Risk in Laos and Cambodia

By Doyice Cotten

Things are different in third world countries. Whether one is a tourist or a resident, one encounters risks every day that are not faced in the United States.

First, we will look at a few risks that we as tourists encountered on a recent visit.  Ancient temples abound in both countries. Many of these temples and tourist sites involve climbing steps; often steep steps and usually with no handrails. See Photo 1 for an example. In Southern Laos, after a boat ride to an island, the three of us were transported on a motorcycle with a sidecar attached. It looked to be home-made. Note in Photo 2, there are no seatbelts. But, danger or not, the ride was fun. In addition, very few of the vehicles we rode in had working seatbelts. And finally, the elephant ride – we had ridden elephants previously in Nepal, India, and Thailand, but the ride in Laos was a new experience. For the first time I was able to ride on the elephant’s neck while the young man in charge (a teenager) rode in the passenger seat. In Photo 3, we are emerging from a river. Even more surprising than riding “up front,” at one point the driver got down and took a break to smoke while my wife and I continued to ride the elephant.

QUESTION: Can you imagine a tourist attraction or tour company in the United States allowing a tourist to “drive” the elephant or to be alone on the elephant? Are you wondering what the WAIVER said? Don’t bother. There was no waiver to sign and no warning of risk signs. What about being transported on sidecar like the one in Photo 2? Once again, no waiver.

But locals accept as normal everyday risks that would astound us in America. We are “protected” against such risks as the following:

Photo 4 and Photo 5: These show heavily loaded vehicles that would surely be ticketed here.

Photo 6, Photo 7, Photo 8, and Photo 9: The motorbike is a way of life in much of Southeast Asia. Photo 6 shows a mother and son on a motorcycle. Note, no helmets and we must hope the umbrella doesn’t block the view of the driver. Photo 7 shows a mother and daughter going down the street. Note how young the child is and, once again, no helmet for the passenger. Photo 8 is my favorite. This is a mother returning from picking her children up at school (see the school uniforms). Interestingly, all four have helmets – highly unusual. We were told that the driver must have a helmet and only a driver and one passenger is legal. Neither law is strictly enforced. Our guide told us he has 3 children and that he takes the whole family on his motorbike. Photo 9 shows that motorbikes are used to transport just about anything, ranging from tables in the photo to live pigs.

At one waterfall we visited, the tourist area was carefully fenced for the safety of tourists. However, on the other side of the river, several local men were fishing near the roaring, rocky stream. They seemed sure-footed, a necessity considering the danger presented by the river (see Photo 10).  In both countries, Buddhist monks abound. We spotted several working high on the roof of a temple. There was scaffolding, but no safety belts to be seen (see Photo 11).

Many Asians are concerned about their fitness and exercise regularly. Soccer fields can be found in almost every community and neighborhood. The fields are seldom in good repair. However many people go to parks and recreation areas in the early morning or in the late afternoon to exercise or do aerobics. The sessions are well attended and are generally offered in a hazard-free area (see Photo 12).

Click on a photo to enlarge.

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