We’re screwed, they’ve got my passport. They’ve demanded 2800 American dollars in cash to be handed to them in full or we won’t see my passport again. The tourist police, our guest house owners and the rental company are all in on it and we have no one left to turn to. It couldn’t get much worse.
I had been so excited to visit Luang Prabang. A lovely little heritage town in the heart of Laos, the town was famous for its French food and architecture left over from its colonisation before the communist regime. I had not been disappointed. Baguettes lined the bakeries, boutique wine bars nestled against a central hill in the town and the people were so incredibly friendly and helpful.
I woke up at 5am one morning with a funny feeling hovering over my head. I’m not too sure what compelled me to do it, but I jumped out of bed and walked along our guest house corridor to check the street. It was still pitch black outside but I still thought I could see the vague outline of our bike. I slipped my shoes on and walked down the dark alley-way just to be sure. It was gone. Our bike had vanished.
Suzi and I jumped on Google, frantically searching for common scooter scams and possible outcomes for our misfortune. The internet was littered with stolen bike claims in Luang Prabang. “Don’t leave your bike outside,” kept appearing in the search feed… “Gee, wish our bike rental company had mentioned that” and a recurring scam that seemed to be the problem kept popping up.
Countless other people recounted their stories of having bikes stolen in the night, they then rushed to the tourist police who were very sympathetic in a sickly sweet sort of way. A couple of hours later a ‘kind hearted’ samaritan arrives with the bike and the cops suggest they give the thief a reward. The suggestion evolves into a demand and once a price has been settled the police then state that they need a 2million kip bonus for doing their job.
“It sucks but it’s do-able” Suzi and I thought. We’ll just head on over to the tourist police wait for the bike to pitch up and then pay these con-men as low a price as possible and we’ll have our bike back. It should all be done before the afternoon and we can get out of here.
“Why did you leave your bike in the street?” the stout, middle-aged policeman demanded. It was not quite the sympathetic conversation we had been expecting. We tried to explain to him that we had had a very sensitive alarm system attached to our front wheel, that even when we gently nudged the bike an alarm siren would screech endlessly while we fumbled with the keys to turn it off. He brushed us off and proceeded to blame us for an array of mistakes he claimed we had made. Still, after we’d filed a report and received our lecture, we were still hopeful that it was all a scam and the bike would turn up.
It didn’t! All day we waited. We went back to that station countless times to check if the bike was there but it never appeared. After putting off having to tell the rental company to the last minute, eventually we had to let them know. The owner of the company was a well-spoken man, wearing expensive designer clothes. He spoke perfect English with a slight American accent. He listened to our story with intent and expressed his sincerest sympathies. After the cops and our guest house owners had shifted all the blame to us we were relived to finally find someone who seemed to be on our side. “I live in hope,” he proceeded to tell us; “the bike could still turn up.”
After visiting him a couple more times we began to realize he was not as compassionate as he had originally appeared. He wanted 2800 dollars for a bike that was worth less than half of that and the insurance and paperwork was the reason for the exuberant cost. His clean cut appearance suddenly seemed mob like and we realized that he knew exactly what he was doing.
There was no answer to how that bike could have been stolen without the alarm going off unless someone had the key. He was the only company in Luang Prabang who used these alarms and we deduced that one of his men must have come in the night and collected it. Our guest house owners had been in constant contact with him throughout the ordeal and we realized they were great choms and could have easily tipped him off about the bike being left outside that night. We had tried to investigate the quiet streets behind his rental shop to see if he had hidden the bike in a shed somewhere but noticed he had put two young thugs on our trail to follow our movements. We tried to barter the price with him, explaining that we were Africans but it was no use. Every angle we tried we were shut down.
The little town which had seemed so lovely suddenly started to crumble in front of my eyes. The quaint window shutters and French architecture suddenly appeared grubby and run down, the restaurants – overpriced fake attractions for gullible tourists and the people – sny and backstabbing, always looking for a way to squeeze money out of any falang (foreigner). We began to hold onto our bags at night and were constantly looking over our shoulders. Was it our negative attitudes that had made us envisage Luang Prabang in such a negative light or had we just woken up to the reality of a town set up to make money off tourists? Either way the bike was gone. We would have to cut our travels short, fork out 2800 dollars to a con-man and drag our feet out of this wretched town with what little cash we had left.
Leave a comment below if you have ever had anything similar happen to you.