12. Promising to Learn Lao

photo via: laotravels.com

photo via: laotravels.com

New falang hit the tarmac at Wattay clutching their Lao for Beginners books, chock-full of promises and enthusiasm to learn this exotic new language.  Experienced falang relish the opportunity to share their wisdom and recommendations regarding “Lao tutors” to wide-eyed new arrivals, while carefully omitting the fact that they haven’t actually studied for months.  New falang eagerly attend their first lessons and feel proud of their ability to ask for prices in Lao (despite not always understanding the replies), and looking forward to the day when they will be chatting away with wizened old matrons at baci ceremonies and then blogging about it later.

Lao lessons are an essential ingredient of the falang introduction to life in Laos, serving as the initial attempt to get in tune with local customs.  Inevitably, it’s not long before the enthusiasm wanes, and the falang is musing about “getting back into” studying Lao one day when they are not so ‘busy’.  Given their calendar of hobbies and social events, falang simply  “don’t have enough time” to learn Lao properly.

Paradoxically, although falang never advance very far in Lao, they can often be heard saying that Lao “really isn’t that difficult” compared to English.  Don’t point out the fact that if the grammar is really that easy, they should surely be conversational by now.  Falang will generally get defensive and disgruntled, and mumble something about tones.

Falang speakers of Lao can be generally divided into three levels:

  1.  The Non-Lao Speaker (aka. The “Check Bin” Falang):  This falang makes little to no effort to learn the language and covers up their embarrassment with defiance (“It’s not useful outside this country”).  They generally know a handful of key words such as sabaidee, khop jai, and numbers.
  2. The Average Falang (aka. The “Bor Khao Jai” Falang): Nearly all falang in Laos fall into this category.  Average Falang Lao speakers are limited to “market Lao.”  They can be heard at Talat Sao haltingly saying “thao dai” and “ngarm laiy” and have a limited vocabulary of food and color words that they mispronounce often enough to be understood 50% of the time.
  3. The Conversant Falang (aka. The “Khoi Vao Pasa Lao Dai” Falang): These falang speak well enough to make them a very useful person to have around, if you are a non-Lao speaker.  They generally emanate an air of superiority to other falang.  In rare cases, the conversant falang can also read and write Lao, and this variety are likely insufferable and should be avoided, as they will find as many opportunities as possible to “subtly” brag about their literacy.  When inferior falang use Lao, the Conversant Falang will sometimes pretend not to understand at first, and then “translate” what they are saying into more correct Lao to any Lao people around who are still bothering to listen.

If you are a Lao person trying to speak with falang, carefully gauge their language level to determine just how much Lao you can vao.  All falang live for the day when they hear “vao pasaa lao geng geng” from a street vendor.  They always leave interactions like this basking in the glow of their authentic cultural experience.

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11. Taking Hobbies Seriously

photo via: dentsadventure.com

photo via: dentsadventure.com

Lonely Planet may call Laos home to ‘possibly the most chilled out people on earth,’ but one look at the average expat’s weekly activities schedule would certainly suggest that this statement does not apply to falang. Falang throw themselves into their extracurriculars with unrivaled enthusiasm. Some sort of entry exam gauging a falang’s propensity to engage in communal hobbies surely must exist. How else can you explain the fervor with which people engage in not only relatively common pastimes, such as frisbee, but also, two weeks after arriving, find themselves the proud owner of a ukulele and a newfound love for singing ‘Over the Rainbow’?

A falang’s extracurricular schedule speaks volumes, and as such, must be as carefully cultivated as their Facebook pages. There’s the ‘sporty falang’ who isn’t afraid to risk heat exhaustion to sweat out last night’s Beerlao tower. Then there’s the ‘artistic falang’ who is just as comfortable showing off at the weaving demonstration as they are singing their heart out at Kong Khao’s open mic night. Of course, there’s the ‘culturally aware falang’ whose constant references to boat racing practice-induced sore muscles get old long before the end of Buddhist Lent.

And then, there is the ‘well-rounded falang’, the pinnacle of expat perfection. How can mere mortal falang ever hope to compare? Let’s examine the weekly schedule of one anonymous well-rounded falang for some tips:

Monday: Frisbee practice.The well-rounded falang lives for Monday night disc sessions. Not only is this a great time to socialize with other sporty falang, but it also provides an outlet for releasing some of their ‘saving face’ tensions.

