To Pay or Not to Pay: The Ethics of Sightseeing

If there’s one thing that drives us up the wall, it’s entrance fees. In China, the fees were massive, often for sites that aren’t worth the price. The Terracotta Warriors exhibit, for example, was a huge waste of money. We paid 150 rmb each (about $22) just to see the same stuff we saw on the internet. As an added bonus, we got to be pushed around by hordes of Chinese tourists with giant cameras  and body odor.

So you see, after a time, we became weary of paying these fees. By the time we reached Guilin, we started refusing to pay entrance fees, no matter how small. What’s that? You want 30 cents so I can look at that elephant-shaped stone formation over there, because you have planted bamboo so passersby can’t see it for free? No thanks.  A few bucks to see one of the “must-see” sights of the city? We’ll pass. And parking? Well, everywhere requires a parking fee, even if you only want to stop the bike for a minute to run into a shop. Too many times we’ve had to pay for parking, only to find that the shop or market didn’t have what we were looking for, so 25 cents is still too much.

But, as you can imagine, there are still things we want to see, that have be paid for. We don’t want to fork over our hard-earned cash just so some guy in a hammock can pretend to safeguard our bikes while we go into a market for an hour. We don’t want to pay outrageously to see a natural waterfall or mountain just because someone decided to put up a fence around it.

So how do we get around it?

Well, quite honestly, we sometimes just simply, get around it. We walk around the fence or enclosure or whatever until we can find a way in.  We go in the exit, we play dumb, we pull the “I don’t understand” card and keep walking. Sometimes it works, but most often it doesn’t. More often than not we are told by a gruff old lady “no no no!” and we turn around. We’d often rather pay the fee than get into trouble.

Just the other day, in Pakse, we visited the ruins of Wat Phu, an old temple of the Angkor era. We drove our bike into the parking area, and as soon as an attendant walked over, Ricky took off and parked just outside the fence, outside of the parking area. Bam. Free parking. Then, we ignored the signs that pointed to the ticket area and walked straight ahead. Apparently, it was the exit, so no one was there collecting tickets. We saw the whole beautiful sight for free. (more on that in a future post)

But that brings me to a question. Is it ethical to do this? Should we pay every man whose only self-given job is to take money to keep an eye on our bikes?  Should we pay exorbitant fees to enter a non-man-made sight, like a waterfall? Does one of the biggest tourist attractions in China need to charge so much, just because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?  Do we have the right to refuse to pay to see these sights?

Now, there are a few sights that we have seen and were happy to pay for. Our visit to the Kong Lor Cave was pricey, but justified. Outside of the ticket window there was a paper explaining, by pie-chart, where the money went. 60% to the two guides, a few percent to the villages involved, and some to tourist centers in the villages. We were happy to pay for our guides, and glad to see that some of the money went to the village we visited and were welcomed to so kindly.

It is true that most entrance fees, especially in Laos, mean much more to the locals than to us. What’s $5 to us, when we have so much compared to most locals?  I’m sure that’s what they think as well, which contributes to the exasperating idea that foreigners are rich and willing to spend all their cash to see what the third-world countries have to offer, in all their rustic beauty. Despite our comparative wealth, we travelers are so often taken advantage of that it becomes nigh to unbearable to hand over the cash so earnestly sought after by gate-keepers of temples and caves.  All of those small fees add up, not only monetarily, but they also add up to an exasperating game we have to keep playing—haggling, bartering, giving in, giving up.

I understand that some of these entrance fees, like the one for Kong Lor Cave, go to good causes. They are for the maintenance of the site, or the small salaries of the locals who work there. This causes me to lament the increase in tourism in places like these. When towns like Vang Vieng, well known for its tubing activities down the river, accompanied by riverside bars, become solely tourist towns, the locals are caught in the middle. They have to satisfy the tourists and make money and the only way to do so is to claim they have something worth seeing for a small price.

But the question remains. Do we have the right to refuse to pay an entrance fee that we deem too expensive, or the sight not worthy enough? Not every ticket office has a pie-chart explaining where the money goes. Is it unjust to assume it goes straight to the pockets of higher-ups or those running the mock parking lot? Where do we draw the line between taking advantage and being taken advantage of?

