Expat life, foreign retirement in the Lao PDR 2017 "Laid Back in Laos!"

As far as foreigners retiring in Laos is concerned, the majority choose the capital city Vientiane as the most practical option and it can be a pleasant expat retirement location with the country's best facilities available. Cost of living has risen over the past few years (food especially) but a foreigner on a low pension or salary (such as many English teachers) could manage on less than $1,000 a month.

There are expats with mostly tourist-related businesses also in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng as well as with NGOs and volunteers. There are also industries such as hydro-electric power, forestry and mining that have foreign personnel. Pakse in the south is a sizeable city too, with easy access to both Thailand and Vietnam.

Expat life in Laos certainly has some limitations when compared to Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia or Bali perhaps, but there are some aspects to this country that make it unique.  There is still a lot lacking in the way of facilities good hospitals, doctors and health care especially. Compared to nearby Thai towns Nongkhai or Udonthani, where the Lao who can afford to pay more go themselves for medical treatment, there are few fully-equipped hospitals or foreign-trained doctors in Vientiane or elesewhere. However, pharmaceuticals and many drugs that usually require a prescription in most countries are cheap and readily available 'over the counter'. The Australian Embassy has a medical clinic with limited facilities and resources available to British and Commonwealth nationals.

The Alliance International Medical Centre is a joint venture between Wattana Hospital in Nongkhai and Honda with a clinic in the Honda Complex a little before Wattay Airport entrance. Open Monday to Saturday 8 am to 8 pm. Phone 021 513095. Thai-trained English-speaking staff on hand and positive feedback from local expats. A full medical check-up costs around $80.

For life-threatening emergencies and surgical operations, it's best to cross the Mekong River and go to one of the Thai hospitals in Nongkhai, Udonthani or Bangkok. Locals do this too.

Officials at the Friendship Bridge between Vientiane and Nongkhai, open from 6 am to 10 pm, will usually allow after hours travel for medical emergenciesNong Khai Wattana Hospital in Nong Khai can handle most simple medical procedures, while in Udonthani, AEK International Hospital and North Eastern Wattana General Hospital have better facilities and English-speaking staff used to dealing with foreign patients. Ambulances for these hospitals have permission to cross the bridge to collect patients from Vientiane.  In Vientiane, the Setthatirat Hospital ambulance (021-413-720) can also carry patients to Thailand.

There are not that many activities and little entertainment that foreigners might expect to find, depending of course on where they lived before. See our Life in Vientiane page to learn more about daily life and activity in Lao.

For someone in search of a sedentary or not too physically active, inexpensive, uncomplicated life, with little pressure or stress, in an uncrowded, unpolluted (except for dust in the dry season) environment, expatriate life in Vientiane may just fit the bill! It's a long way from the bureaucratic and tax nightmare, and already high but ever-rising cost of living in more sophisticated or developed countries.

Socially it could be boring if one mixes only with other expatriates. Most are workers on contract to joint government ventures, those involved with foreign NGOs, diplomatic staff, some English teachers and a few business people and retirees, and without some knowledge of the Lao language (speaking Thai certainly helps), it is not easy finding out how to do things (or get things done) 'Lao style'.

A typical scenario is to have a Lao wife or partner and try to integrate with the local suburban or village community; for many foreigners it's the ordinary Lao people that are the main attraction of this unique country. This does not mean 'going native', as the British once referred to their colonials who began fraternising with the locals in Africa and India! It's quite possible to maintain a Western style and standard of living, in harmony with Lao neighbours and friends. Although most middle-aged and older Lao have had little education, they do seem to have an ingrained understanding of people and emotions, and generally accept foreigners' odd habits graciously and with good humour. See our The Heart of Lao page. And unlike many western communities, they welcome people into their homes. You can participate when you feel like it and leave when you feel it's time!

The Lao capital Vientiane is still a relatively safe city to live in (although more expensive than Thailand), with little crime or homelessness found in many Asian cities and of course elsewhere. The Lao people are extremely friendly and hospitable and there are far worse places one could choose to live in SE Asia. As mentioned, one advantage is Vientiane's close proximity to Nongkhai, Thailand, where there are better medical facilities and shopping; Nongkhai and nearby Udon Thani have more established expat communities.

Bangkok is only one hour from Vientiane by direct flight, and two and a half hours from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the introduction of a direct AirAsia flight a year or two ago. Bus services and Thai Airways and discount airlines operate between Udon Thani and Bangkok. There are several flights a week between Udonthani and Chiangmai.

The sleeper train from Nongkhai and Udon to Bangkok is quite popular with tourists, and the rail link to Laos across the Mekong river is now open; it stops near the Friendship Bridge but an extension to the city is in progress. Eventually Vientiane and Nongkhai will be linked by rail. With few services a day, it's more of a novelty for passengers.

