22. Home Ideal and DMart

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When falang first arrive, they envision strolling confidently through the local market, greeting the vendors by name, and knowing exactly which obscure stall sells vegetable peelers.  But they need a few Lao lessons first.  So falang inevitably soften the blow of culture shock by picking up their essentials at the closest places to a Walmart or Tesco that they can find: Home Ideal and D-Mart.  The wide, perplexingly organized, air-conditioned aisles and fixed prices soothe frazzled falang nerves. Just like when it comes to food shopping, they would much rather pay higher, clearly marked prices for everything, than figure out all 15 stalls they would have to visit to get everything on their shopping list.  Where else would they find nails, soap, dishtowels, and a new trashcan (all guaranteed to last less than two months) in time for their housewarming party?

That’s not to say that a trip to D-Mart or Home Ideal is a walk in the park.  Falang spend countless hours wandering the aisles of these establishments looking for that one randomly placed item on their shopping list. They don’t know how to ask for it in Lao and even if they did, the 20 staff on duty always look like they couldn’t be more unenthusiastic to help find sponges anyways.  This hunt inevitably involves walking from one expansive, perpetually unfinished corner to another, or even glancing with trepidation up the escalators to nowhere.  On the bright side, this can occasionally spark an exciting discovery of some unexpected imported item. Falang will then excitedly spread this news to everyone they know—Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Doritos at DMart!

If you are friends with a falang working for an NGO supporting eco-friendly, fair trade, or locally-sourced products, be sure to avoid mentioning their hypocrisy in frequenting Home Ideal.  This would certainly only serve to get you uninvited to said falang’s next happy hour gathering. The same goes for your falang friend who constantly complains about “China taking over” but is often spotted with DMart bags hanging from their motorbike. These falang will often try to deflect judgment in advance by saying “I hate that place, but I just had to get…”.  Nod sympathetically at how difficult it is to find coat hangers here, while refraining from pointing out the family owned minimart selling them across the street.

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21. Maebans

Maebans are essential to a complete falang existence. These women are clearly in possession of magical powers; they can make water jugs appear, trash disappear, and remove spots that falang had long resigned to permanence. Let’s face it: without their maebans, many falang would be lost, wandering the streets of Vientiane with unpressed shirts, mumbling about ant infestations and dirty toilets.

image via: wikihow.com

image via: wikihow.com

Maebans provide perfect fodder for two classic falang pastimes—complaining and bragging. What falang hasn’t sat through at least one conversation with a sympathetic look on their face, nodding in solidarity as their friend bemoaned their latest (almost certainly clothing-related) maeban catastrophe. ‘She put my white socks with the green stripe in my roommate’s wardrobe—my roommate only wears socks with blue stripes!’ ‘I left my nice sinh crumpled in a ball on the bathroom floor and my maeban washed it!’ ‘She keeps on putting my workout shirts in the pile with my normal t-shirts!’ The audacity! The horror! Falang take solace in commiserating and knowing they are not alone in having a maeban who always irons their pleats in the wrong direction.

Newly arrived to Vientiane and find conversation stalling at a housewarming party, all one has to do is say the magic word and watch the maeban conversation take over. ‘How much do you pay your maeban? How many days a week does she come? Does she stay there all day? Does your maeban cook food for you? How did she learn to do that?!’ For many falang, their maeban is the only person they regularly “practice their Lao” with, so they will also happily share funny anecdotes about little linguistic miscommunications around the house.

If falang happen across someone who does not employ a maeban, they often aren’t quite sure how to react. They must resist the urge to ask this person what it is like to wash their own dishes and hang their own clothes on a line. This falang anomaly may even know where to pay their electricity bill.

Sadly, for many falang their understanding of the gravity of their maeban-enabled disconnect from the ‘real world’ does not sink in until they return to their home country and one day find themselves standing with a toilet brush in their trembling hand. That’s when it really hits them—their maeban Noy really was a godsend…or was it Nok?

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20. Senglao

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Falang may scorn corruption but pirating of DVDs is one illegal activity that they enthusiastically condone. It allows them to keep up with the Oscar nominees and their guilty pleasure shows from back home while trapped in a country with internet too slow for streaming.  When the Hollywood dubbed in Thai becomes too much to bear, falang turn to Senglao for their primetime fix. Senglao is one of the essential first stops on the Vientiane tour for newly-arrived falang, and seasoned falang love to show new arrivals the folders and databases filled with movies and TV shows, for little more than a dollar per disc.  Falang greedily sweep up whole series of shows at a time, as cheap entertainment to make up for there being “nothing to do” in town. Some will spend their entire tenure in Laos not knowing its real name, and simply referring to it as “the DVD shop.”