Tuesday: Despite thoroughly enjoying the latest culinary discovery along with their Foodie Group compatriots, the well-rounded falang skips out on dinner early to prepare their Nerd Night presentation on random gene expression in Sri Lankan mermaids.

Wednesday: A grueling evening of boat racing practice. The falang debates merits of a massage at Oasis versus a steam session at Wat Sok Pa Luang but the Fun Group has something up their sleeves.

Thursday: The Nerd Night presentation is well received but the well-rounded falang feels a bit guilty about missing ukulele practice, and is going to have to make someone teach them the chords to ‘I’m Yours’.

Friday: On Fridays they go to Sticky’s. Even the well-rounded falang has to draw the line somewhere. A pre-6pm run along the river is acceptable, however.

Saturday and Sunday: The well-rounded falang takes full advantage of the weekends to engage in as many activities as possible. Weekend pastimes vary. Mix and match from at least 3 of the following: frisbee, open mic night, boat racing practice, trivia night, Hash House Harriers, bowling, netball, Fun Group festivities, casual pickup soccer, Team Dai ride and choir practice.

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10. Lao Food

photo via: slowboat.teamworkz.asia

photo via: slowboat.teamworkz.asia

Falang love Lao food.  That is, as long as it’s on their terms.  If there are any signs of congealed blood, dimpled skin, or body parts, they generally would like nothing to do with it (although unless they are vegetarian they may feel obligated to try chicken feet or duck blood as least once for the bragging rights).

If you hear a falang say “I love laap” don’t actually invite them to eat some homemade laap with minced intestines in your cousin’s village, or they will certainly awkwardly try to avoid tasting it without anyone noticing.  No, what they mean really is “I love laap [from Lao Kitchen].”

That’s right…falang love Lao food, but you probably won’t see too many hanging out at the khao piak shop in Phonpanao village.  They love Lao food from the places where they already feel comfortable, at pre-falang-approved, clean, atmospheric dining locales, rather than places with open containers of pa dek, grizzly-looking stray dogs and menus without English (or any) writing.  Falang prefer to get their Lao food at Pa Kao Lao, Lao Kitchen, or Makphet (which they will often claim is “not that great” but then rush to take their out of town visitors there anyway).  There they can order their food “phet noi neung” still knowing that it will not really be spicy at all, and they can ask how their food is cooked and what the exact ingredients are to fit their dietary specifications.

Sometimes falang even like to get a quick Lao fix at lunchtime—but this does not mean tam mak hung at a roadside stand.  No, they are more likely to be found at 3 Sisters, Kung’s (a required falang Sunday brunch at least once per month), or even eating Khao Pad off the Asian menu at Benoni.

If they venture out to a beer garden, falang are most likely to be found at Moon the Night, Kong View, or Lao Garden.  This is a good place for them to go out with Lao colleagues and friends and feel like they are really out at a local place, where the Beerlao girls will quickly refill their glasses, and they can confidently respond to coworkers’ inquiries of “do you like Lao food?” knowing that nothing too mysterious will be placed in front of them.

Falang who proudly dabble in street food do exist, but its best to ignore them around mealtimes, unless you’re looking to acquire some new tales of intestinal misfortune.

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8. Sinhs

image (1)
At heart, falang men are jealous that they cannot wear sinhs.  They may never actually openly admit this, but as the sinh is one of the pillars of female falang existence, men can only be envious of this cultural status symbol.

When female falang first arrive in Laos, they may express some dismay over the fact that they are expected to wear sinhs to work. (“You mean I have to wear the same piece of circular fabric to work every day?!”) However, inevitably, in the amount of time it takes to say ‘thao dai?’, this annoyance turns into a fervent adoration that even makes falang who are not actually required to wear sinhs to work do so anyway.

One of the primary reasons for the female falang passion for sinhs is that it is a clear indication that one lives in Laos, and is not the “wrong kind of falang”.  Female falang appreciate that Lao people often comment on how nice they look wearing a sinh, which allows them the pleasure of confirming how uniquely well-integrated and culturally sensitive they are. The drastic reduction in offers for tuk tuks is an added bonus for the sinh-adorned female falang and accompanying male counterparts. Once they have Lao friends, female falang can also get special wedding outfits made, which makes them feel extremely culturally immersed and allows them to live out their lingering 12-year old desire to wear five different shades of pink or purple all at once. 