Waterfalls and Villages: Unexpected Beauty

If you recall from this post, my bike had a bit of unexpected trouble on our way to Pakse. Well, the bike was fixed by the time we got there to pick it up the next day, and everything went swimmingly until a couple hours later when I got a flat tire from driving over a nail. But other than that, things went great.

Today was also a most unexpected day, in a good way. We thought we’d go to a waterfall, because there’s nothing better than swimming in delightfully chilly water on a hot day in Southeast Asia.  We didn’t end up swimming, but what we did get was so much better.

We hopped onto Lady Stark (who, if you didn’t know, is my lovely green motorbike. She’s feisty and quick.) and headed out, semi-blind. There were no road signs to point our way, and we weren’t sure what road we were on, or if it would lead us anywhere. We stopped and asked for directions a couple of times, using our limited Lao, and the miming techniques we have all but perfected.

We arrived, much to our surprise, and as we entered I read the sign and realized that this wasn’t the waterfall we had planned on going to. Well, at least we got somewhere.

The entrance fee was surprisingly cheap, and the place had a nice atmosphere about it.  There were signs pointing the way to ethnic villages and caves, but we headed straight to the falls, ready to jump into some cold water. We were a tad disappointed when we saw that the path led to the top of the falls with no way to get to the pool below, so swimming wasn’t really an option.

We doubled back found a group tourists wandering aimlessly, trying to make sense of the many signs and arrows and paths.  We followed them down a path paved in tree stumps, and found ourselves in the middle of a village of wooden huts with thatched roofs. In the center of everything was a blue tarp covered in drying coffee cherries.  Take a look here for a 360 degree photo of the village.

We walked past a small hut with a local family sitting on the porch taking pictures with a couple of the tourists. I think they thought it would be a great idea to get a picture with natives AND white people, so they beckoned us in, and I sat with them as Ricky took some pictures. I was a little hesitant to join because I prepared for the day thinking we would go swimming, so I was wearing short swim shorts and a tank over my swimsuit. I was afraid I would offend them being so scantily clad, but they were friendly and didn’t kick me out of the village.

We soon found ourselves at a tree-top “bachelor cabin” and then under a small hut with a tiny old man who was definitely the highlight of our visit.

 He was standing at a sort of woven bamboo table covered in various musical instruments. Ricky asked if he could pick up the boxy guitar-shaped one, and he and the small old man jammed for a while, and I had a go at some pipes and an oboe sounding instrument made from a single bit of bamboo.

We were in no rush to leave the man or his instruments, because he was such a jolly fella, and I think he saw that clearly enough. He brought out a few toys for us to play with. They were more like puzzles, made of bits of bamboo and string. We sat for AGES trying to figure them out. He showed us multiple times how to do them, but we just didn’t get it for a while. When he showed us how to do it, he would tap a finger to his temple and give us a little grin, meaning that he knew the trick, the clever old man. Eventually, though, we figured them out. And of course we bought them, because we like toys.

We finally left the man and found ourselves at the place where we came in. Beyond some trees was another waterfall, which confused us a little, because the water was flowing the opposite way of the other waterfall. We made our way along some rocks in the stream right to where the fall was, only 
slipping a few times and enjoying the cool water on our feet. Here is the 360 picture.

The waterfall we found.

Woven bamboo bridge is probably the safest way to go across a raging river.

The view from the waterfall after crossing the river.

We couldn't believe that we had found this place, and it was so inexpensive and so beautiful and authentic. It was definitely one of our favorite attractions so far, and made for a beautiful day. 

Arachnophobe vs. Huntsman: The Showdown

So one of our readers asked us recently about the spiders here in Laos, and I figured today would be the perfect day to tell all about it. Let me explain why.

Just over a week ago we were in the Kong Lor caves in central Laos and if you guys would like to click the link…

…you’ll see that’s where the world’s biggest spider is from that cave.

Now, let me say, that we didn’t SEE that spider, nor come into contact with it while we were there. Also,  I am a serious arachnophobe and run for the hills when any spider bigger than an ant is nearby or in the room, and I’m sure many people could corroborate my story! So it’s a good thing we didn’t actually see that spider.

What DID we come in contact with? Well, I try my best to avoid looking for them or even seeing them by accident, but today (the same day Talia almost crashed the motorbike, making this even more of a rather shitty day) I saw one.

A big one.