By the end of their time in Laos, many falang own their own veritable DVD shops in the form of unmarked discs and plastic sleeves littering their living rooms. Cheap falang may try to pawn off these heaps at a discounted rate during going away parties, preying on new arrivals who will inevitably inherit piles of mismatched discs. Others try to bring home their collections as gifts–conversations about how many DVDs falang have managed to take through Australian customs is a staple happy hour conversation.

The DVD shop is safe small talk material among falang who often ask one another what’s new there, or speculate about how long it is until the latest blockbuster becomes available.  Experienced falang can be overheard complaining about how much longer it takes to get TV series than in the good old days.

Looking for some new falang acquaintances?  Head to the DVD shop on a Saturday or Sunday after brunch at Kung’s and they’ll probably be there, thumbing through folder 112 for some weekend entertainment.

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19. Escaping to Bangkok

photo credit: guardian.co.uk

When the list of complaints gets too long and the mean streets of Vientiane get become too much to bear, falang skip town for a few days for the closest thing they can get to a taste of ‘civilization’ in…Bangkok.  BKK, as falang often fondly refer to it in their text messages and Facebook posts, is a haven for the creature comforts and commercialism falang are deprived of while ‘roughing it’ in Laos.

What is it that draws falang to the Thai capital en masse?  The shopping (shoes in falang sizes!), the food (Mexican, Middle Eastern, McDonald’s!), the healthcare (the nicest hospitals they’ve ever seen!). The convenience of the big city brings falang in regularly for work trips, meetings, transit, weekend getaways, frisbee tournaments, health appointments, and meeting out of town guests, and they crave it like mosquitoes crave falang blood.  In Bangkok, falang can indulge in the guilty pleasures of Starbucks, KFC and other chain restaurant fare that they would otherwise turn their nose up at in their home countries, all while marveling over the ultra-fast internet speed.  The movie theaters in BKK have films that won’t appear in Senglao’s folders for months, and falang like to post about them on Facebook to remind friends at home that they are normally deprived of such things in their exotic life abroad.

After a few years of living in Laos, falang consider themselves intimately acquainted with Bangkok.  They pride themselves in knowing the city well, but not actually living there, and maintain a sense of superiority over the farang, who probably aren’t “brave” enough to live in Laos.  Advanced falang like to brag about their knowledge of BKK and debate where the best burger or steak can be found (although it’s likely their expertise would dissolve anywhere a few Skytrain stops beyond Siam Square).

Trying to meet up with a falang friend in BKK, but don’t know their Thai SIM number? Try checking:

  • Siam Paragon
  • Chatuchack Market
  • Central World Cineplex
  • Bumrungrad Hospital
  • Sukhumvit Soi 11
  • Terminal 21
  • A skybar

If they can’t be found at any of these locations, they are probably already stocking up at duty free in Suvarnabhumi, indulging in their last bit of luxury on their way back to Laos.

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18. Sweeping Generalizations

In an effort to show off just how knowledgeable they are about ‘life in Laos’, falang can say some pretty stupid shit. Everyone is guilty of it, even those who envision themselves as a paragon of political correctness. Advanced falang can make slightly more complicated sweeping generalizations, peppered with personal anecdotes. But is also common practice for a novice falang to go from admitting they know next to nothing about a topic to becoming a regular expert on all things Lao in four weeks flat, making statements such as ‘Lao people don’t like to read’. While most falang are capable of contributing sweeping generalizations to almost any dinner table conversation, they do have a few favorite topics. In no particular order, they are:

  • Lao people
  • Vietnamese people
  • Chinese people
  • Thai people
  • Other Asian people
  • The government
  • Development
  • Corruption
  • The UN
  • Miners’ wives
  • Backpackers
  • Lao-falang dating
  • Buddhism
  • Lao culture
  • Lao work ethic
  • Rural lifestyles
  • Each other. (For example, see here.)
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17. The Feeling of Superiority While on Vacation

How many falang had this exact conversation during their last vacation?

  • Wrong kind of falang: “Did you just see that?  Six people with some chickens just drove by on a motorbike!  This place is crazy?”
  • Expat falang: “Yeah I saw someone carrying pigs once.”
  • Wrong kind of falang: “No way! [awkward pause] So…where are you from?”
  • Expat falang: “Well, I’m from [insert your country of origin here]…but I live in Laos.”
  • Wrong kind of falang: “What!? You live there?  For how long?”
  • Expat falang: “[insert any length of time greater than one month]”
  • Wrong kind of falang: [regardless of actual length of time] “Wow that’s so long!  Wow!  So you must like it there, huh?”

Of course, falang relish in their own private moments of superiority while on vacation, laughing at the wrong kind of falang for their fear of fresh produce and habit of dropping stray 20 baht notes from their money belts. But if falang are going to be forced to talk to wide-eyed tourists then they certainly expect to get something out of the deal. There is no easier time to brag (with less of a chance of someone one-upping you) than on vacation.

