What follows is a cautionary tale. It's long, but I think the context is important and the end provides several lessons about traveling, Laos, Vang Vieng , and how to deal (and not deal) with the police.
Firstly, I've been to Laos several times, love the country, and found the people to be wonderful. What happened today is definitely a big exception. Vang Vieng is a backpacker ghetto (in a wonderful setting) and some of the local people (or people with money who moved there to make more money from the tourists) act accordingly. I can't imagine this happening anywhere else in Laos.
Like everyone else in Vang Vieng, I went tubing. Mid-afternoon I stopped at the last bar of the first section, a big place on the right bank with a huge concrete slide and a tall rope swing. When I went to go down the slide and the swing, I was told that I had to buy a drink there before I could use either, so I went back down to get a drink. I was quite surprised, as everywhere else nobody cared, drinks cost half as much (or less), they gave a away free shots, etc.
When I asked a man who was supposed to be the owner ("Mr. Van Sai", maybe "Vang Xai" mid-40s, darker skin, short hair) why his place was different, he said "not many tourists stop here because it's the last bar. I built this slide, a lot of money. So I charge anyone who uses it." I replied that the bars that let people use their swings for free and gave away free shots were packed with people while his was almost empty. "I'm tired of all young falang who don't like to pay. " Then he waved me away, saying "you young, you don't want to pay, you leave now," and walked away. I was a bit shocked, but followed him around back to ask why he was so rude. After another exchange, I told him that I was going to put a photo of his bar on the internet so people would know that if they stopped here, they'd have to pay. When I took my camera out of my dry bag and started to take a photo of him and his bar, he wound up and punched my camera right in the lens as it was pressed up against my face, breaking the lens cover and leaving me with a bloody gouge on my forehead.
In several trips to Laos, this was the first time I'd seen or heard of anything remotely like this. All of the women who worked there were visibly shocked as well and when he walked up the stairs, several came up to ask if I was OK. I asked if they would call the police, and they said yes. They came 20 minutes later. In the meantime, I took several photos of the bar and the new bungalow construction. When the police arrived, the man who hit me was with them, having obviously left to meet them on the bridge from town. When I tried to explain what happened, they said "you should not take picture of his bar!" I said "he should not have punched me" but they were clearly on his side. I insisted on going into town to the office of the Tourist Police.
When we got there, they searched me, asked to see my camera, took down my details and then proceeded to tell me that I had broken Lao law by taking a photo of a man who didn't want to be photographed! (This is, by all accounts, unture.) I said I was sorry if it was rude to take his photo without his permission, but that that was no excuse for his hitting me, breaking my camera, and cutting my face. This continued for ten minutes until they told me to leave and not come back. I asked to talk to his superior but he said he wasn't there. I asked for the number and they gave it to me, but when I asked for their names and they said "no names. You leave." When I told them that I would file a complaint with the main office in Vientiane , one of them came up to me, reached up and grabbed me around the neck - hard enough that people in my guesthouse could still see his finger marks hours later - and said "you should be careful. You are nobody here. The man who hit you has many friends. You go now and you say nothing." Then he pushed me out the door.
I walked back to my guesthouse in a bit of a state of shock. When I got there, I checked out the damage to my face and camera and looked at the pictures. One of the police had erased every shot I'd taken of the bar while he was "looking at my photos"! More than anything, this really pissed me off. I could understand why they sided with a local big-wig against some unknown tourist. But in erasing my photos, they were destroying evidence, obviously breaking even their own procedures at the request of the guy who'd assaulted me.
There are several lessons that I think can be learned from this. First, don't escalate the situation unless you're prepared for the consequences. I could easily have walked away at any time but chose to stay, to ask him questions, to take a photo, to go to the police, etc. So the whole thing was, in a way, my fault.
Second, even in a country as laid-back as Laos, don't assume that everyone will be nice. And it's safe to say that the more tourists in a place, the more chance you have of running into a bad guy.
Third, don't trust the police (even the "Tourist Police") to help you in any situation where it's you against a local. The guy that hit me was obviously a little big man, had talked to/bribed the police before they ever talked to me, and controlled the outcome. Every Lao person I told this story to said "he paid the police before they could talk to you."
Fourth, if something bad happens and you do go to the police, don't go where you are- go to the main city. If I had gone to Vientiane first, I might have had better results.
Lastly, if you do go to Vang Vieng, you might want to float right by the last bar on the right and skip the water slide (there's a photo of it at http://www.travelblog.org/Photos/3991456 - mine are gone!). The others are more popular, cheaper, nicer, and, as far as I know, don't assault tourists!
#1 DJ959 has been a member since 10/3/2010. Posts: 1
this does not surprise me- we got told to leave as well even though we didn't want to use the slide, and had bought a drink!
we had also been told quite a few people had been very badly injured from this slide (especially now the water is low)...something about someone breaking their neck??
yes you may have handled the situation a bit better, but the owner is clearly an idiot.
I think it goes for most places, vote with your feet- well done for putting it up as a warning for others,and luckily the rest of the country isn't like that...bar the manager/guard from Sompathai (?? big white guesthouse in center of town)who took $50US from our room while we had stupidly left our key with them during the day!!...ah sometimes you live and learn :-)
#2 pjcain has been a member since 18/12/2009. Posts: 2
Another tubing danger here....
