Arrested in Laos
Well, there I was visiting George in Vang Viene, Laos. I was traveling with Daochai (star in Lao), my girlfriend for the past 2 months.
There is a real problem here with this relationship. In Laos, foreign men are not allowed to “cohabit” with Lao ladies. There have been many instances where foreign men have been forced to pay between $500 to $5000 as a fine for running afoul of this law. The US State Department’s web site warns us to be careful in Laos. They suggest that once one begins the marriage papers in Laos, sometimes the police look upon this as an opportunity to extort money. They assume that the relationship has begun physically and they will come and demand their fine.
Now, to explain more fully, I refer to Laos as a police state. It is a different way of doing business then we are used to in the US. For example, when a couple wants to marry they go to the police station for permission. Similarly, the couple must go to the police station to get divorced and present their case. If both parties agree, a divorce is granted. If I want to stay in the home of a local citizen, sometimes I must either get the village chief’s OK or apply at the local police station. I know this sound somewhat strange, but consider the government here is just different.
The way this is carried out can lead to exorbitant fines being levied by the police. I have been told by foreigners here that they have had to pay as much as $5,000 to marry a Lao woman, mostly due to the excessive amounts of money the police charge for all their signatures and paperwork. Recently, Dao has made application for a Lao passport. She had to go to the police station to do so. I did not go with her because we were afraid the price would go up substantially were I to show my face.
When I met Dao, she and her 2 sons were living at a small restaurant that Dao owned. She was holding her own there with a profit of perhaps $1 – $2 each day. The restaurant is typical for the area. It contains 5 small tables where people can drink beer and soda and eat the specialty of the house, raw duck’s blood over vegetables and peanuts. There is no bathroom at the house so customers must pee outside and when in need go across the street to use the toilet. Bathing is done across the street at the gas station or sometimes from a barrel outside the restaurant. There is one enclosed room at the restaurant where Dao and I and the 2 boys keep our clothes and sleep.
One night we noticed a number of police across the street at another restaurant. That night Dao insisted that I go to town and stay in a hotel. The next day we talked to the local police. One policeman is Dao’s cousin. We got permission for me to stay at her house.
So I decided to take Dao on a trip throughout Laos. From north to south as the crow flies, it takes about 24 hours to cross the country. My purpose in doing this was to get to know Dao better (there is nothing like traveling to amplify issues between people) and to see where is the best place to live and have a business. We visited a number of places and a few nights ago we ended up back at George’s place in Vang Viene.
The first night there, Dao and I helped care for my ailing friend. The next day his Lao wife returned. She started in George, saying how the relationship was no good any more and that he was in love with someone else’s wife. She kept on and on until ny friend started to get angry. I should have said nothing, but I chimed in that I could understand both sides and that the wife’s baiting was not doing any good; that they should both just get on with their lives. George has a monthly income here. He pretty much spends all of it each month on his neighbors, either buying food and alcohol or presents or paying for people to help him.
When I was in another city with Dao, I asked at the hotels if the rumors were true that foreigners are fined for being with Lao ladies. I was told at each hotel that there is no problem unless someone complains. I believe that George’s wife complained and called the police. She did not sleep at the house that night.
At 2 a.m. I was sound asleep. Dao later told me that 5 police had entered the house and witnessed that we were in the same bed. I am not sure what happened after that, but it was some time before Dao came to me and woke me saying that the police were there. I thought she was kidding, but she did not return to bed so I got up and went to the front of the house. There were 9 policemen there. They asked me for my passport. I refused to hand it over and instead gave them a copy I had made just for such and incident. Once the police have one’s passport they can hold one hostage. One man told me how the police took his passport the night before he was to return to America. He was forced to pay $500 to get it back.
Most of the conversation was in Lao, but the sum total of the issue was that I was staying at George’s house without proper authorization and that I was staying with a Lao woman. I refused to discuss my situation regarding Dao with the police and I refused to sign their report. I told them that my passport was with the American consulate in Vientiene, the capital. They insisted that Dao and I come with them to the police station until this matter could be sorted out the next day. After much conversation, I told them that I would consent to go with them, but Dao would stay there. When they insisted on her going I got up and started to make a scene and finally they relented. So there I was on the back of a police motorcycle at 3 a.m. We arrived at the police station, not much more then a bamboo house, with perhaps 6 officers sleeping there.
I had taken a blanket with me from George’s house and jumped in bed and slept fitfully trying to figure out how to best handle this situation. The next morning I was up at 6 a.m. At 7 a.m. I was upset because no one got me coffee and I decided to leave. I took my blanket and headed for the gate. It was then that I noticed the jail; a corrugated tin building off to one side. The prisoners hailed me and I realized that I really was getting special treatment in not having to be housed in that building. Later I saw various people bringing bags of food for the prisoners; I am still not sure how the feeding of the prisoners works.
When I started to leave I got into a pushing war with 2 young officers, one of whom got very agitated and started to yell at me that he was a Lao policeman. I wanted to laugh and say that I was an American, but I held my tongue. Keep in mind that these policemen were all in their early 20’s. Almost boys. I finally relented figuring that if I got into a fistfight with one of these guys there was no way to get away.
I was told that at 8 a.m. George and party would arrive to discuss the situation. At 9:30 a.m. I was taken to the town hall with my blanket. There the official proceeding happened in front of the police again. The sum total of the issue was that they were fining me $270. I refused to sign their papers and I refused to pay the fine without talking to my “lawyer”, my friend. Dao and George’s wife were there. So we were at a standstill. I was told that it would be bad for me to refuse as we would end up in Vientiene and the costs would be much greater. Finally the police allowed us to return to George’s house with 2 policemen. There I discussed the issue with George. I did not fully understand the issue. It was not until later that I found out that the police had seen Dao and I in bed. The last time I stayed at George’s house I had gotten permission from the mayor to stay there. George told me that it was really nothing but an issue of money. I really wanted to push the matter and see what would happen, but George suggested I pay and indeed he came up with $50 so the fine resulted in a total loss to me of $220 plus one night in jail. Imagine having to come to Laos to be arrested for the first time in my life.