Whenever they are engaged in conversation with travelers on the road expat falang get filled with butterflies inside, in anticipation of the inevitable small talk question “Where are you from?”. If studying abroad in a foreign country means essentially having lived there, then working in a foreign country must give you the right to say that you’re essentially from Laos. It’s something all falang aspire to: having a nationality more interesting than their own (without actually holding a passport that’s difficult to travel on). After all, a conversation that goes something along the lines of “You’re from Canada? Oh, me too” just doesn’t have the same zing.

Perhaps even better than the thrill that comes from answering the question “Where are you from?” is getting asked the ultimate expat falang small talk vacation question: “Where were you traveling before this?” Relish in this moment falang, you won’t get another one until the next vacation (or the next time you wind up at Bor Pen Nyang).

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16. Sengdara

photo via: jclao.com

photo via: jclao.com

Falang complain about it incessantly, but still fork over a relatively large sum of cash in order to sweat it out at the see-and-be-seen gym in Vientiane. In the midst of their complaints (which conveniently serve as a way of placing themselves in the sporty/fit falang category), they will often lament the fact that no other acceptable gyms exist in an appropriate radius of their house. Drive all the way out to BeeBee? Unthinkable!

How could you possibly complain about a gym as conveniently located as Sengdara? Well, for starters the building mysteriously maintains a temperature consistently four degrees warmer than the outdoor air, despite the numerous AC units that adorn the walls. (Experienced falang will claim to have never seen them in use). Want to turn on a fan to prevent yourself from passing out during your run? It’s not recommended—you’re sure to get a glare from the person walking next to you in a luminous silver sweat suit. Passive aggressive on-off fan battles have been known to occur.

If you can take the heat you still have to combat a gym full of dysfunctional, ornery second-hand equipment. Ever been mid-stride on a treadmill that has suddenly decided to stop moving forward? You aren’t alone. Can’t get a treadmill to turn on? Tell the desk staff and they are likely to shrug and tape ‘out of order’ sign on it. Want to work out at 6PM? Good luck finding parking…or an elliptical. You’ll be relegated to the reject (aka dead) equipment upstairs, which would function as a nice memorial to cardio equipment of days gone by.

Despite its shortcomings, you too may find youself inexplicably drawn to the land of misfit fitness goers.  Soon enough, you will start recognize the quintessential Sengdara cast of characters:

  • The Lao ‘bodybuilders’, who inspire awe with their ability to hold up massive upper bodies on such spindly legs and their dedication to monopolizing every bench for television viewing
  • The high society housewives, who alternate patting themselves with towels, talking on their iPhones and strolling at a breakneck 3 kilometers an hour on one of four functional treadmills
  • The motley crew of personal trainers, who are perhaps the only people who know how to work that strange medieval torture machine located on the second floor
  • The misguided wrong-kind-of-falang, who have been fooled by Lonely Planet into thinking they’re paying for one day at a luxury spa
  • The unsupervised children, who either beeline it straight to the pool or make you incredibly nervous by trying out every piece of free equipment while their parents secure towels

Sengdara’s redeeming qualities may be few and far between, but let’s face it–see you falang at the gym!

 

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15. Housewarmings and Goodbye Parties

Photo via: worklivelaos.com

Photo via: worklivelaos.com

Falang live in a perpetual cycle of welcoming or bidding adieu to their fellow compatriots.  In any other setting, these constant festivities might be onerous, but in Vientiane, since there is “nothing to do,” housewarmings and going away parties are always a welcome chance to make new friends and stock your bar.

For newly arrived falang, a housewarming party is a time to commemorate the fact that they’re really living in Laos.  Nevermind the fact that they may be simply paying for two months rent for a room in someone else’s house, they have officially arrived and they have the Beerlao crates and cheap tortilla chips to prove it.  Housewarming parties are a time to engage in pleasant banter about how much falang are paying for rent, who their maeban is, the pleasant (or annoying) interactions they’ve had with neighbors and that new painting they bought the last time they were in Myanmar.

Advanced falang have seen it all.  They have warmed so many houses that they inevitably know exactly which convenience store to pop into for a bottle of Vina Maipo in just about every falang neighborhood.  Long-term expats can even join in on this ritual by holding housewarming parties when they move bans. (All within an acceptable radius of Joma 2 of course).

Every housewarming party has the same predictable trajectory: someone awkwardly shows up first (but still fashionably late/on Lao time) and gets to help take the plastic wrap off the spring rolls.  Then the coworkers arrive. Their stay is short, and they’ll probably be gone before the first crate of Beerlao disappears.  The rest of the night passes by in a blur of house tours and repeatedly giving directions to late arrivals on the phone.  Soon enough, it’s 1am and the bizarre assortment of housewarming stragglers are too drunk to notice that they don’t really know the names of any other people in the room. The morning-after cleanup may appear daunting, but falang don’t have to stress—there’s a maeban for that.

