4 Waterfalls and 4,000 Buddhas

After I moved out of my first guesthouse in Laos (we don’t need to get into details, but suffice it to say, always pay the extra $3 because the cheapest room is far worse than the next-to-cheapest room), I lucked into meeting up with some slow boat friends at the night market. They were planning to go to the Kuang Si Waterfalls the next day and invited me to join them, which I was happy to do.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

We bounced along the mostly well-maintained road out of town, through small villages, past children in school uniform bicycling home for lunch. Our driver told us what time we had to be back by, and then he set up his hammock in the back of the songthaew for a late morning nap. I bought a sandwich and an entrance ticket, and we went inside the park.

Lunchtime traffic on the road to Kuang Si

Lunchtime traffic on the road to Kuang Si

The first thing we saw were signs to a bear sanctuary. Asiatic Black bears and Malaysian Sun bears are threatened native species in Laos, and the center shelters bears confiscated by government authorities from wildlife smugglers. Probably the bears were going to end up in cages, having bile sucked from their bodies for traditional medicines, and now they hang out on tire swings and forage for food the center’s workers hide around the enclosure to keep them stimulated.

Naptime for bears

Naptime for bears

Hangin' with bears

Hangin’ with bears

A short walk away, we came to the first of the waterfalls. I said in the title of this post that there were four waterfalls, but really I made four stops along the path of many little and some large waterfalls. The water was the bright green of jade, and the pools were calm, stacked on layers of brown limestone, until they suddenly tumbled over steeper rocks in a rush of white foam.

Looked like Turtle Falls to me

Looked like Turtle Falls to me

We passed a swimming hole, its main attraction being the rope swing you got to by edging along a tree branch and using a pole to hook it, after which you grabbed the rope and flung yourself into space, letting go before you swung back too far toward the tree. It looked fun, and scary, and I did not do it.

At the swimming hole

At the swimming hole

The path was one of the cleanest I’d encountered in Southeast Asia; signs in Laotian and English reminded visitors to refrain from littering, and woven baskets dotting the path served as trash cans. The water also looked clean, which was gratifying. It was so clear and beautiful, I’d hate to see it polluted.

kuang si laos

The final waterfall was huge and hugely impressive. We carefully made our way through over the slick rocks to take pictures more or less in the middle of the pool, which was cool. I wanted to linger, maybe write in my journal or read a book with the water rushing past, but other women wanted to make sure we weren’t late for our driver, which is fair, so off we went. It was a pleasant morning, and the only change I’d make if I went back is I’d stay longer.

***

Another popular day trip from Luang Prabang is a river cruise to the Pak Ou Caves. I bought a ticket from a travel agent in town, as did most other people on my boat. I think you can just show up the day of and get on a boat, but I didn’t want to wake up early only to find all spots taken. It was slightly organized chaos at the dock. I gave my ticket to the woman in charge, and she gave me a number. Later, she stood at the top of the stairs down to the boats and yelled out numbers, which I realized when we got down to the dock corresponded to different captains, so that each captain had roughly the same number of passengers. (Communism at work, for equal pay and equal distribution of weight!)

Tiny boats

Tiny boats

Unfortunately, I got The Unlucky Boat. We were the last group to leave because it took the captain ages to get his boat untangled from the others and move it around toward the floating dock we waited on. Finally, we boarded the tiny, narrow boat, only to have to shift around to accommodate the guy in the back, who was obliviously moving from side to side, apparently unaware that he could sink us if he weighed us down on one side more than the other. We got underway and stopped after only 30 minutes, at an island populated with incurious cows, so two girls on the boat could pee in the bushes. Restless dude in the back took the opportunity to share a cigarette with the captain. Finally, we arrived at our first stop, the whisky village.

The cutest kid ever to feed herself

The cutest kid ever to feed herself

Ban Xang Hai is a village specializing in the production of lao lao, a strong whisky fermented in jars. We spent an awkward 30 minutes wandering around the streets, which were lined with tables piled high with scarves for sale. I stopped near the whisky distillery and made googly eyes at a toddler learning how to feed herself. Her mother okayed me taking a picture of this beautiful baby, and everyone smiled as she shoved noodles in her face.

Seen from the river

Blurry shot of the caves, as seen from the river

Now it was time to go to the caves, so we set off again… only to stop ten minutes later, beached on another small island in the middle of the Mekong. Our captain went in the back and tinkered with the engine, but after a few minutes it was apparent it wasn’t coming back to life any time soon. Another boat puttered by, and after a little conversation between the captains, all the passengers in ours shifted over to the other one. We left The Unlucky Boat behind, the captain taking a drag on his cigarette and contemplating the engine.

The lower cave

The lower cave

All these delays meant we had a much shorter time at the caves than other visitors, so I had to hoof it to get to the upper cave. The buddhas in the Pak Ou Caves are either damaged beyond repair or no longer in use, and in recent years tourists have brought their own buddhas to add, although I don’t know what the official stance is on that. The upper cave is lit by a few candles and what sunlight drifts in from outside, so I brought my headlamp in case I found myself in the dark, but enough people were up there with the same that I never did. The lower cave is well-lit, but there’s less exploring to do.