Embracing sinhs is also an opportunity to pursue a favorite female pastime—shopping.  Shopping options for female falang are slim (literally), at least those that don’t involve shopowners looking very nervous about miniscule-sized clothing being stretched out by delusional foreigners requesting to “try, dai bor?”.  No, the sinh is a one-size-fits-all fashion statement, an apparel field-leveler (even if you do have to get that extra panel of fabric added) and cultural collector’s item that comes in every possible color and style.  

Places to buy and tailor sinhs (though nearly countless in abundance) are touted as the subject of common early conversations between advanced falang and new female arrivals. Male falang know to tune out once debates about Talat Sao vs. the night market begin.  Female falang who have acquired their sinhs in other provinces automatically win the contests of one ups-manship (with those purchased in the most distant or rural areas clearly trumping something as obvious and mundane as the Luang Prabang night market).

Before they know it, one sinh turns into twenty, and the maebans of female falang are neatly folding veritable spectrums of falang fashion. 

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7. Beerlao

Ah, Beerlao, the true crown jewel of the Mekong, the second national symbol of Laos.

Upon arrival, novice falang marvel at the size of the bottles and the sheer pervasiveness of this golden liquid. Before long, all falang become Beerlao connoisseurs: they will regale you with stories of the time during Pi Mai when their Lao neighbors poured so much Beerlao down their throats that they didn’t even make it to the river, or launch into a lengthy explanation of why Beerlao is superior to any German beer they sampled during their Eurotrip phase.  (Note: This will not prevent them from spending exorbitant amounts of money on imported beers at Chok Dee.)  They will certainly all claim that it is “the best Asian beer,” and any disagreement will be a welcome opportunity for them to brag about how well traveled they are, by comparing it to Singha, Bia Hà Nội, and Bintang.
Beer of champions
Until you have uttered the sentence “When I first moved here I thought it was weird that people put ice in their beer, but now I won’t drink it any other way” you are not a true falang. Drop this line casually, as you refill the ice in your Lao friend’s cup while sitting at Lao Garden or Moon the Night and you are well on your way to becoming a genuine member of the expat community.

Only the very most advanced falang can get away with not liking Beerlao, and only if they have enough past Pi Mai stories to claim that they “just can’t do it anymore,” which serves as a subtle and jaded way to remind listeners how long they have been in Laos.  These falang can get away with ordering Beerlao Dark or whiskey instead.

Loving Beer Lao (you’re not allowed to just like it) might be the single common denominator between falang, Lao people and the-wrong-kind-of-falang.  Beer Lao muscle tanks, however, are another matter altogether.

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6. Cultivating Facebook

typical falang status

In addition to being a developing country, the fact that Laos is small, landlocked, and Communist, gives it a very high exotic and obscure coolness ranking. Thus, falang believe that basically every aspect of their daily lives is fascinating and unique.  Falang in Laos thrive off of the jealousy of friends from home, which allows them to bravely endure daily trials and tribulations–like when the mani-pedi place downtown is too busy on a Sunday, or the internet goes out at Joma–in hopes of always having a good story.

Luckily, social media makes it easier than ever for them to share their foreign and completely one-of-a-kind escapades.  This allows for posturing with other falang abroad, eliciting shocked and envious comments from falang not adventurous enough to travel, and amassing as many “likes” as possible.

Examination of a typical falang facebook profile reveals numerous tell-tale signs of careful Expat Coolness Cultivation:

  • Profile photos engaging in extreme activities, on mountains, or with locals. (The introduction of the Cover Photo has offered falang the welcome opportunity to showcase their striking foreign panoramas.)
  • Checking themselves and their friends in to exotic locations: “__________ is at Meuang Pakse” or  “____________ is at Inle Lake, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar with 3 others”.
  • Instagram photos of sunsets, lunches, and motorbikes.
  • Complaints about the daily inconveniences of life abroad: “Ugh the internet is hardly a trickle today!” or “So much boat racing traffic I can’t go anywhere!”
  • Overexaggerated excitement about managing to find falang comforts in Laos: “OMG just found Skittles at DMart/Simuang/Phimphone, so excited!” or “The turkey sandwich is back at Joma. Makes me nostalgic for home!”
  • Appreciating the beauty of living such a meaningful and culturally-enlightened life: “The old Lao woman at the end of the street smiles and waves to me each afternoon, which always brightens a stressful day” or “I can hear tuk-tuks, birds, dogs, and a distant temple gong right now, the symphony of the city…”
  • Outright bragging: “Manicure, massage, and happy hour, not a bad life!”

