Expat life, foreign retirement in the Lao PDR
– "Laid Back in Laos!"
As far as foreigners retiring in Laos is
concerned, most choose the capital
Vientiane as the most realistic option as it is a
location with the country's best facilities available.
Low cost of living (even a foreigner can survive on a few hundred
dollars a month if necessary, and certainly for less than $1,000) is one attraction. There are expats
living and working tourist-related businesses in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng too.
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 its 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, hospitals, doctors and health care especially.
Compared to nearby Thai towns Nongkhai or Udonthani, there are no
decently-equipped hospitals and few well-qualified doctors in Vientiane. 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.
in 2011, the Alliance International
Medical Centre is a joint venture between Wattana Hospital in
Nongkhai and Honda, the clinic is located at 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.
Lao people who can afford it 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 emergencies. Nong 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 who offer
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.
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.
However, it could 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'.
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
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 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 still an
inexpensive and safe city to live in (although more expensive than Thailand), 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 introduction of a
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
The sleeper train from Nongkhai and Udon to
Bangkok is also popular among tourists, and the
rail link to Laos across the Mekong river is now open but terminates near
the Friendship Bridge. Eventually it will connect
Vientiane city with Nongkhai. Currently, there are only a couple of services
a day and it's more of a novelty than a proper rail service.
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 for around $450 per month, up to serviced apartments 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.
A room in Laos for short or longer term can set you
back very little in Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang
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 Communicationspage, 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 are
as high as 13%
p.a. with government, foreign or joint venture banks like BCEL, JDB, ANZ,
ACLEDA, Indochina Bank and others. The Lao kip is stable, around 8,000
US dollar. Dollars, baht and kip are
interchangeable at banks and many shops in the Lao PDR and banks accounts can be held in all
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 from the Morning Market and main Post Office intersection,
with the Don Chan Palace Hotel on the banks of the Mekong River.
NEVER BE WITHOUT
A BOOK TO READ!
Download and read
thousands of books
and pdf files by USB
or wireless on your
Kindle Reader from
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
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 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.
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.
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
development projects from both
the West and the East.
Some businesses are jointly
owned by foreign and local interests, including some
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
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.
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
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
shopping, entertainment and convention centre which is used periodically to host trade exhibitions (mainly Thai or Vietnamese
international conferences, with shops, restaurants, bowling alley (several others in
Vientiane) and cinemas showing Thai or dubbed foreign movies (no
original English soundtracks). Itecc also houses Vientiane's first attempt
at a sizeable supermarket but it is not popular and 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
convenience store shopping, the M-Point franchise has a dozen or more
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
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
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,
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 Pizza Hut, a Thai pizza franchise with two
outlets. Most popular
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.
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.
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
Living, working, long term residence
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
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.
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 costs about $500 all-in for the first year.
Although 10% income tax is payable on a minimum foreigner salary of $800 per month, this
is not always collected.
Annual visa renewal may cost less.
Long term or
permanent immigration to the Lao PDR is also possible with an
immigrant visa which exists for foreign nationals including
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
'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
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 Wanwhich 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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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).
Here's Patuxai, or Victory Monument. It receives few compliments other than
for the good views it offers of Vientiane Capital from its upper levels.
Also known as "The Vertical Runway", one tourist aptly describes
Patuxay or Patuxai as "an
eyesore with a view".