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CORRUPTION IN LAOS | How to Have a Nasty Encounter with Policemen in Laos

DISCLAIMER: This first appeared on my column Down South on TV5’s Included a lot of photos here! This is a personal experience. Corruption in Laos is real. Corruption in my own county is effing real. 

A glass wall divided us. That must be sufficient as a border for the immigration officer to pocket the 5000 kip in plain sight. He asked for it without any explanation or receipt in return. On the other window, Tobias had to negotiate with another IO on the conversion of $25. 450 000 Kip was too much payment for his visa on arrival.

We were crossing the Savannakhet-Mukdahan border to BangkokT’s point of departure back to Europe and my point of departure to Yangon, Myanmar. It was the eve of our last day together, and we spent it crossing borders.

Borders remained an idea while navigating through the archipelagic Philippines for years, which needs more sea-crossing than most countries in Southeast Asia. Borders became tangible—in stamps and paperwork—when I started traveling around the neighboring countries.

From our nine-day trip to Thailand, we crossed the Chiang Khong/Huay Xai border and stayed in Laos before heading to Hoi An in central Vietnam.

Inside our Luang Prabang room—which faced the Mekong River—pieces of paper containing regulations and ordinances from the police office were posted on the wall, like public bidding announcements plastered on a board. Their presence was an odd sight in the serene woodenness of our room. “Woman not wife like prostitute not allowed in the room” caught my attention. From the inside of the room, I could hear the male receptionist asking Tobias if what I was to him. Wife? Girlfriend? Friend?

Tobi is very tall and white. I am a dark-skinned Filipina who can be mistaken as Laotian with my mouth shut. But I have tattoos and wear thigh-length shorts, enough stereotypical cues in this part of Asia that I can be a prostitute paid to keep him company.

Looking back, the whole scenario must be a terrible case of language gap—a border that takes longer to process the necessary paperwork, a border that takes longer to cross. We could not understand them as much as they could not understand us.

Being a Southeast Asian traveling around Southeast Asia with a farang or bule (Indonesia) can raise eyebrows. And I am no foreigner at that. I am from the Philippines after all.

How can she be a teacher? She has tattoos? How can she be a decent woman? She travels around with a man not her husband. A different race at that.

A baby elephant seen on our way to Kuang Xi Waterfall, Laos

A baby elephant seen on our way to Kuang Xi Waterfall, Laos

More than once, it is Tobias who gets angry and disgusted.

“Did you see how he stared at you? T asked.

As couples traveling around, we learned some techniques handling prejudiced locals. Anything that involves money, Tobi has learned to say, “Talk to her. She is the boss.” And the sudden change in the locals’ face is too obvious to ignore.

When I think of Laos, I think of my own country, the Philippines, only that it has a terrible language gap, and it is granted with an equally terrible history and equally macho society

On our way to Kuang Xi waterfalls—the very reason I included Laos in our haphazard route—some policemen pulled us over. Tobi hanged his helmet on the scooter’s handle. I held mine. We thought the law was relaxed; the locals, 98% of them did not wear theirs. We imitated the ways of the people around us, and in this particular case, we were in the wrong side of the law.

A young policeman confiscated Tobi’s driving license first. He wanted him to sign a piece of paper written in Laotian. A custom officer himself, Tobi wanted an explanation of what was written in the piece of paper he had to sign. We knew we broke the law. What we wanted was an explanation of the piece of paper we had to sign, what was it for, and why the locals did not have to sign anything; they were allowed to go on without signing anything or without their license being confiscated. We after all made the same offense.

Then, the same policeman got our rented scooter’s key. I wonder if law mandates that as well. He only gave it back when we pretended to call the tourism office on what we should do.

We have met a lot of elephants in our three-week trip across three ASEAN countries, but we never rode one. We touch their leathery skin and whispered some hopes. Here, Tobi touches the intimate space between the elephant’s soulful eyes.

Looking back, the whole scenario must be a terrible case of language gap—a border that takes longer to process the necessary paperwork, a border that takes longer to cross. We could not understand them as much as they could not understand us.

Or as a citizen of and from a poor country traveling to another poor country, I think what he wanted was some bribery, some kips for a few bottles of beer perhaps.

This valid sadness the citizens from developing countries know too well.


LUANG PRABANG, LAOS. The umbrellas sold in the biggest night market we have been to!

“I love corruption. It makes things easy and fast,” a hostel owner in Agra (India) told us over beer. He had a point. But only the privileged few can take advantage of that.

Tobi and I drove back and visited the police office to ask on how could we get his driving license back. Three policemen were in the middle of a morning siesta, lying on a mat flattened on an unsweeped floor.

One got up, went out the office, and entertained us. While he was texting somebody, perhaps his fellow policemen stationed at the checkpoint, I enjoyed watching his iPhone’s case: a topless model facing sideward while covering her boobs, her butt cheeks facing the camera. He is a representative of the institution that prohibits “a woman not wife” to share a room with a man.

He tried his best to express himself, but I sensed that our conversation—or our futile attempts of having one—would lead nowhere: a Filipina, a Laotian, and an Austrian struggling to meet in an intersection named English.

Tobias never got his license back.

I once told a friend Laos reminds me of the Philippines a lot. Its broken roads, for one, remind me of the ones we have in the countryside.

“They’re worse than us,” he said.

“I love corruption. It makes things easy and fast.”

A quick Google search on Laos would lead to titles like “Laos, the land of the million bombs,” derived from Laos’ historical name: Lan Xang—the land of the elephants.

Countries laden by corruption such as the Philippines, India, and Laos live in a wounded past guised, gauzed in the ever developing present.

I do not feel any disappointment towards Laos or to any poor countries that I have been to. Rather, what I feel towards them is deep sympathy and empathy—the kind that only those who have been through a similar past would understand.

I am coming back, Laos.


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Jona | Backpacking with a Book

Hi, I'm Jona! I write stories and poetry and take a lot of photos, which I'm too lazy to upload. If you want to receive some photos that I don't share here on the blog, please leave your email here. I'm crazy about cats too. Feel free to browse through BWAB, and I would love it if you say hi! For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at For more stories about BWAB, check here. Connect with us through

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