Discovering how various systems around you operate is a standard part of getting to know a new country. Sometimes it’s a complete mystery how some things work, which only gives us expats an endless supply of topics to discuss as we wonder how things are done ‘Lao style’. Below are descriptions of two systems I have started to figure out so far.
The Lao postal system
Coming from a country where mail is delivered to your mailbox 5 times a week with relatively few delays or other problems, the Lao postal system (or better the lack of it) has required some adjusting to. It first started before I even got here, as I was scouting the opportunities to send some of my personal items. The Finnish postal system would have been far cheaper than any of the international freight companies that I looked into, but I could not get an address from my colleagues to which I could send my parcels. I have since learned why. Firstly, mail is not delivered home in this country. You could rent a P.O. Box from the main post office in the centre of town, but most people just have items sent to their office P.O. Box. Even with this arrangement there is no guarantee of delivery let alone that anything would arrive on time. Still only a few weeks ago I heard from some friends that they had just received Christmas presents in late February. Unfortunately, phenomenon is not limited to the public postal system alone. There was also a token UPS Express that took over 6 weeks to get here from Denmark.
It is, however, possible to get the newspaper delivered to your house. That is if you go to the company’s office and accompany the delivery person to your house so they know where to bring it. I remember laughing out loud when I heard this story. But it’s true and quite simple. It is necessary, because most streets have no names (and some of those that do may have two names depending on which end of the street you’re looking at) and house numbers are equally random (if existing in the first place, they tend to denote the order in which houses were built on a street relative to each other rather than the location of particular houses on a street). This has some practical implications for mobility. I’m fortunate enough to live in the centre of town so I live on a street with a name, only none of the locals know the name – but luckily they know the adjacent temple and the nearby hospital so I can get a taxi driver to pick me up from home if I need to. Instructions to those living further out of town remain to be specified in terms of kilometers (which if I may point out are somewhat arbitrary) and relative to locations of embassies and larger restaurants. At a detailed level, you add further specs regarding dirt roads/canals/the colour and colour of your gate/the appearance of your neighbour’s house or your distance from a paddy field.
Vehicle plating system
In short, very colourful and the most complicated I’ve come across so far. All plates combine two colours: one for the background and another for text and numbers. You have white on red, blue on white, white on blue, black on yellow, black on white, blue on yellow and a few more. Colours indicate ownership (foreign/Lao, private/public and also company/individual) and whether taxes have been paid on the vehicle or not (some appear to be exempted). Plates also indicate relative status. The higher-ranking your plates, the less likely that you will need to pull over in a check-point and some of the plates enjoy allegedly quicker border crossing procedures on the Lao-Thai border. Apparently crossing the border in a car carrying “diplomatic” rather than standard plates can turn an hour and a half of queuing into a breeze of 15-20 minutes.