Market mysteries

The way business is done in Laos continues to amaze me. There are times when prices are fixed, times when they are claimed to be fixed but are not and those times when bargaining is the norm. Naturally local produce is cheaper than imported goods, but by just much is a constant source of surprise for me. Here are some recent experiences.

  • Local produce: half a kilo of organic cherry tomatoes, bag of organic rocket and two large handfuls of organic fresh basil for just over 1 euro (14,000 KIP) at a designated organic shop in town (AgroAsie).
  • Imported produce: one of my favorites, French Saint Albray cheese at a delicatessen at 63 USD per kilo – my half a slice set me back with almost 9 euros. The same shop sells fromage frais (quark) for a whopping 20 USD per half a kilo tub. Needless to say I decided I can live another two months without this particular dairy product before I go home.
  • Local services: I’ve had the repeated misfortune of flat tires on my bicycle in the past month or so, most recently after riding into broken glass on the street in the absence of street lighting. First time I was charged just short of 0,2 euros (2000 KIP) and the second time set me back about 0,5 euros (5000 KIP). How can this even cover the cost of the new inner tubes, let alone the work (which admittedly only takes the guy a few minutes)?
  • Regional travel: nearly a three-hour bus ride from Vientiane to Udon Thani in Thailand, 2 euros (22,000 KIP). The seats are comfy and there’s air-con, though there is no advance ticket purchasing and the bus does take forever at the border crossings.

Another local market mystery occurred last Thursday, on the day of the annual Dragon Boat Racing Festival. One of the four main mobile phone operators, Tigo, was recently bought by Russian telecom company Vimpelcom who introduced their brand Beeline to replace Tigo. One week or so into Beeline’s big introductory campaign and flashy promotions, they went completely dark. One could not call those with Beeline numbers, nor could these people call anyone without one and to date the situation remains unresolved. I initially suspected the changeover and then the government until our favourite daily newspaper, Vientiane Times, set us straight. 

Earlier this year, the government had banned telecom companies from handing out free airtime and other promotions as fierce competition was eating into the companies’ profits and consequently the state’s tax revenue (everyone is free to draw their own conclusions about the state of the socialist market economy here). Beeline’s big rebranding promotions were less than acceptable to its main competitors, who decided to cut off all traffic between their networks and Beeline in order to pressure them to abide by the rules set by the government. The last we’ve heard (and by that I mean read in the newspaper) is that the relevant ministry is trying to facilitate talks between the parties to reach an agreement. In the meantime, I see the number of Tigo/Beeline customers switching operators increasing by the day as I try to keep up which of my friends has a new number and whose phones are dead for all practical purposes.

Whilst writing this: The light is quickly escaping and it gets dark at 6pm already. On the bright side the rainy season has finally ended bringing cooler weather and blue skies.

Currently reading: A Perfect Spy by John Le Carré. I’ve barely started so I’m reserving judgment for the time being, but this apparently brilliant author sure has an extremely confusing style of writing with a constantly rotating narrator. I’m running out of spy novels I haven’t read yet so I really hope I like it better as I read along.


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