Fifteen Dollars of Regret

February 8th, 2011 – Don Khong, Laos.

Toilet, bed, shower, hot water, fan, towels – the bare essentials at 120,000 Kip/ night (roughly $15 USD). This is what we agreed on two nights ago.

Today is sticky and warm; it feels too early to be getting up now, but it always feels like that whenever an alarm wakes you up. We’re leaving Laos today. Destination: Siem Reap, Cambodia. After forcing myself to get up, I shower, put on clean clothes and put all of my belongings into my backpack. My friend is busy finishing up her packing. I tell her, “I’m going to check-out.”

The front desk of the “hotel” is actually a run-down convenient store. The man is sitting behind the cash register surrounded by an assortment of stale lollipops and other useless knick-knacks that will most likely never be sold. He writes up the bill and hands it to me. I look at the receipt – it’s a third more than our original arrangement. “You used the A/C last night so it’s 360,000 kip,” he explains.

I refuse to pay and I’m not giving in. “You told us that we had a room without A/C. You never said that it was built in the room.”

He doesn’t listen to me; his accusation is unwavering.

“You turned it on last night, I saw it on. I walked by the room and it was on – you turned the A/C on.”

I think about my actions of the previous night: walked into the room, dying of heat, turned on all the switches, assuming they only belonged to the lights and the fan. “You made it seem like there was no air conditioning in the room – how were we supposed to know?” My voice is getting angry and I start accusing him right back. “You should’ve told us not to turn it on if you knew it was there.”

10 minutes pass and allegations are flying from both ends. Neither one of us wants to lose this $15 war.

My friend comes out to meet me with her stuff. It’s getting close to departure time – our boat will be here in 20 minutes. Finally, I just say: “We’re leaving now. We’ll pay you what you told us we’d have to pay and half of the amount for the air conditioning. No more.” I hand him the money.

The man is indignant. “No, you pay me the full amount.”

“No, this is fair. We’re leaving now.” I’m not changing my mind – settled. We turn towards the direction of the dock. I can hear what I imagine as curse words in his mother tongue as we walk away.

I feel regret now. Laos is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia and in the world. That morning, I refused to give a man an extra $15 USD for accidentally using the A/C in his cheaply operated hotel on a remote island in Southern Laos.

At the time, I felt completely justified not giving in – why did I need to give him money when he didn’t explicitly tell me the whole truth? I was keeping my guard up, defending and standing up for myself. After all, no one likes being taken advantage of, right?

If I had given him the money, I felt like I was submitting to his trick. Regardless of whether or not he was intentionally trying to cheat my friend and I, he could have pulled the same ploy on future customers. This would have, in turn, given him the idea that it was acceptable for him to continue doing this in the future. I thought of it as a kind lesson; he was learning that it was not permissible to conceal part of the truth when dealing with foreign customers, nor was it appropriate to put them at fault for misunderstanding his inadequate explanations. Not even the compromise was satisfying for him, but in my mind, it was fair to the both of us. Unfortunately, he still felt swindled.

Today, I would have been $15 USD poorer. But does it really make a difference to me in the long run? Probably not. Does it make a difference to that man on a remote island in Southern Laos? Probably so. To him, $15 USD seemed like everything – he was so desperate for the full amount of money, but I was apparently just as desperate to stand my ground. Considering his living circumstances and the scarce amount of business that he receives in a year, I really regret my stubbornness when I think back to it now.

What do you do in situations like this? Traveling to poor countries and encountering these types of incidents can make anyone feel uncomfortable. How are we supposed to decide what is right and what is wrong when we are challenged and deceived so deliberately?

I remember being in Taipei at a night market when something similar happened – a group of friends and I bought some food from a tiny cart, and when we paid the man, he didn’t give us any change. We paid double the price for whatever it was. Two of my friends were angry and tried to argue with him in broken Mandarin. One of my other friends stood off to the side, not saying anything. “Can you believe that?” I asked him in astonishment. He shrugged it off and just said: “He did it for a reason. He probably needs it more than us.”

Perhaps I was being selfish, but as stated before, it never feels good to be falsely played. Depending on your morals, how you were raised, what you value in terms of integrity, what kind of mood you’re in at that moment, and so many other factors, predicaments like this have no easy solution. The bigger picture is always there – it’s just not always easy to see it when you’re looking at the smaller details up close.

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