The Power of Transactions, by Sophie Griffin

The first transaction I made in Laos was exchanging money. I turned in one crisp hundred-dollar bill and received a stack of cash so thick that I had trouble closing my wallet. I saw this as a moment of inequity that has been furthered every time I buy something. Everything here is so incredibly cheap and I’m entering the country with the (mostly undisputed) heavyweight of currency. This skewed power dynamic makes it great to travel in Laos; it’s super inexpensive. But for the locals it’s different. I’m entering into an economic system and throwing it out of whack with my presence. Additionally, because everything is so cheap it somehow transfers a feeling of worthlessness to the products here. For example, the one item I’ve seen almost everywhere here is the Beerlao shirt. Beerlao is a deep part of Laotian national identity, yet these shirts immediately mark a tourist. These shirts are sold for cents on the dollar, in every color and at every market, to people who have no idea what the brand means. However, the people here seem so grateful for those three dollars they make on each shirt. This small exchange of money for product demonstrates Laos’ position in the world. It is a poor country that needs outside tourism to sustain itself. Today, no country is truly self-sufficient in the global economy, but Laos is especially reliant on others to make money and survive. As a result of this drastic inequity the people here have had to drastically alter much of their culture, including the ways their cities are set up, their occupations, their sensibilities, and their everyday way of life.