The Laotian Revolutionary Tax

It is well known that some guerilla and terrorist groups in recent history have funded their activity by extorting local businesses of different sizes while euphemistically calling it a revolutionary tax. Such was the case with the Basque terrorist group ETA, who contributed to popularizing the expression in Spain to the point that people started using the concept figuratively.

“Don’t forget my revolutionary tax when you go to Extremadura”, my Mom would tell my Dad, meaning she was expecting a generous gift of jamón ibérico and torta del casar as a compensation for being left alone at home.

Revolutionary or not, from the first to the last minute in Laos (yes, almost literally) I had the feeling of being asked to pay for all sorts of services and infrastructure that, well, one would normally take for granted even in other countries of SE Asia.

Believe me –  I had read up on the cost on visa on arrival, 35$ US or more if you paid in Thai Baht, and bought them before leaving Thailand. I had even prepared two passport size photos, lest I be charged one extra dollar for the photo. But no, nowhere had I read about the extra 1 US Dollar “service fee” payable at the VISA counter in Luang Prabang airport. Really, I thought as I searched my wallet for two 20 Baht notes, shouldn’t the service be included in the 35 bucks?

Oh well, I said to myself. The country is beautiful and poor. Never mind helping out a bit

But the need to always have a few thousand kip ready to hand over at the most unexpected notice became more and more irksome. In Luang Prabang I was refused entrance to the public toilets. No, the girl in charge would not take Thai baht, unlike every shop or restaurant in town. “This is not Thailand”, she murmured in broken English, unsmilingly. No – I guess not. Oh well, mai bpen rai

In Vang Vieng, the 50 meter bridge you had to cross en route to the three blue lagoons and other sights also had several civil servants approaching you on your motorbike to request the toll. I was glad that the 6000 KIP were also good for the return trip, as nobody checked you on the way back to town.

Many of the sights were pay sights, too. Temples, of course, but also viewpoints. Ek and I were charged a steep 20000 per person to walk the no less steep 355 steps leading up Phousi Hill, affording beautiful views of Luang Prabang and the Mekong. Shortly after paying, I heard two young Western backpackers trying to negotiate a deal.

“20 000 for both of us, OK?” one of them said, with a big smile.

I turned and glared at the clerk, who had just refused giving Ek a discount on account of being Buddhist. We were on our way before the end of the conversation, but didn’t get to see the two girls at the top.

In Vang Vieng, pretty much any sight had a nominal fee of 10000 KIP – that’s about a Euro. Cheap for all the infrastructure you get at a place like one of the Blue Lagoons, but pricy when the only service you’re getting is a couple of sheepish locals watching over your parked motorbike.

Ironically, the only sight where Ek and I were not charged was a museum of sorts – the Laos UXO visitor centre, that tells the sobering story of the devastating and long-lasting effects if the mass bombing of the country during the secret war. And there, of course, we were happy to leave a generous donation.

When the time came to leave Laos, Ek and I were surprised by a long queue shortly after we had returned our immigration exit card and had our passport stamp. People seemed to be handing over more money at the counter.

“What’s this?”, I asked. Surely it must be a day visa for day trips into Thailand, or something.

Given no other alternatives, Ek and I duly queued, paid 10000 kip per head and were given a receipt that let us through a gate. I asked Ek to check with the officials what the hell we were paying for.

“It’s the “overtime fee”, said Ek nonchalantly. “It’s because they are working on a Saturday.”

I burst in a roar of laughter. “You know what, Ek? Laos is a big scam. A big revolutionary scam. No, don’t shush me.  Now let’s hit Nong Khai for some proper food.”

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