Accommodation in Vientiane is wide-ranging, from cheap guest houses near the river, where a small room with a fan costs as little as $100 per month, with air-con probably $250 or more, small blocks of studio and one-bedroom apartments with air conditioning and internet from around $450 per month, up to serviced apartments from $1,500 up.

Houses come in many styles, from traditional Lao-style wooden ones with very basic plumbing, all the way to Western style 'mansions' built for letting to foreigners. Prices therefore range between a few hundred dollars per year to thousands. There are a some real estate agents who deal with property leases which are generally for one year, possibly 6 months.

A room in Laos for short or longer term can set you back very little in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang etc. Check prices:
 
 
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Foreigners cannot own land, houses or motor vehicles in the Lao PDR even if married to Lao citizens. Limited ownership may be possible through a registered foreign company or through a lease.

Telecommunications, cable and satellite TV, internet, phones are covered on our Lao Communications page, but mobile 3G and some 4G internet is available from local providers and covers most of the populated areas of the country.

For comprehensive information regarding banking and money in Laos visit our Lao Banking page. For those living in Laos for extended periods with work permits (see below), it's worth noting that interest rates on Lao Kip fixed deposits with government, foreign or joint venture banks like BCEL, JDB, ANZ, ACLEDA, Indochina Bank and others, although lower than in recent years, are still quite attractive compared to those in the US or UK. The Lao kip is stable, a little over 8,000 to the US dollar. Dollars, baht and kip are interchangeable at banks and many shops in the Lao PDR and banks accounts can be held in these currencies.

The recent advances in technology have rapidly transformed Vientiane, once a dusty/muddy backwater, into a thriving, more commercially-orientated centre. However, old traditions and customs are still very much evident in Lao daily life.

Vientiane view

Vientiane from the Morning Market and main Post Office intersection,
with the Don Chan Palace Hotel on the banks of the Mekong River.

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Vientiane Capital is a small city by any standards, with around 200,000 souls in the city area, and possibly half a million all told in the districts surrounding it. Like many Asian cities Vientiane has expanded in many directions with little planning or forethought, but there are some fine tree-lined boulevards, small interesting lanes with old wooden houses, Buddhist temples, relics of Lao's French colonial past and bustling markets.

Vientiane is a mix of old and new; there are dilapidated wooden buildings contrasted by the concrete and glass facades of newer ones. Vientiane's road and drainage system is undergoing major reconstruction, but it's taking time as the country relies solely on international donations for development of the infrastructure. There are muddy pot-holed roads still everywhere even in busy commercial areas like local markets, contrasted by some new well-paved arterial routes in and out of the city.

The river embankment area has undergone major changes in the past couple of years. Chinese-financed residential and business development including roads, hotels, large villas, (shopping centres and office blocks in the near future) line the area from north to south of the city centre.

Apart from the increasing numbers of tourists seen on the streets and in night spots, resident expat groups are small, consisting largely of embassy and diplomatic staff or foreigners on contract for government and NGO organisations involved in various foreign aided development projects from both the West and the East.

Some businesses are jointly owned by foreign and local interests, including some excellent European restaurants. Vientiane is both a relaxed and relaxing place, and quiet in the evenings, as restaurants usually close by 11 pm and most of the few popular nightclubs and bars shortly afterwards, but there are late night places too. See Life in Vientiane for more.

There is not a lot to do after work or on weekends; some embassies have recreational facilities and sports clubs. The foreign communities in Vientiane comprise French (possibly the largest), Russian, Australian, American, some British (there's a British Pub near the Taipan Hotel with steak and kidney pies and pudding, bangers and mash, lamb chops and other tasty British tavern food) and other nationalities, but they are mainly overseas contract, development and aid-related workers who make Lao their temporary home. Some go on to retire there, but they are usually living more or less 'Lao style' with a Lao family.

Living with Lao people and accepting their philosophy and way of life will not be easy for some, especially those without prior experience of Asian countries and communities. It involves adapting (or turning a blind eye) to many things that are different from the West. Read our page on Cultural Differences to get an idea, and purchase a copy of "Culture Shock! Laos" if you haven't already visited or spent some time in the Lao PDR. It's different from Thailand, although the lowland Lao those living near the Mekong River and Isaan (Khorat Plateau of Northeast Thailand) share similar customs and traditions and spoken language with their Thai 'cousins'. Lao is surrounded by Burma (Myanmar), China and Vietnam to the north and east, and Cambodia and Thailand to the south and west. The Mekong River, originating in China, flows through more of Lao than any other country, so traditions in Lao have many different origins.

