I never really expected the two countries to be the same, but I had not expected them to be as different as they have turned out so far, either. This post is not about criticism of either place. These are just observations I’ve made, not judgments about which is better or worse.
People in Laos, while mostly shorter on average than non-Asian Americans, are surprisingly not uniformly smaller. I have seen many many more heavy-set and obese Lao people than I ever saw in China. In China, I remember seeing one or two in my whole time there. Here, I see several that would be considered large even by American standards. I found that surprising.
If Chinese cuisine and Lao cuisine were people, would they be friends? Probably not. Lao cuisine would find Chinese cuisine overly complicated and too direct, coming on very strong, while Chinese cuisine might find Lao cuisine too understated and simple. I personally find Lao food to be a little underwhelming. At least so far, maybe because of my lack of ability to communicate, I haven’t found the food to be particularly spicy. I haven’t found much that’s particularly delicious either. I’m not saying its bad, or good really—it just is, it does the trick of getting rid of my hunger while not tempting me to overeat. They eat a lot of salad and raw vegetables with cooked meat. Noodles aren’t really a Lao food, though it is served here (and eaten at breakfast), and the rice is sticky. Another thing I found interesting is that Lao food is eaten mostly with either your hands or a spoon. When you sit down at a restaurant to eat they bring you a fork and spoon. As I’ve watched the locals eat, the fork is the spoon’s helper, but the spoon actually delivers the goods.
If China and Laos got in a staring contest…well, China would win because Laos wouldn’t show up. They just don’t stare at foreigners here in LP. Maybe in the villages or maybe in the capitol (though I doubt if happens in the capitol) but not here. The staring you get here, is there staring you get anywhere with hormonal men and scantily clad/ proportionally blessed women. This isn’t to say that Lao women walk around dressed immodestly, quite the opposite. For it being as hot as it is here, the locals seem impressively overdressed with long sleeved knit shirts and windbreakers on. This comment is in reference to the tourists who associate all things tropical with the beach and walk around this Buddhist, conservative town dressed entirely inappropriately.
I haven’t had my picture taken once, or had strangers approaching me to be friends. I’m left alone except for the occasional tuk-tuk driver who thinks that I’m lost or going somewhere far and need a ride.
Can’t Hold It
I’m not sure whether its population density that is working against China or not but in the category of public urination/defication China wins by a landslide. Babies and men included, since I’ve been here I’ve only seen two cases of someone relieving themselves/being relieved outside. I saw my first man going outside last night and a few days prior I saw a baby. In China, at least where I lived, it was pretty ubiquitous.
The first few days here I only saw expats smoking, over the following couple days I caught that monk smoking, and now a few times a day I’ll see someone smoking. In China, the first thing that I smelled when I left the airport was cigarette smoke.
So far, Chinese is easier. To be honest, languages with alphabets, in my opinion, are just harder. In Chinese, you can look up the meaning of a character you see without needing to know how to say it. Sure, it takes a little while, but it can be done. In Lao, I have no idea what alphabetical order is when you have things like p is sometimes pronounced b, ng is a letter and the first letter you see isn’t always the first one that you hear (vowels can appear before, after, or above the consonants they are pronounced after). Also, if we’re talking about phonemes, Chinese sounds a lot closer to English than Lao does. That probably makes no sense to you but I feel like in Lao there are so many new sounds to make with my mouth. In Lao, there is some tonal variant of each vowel that we don’t have represented among the sounds that we make in English. I think Korean and French are harder to pronounce than Chinese, but I think Lao is harder even then those two.
Tastes Like Home
Although there isn’t a single American fast food franchise in all of the country, because LP used to be a French colony and there are so many tourists in this city there is a lot of Western food and especially French. There are lots of pastry shops and cafes. I have had western food for breakfast most days here, but I haven’t had it for other meals (except at expat parties) so I don’t know if its any good (though I’ve heard, gastronomy-wise LP delivers). The reason I don’t eat Lao breakfast (which I hope to more in the future) is that Lao food in general makes my stomach hurt. Not continual hurt but intermittent sharp pains throughout the hours after I eat it and I don’t want to be uncomfortable at work. I’d rather experiment with dinner, go somewhere with one of my bosses for lunch that won’t upset my stomach and have French toast, granola and yogurt, a fruit smoothie, or a pastry for breakfast
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
What twinkles here? The wats twinkle. I adore looking at them. My favorite thing about LP so far, besides my job, is the architecture. The wat roofs and even sometimes the sides sparkle and shine and are really pretty to look at. Also at night, because there are no sky scrapers or much light pollution you can see the stars very clearly.
In China (at least in the places where I lived), the buildings light up the skyline at night. I LOVE big cities at night, I always see the lights on and think about the activity that continues well into the night. Its a toss up I guess between the wats, which I have become a very huge fan of and the skyscrapers and high rise apartments that light up the night sky in the cities.
Where I am staying temporarily does not have a kitchen. Other than that its quite nice and conveniently located. Where I might end up living may be a house. In China I lived in apartments. As I mentioned above, I really like the architecture here so I can imagine if I find a place to live here that I would like it, too. So I’d say this area is tied, but we’ll see when I actually get a place of my own.
At the Market
You can bargain here. But its not like China. Actually the other day I bought something and didn’t feel like bargaining, and the woman went down on her own. But they don’t hassle you to buy from them here. They pretty much leave you to yourself and let you stroll in peace. In China, the market is a crazy place where people are constantly yelling out things to get you to stop by their stall and negotiations can get quite nasty.
Again, here it might just be a population density issue but I’ve only seen two beggars here. One was a little girl and the other was a little dog that came into the noodle shop and started asking for food off the table. Compare this to my trip to Xi’an where I was chased in an underground tunnel by 2 children who eventually attached themselves to my legs and wouldn’t let go till a Chinese woman came over and slapped their hands, freeing me to escape.
The Price is Right
In LP, the price is wrong. Even though the cost of living here is so low, because this town is so touristy everything is kind of expensive. Not America expensive, but for Laos. In China, I could eat out three meals a day for $1.50 total (with no stomach issues). Here a cheap meal may be $2 for a local dish, and $3 or $4 dollars a dish for western food.
There are not so many cars here. Moped is king of the road. Bicycles come in a close second and then tuk-tuks (like a taxi), then trucks and vans and then occasionally I see new compact cars. I walk to work. It takes less than 15 minutes. Most places are within walking distance. So far. There are no buses here. No taxis or rickshaws. In China, I rode a bike (which I will probably eventually do here) or took the bus or a taxi. Cities were so big that even by bus it could take hours to get from one end to the next. On my way to work here I walk through the morning market which is food, and walk home through the night market, which is textiles and other souvenirs.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved living in China! I’ve only been here for a week and these two countries are really nothing at all alike. So far, I like living here. I’m not in love, but I don’t dislike it either. I enjoy myself and am very happy to make this place home for a few years. Both China and Laos have their own charm and their own challenges. China probably will always hold a special place in my heart for being my first adult overseas experience and my area of expertise. But it’ll be interesting to see how my two years in Laos will give China a run for its money.