One of the biggest ones in fact, a huntsman, the little brother of the biggest spider in the world. I walked into our guesthouse room earlier, turned on the light, turned back around and there was a huntsman spider sitting on the bed looking at me, waiting for me to make my move.

Well…… I made my move. I ran leaving the door open and screamed at the top of my voice “TALIA! THERE’S GI-F*CKING-GANTIC SPIDER IN THE F*CK*NG ROOM, PLEASE DO SOMETHING, PLEASE!!!”
Talia here. When I went into the room, the spider wasn’t there, so I entered cautiously. All of a sudden a blur ran across the floor and up the wall. The next second the blur was on the floor again, running to Ricky’s shoes. The thing moved so fast that I thought there were two of them.  Instead of attempting to get at it myself, I opted for getting help from the guesthouse owner, who promptly smashed the spider with his shoe and flicked it outside. He checked the room and bathroom for more spiders. The room was empty and the man left without a word.

The spider pictured is from the internet and is not ours. The spider I saw was slightly bigger than this one.

Now I have to go and never sleep ever again. 

Near Death on Route 13

Having done all of what Savannakhet had to offer (a scantily filled dinosaur museum and the monkey forest) Ricky and I decided that we would leave today.  We filled up the bikes and the spare gas can (which took nearly all the money in my wallet, which wasn’t much) and paid our bill for the room (which took nearly all the money in Ricky’s wallet, which was quite a bit more). We still had money, because we never leave a town empty-handed. We had enough for a couple of food stops and more gas should we need it.  This was to be a long ride, and we thought we were pretty prepared for it. We had water, money, toilet paper, all the essentials.

Well, we weren’t really prepared.

See, since our trip to Monkey Forest, my bike had been feeling a bit wobbly, like the steering was a bit loose or something.  We got out onto the road and things were fine. After about an hour or so, my bike started feeling a bit looser still, so I slowed down from 80 km per hour to about 70, thinking I was just going a little too fast. Ricky was still going fast, so distance grew between our bikes.

I had just crested a hill when disaster struck. All of a sudden I lost absolute control of the bike. The front and back wheels seemed to be fighting for control and I swerved out into the middle of the road. It felt as if some unseen hands were pulling the handlebars back and forth while someone else pulled the back tire in the opposite direction.

I was going about 70 km per hour still and didn’t know what to do. If you recall, I’m fairly new to the motorbike scene, having learned to ride them just over a month ago. I didn’t really know how to handle this. My hand was off the accelerator, but I didn’t know if I should brake, and if I should use the front or back brake, so I think I may have eased both of them on. To be honest I don’t really remember. I remember saying “oh no oh no oh no oh no” over and over as I swerved out of control. All of a sudden I was at the side of the road, unharmed but in shock. I pushed myself off the bike and immediately burst into sobs.

I turned to face the road as I saw Ricky’s bike climb a hill and disappear over the top. I knew he would turn around as soon as he saw I wasn’t behind him, but all I could do was shake and cry as I waited.  Eventually I saw the glint of the silver front of Betsy Black, and then Ricky was parked behind me.

Before he had properly dismounted the bike I was on him, still shaking, holding onto his neck while he attempted to disentangle himself from his headphones. He looked over me for scratches and asked if I had fallen. All I could say was a simple no, and keep holding on.

When I had composed myself a bit, I told him what had happened, and that my steering might be loose. After a short inspection, however, the truth became clear. About 6 or 7 spokes on my back wheel had snapped off, which had caused all the wobbling. The wheel was frighteningly loose when we tested it; it was amazing that I hadn’t gone careening off the road and fallen off.

We tried to figure out what to do. The bike was all but undrive-able, and we didn’t know where we could go to fix it.  We also don’t speak Lao, so we also had that against us.

Ricky flagged down a man on a bike and mimed that we had a problem. The man pointed the way we had come, so Ricky hopped on the bike and was led to a repair shop. Or repair shack.  He came back and I took his bike to the shack while he drove mine. He ended up having to push it (uphill) because the back tire soon got flat with all the wobbling. He arrived drenched in sweat, panting from the exertion and the heat, ever my hero.

The repair shack that luckily wasn't too far away.