Vientiane has a unique ambiance which still reflects its colonial past. French influence is still evident with restored colonial buildings and the roads keep their French flavour: routes, rues, avenues and boulevards appear on street signs in both Western script and Lao languages. Signs on older government offices and buildings are in Lao and French, but all recent constructions carry signs in Lao and English. The city spreads itself from the bank of the Mekong River to a few kilometres inland. There are new arterial roads linking the different districts, but many secondary roads are still unpaved or in disrepair, and some impassable in the middle of the rainy season without a pickup truck or four wheel drive. There are a lot of improvement programs underway, including new traffic lights, both in and out of the city centre.

Shopping is done by most locals at large and small, often ramshackle markets. The old, famous Morning Market (Talat Sao), which is actually open all day has been transformed into mall-type constructions.

Elsewhere, shops, businesses and restaurants of all descriptions line the roads. Many are old traditional wooden shacks, some restored, most of the rest are typical Asian or Chinese style shop-houses, old and new, found everywhere in the region.

A few kilometres from the city is LAO-ITECC, Vientiane's first and recently further developed to include a mini theme park, shopping, entertainment and convention centre which is used periodically to host trade exhibitions (mainly Thai or Vietnamese products) and international conferences, with shops, restaurants, bowling alley (several others in Vientiane) and cinemas showing Thai or dubbed foreign movies (no original English soundtracks). There are several newer shopping malls and convention centres now, and nearer the city itself including the recently opened Rimping.

For convenience store shopping, M-Point (nearest equivalent to Thailand's 7/11 franchise network) has a growing number of outlets around the city and suburbs and older established 'mini marts' like Simuang, Phimpone, Riverside and Pavina carry some fresh produce, milk and bread etc as well as the usual dry goods and refrigerated and freezer products. There are several local bakeries, and baguettes (a legacy from the French) are produced all over Vientiane.

Imported frozen meat and fish from Australia and other produce from Korea and Japan and Thailand are available from Vientiane Cold Storage, a modern complex with supermarket and high-end Japanese restaurant (Tojo) on Don Nokkhoum Rd in the suburbs behind Thadeua Road, near EDL headquarters.

Many locals as well as foreigners shop for household items and fresh meat and produce across the river in Nongkhai or Udon Thani where there are Tesco, Carrefour, Makro and other supermarkets.

Big Mac in Laos? No way! In fact there are no international fast food or coffee chains or franchises like Starbucks, Burger King, McDonalds, KFC etc. For the desperate, the Tesco Lotus complex across the river in Nongkhai has a Starbucks, but the nearest McDonalds is in Udon Thani. Only Pepsi is bottled locally not Coke, but you can buy Thai cans. There is also the Pizza Company a Thai pizza franchise with two outlets so far. Most popular foodstuffs are brought in from Thailand and most local shops carry Thai as well as a rapidly-growing selection of Chinese and Vietnamese consumer goods. Minimarts like Simueang, Phimpone, Riverside and Pavina carry some imported goods.

Lao Beer and cigarette prices important to most expats!

Alcohol, imported or local, is typically half the price of Thailand. Local beers include Carlsberg and Tiger but Beerlao is by far the most popular and has won international recognition and even awards. Typically a BeerLao pint costs 8000 kip ($1 or 60p) to take home by the crate, and a little more in local-style pubs and restaurants. It can be double or even triple that in 'farang'-type or upmarket restaurants and nightclubs, but it's still cheap! In the villages, a 640ml bottle of 40 or 50 proof rice spirit (lao kao) costs 5000 kip.

Lao cigarettes are cheap at 6000 kip (75 cents) for 20. Lao arabica coffee is excellent too, usually drunk strong and sweetened with condensed milk by the locals. See more about food, drink and hotel and guest house accommodation in Vientiane and also Luang Prabang. Some of these places will offer long term rates by negotiation.

Living, working, long term residence in Laos

Crossing the border into Thailand is quite easy both for Lao and Thai citizens and foreigners with business visas. Others can come and go by obtaining a visa on arrival  for $30-$42, depending on nationality ($35 for British), and valid for 30 days; visitor visas are issued at most border crossings and Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse airports.

Foreign visitors can leave Laos each month and get a new visa on arrival indefinitely; this is cheaper than the alternative, but one disadvantage is the full page visa stamp in your passport plus exit and entry stamps from both countries. Passport pages fill up quickly and having to renew one long before it expires is often expensive.

Those wanting to stay in Lao for a year or longer usually do so with a multiple entry business visa including work permit and foreign staff ID issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Local companies can be found that employ foreigners as professional consultants, but they must apply on your behalf. Application needs only a passport and 8 photos and likely cost $5-600 all-in for the first year; annual renewal may cost less. Although 10% income tax is payable on a minimum foreigner salary of $800 per month, this is not always collected.

