There is a saying in Asia that the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians harvest the rice, the Thais sell the rice, and the Laotians listen to the rice grow. Laos exudes mellow. While the rest of Southeast Asia seems to be changing and modernizing at break-neck speed, Laos ambles along, taking plenty of breaks along the way. It seems as if everyone who visits delightfully laid-back Laos falls in love with the place.
When you fly into Vientiane from industrious Vietnam or busy Thailand, it's easy to mistake the day of your arrival for a national holiday. Chances are you have not arrived on a special day. This is Vientiane, the most relaxed capital city in Asia. Although Vientiane has perked up a bit in the past few years, businesses still shut down around mid-day, when the city closes her eyes for a few hours. Weekends are quiet, and many places close their doors. And weekends in Laos can extend well into the next week. No one is ever in a hurry, and almost anyone will take the time to chat with you.
Laos is one of the least industrialized countries in the world. Towns are few and far between. There are few paved roads and even fewer bridges. A detour of 100 miles, in lieu of one well-placed bridge, is common here.
Even the largest city in the country, the capital of Vientiane, feels like little more than a large town. With a population of about 740,000, including the surrounding suburbs, you'll find no skyscrapers, no global stock exchange (a Laotian stock-exchange did open for the first time in 2011, with a grand total of two stock listings), no malls, no hustle, no bustle, and no need to keep a tuxedo or formal gown in your closet.
In Laos, U.S. dollars, Thai baht, Chinese yuan, and Vietnamese dong spend equally well, with Laotian kip being the least popular or useful of the common currencies. Until recently, the largest Laotian bill in circulation was worth about $1. As people didn't want to carry duffel bags full of cash, it seemed easier to use higher value currencies from other countries, rather than going to the effort and expense of designing and printing up large denomination bills. There’s more time, that way, to listen to the rice grow.
This is not to say that Laotians are lazy. They're not. They are a practical people with a different set of priorities than their more industrialized neighbors. Kindness is more important than competition, fun is more important than finance, and harmony is more important than willfulness. Life moves with the rhythm of the day and the seasons rather than the rigid strictures of the business cycle.
Given the agrarian nature of the country, Vientiane is a town of surprising worldly grace. Due in part to the large presence of NGOs in the city, as well as being one of the only urban areas in the entire country, Vientiane has a lot to offer. There are outstandingly beautiful Buddhist temples, lively markets, frequent festivals and celebrations, and a fine assortment of local and international cuisines. In the city a scattering of older French-colonial buildings still stand, a reminder of a time not so long ago when Laos was a French colony.
For someone looking for a truly rewarding and unique retirement, Vientiane and its surroundings have a lot to offer. Nestled in the nearby mountains, beautiful waterfalls, venerable temples, exotic wildlife, and remote hill-tribe villages await anyone who comes to Laos with the luxury of time to explore the less-traveled reaches of this area.
No question, Laos would qualify as an emerging, even a pre-emerging retirement option. One undeniably appealing thing about life here is how very affordable it can be. The average two-bedroom house in Vientiane, either Western- or Laos-style, rents for $400 to $500 monthly. Arrange a more modest rental for $400 per month, and your total monthly budget could be as little as $1,000.
Most foreigners in Vientiane choose to live near the embassies, which are in a pleasant part of the city and convenient to facilities, restaurants, and other services. This international area around the embassies is a little more expensive than homes in the countryside or in the older part of the city.
Certainly, living in Laos isn't for everybody. However, if you are dreaming of a comfortable, laid back, and low-cost lifestyle in a place with friendly people, excellent food, and fine housing at very reasonable prices, this could be an ideal choice. If you're intrigued by what this unique country has to offer, my advice is to go now. See Laos today, before the boom that is engulfing the rest of the region crosses the border.
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.