Expat life, retirement in Laos

As far as foreigners retiring in Laos is concerned,  Vientiane is the only realistic option, although there are expats living in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng too. Vientiane is a pleasant expat retirement location. Low cost of living (even a foreigner can survive on a few hundred dollars a month if necessary) is one attraction. Expat life in Laos has some limitations, but there are some unusual 'perks' too...

Compared to Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia or Bali perhaps, there's quite a lot lacking in the way of facilities, hospitals, doctors and health care especially. There are no decently-equipped hospitals or doctors in Vientiane, but 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. 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. Lao people who can afford it do this too. A good international health insurance policy is almost essential.

Officials at the Friendship Bridge between Vientiane and Nongkhai, normally open from 6am to 10pm, 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.

Foreigners living in the Lao PDR should have a medical insurance plan from a reliable international insurer like eHealthInsurance with free instant quotes and online application for various levels of cover.

There are few 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 that and 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) 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.

However, it's likely to be boring if one socialises 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'.

One solution is to have a Lao wife or local partner and try to integrate into a local village community, because 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 Lao are poorly educated in the conventional sense, they have an inner understanding of people and emotions, and generally accept foreigners' odd habits graciously and with good humour. See our The Heart of Lao page. And they love to entertain at home. You can participate when you feel like it and leave when you feel it's time!

The Lao capital Vientiane is an inexpensive and safe city to live in, with very 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. One advantage is Vientiane's close proximity to Nongkhai, Thailand, where there are much 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 December 2007 introduction of a direct AirAsia flight. Bus services and Thai Airways and discount airlines operate between Udon Thani and Bangkok. NokAir now has several flights a week between Udonthani and Chiangmai. The sleeper train service from Nongkhai and Udon to Bangkok is also popular among tourists.

Accommodation 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, up to a luxury serviced apartment in the city for $1,500. Houses come in many styles, from traditional Lao 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.

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 Telecommunications page.

For comprehensive information regarding banking or bringing money to 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 (3-24 months) are as high as 16% p.a. with foreign or joint venture banks such as ANZ-VCB, Public Bank Berhad and others. In addition, the kip continues to rise against the dollar, over 10% in the past year. US$, Thai baht and Kip are interchangeable at banks in the Lao PDR and accounts can be held in any of 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.

Vientiane 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 area 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 colonial past and bustling markets. There are pleasant grassy areas running alongside but well above the Mekong River meandering past, separating Laos from Thailand. Here in the late afternoon, people jog or simply relax out of the sun in the shade of large trees.

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.

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 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, a few British and others, 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.

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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 'tags': 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.

Due to the generosity of the Japanese Government, reconstruction and widening of Thadeua Road is officially complete. This is the road that runs 15 kilometres from the city, south following the Mekong, then east passing the border crossing at the Friendship Bridge linking Laos with Thailand near Nongkhai. The bridge was opened in 1996, jointly financed by the Australian and Thai governments. The bridge is now being prepared for the line which will extend the Thai railway system from Nongkhai to the outskirts of Vientiane, due to open in 2008.

Shopping is done mainly at several large and often ramshackle markets, including the famous Morning Market (Talat Sao), which since the Evening Market burnt down many years ago, stays open until about 4.30 pm. An adjacent air-conditioned multi-storey shopping complex with undercover parking opened in mid 2007, brings a bit more sophistication to Vientiane's shopping facilities.

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 a modern shopping, entertainment and convention centre which is used from time to time to host trade exhibitions (mainly Thai or Vietnamese) and international conferences, although the Don Chan Palace Hotel seems more popular for these. Recently opened is a Chinese (Hong Kong) home furnishings centre passed on the way into the ITECC parking area. There are also a few shops, restaurants, bowling alley (several others in Vientiane) and cinemas showing Thai or dubbed foreign movies (no original English soundtracks). It also houses the country's largest supermarket (a rather modest imitation of the real thing such as found across the bridge in Thailand) as it carries only a very small range of fresh and frozen meat and vegetables and household goods. Not much in the way of imported products (other than Thai) that foreign or wealthier shoppers might expect to find.

Many of these items are however stocked by convenience stores or 'mini marts' including Shell Shops scattered around the city, some of them comparable to Thai 7 Elevens, with fresh milk, and bread from several excellent local bakeries. While baguettes and French bread are everywhere, European-taste bread, sliced, wholewheat, buns etc. are found mainly in the city area.

Shopping in the local markets (always hot and smelly, often unsightly and dirty by Western standards) is perhaps done best by Lao people. 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.

In Lao, there are no international fast food or coffee chains or franchises like McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks etc. Only Pepsi is bottled locally not Coke. But everything can be brought from Thailand and most local shops carry Thai as well as Chinese and Vietnamese goods. The nearest Starbucks opened recently in the Tesco Lotus complex across the river in Nongkhai.

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 7000 kip (under $1 or 50p) 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 cost 4000 kip (42 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 now 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 it 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. A local company, who technically employs you as a professional consultant, must apply on your behalf. Application needs only a passport and 8 photos and costs about $550 for the initial issue. Officially, 10% income tax is payable on the stated salary of $500 per month (minimum for foreign staff), but this may be 'included' in the fee paid to the agency who might also charge less for annual renewals. Problems are unlikely with this type of visa.

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. See PM's Office Decree. It involves 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.

'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 music now provided by a stereo with karaoke or hired singer/keyboard player/MC/DJ. Parties and 'souk wan' or 'baci' (Buddhist ceremony followed by a party) become noisy and usually fun; foreigners are always made a fuss of, especially by the ladies who invite them to dance. It is very rude to decline, so definitely not for unsociable types or non-drinkers!

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 outside large gatherings, festivals or political events, being deployed mainly for traffic control and accidents. An altercation with them usually involves the payment of a small 'fine' by 'guilty parties'. This unfortunately is part of life in many Asian countries. Smile, haggle a bit and pay.

Seen from a daily life perspective, in many respects it is difficult to believe that Lao has a communist government. Apart from Cuba and North Korea, old-style communism no longer exists. 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.

There is no visible 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' in the press.

Outside the city's entertainment venues, 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 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 Patuxay, or Victory monument, 'nice from far, but far from nice'
but there are good views of Vientiane Capital from the upper levels.

Where to go in Vientiane, hotel prices and travel reviews

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An easy to read, well-written tale of life in present day Laos and Vientiane.