“Shit Thailand” was my first impression of Laos . Similar to Thailand, but only poorer, less developed, less friendly and smileless. I was quick to dub Laos “The Land of No Smiles”. That came as a complete surprise to me after hearing so many good things about Lao people. What I really encountered was mean service and unhappy looking grim people, which came as a shock after the friendly Thailand. Huay Xai, Pak Beng, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng were all similar in this aspect. I and the fellow traveller Adam did an experiment in Luang Prabang by walking through the market smiling and saying Sabahdee! to all the local people we saw. Nobody returned a smile or greeted us back. Later I found out that these people smile only after you buy something from them. In Vang Vieng I changed my strategy and started telling vendors directly that I buy from them only if they smile. No smile, no purchase. Sometimes it worked. After the first week in Laos I felt not welcomed in Laos, it seemed that the only thing locals wanted from me was money. There were fees to cross a bridge, to park a bike in the middle of nowhere, to see anything of remote interest or just because you are a white monkey. Some people do not even try to provide any service to you, but just approach you and ask for money. If you look at the history of Laos, the country has always been dependent on foreign aid. During the years as a French colony, Laos was never profitable and French pumped a lot of money into it. Then it was the turn of United Stated and other countries helping Laos, so it might be that the idea of getting money from foreigners is deeply engraved into Laos mentality.
The situation, however, changed when I got out of tourist places. Only then I realized that Laotians are a very hospitable, smiling, happy lot despite the poverty. I shared food and beer with locals on numerous occasions and once got invited to an wedding (and the only thing I was wearing was swimshorts and sarong). Nobody spoke English and was pretty drunk to communicate anyway, but it was good fun. Vientiane was the turning point for me, where local people were nice and friendly never mind the mass tourism . It might have had something do with Lao New Year, but further south I went people were nicer and nicer. Bolaven Plateau was particularly pleasant. Nobody spoke any English and we did not speak any Laos, but it was counterbalanced by tons of smiles and hospitality. This is the Laos I was told about.