Long term or permanent immigration to the Lao PDR is also possible with an immigrant visa which exists for foreign nationals including former Lao citizens or their families living in the US and other countries, who wish to return to live or retire in Laos. Issues include guarantors, investment and other factors that might affect approval for this type of visa. There are other implications including applying for an exit visa (as is required for Lao Passport holders) prior to leaving the Lao PDR, except for those using Border Passes for short local visits to neighbouring states. Regarding investment, information and fact sheets are available from the ASEAN website.

'Laid back' in Laos

One of the best things about living in or near Vientiane is the basic laid-back atmosphere, friendliness and good nature of the Lao people, reflected constantly in their daily lives. No one rushes to do anything. This takes getting used to and at times can be frustrating. Lao are happy, friendly and hospitable by nature, and traditionally family-orientated; also welcoming to foreigners. Many families have relatives living in the USA and other countries who help support them financially. Their obvious joie de vivre was there long before the French came, and they continue to enjoy their basically uncomplicated lives, enhanced by modern technology, especially in the form of mobile phones and karaoke!

Life in Lao revolves around the family. Celebrations are more frequent than in the West, mostly initiated by Buddhist ritual. They often develop into parties where a considerable amount of beer or spirits are consumed (everyone can afford Beer Lao it seems!) and the whole extended family plus friends attend, with singing and 'Lao dancing' a slow procession of couples, revolving around the dance area, facing each other, but not touching, and moving their hands rhythmically to the music. An alternative is western-style line-dancing. Music is either an extremely loud stereo system with karaoke and/or hired singer/keyboard player/MC/DJ.

The sound can be deafening enough to prevent conversation between two people sitting next to each other! Parties and 'souk wan' or 'baci' (Buddhist ceremony followed by a party) become noisy and fun for all Lao; foreigners are always made a fuss of, especially by the ladies who invite them to dance. It is rude to decline, so definitely not for unsociable types or non-drinkers! Here's a quick look at a Lao Souk Wan which is just beginning to warm up!

 

Laos and the Law

Provided both Lao and foreigners stay away from drugs and politics, there is little to be concerned about regarding the authorities. In the Lao PDR, policemen are rarely seen except in small numbers outside public gatherings, festivals or political events, otherwise being deployed mainly for traffic control and accidents. An altercation with them usually involves the payment of a small fine by the guilty party (almost invariably you). This unfortunately is part of life in many Asian countries. Smile, haggle a bit and pay is the easiest solution.

Seen from the average foreign visitor's perspective, it is difficult to believe that Laos has a communist government. Many countries including China, Lao and Vietnam have single-party authoritarian regimes, but the economies are definitely free-market private enterprise oriented.  'Big brother' is less intrusive in the average Lao's daily life. Apart from Cuba and North Korea, old-style communism no longer exists.

There is no visible (or locally reported) political dissidence not in Vientiane and other towns, anyway. A drive to Luang Prabang and even beyond is totally uneventful, with little traffic. What goes on in the northern border regions of Laos is kept under wraps and rarely reported in the local media which is practically all government-owned and therefore censored.

Most ordinary urban citizens have neither the desire nor energy to make problems, and do not want to run the risk of political imprisonment for stating their views. Social and domestic issues, emergencies and incidents are handled and arbitrated by the communities at village (moo-ban) level, by locally elected or appointed officials or 'head men'. In this sort of society this seems to work reasonably well, but money is usually involved too, for the aggrieved party and the authorities too. Most Lao living in the country accept the status quo, realising that there's little they can do to change it. Outsiders, especially Lao living in the USA have their own ideas about how things should be, but can do nothing about it except try to make waves about human rights etc in the press. Nothing is going to change quickly, though.

Outside the city's entertainment venues, certain hotels and guest houses where social taboos tend to be overlooked (see Vientiane Life), the Lao are conservative, especially with liaisons between Lao women and single men, particularly foreigners, which are forbidden by law. Foreigners run the risk of problems with the police and village authorities (paying money, imprisonment, possibly deportation) if co-habitation with a Lao woman, even divorced and with children, is not approved by the family or village residents i.e. marriage and/or financial compensation to family and authority will be required. Beware. There are few secrets that remain that way for long in this type of community.

For foreigners, being married to a Lao woman or in a discrete same-sex relationship, (two people of the same gender at birth living together presents no legal problem) life in Lao can be pleasant and relatively hassle-free once the country's limitations and lack of facilities are accepted and cultural differences reconciled. This process of adaptation will take longer for some than for others, and of course depends to a large degree on the individuals themselves. It can be hard at times.

Tolerance, patience, understanding and acceptance of the status quo are the keys to a happy life or retirement in Laos (and other Asian countries too).
 

Vientiane view

Here's Patuxai, or Victory Monument. Offering good views of Vientiane Capital from its upper levels, Patuxay or Patuxai is described by some as "an eyesore with a view".

Vientiane attractions, hotel prices and travel reviews

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