#3 mellimoon has been a member since 13/3/2007. Posts: 11
I remember that bar, and the man you're talking about. We were there last year and one of my friends got yanked off the slide stairs because he hadn't bought a drink. The procedure was: you bought a beer, got the bartender to paint your pinkie with black nail varnish and then you were good to use the slide.
Unsurprisingly, the bar was quiet as hell and the atmosphere was as merry as a jailhouse. If it's any consolation, I'd say it's gonna be a looooong time before he recoups that slide investment!
Thanks for the warning.
If i'm being honest, it does seem like you brought this on yourself. He said you may as well leave if your not going to pay, walked off, so you follow him, accuse him of being rude the proceed to take snaps of him?
Following someone 'round back' when they've walked away, threatening the guy - albeit via cyberspace - then taking photos of him... don't you think this all seems abit provocative? easily taken as aggression.
I don't condone the violence but if you did the above in any country i'd expect a similar outcome.
I think DJ has already admitted that he probably triggered off this situation in the first place. However, what happened next is in no circumstances acceptable, not in Laos or anywhere else in the world: from being hit in the face to police not taking action but in fact assulting him & covering up evidence.
Alas, I have witnessed similar scenarios in the UK, Italy & Greece - just to say corruption is not unique to SEA. Some individuals are nasty, violent & corrupt no matter where they happen to be.
DJ I should prefface by saying I've done much worse. My first response to rudeness is usually to up the ante ten fold, and at the first hint of violence I offer to also return it with interest. I'm half Irish from my mom's side. I've done similar things in Asia and Laos and I'm still alive, like you I'm lucky.
Over the years I've tried to learn to do things the Asian way and to understand all of the connections and ripple effects of what I do. Maybe I'll get it someday.
At the first inkling that something was wrong with money/hospitality/bar you should have just left, the next big one was with the police.
To operate a bar which no doubt sells drugs and for any of the various injuries that have occured that bar owner has an ongoing financial relationship with the police. The police might not like him but they are in business together, as is the whole town. In the eyes of everyone you are the problem, not him.
The police are alway right, this is true everywhere including where you come from. If you have a problem with the police at home you go to the courts in Laos forgetaboutit. Even I know that when the police become involved it's time for lots of smiling and drinks all round, no threatening of going to Vientiane or asking of names, it's over.
They are right about the law with photos, they can make up any law they want at any time, they are the law. The grabbing by the shirt front was just to make sure you were listening, no one cut off your air supply. Travel is broadening they say.
You're certainly getting a fairer shake here than on Thorn Tree - today's punching bag thread ;-)
Live & learn and be thankful it didn't turn out a lot worse for you in Vang Vieng. Sounds like you nearly got your ass kicked and/or thrown in the slammer! Happy Travels
Good to make people aware that as a rule you generally don't aggravate people like this or ever expect the police to be on your side - at least in Thailand or Laos in my experience.
I read your story anxiously waiting for the bit where the situation got a whole lot worse for you but luckily it didn't.
About the slide bar though, when I was there last year it was packed and I thought it was definitely worth buying a drink to use the massive swing and the slide - even if buying a drink means wiping some of a friends fresh nail polish off onto a few peoples nails ;-)
#9 sacott has been a member since 13/6/2009. Posts: 15
"Good to make people aware that as a rule you generally don't aggravate people like this or ever expect the police to be on your side - at least in Thailand or Laos in my experience."
Now maybe because I live here it's different (Rufus?), but I had one small conflict with a Thai, he was completely at fault, someone (not me) called the police, and when they arrived and heard the story from bystanders the police hit the Thai guy in the head, ran him off and apologized to me for any inconvienience. Maybe I'm just lucky, but the police here have been great with me. I like them.
#11 MADMAC has been a member since 6/6/2009. Posts: 6,957
News Flash for foreigners....when you come to Laos please behave as you would back home....it is not your personal playground! the number of times I have seen falangs go and sit in someones shop or use the toilet and walk away without even saying thanks ....you wouldnt do that in Paris or London so why do it in Laos?
This guy had the choice of staying or leaving when he found out about the price, instead he chose to stay and throw his weight around and try and intimidate the owner by taking a picture of him...so he got what he deserves...
As a foreigner regardless of how long you have been here, whether or not you speak the language YOU WILL NEVER WIN against a Laos person in their own country...because, like every other nationality, they stick together....the above poster is correct, the police make up the laws as they go along so just pay your fine and walk away and be thankful they didnt put you in jail or deport you...being a falang does not make you above the law and rules or entitle you to special privilIges so please dont get any lofty ideas about your own status.
To be honest I am sick and tired of falang walking in on peoples parties....(LAOS are too shy to tell you to leave ) taking photos in peoples faces and walking around in beachwear when there are signs allover the place saying dress modestly...if someone puts up a sign read IT and OBEY it is for your own good...and remember your status in laos is you have the privilage of visiting this country but it is not your right...remember that...
#13 lostinlaos has been a member since 6/8/2012. Posts: 2
"There are several lessons that I think can be learned from this"
Don't start fights and don't be a tightwad. Next time pay or leave. It's his business and your behaviour was downright rude. Can't say I blame the owner for reacting like this. I'd be sick of self centred backpackers too.
#15 LeonardCohen1 has been a member since 24/7/2012. Posts: 2,148