This post is about expats who actually leave their compounds and cars to get at least a glimpse of the local life.
The biggest challenge for me in all three countries I lived so far (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia) was always the language. As a western foreigner from Europe, my mother tongue is German, and English is my second language. We use English as a communication tool (until google translate is really ready). So we may expect others to do as well.
But they don't, for several reasons. Cambodians speak Khmer, Vietnamese Vietnamese and Laotions Lao. And we as a foreigner have not clue what they are talking about.
That's when some expats feel the first frustration and staty complaining. Sure, I complain about the English skills here as well, but for another reason: It makes Lao less competitive in the region.
But back to the expats. Most of them are well paid, have a management position and are used to have control. Take them to a local market and it is hell for them (and me as well in the first years). You are like a child, that needs help and assistant everywhere. You can't even say that you need to go to the toilet ("Hong nam yu say" may show you the way).
You are totally depending on local people and their ability and will to help you. That's when expats hire staff to go to the market for them. But one day, your water pump is broken, and your maid only says "I dont know where to repair". Then you are back to zero. You can't read any of the signs of the shops, and you think it is to embarrasing to ask in a motobike shop if they can repair the water pump.
Actually, sometimes they can or know someone who knows someone who has a repairman in his family (but has left to attend a funeral on the countryside, but will be back soon).
So even if you speak the language a bit, you will still experience pitfalls.
The good news: I always got help from locals here. and not just because they are good business people (in Laos, they are actually not, sometimes they prefer chatting over a deal), but because of the general kindness of people in South-East-Asia.
Even if they may not "like" foreigners too much, you always get kind of help and assistance. Sometimes you will also get a laugh, but this is part of the deal and just just laugh even louder, when you open one door after another just to discover there is no western toilet seat at the rest stop.
I think for most expats this might be the most important lesson to learn: To be helpless and dealing with it. In the western culture control became so important, and it is a tabu already to admit that you have no control.
In Laos, it is unavoidable to be out of control. The locals can do better than you, and this is sometimes a fact hard to accept for people coming here to teach, advise and develop.