Hospitality in Savannakhet: The Lovely Ladies of Laos

WE WERE BROKE when we stepped off the bus in Savannakhet. Not broke like we didn’t have cash–we had a few hundred bucks for the coming week of travel, but it was in all the wrong currencies. A few thousand Vietnamese dong, a hundred-ish Philippine pesos, 22 American dollars.

It was downright sloppy time management. We arrived in Savannakhet a few hours after sundown on a Friday evening, and didn’t manage to convert our money at the bank near the border. (To our credit, I was in the middle of figuring out how to mime “commission rate” to the teller when I had to run out of the bank because our bus was leaving without us).

Not having any money wouldn’t have been such a big deal, had we not been also starving and in need of a place to sleep. The bus terminal couldn’t exchange our money, nor would the hotel we found pretty much across the street from the terminal, though the young man behind the counter–who was without question the most gracious, helpful desk clerk I’ve met–understood our dilemma and agreed to let us pay the following day .

A few mathematical points to quickly get through:

  • The hotel cost US$17;
  • We figured we’d exchange all of our US cash to be rid of it; therefore
  • Our goal was to exchange $5 for food that night

So onward began the hunt for dinner, after most shops were closed and the sparse streetlamps lit up. The smiley desk clerk suggested there might be some shops willing to accept US dollars up the main street, and so we followed his directions for two minutes until we stumbled upon a row of middle-aged women behind market stalls, gossiping and laughing.

We approached them and scanned their dishes. Big metal bowls of veggie stews, bony spiced chicken, watery puddings and meat pies. A budget traveler’s dream. The ladies stopped chatting and began smiling at us, proudly and with curiosity.

We approached them and scanned their dishes. Big metal bowls of veggie stews, bony spiced chicken, watery puddings and meat pies. A budget traveler’s dream. The ladies stopped chatting and began smiling at us, proudly and with curiosity. 

Stopping in front of one, I took out the $5 bill and pushed it in her direction. “Do you, uh, take…?” I tried, but the woman shook her head and waved her hand, No, sorry, not here. I turned to the woman beside her: same response. V. and I rubbed our bellies, the universal sign for “hunger”, but they just sort of shrugged and looked at each other, shaking their heads. 

So we started to walk away when the first woman stopped us and began calling to her friends. They each deliberated and looked at us. I can only assume very few Westerners bother them for anything. The “pack leader” gestured to the bill and took out some kip, and asked, somehow conveying “exchange rate” (she might’ve mentioned numbers in English; I don’t remember), how much $5 was worth.

“40,000 kip,” I said. I think I wrote it on a napkin or something.

The women looked at each other again, and the leader, in a move I can only describe as transcendental maternal pity, began nodding, Okay, all right, whatever, give us the cash. Delighted, I handed her the $5 and we pointed to a few dishes at her stall–the stew, the meat pie.

We paused after that, asking her how much what we had was, to get an idea of how much more we could buy. She could’ve told us anything. She could have easily ripped us off. Instead, she counted what we owed and and handed us back our change–in Lao kip.

“No, no,” I started. I waved across her stall, then raised my hands in a shrug and took out my wallet. (“This” + “what” + “cost?”)

She waved her hand and shook her head some more. Then she did something I’ll never forget: she pointed at her stall, shook her finger, and drew out her arm in a wide circle; No, not just me; spread the money around.

She waved her hand and shook her head some more. Then she did something I’ll never forget: she pointed at her stall, shook her finger, and drew out her arm in a wide circle; No, not just me; spread the money around.

V. and I were shocked when she handed us back 32,000 kip. Each dish, it turns out, was a measly 4,000; about 50 cents. She saw my amazement and beamed.

And that’s when I made it rain on ‘dem Lao bitches.

Really. There was no hiding the fact that we had money, and were willing to spend it all tonight. Relieved that these women were nothing like the street hawkers in Vietnam, where we were just hours ago, and where women would pester us for our every last coin, we were suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to give these women money.

I held out the wad of kip and began firing it off with my thumb. The women laughed. I pointed at a woman down the aisle. She beckoned us to come, drawing us in with her arms, as if into a hug.

We left with a bag of chicken stew, a spicy beef-cilantro mix, some miscellaneous meat pie, bags of jelly and red bean pudding, fried dumplings, a handful of donuts–and 17,000 kip left over.

Laos

“Lookit all this cheap food!”

We unwittingly collected our mass of food to go, and brought it back to the hotel. We asked the smiley desk clerk for bowls and cutlery, and he happily called for some from the kitchen (which was closed). We sat in the lobby and indulged, in the ecstatic afterglow of this miraculous humanity.

Laos is famous among backpackers for the kindness of its people. I can’t speak for the whole country, and I don’t feel comfortable stereotyping like that, even if it’s a positive stereotype. But if you ever find yourself in Savannakhet, walk up the street, find the lovely ladies of Laos, and judge for yourself.

Advertisements

One comment

  1. I think we got some meat skewers too! What a night to remember!

Something to say? Say it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: