Week 3: Being a Tourist is not Always Fun

Working abroad should not mean that the only places you go are the office, your home and the occasional restaurant or market to buy necessary items. It should involve getting to know the culture and history of the country, meeting new people and engaging with the area around you. One way that I have done this is by visiting museums or national monuments as well as talking with coworkers about their lives. Sometimes going to language meet ups or social events at bars allows you to have very interesting conversations with people about things you may have never thought about or learned from your guidebooks and museum visits.

Since I have been here in Laos, I have visited a few temples including the famous That Luang, a park filled with Buddha statues, an ethnic and cultural preservation center where I bought souvenirs that’s revenue goes back to the preservation of ethnic minorities, as well as some waterfalls. For the most part, these have been wonderful experiences and while some felt a little like a tourist trap, I was happy to enjoy the adventure. However, the one place I visited that I did not completely enjoy was the Pak Ou caves.

The first part of our trip involved a longer than expected boat ride up the Mekong River that was actually beautiful and quite calming. We took a boat that had used old car seats and plastic chairs for seating which added to its charm. Our boat driver was a cute older man who asked us if we wanted husbands and dropped his wife off in their village during our trip. Before the caves, we stopped at the Lao Lao Village, Ban Xang Hay that had beautiful handmade bags and scarves that looked like great gifts for my family.

Then, when we got to the actual caves we joined many groups of people to enter the caves filled with different sized Buddha images that have been damaged in some way before being put in the caves. At some point these caves were a place of worship, as it was believed that the river spirits lived in the caves. However when we arrived the only local Lao people to be seen were women selling offerings and young children trying to sell us birds trapped in cages to be set free as a ritual to bring good luck and happiness. But from what I was told, catching a caged bird is bad luck and taking that bird would transfer the bad luck to you. The image of little kids catching birds to sell to well dressed westerners with fancy backpacks and cameras was unsettling especially if they believed that catching these birds was bad luck. Tourism brings money to different areas but how much is that money helping people and how much is upsetting their lives? These children were trying to offer a service but of the fifty to sixty tourists I saw, none of them bought a bird. I am sure someone has bought a bird or else they would not continue to sell them, but seeing a child follow a man with the bird asking him to buy it until the man had said no enough times, seemed wrong. Long before this point, it had become very difficult to see this place as the religious site that it once was. But as I was leaving, all I wanted to know was how did this site changed to the state it was in now?