BootsnAll Travel Network

language barrier

overall i haven’t had much of a problem getting around not speaking the language in hong kong or thailand, but here in laos things are tricky sometimes! lao and thai are very similar, and most lao people understand thai, which is good because i learned quite a bit of thai in the last few weeks. and often here, i’m mistaken for lao because a majority of the tourists i’ve met are french and very fair-skinned, so a lot of times locals start off speaking to me in lao and i have to tell them that i don’t understand. often though, i find myself mixing the two up, and sometimes i’m just at a loss without a phrasebook, or even sometimes with it!

as most people will tell you, a smile and trying out a few words will often elicit a friendly response in return, often in english, and if all else fails you can always try sign language. but this yesterday i found myself in a position where was so frustrated that i gave up! (and i HATE giving up!)

i woke up planning to walk over to the talat sao bus station to try to catch the local bus to xieng khuan (buddha park). i found the right bus with just a little bit of asking around, and when i got on everyone was waiting for the bus to depart. i realized i didn’t have a ticket (although sometimes you don’t need one and just pay onboard), so i started trying to ask around whether i needed one or where i should buy a ticket.

in general, lao people have been some of the friendliest i’ve met! they are usually sort of shy, but quick to crack a smile and always very polite. usually if i try some lao (or even thai) they will break in and help me out as best they can in english. but on the bus, i truly got hit by the feeling of being in a foreign country and not understanding or being able to communicate anything… usually this is a fun challenge for me, but this time it was distinctly uncomfortable. people turned away from me when i’d ask a question, and eventually i got off and tried to find someone who spoke english.

of course, the only people who speak english in these kinds of situations are those who are trying to rip you off. as soon as i stepped off the bus, i was approached by three “helpful” tuk tuk drivers, all offering me a ride. the fare for the bus is 4,000 kip (about 50 cents), and these guys were trying to charge me $20US! at first i tried asking them questions about the bus tickets, but after it became clear they weren’t going to go away until i got in with one of them, i gave up and walked out of the bus station.

i was soooo frustrated! i hate for this kind of experience to at all bring down my spirits or to lessen my positive impression of lao people, but it was a time when i really had to step back and take a moment to regroup. i’m pretty stubborn, and i hate to admit when i’ve failed at something. but in this case, i was truly in a situation where being alone, being unable to speak the language, being a woman, and being a tourist all worked to my disadvantage. i had to remind myself that not everyone i meet is trying to rip me off, so i can’t lose my cool, but i did spend a leisurely couple of hours reading in a cafe in order to regain my sense of calm!

this morning i got up early to try it again – i was going to get my butt to the buddha park somehow (without being ripped off!), if it meant i had to walk the 25 kilometers myself! i stopped at the front desk of my guesthouse to ask them whether i needed a ticket for the local bus, and they told me “nope, just hop on and you can pay when you get off.” feeling much more confident, i headed to the bus station and took a seat to wait for the next bus.

buses heading towards buddha park leave in 30 minute intervals throughout the day from the bus station, so i decided to wait for the next bus because the one that was waiting at the curb was already packed with people – standing room only. people just crowd in (sometimes they can’t even close the doors!) and you try to grab a seat whenever you can find one. i’d heard that the road got really bumpy just before the park and that the ride would take about 45 minutes, so there was no way i was gonna stand up that long if i could wait and get a seat on the next one.

luckily, as i was waiting, i met a really cool girl from australia named cathie so we chatted to pass the time. the next bus came soon after the first had left, so we grabbed two empty seats and braced for the bumpy ride. the road wasn’t too bad at first, and we made a quick stop at the thai-lao friendship bridge (a popular immigration point to thailand) where many people got off, giving us a little more room to breathe. but a few minutes later, the paved road ended and we were in for a rollercoaster ride til we reached the park.

buddha park was very interesting, and definitely worth the trip, despite the hassles i’d had yesterday. cathie and i went our separate ways and wandered around the huge sculptures of buddha, vishnu and other hindu deities, animals, and one really, really creepy pumpkin-like structure full of skulls, bones, and beheadings! it was actually so creepy in there that i snapped a few photos, then rushed out – i kept hearing footsteps behind me! yikes! i’m glad that i made it because i’m leaving in a few hours for pakse… =)

a few pictures… (check out the rest under the “vientiane” section of my flickr page at

buddha park (xieng khuan)

entrance to the giant pumpkin!

check out all the skulls!

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8 responses to “language barrier”

  1. Mom says:

    What a frustrating bus experience but sounds like you worked through it eventually….hopefully, today will go smoother:)… sure is interesting reading your posts though:)….love you. Mom

  2. min says:

    oh malia! i love how you still continue to try..and never really gave up. i know if that was me, i would have probably gave up a long time ago… i’m excited to see the pics!
    p.s. i love how your mom comments on all your blog entries! definately can see the love…

  3. min says:

    p.s. it’s funny how you were mistaken to be “local” but now that i think about it, some of the thai ppl i know are fair skin asians that can look sorta hapa…

  4. Cathie says:

    Hope the bus trip to Pakse was OK. Enjoy the south of Laos! 🙂

  5. Dee says:

    Malia… I’m so jealous!!!! Make a wish for me at your next good luck spot. Do you still check your email? I don’t know how to get a hold of you… but I wanted to tell you I’m getting married in June in Boston… Don’t worry I’m having another wedding in Hawaii next year too. I ran into Jake at Harvard and we both miss you and we’re both really jealous. Next year… You can tour the gulf countries and Europe with me. I got a job in Abu Dhabi and will be travelling a lot next year… so you should meet me for different legs of my world tour!!!!
    Be safe… take lots of pictures… I love living vicariously through your travels. OOOHHHH and try more weird food… I was watching the travel channels show on weird/strange food… you should try the big worms that hide in palmnut trees…and fried bees… =) Miss you… will probably see you some time this year(?) hopefully!

  6. Mom says:

    Creepy Buddha Park! Love all the pics of the VIP sleeper bus with crowded bunks, etc:)….all so interesting and entertaining to read! Stay safe! Love you. Mom

  7. christy says:

    wow! i love the pictures. wish i could have been there to see it in real life

  8. kim says:

    you are truly my IDOL!!! i don’t think i could do half the things you do, especially by myself. can you rub some of your independence and perseverance off on me??? xoxo

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