Fallen embrace

Fallen embrace

I liked poking around the upper cave, looking at the buddhas of all sizes and poses, made of different materials, ranged about the caves on long concrete shelves. During the Laotian New Year, people flock here to wash the buddhas, but the rest of the year, the statues sit under thin layers of dust, their limbs wearing away or broken off, their Mona Lisa smiles undisturbed by the dark. It must’ve been the luck of all those buddhas that followed me back to town, because the boat didn’t stop once.

The upper cave of Pak Ou

The upper cave of Pak Ou

Running the Numbers: Getting Ripped Off vs. The Bigger Picture

“Oh, you know they’re always trying to rip you off.” “They’re always looking for a way to scam you.” “You have to be really firm with them.” I heard variations on this theme so many times in Southeast Asia that I started to wonder what I was missing, because I didn’t feel that way. How much of this attitude comes from personal attitude, and how much from the many, many guidebook warnings on scams and ripoffs in Southeast Asia? Probably a mix. A not very pleasant mix of reality, stereotypes, and suspicion.

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

In the 40,000 kip tuk-tuk

Guidebooks and websites list the various scams you can fall prey to–the gem scam, the tuk-tuk scam, the travel agency scam, to name just a few. I even knowingly went into one of the well-known scams, to see what it was like. There are a lot of setups to separate you from your money, and the more serious ones have legal repercussions if you don’t cooperate (see: anything involving drugs). Being wary of any deal that seems too good to be true is a smart move for avoiding scams anywhere you go, including SEA. That’s pretty straightforward.

It’s the ripoffs that are a murkier area. Traveling in SEA from a Western country means encountering new currencies, new modes of transport, new foods, and a new bar of “normal” prices for it all. I got pork satay for $1 and thought I’d got a bargain, until further up the street I saw someone selling it for 50 cents. Did I feel cheated out of those extra 50 cents? Slightly. Did it affect my budget or my mood? Not at all.

I met some women on the slow boat to Laos, and when we arrived in Luang Prabang we decided to share a tuk-tuk to the Kuang Si Waterfalls, 40 minutes outside of town. We found a couple tuk-tuks and asked how much to take us there and back. (You never have meters with tuk-tuks; you always negotiate price upfront.) The drivers wanted 50,000 kip per person, round trip. What a ripoff! That’s much more than it should be! We’re going to find someone else! And then they did start walking off to find someone else. The drivers let us get pretty far; this wasn’t a haggling technique, you could tell, they really didn’t want to drop their price. But finally they consented to 40,000 kip each, which was deemed acceptable. (I should say here that I really enjoyed hanging out with these women, as we did over the next several days, but we just disagreed on this point.)

We passed a checkpoint (all the tuk-tuks in Luang Prabang belong to a group that they report rides to and presumably pool some money for), and I saw a sign saying trips to the waterfalls are 200,000 per tuk-tuk. There were four of us, which meant the 50,000 was just basic math, not a ripoff at all. But when I mentioned this, the women said no, they’d read online that it shouldn’t be more than 40,000 per person, and it’s a matter of principle, not being ripped off. And “they” will rip you off any chance you get, I was reminded; hadn’t the price of a dress been slashed in half at the market yesterday when one of the women simply started walking away after hearing the opening figure? That proves that they’re always asking for way more than it’s worth.

How much, how much?

How much, how much?

But I think it’s not that simple. The dress, yes, that was a funny piece of haggling, because clearly the woman would have settled for much less than her opening price, but why shouldn’t she give it a shot? It wasn’t out of line with prices in other stalls, and it was still only $10. It’s frustrating when you’re not sure what the normal price is, but markets here are meant for bartering, so make up your own normal, or what feels comfortable for you without leaving the seller with no profit.

The tuk-tuk, though, is much easier to avoid being ripped off. They’d gone online to see what the norm was–40,000–so if the driver had said 100,000, we would have known straight away that we were being ripped off. But 50,000 isn’t unreasonable, and according to the tuk-tuk company sign, it was in fact appropriate for the size of our group.

And in the end, it’s a $1 difference. Yes, it was the difference between a $7 or an $8 ride–for 40 minutes out, waiting several hours, and 40 minutes back to town. That $1 means so much more to the driver than it does to me, so why begrudge him that slight boost in his pay for the day? It’s going to go a lot farther in his pocket than in mine. Sure, they countered, but if you keep saying, “oh it’s only one dollar” everywhere, those dollars are going to add up, and you’ll lose a lot of money that way. Yep, I replied, and I’m okay with that.

I complain about how much I’m spending on this trip more often than I should, but I’m still acutely aware of how fortunate I am. I’m far more upset about the ATM fees I pay every time just to access my own damn money than I am about the couple hundred dollars I’ve probably overpaid to people trying to send their kids to school or get dental care.

Finally, this kind of thinking can get dangerously racially based. There’s way too much “they” and “them” in the talk surrounding scams and ripoffs. If you’re always thinking that a certain group of people is always out to get you, you’re not allowing them any individuality, and you’re closing the door on opportunities for understanding each other. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t look out for ripoffs–I had to bail on a taxi in Hanoi with a super-fast meter, for example. But try not to make it the first thing you see in a person.

If you see someone as a scam artist solely based on his race, that’s racist. If you see someone as out for your money, that’s one more friend you haven’t made. That’s a lonely way to travel, and it doesn’t fit in my budget.