Once an economically insular country with extreme restrictions on outside access, Laos has turned into one of Southeast Asia’s most popular travel destinations in the last few years. With some of the region’s best scenery and most immensely beautiful natural settings, this undiscovered country has the potential to turn into one of the region’s hotspots for travelers, retirees, and expatriates.
Divided from Thailand by the Mekong River and split from Vietnam and Cambodia with mountain ranges and tropical tundra, Laos is a country that lives out its life in a slow, relaxed fashion. With no superhighways or skyscrapers – the likes of which are seen to the south in Bangkok – this beautiful country is a real contrast from Thailand, and one that’s attracting more visitors every year.
Despite this, however, Laos hasn’t quite caught up with the wave of retirees and temporary visitors that are keen to explore its countryside, at least not in administrative terms. Visas and entry stamps are rarely given out for long-term stays, with most visitors instead opting to use back-to-back visas designed for tourism only in order to stay in the country during their retirement.
Laos’ capital is Vientiane, a small, relaxed city located on the country’s border with Thailand to the south. A quiet, dynamic city, Vientiane was once part of the French empire in Southeast Asia, and it offers an immediate and obvious glance at Laos’ French influence. From the colonial architecture to the relaxed coffee shops and bakeries, the city feels French, despite its true location.
Of course, as the economy grows and more businesses open up, the city’s feeling may change. Even today, it’s easy to see the amount of new construction going on in Laos far outweighs that seen in a lot of other cities in the region – the country is on the way forward, which may be why it’s attracting so many foreign retirees.
Laos’ other major city is Luang Prabang – a small country city found to the north, in the country’s mountainous area. Attracting thousands of foreign visitors every year, the city is connected with Vientiane via a modern roadway and by air. Flights arrive in the city directly from Bangkok and the capital at Vientiane, making it an easy destination to access despite its remote location.
Laos’ banking system is far from modern, with most visitors to the country – whether there on a short or long-term basis – opting to use their own domestic banks while in the country. ATMs are easily found in Vientiane, with almost all supporting Cirrus network cards, allowing Mastercard, VISA, and American Express users to withdraw money or take advances with no real issues.
Foreigners are largely unable to open up their own accounts in Laos due to strict banking laws and a public policy that – at least on the outside – is still somewhat insular and protective. The Laos Kip is a relatively uncommon currency and is difficult to exchange outside of the country, which means that Thai Baht and US Dollars are frequently used as ‘second currencies’ in Vientiane and other key cities.
Day to day life in Laos is inexpensive and simple, with little in the way of surprise costs or hefty bills. Accommodation in the capital is remarkably cheap – a single hotel room with wi-fi internet access costs as little as $20USD per night, while a furnished apartment in a modern building can be found for as little as $300USD per night, even in the main center of Vientiane.
Food is inexpensive, widely available, nutritious, and generally very tasty. The Laos cuisine is a mix of northeastern Thai food and French cuisine – fried noodles, grilled meats, and rice dishes form the backbone of the nation’s culinary choices. French cuisine, including baked goods and high-end fare, is found throughout the country, particularly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
While far from a ‘party destination,’ Laos is a fun place to enjoy yourself. The nation’s beer has become a famous international export, and Beer Laos can be found all around the country. Due to its remarkable 99 percent market share in Laos, it’s rare that you’ll find any drink other than Beer Laos on offer in most bars, and especially not in the hands of any local residents.
Motorcycles are the country’s chief form of transportation, and can be rented on an inexpensive day-to-day schedule. Most retirees opt to rent a small motor scooter from a tour operator for as little as $80 monthly, allowing for easy access to the country’s best destinations. Roads in Laos range from modern tarmac highways to dirt or gravel, particularly in the more remote parts of the country.
Culturally, Laos is relatively similar to the northern and northeast provinces of Thailand. With an economy that’s largely agriculture based, farming rules the roost when it comes to occupations. A large percentage of the country’s population is involved in subsistence farming, growing much of their own food and selling the remainder at local markets or directly to food merchants.
The nation’s primary religion is Buddhism – a national religion that’s backed up by some of the world’s most enchanting and beautiful temples. Most people are devoutly religious in their day to day lives and relatively superstitious – many of the same fears and phobias that are found in Thai cities and Chinese settlements are also found in Laos.
Thanks to years of insular communism, Laos is still relatively far from the modern world when it comes to public policy and government. There are special laws on the books designed to keep the country ‘pure’ and focused on its own growth, including bizarre laws potentially condemning any foreign visitors that are involved in ‘relations’ with unmarried Lao women. These bizarre laws are occasionally cause for concern for some visitors, and should be given some serious thought.
Internet access in Laos is a relatively new phenomenon, with the vast majority of houses lacking a stable connection to the internet. In Vientiane and Luang Prabang, internet access is found in most cafes and restaurants, as well as many hotels. Private apartments can easily get connected for a fee, with most units aimed at foreign residents already ‘hooked up’ and ready to go.
Phone service in most of Laos is provided both by national telecoms, and by some of Thailand’s operators. AIS, the largest phone service provider in Thailand, has a signal that reaches across a great deal of the border – across the Mekong River, that is – and covers most of Vientiane with a fairly stable cellular signal.
With its gorgeous natural environment, its laid back lifestyle, and its reasonable supply of modern services and infrastructure, Laos is a retirement destination that’s very different from the rest of the pack. This country – stuck on the border of the past and the cusp of modernity – is a rewarding and fun place for those willing to tolerate its downsides.
Despite this, Laos can also be a difficult place to live. Alongside the beautiful scenery comes a poor financial sector, a small range of services, and visa policy that’s far from welcoming. For those that are capable of taking the downsides with the advantages, Laos can be one of the world’s best places to retire to.