with the shop people just so they don’t have to put up with that constant pressure. As a result, they end up buying nothing because no business would leave them alone to decide what they could buy in peace.
Refusing to do business with businesses that don’t treat customers with respect is the best service you as a foreigner can offer to the local communities. When businesses realize that they are ripping themselves off by being rude, travellers will stay longer and will spend more money. It’s time for sustainable solutions, not short term, shady business practices. Help make the world a better place and do not support local Cambodian businesses that base their business model on racism and mistreatment. Criticism from faux-supporters who support this deadlock situation is superficial and unsustainable. Make the right choices that will promote the real change. It will help to make Cambodia a better and safer country, which right now it is not.
I still had a month and a half until my intended around the world departure, but if flight prices looked discouraging when I started looking for the best deals, it kept getting worse with each new day. I came to solid conclusion that there is no such thing as last minute travel deals in Summer. Travel agents would still refer to many of their “deals” as last minute travel deals, but they would be simply overpriced trips with prices reflecting holiday mood of North Americans in Summer. Waiting until “last minute” – until only weeks or days prior to intended trip would result in price being way higher than if purchased in advance, or which is more likely – trip being completely sold out.
I kept an eye on a number of possible flights or full on trips to the Dominican Republic I could take towards the end of August, but they kept getting sold out one after another like these were the last trips on Earth. Summer is definitely not a good time to play a “last minute travel deal” game. You’re not gonna get it. And if you luck out so there is one more seat available on a plane for you, the price is going to be in some thick, four digit range. And don’t be fooled by huge and colorful captions posted in newspaper ads or on the internet. They call it “Last Minute Deals” because they know it’ll make the buyers feel like they are getting a deal, but if you watched the prices rise day in and day out like I did, you’d soon realize that they are just messing with people’s psyche to take full advantage of their most profitable time of year.
That didn’t work well for me. When I first checked flight ticket prices for flights from Edmonton to the Dominican Republic, the cheapest deal was offered by West Jet at $589 + fees and taxes. The very following day, the price was already listed at $875 + taxes. I checked other portals and saw bump in prices everywhere I looked. Realizing that Summer is a bad time for travel deals, I phoned West Jet and explained a representative that I was going to buy a flight ticket to the Dominican Republic yesterday but had problems with my internet connection and today the price is some $300 more expensive. I asked her if it was possible to still give me yesterday’s price, stating that I had my credit card at the ready and was going to buy it instantly if she could work out her magic for me. Unfortunately, I was politely explained that prices are set by the system and there is no way I could get a ticket for a price that is different from currently published one. She said she could give me a few bucks discount from their insurance package (most ridiculously overpriced service ever), but I had to respectfully decline.
Things were just going from bad to worse. I also went to double check car rental prices and even there the rates were bumped. It almost looked like conspiracy against me for hesitating to go ahead with purchases when I first checked the prices out. It was all Summer’s fault. Summer is a difficult time for scoring great travel deals. As someone who travelled to tropical countries in Winter before, I found Summer travel anti-frugal. Overpriced and hard to get.
My chances of traveling out of Canada on the cheap were thinning by the day. Prices kept rising each day and if I felt discouraged by seemingly high figures at the beginning, now that they were twice (or more) as high as few days ago, the discouragement grew and I found myself unable to go for it. I had no option but to continue working on it until I score a deal I will be comfortable with. But how?