After some work and a little more miming, I ended up with a new wheel and tube. The price came to 175,000 kip, about double what we actually had with us.  I was cursing myself that I didn’t go to an ATM before we left. The nearest ATM was in Savannakhet, the town we had just left. We had already had a late start on the long drive, and adding a couple extra hours would leave us arriving well after dark in Paxse. And after the fright and the trouble, neither of us wanted to do much more driving. Instead, we told the repairman, and half the village that had come to gawk, that we would go to Savannakhet, sleep there, and return in the morning with the money.

My old wheel with the broken spokes, next to the tire.

Pictured: Instant Death

They agreed, and we left them working on the bike and put our huge backpacks in another building as collateral, and also because we couldn’t take them with us back to town with only one bike.

My new wheel leaning against the bike.

So here we are, back in Savannakhet. The lady at the guesthouse was surprised to see us, but gave us our old room, without even making us re-check in and told us to relax.

We took her advice and will depart for take two of the drive to Paxse in the morning. Wish us luck!

Attacks for Apples: The Great Monkey Adventure

So when we travel we don’t necessarily travel with a destination in mind. We have a rough idea of a route, but not a destination. By which I mean, we leave on city with the intention of going to the next largest city along the route, not knowing what or if there is anything to see or do there.

When we arrived in our current city, Savannakhet, two days ago we knew a little bit about it. There is a dinosaur museum and a national museum. While we were taking our stroll through the town later that day however we found out there is a lot more to offer. We found the tourist information office (Which in Laos is simply a rip-off tour operator who may or may not give out information for free) and outside we saw a map with some places of interest.

One of these places of interest was “monkey forest”.

So, us being us, we got on the bikes and went straight there the following day. The ride was long and arduous, with potholes big enough to hide medium sized farm animals and deep enough to snap the front suspension on the bikes, making the ride a little unpleasant,  apart from some off-road sections we found, like when we rode through a pool of water next to a dam with a lake behind it.

After an hour and a half of trying to find it we finally got there. At first we spotted just a couple of little monkeys up in the trees hiding, making me think that this place was going to feel more like a zoo than a true “monkey forest.” Talia took some of our packed lunch apples out of our day pack and gave small chunks to the nearest monkey, but within a couple of minutes, or maybe it was seconds (it all happened so fast!) we were almost overrun. Monkeys came from EVERYWHERE and gathered all around us.

When a monkey was displeased with us, it bared it’s teeth in a sort of menacing smile, and then I remembered that I had heard somewhere before that bearing your teeth is a sign of aggression to most primates. Not smiling is difficult when you’re surrounded by such amusing creatures but we did our best so as not to freak them out.

"Give me the!"

Instead, they freaked us out. There were points of our walk through the forest when we were genuinely frightened. Check out this video of tons of monkey running out of the forest at us.

After that, big papa came over and scared off all the other monkeys and continued to hassle Talia for apples. At one point, she was pretty scared and I had to talk her through getting out of the situation.

We walked along the path and ran into this. 

Because, you know, why not?

A bit later we decided to eat our packed lunch sandwiches at a table outside a Buddhist temple. Of course, the monkeys wanted in.

When we had finished lunch near the Buddhist temple, Ricky was feeding a piece of apple to a large female, but she apparently wasn’t very impressed, because she grabbed his arm, scratching him and drawing blood.

Before "the incident."

 Then, we noticed a baby monkey had picked up a plastic bag that had fallen off the table. I took it away so it wouldn’t get hurt and because I didn’t want to leave trash there, and the baby’s mother freaked out and jumped at me, baring her teeth. We decided it was time to go.  

We left the temple and headed back down the road to the start of the forest, and the monkeys from the temple followed us out and down the road.

It was odd, and we soon discovered that monkeys and buffalo are BFFs.


We fed the monkeys a bit more at the clearing where we entered the forest. One of the monkeys was brave enough to touch a human. Talia called him Mr. Softy-hands.  He was so sweet looking up at her for an apple.

The sweetest little beggar.

But as soon as her back was turned, he jumped up and grabbed the apple core out of her hand! To add to the insult of being robbed, two monkeys decided to make sweet love on Talia’s motorbike, while another tried to get into my water bottle and my backpack.

And then goats wanted in on the action.

All in all the day was exciting and terrifying. And just to clarify, these were indeed wild animals. They were in no way tame. They were sort of like pigeons. They’ll take what humans give them, but they’re not going to hang around to be picked up or played with. Unlike pigeons, however, they have teeth and fingernails.

But aren’t they adorable?

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