The natural counterpart to housewarmings, goodbye parties are equally essential to the falang cycle of life in Laos.  For those falang continuing their stay in Laos, goodbye parties always offer a chance to reflect on just how long they’ve been here and wonder what they heck they’re doing with their lives.  Nevertheless, it represents another tick mark on the tally of falang who have come and gone. No matter how long they have actually lived in Laos, falang have achieved veteran status by being able to refer back to “the time when so-and-so was here”.

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14. Complaining

Photo via: jclao.com

Although falang have multitudes of hobbies, perhaps the one to which they are most devoted is complaining about the place where they live.

The opportunities for complaint are endless, and they common fodder for small talk, much like talking about the weather. In fact, the first one is the weather.

 Falang test: Give yourself one point for each of the following things that you have found yourself bemoaning in the past two weeks. Tally up your complaints to see how you rank.

  • Weather
  • ATMs
  • Neighbors’ music
  • Maebans
  • Having nothing to do
  • Places closing too early
  • Service at restaurants
  • Unreliability of shops being open
  • Coworkers’ annoying habits
  • Loud kids at Joma 2 or Common Grounds
  • Inefficiency
  • Your tailoring taking too long
  • Corruption
  • The price of flights out of Vientiane
  • Being landlocked
  • The ‘wrong kind of falang
  • Traffic
  • China
  • Digestive problems
  • Burning garbage
  • The inconvenience posed by Lao holidays
  • Air Asia (they lie!)
  • Internet speed
  • Falang from _______ (insert nationality of your choice)
  • Construction
  • Ant invasions
  • Power outages
  • Vientiane Times headlines
  • Being charged ‘falang’ prices
  • MSG
  • The disrepair of Sengdara equipment
  • The town being “too small”
  • The dating scene
  • Police
  • Random curfew enforcement
  • Inadequate air conditioners
  • Senglao not having the latest movies (before they come out in theaters)
  • No clothing available in falang sizes
  • Not being able to find a preferred product, brand, or specific food item from home
  • Other

0-9 complaints: You are either an experienced or novice falang. Experienced falang have been there, complained about that. They’re so bor pen yang about life in Lao that they rarely get worked up over Vientiane’s inevitables. They’ll be sure to remind you that  ‘you’ll get used to it soon’.  On the other end of the spectrum, the novice falang also rank low on the complaining scale. They’re so eager to live their adventurous developing world life that they readily embrace every inconvenience they come up against. 41 degree weather? The novice falang relish this opportunity to take a screen shot and marvel at the heat on the Facebook.

10-19 complaints: You are an average falang. The average falang has embraced the fact that complaining is just a integral part of the falang existence.  Their honeymoon period with Laos has worn off and suddenly they no longer find their neighbor’s 5am karaoke sessions endearing, but rather terribly off-key.  This falang will have something to add to most gripe sessions about Vientiane, and will remain respected unless they turn into…

20 complaints and above: …the jaded falang.  No matter how long this falang has been around, they will find something to complain about. After a conversation with this falang you might be convinced that they lead a completely miserable life, or even be tempted to ask “Why are you possibly living here?” Marvel at this falang’s ability to complain about things that have never even crossed your mind.

 What else do you complain about?  Comment on Facebook!

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13. Stickys

sticky's
Perhaps one of the most iconic falang institutions of Vientiane, Sticky Fingers (or more affectionately, Stickys), is the place everyone hates to love.  Stickys represents every cliché that all falang seeking a “cultural experience” desperately try to avoid, yet its gravitational pull still manages to drag them in every Wednesday and Friday.

The siren call of half price cocktails is irresistible to all falang above (or somewhat below) the drinking age, be they WIG members, NGO “volunteers,” or international school students staff.  It’s the place to see and be seen…or see the people you’ve been trying to avoid.  It’s difficult to reconcile a love of Tom Yum Martinis with a desire not to make small talk with every falang you’ve ever been introduced to at an awkward house party.

On Fridays, arrive early or risk being relegated to the second floor, or to a blue plastic chair on the fringes of the patio.  Once your spot is secured, order a round of jugs.  It’s a great opportunity to “practice” Lao ordering skills with forgiving staff who will completely understand your Lao-glish.   Sit back, and enjoy identifying backpackers by their need to look at the menu on the roadside.  Occasionally, the wrong kind of falang will infiltrate Stickys but they are generally (thankfully) kept at bay by the sheer multitudes of cocktail-crazed falang.

Despite the clichés, it’s hard not to love Stickys.  Inevitably in a post-Vientiane life, falang will look back fondly on memories of times spent at this dimly lit, orange-walled hangout with nostalgia.  Or at least what they can still remember of it after three jugs of Passionfruit Margaritas.

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