It’s only polite to like your falang friend’s status about her meaningful experience sinh-shopping in the local market, and then she’ll return the favor by liking your next (and 12th) latte pic.

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5. Phimphone and Simuang

Between seeing people you would rather avoid at Joma and crafting your next happy hour tale of cultural misadventure, expat life in Vientiane can be downright demanding. At the end of a long workweek, the last thing falang want to do is navigate the abrasive sights and smells of the local market looking for dinner. Thankfully, a Western culinary oasis exists in the form of Phimphone and Simuang. Looking for fair-trade unbleached hand-milled buckwheat flour for your next dinner party dessert? If it exists in this town, you’re sure to find it at one of these two locations. Be sure to check out the noticeboards on your way in the door to find out the date of the WIG Bazaar or snag that perfect sectional sofa. If you’ve been to the field this week, or had a particularly stressful meeting with the Ministry of Energy and Mines, you should treat yourself to the imported, hermetically-sealed filet mignon. (You totally deserve it!)

Some incredibly advanced falang actually frequent the local markets for produce (but never meat). If you are one of these exemplary people, be sure not to mention it to other falang. It will just make them feel bad. Definitely do not mention the fact that you can buy a kilo of avocadoes in the street for the same price as a single one at Simuang. Some things are better kept to yourself…

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4. Bragging Rights

Life as an expat in Laos is a constant struggle to “out-do” other expats in Laos. Though a few facebook photos in a tuk-tuk may be enough to impress armchair traveling friends at home, they are of no interest to the hordes of other falang in Laos. Anecdotes that illustrate a more adventurous or authentic lifestyle are an important currency in falang conversation.  Well-integrated falang derive their bragging rights through numerous channels: “cultural encounters,” extreme travel, uncomfortable experiences, and length of time living abroad.  Overheard at Sticky’s, 7PM, Friday night:

  • When my Lao friend took me to his village his grandmother gave me this disgusting blood soup.  I didn’t want to offend her so I just had to eat it.
  • Remember when Sunset Bar was still open?
  • The people in Myanmar are just so kind.  You really haven’t been yet?  You have to go before it gets ruined by backpackers.
  • Ugh, I got so sick of the rice porridge at the Udon hospital when I was there for dengue.
photo via: kimchimaiden.wordpress.com

photo via: kimchimaiden.wordpress.com

If a fellow falang is telling you about the time they were bitten by a spider while conducting surveys in Phongsali Province and had to negotiate for local medical care in a combination of Khmu and Lao languages, and end their story with “it was no big deal,” then you are interacting with a truly advanced falang.  Your bragging rights stories will have no effect on this person.  Move on to Bor Pen Nyang Bar for better luck.

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3. Hating Backpackers

The bane of every expat falang’s existence in Laos is their own unfortunate resemblance to the “wrong kind of falang”—the backpacker.  Nothing offends a falang more than being asked “How long are you traveling for?”  Avoid this pitfall by recognizing the common traits of the homo backpackeris:

photo via: travel.cnn.com

photo via: travel.cnn.com

  • Tubing in the Vang Vieng tanktop
  • Dreadlocks
  • Many conspicuous tattoos
  • Unshowered appearance, sometimes accompanied by an unpleasant odour
  • Shirtlessness or general inappropriate show of skin
  • For women, tattered denim cutoffs; for men, “bro-tanks” with massive arm holes
  • Lonely Planet book
  • Beerlao bottle in hand walking down the street
  • And the dead giveaway: a giant backpack

If, despite your best efforts, you fail to distinguish the two, dig yourself out of this hole by complimenting the expat falang on their bravery to live abroad for so long. (Yes, this even applies to those falang who have lived here for three weeks.)

Falang will go to extreme measures to differentiate themselves from the “wrong kind of falang.”  These efforts include wearing sinhs, greeting restaurant staff in Lao, carrying a motorbike helmet as if it’s an additional appendage, and denouncing traditional backpacker activities and “lack of cultural awareness.”

If you’re hanging out with your falang friend and conversation stalls, ask their opinion on shirtless backpackers.  Expect them to give you an earful as they posture to distinguish themselves from their maligned alter-egos.

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