Digital Nomad Guide To Laos: An Acquired Taste For Many


Today, the NomadTalk team is turning its attention to a tiny little Southeast Asian country that for the majority of history was actually a bunch of countries. Then the French turned up, and as so often happens, spoiled everything. So, they made all those countries into a single nation: Laos.

Laos is one of the most peculiar countries in the region. It is completely landlocked, it is very poor, it has a communist government but one which is not particularly pushy (anymore) about it rather like China has become.

The cost of living, unsurprisingly as almost everything has to come overland to reach Laos, is higher than in most of the rest of Southeast Asia. Internet access is probably the worst of any Southeast Asian nation even in high-end establishments it’s “patchy” at best and non-existent at worst.

Despite this, Laos has huge amounts of charm. We couldn’t possibly recommend staying in Laos for periods of months at a time, we know a few expats who do but their jobs don’t depend on Internet but we 100% recommend Laos for short breaks, particularly for visa runs.

Taking pictures over the Mekong.

About This Guide

 

This guide is not a city guide, there will be some Laos city guides coming but they’re not our top priority. This is a (relatively) quick rundown on what you could expect from working and living in Laos more generally.

As with all our country guides, if you don’t feel you need to use a particular section, feel free to skip it – take what you need from it and don’t feel obliged to stick with the structure.

Laos: The Last Eastern Frontier?

 

Boats on the banks of the Mekong.

Laos is an odd duck. Of all the South East Asian countries, it’s the one which people seem to, generally speaking, like the least. However, we also know a few people who think that Laos is amazing and who never want to leave.

Like many of the neighboring countries, Laos fell to Communism and has only opened up relatively recently. Unlike other countries, Laos is still a Communist country. It was, until recently, one of the least developed nations on Earth and remains one of the least developed places in Asia.

Flying into Laos is expensive. There are airports in Vientiane, Pakse, Savannakhet and Luang Prabang which cater to international traffic there are also a bunch of other smaller national traffic only airports. These may or may not have any service at any given point in time.

You won’t be surprised to see that Laos is a developing nation. It is rarely tidy and often quite dirty in the streets. Nightly rubbish burning is very common, and most services are rudimentary if they exist at all.

The nation’s landlocked status means that it’s more expensive to stay in Laos long-term than in Cambodia, Vietnam or Thailand. It is also the one place where “see how much you can gouge a tourist for” seems to be something of a local motto. Tuk-tuk journeys, in particular, are obscenely expensive and while you can haggle – you may end up paying 3-5 times as much as anywhere else in the region for a short journey.

The local beer is reasonably priced and beer Lao is considered something of a connoisseur’s beer in South East Asia. Though, we can’t really work out why because it’s an acceptable but unremarkable lager to our palate. Other alcohol is quite pricey. Cigarettes are still relatively cheap.

Phone, Internet, and electricity are expensive and all of them are to some extent unreliable. If you’re going to make Laos your home for a long period of time, you’ll want to ensure you have a home with a generator or at least a local café with a generator where you can work when you need to.

Laos is relatively safe but petty crime is not uncommon despite harsh punishments and terrible jails to deter thieves, muggers, etc. You must always be careful with your belongings and ensure your home is secured against burglary.

The Lao people are very welcoming to foreigners and while it is true that it was once a crime in Laos to be in a relationship with a Lao local, this is no longer true. Lao girls, in particular, seem to be very open to dating Westerners.

One thing we’d like to give Laos a big shout out for is the excellent French food you can find in the country, which is good because we’re not huge fans of the local cuisine which is like a fairly unsophisticated version of Thai food in the main.

Having said this, we’re not neutral about Laos. We really like the place. It’s best explored with someone who knows it, though. Much of what Lao cities have to offer is hidden away from the casual explorer. We couldn’t live there but always look forward to visiting.

What Do You Want From Laos?

 

The monument and fountain in the center of Vientiane.

Lao doesn’t offer a huge number of choices for digital nomads to live in. There are 4 main destinations in the country of which we’d say that only two are really tenable for long-term digital nomad work.

Vientiane the nation’s capital is booming at the moment. It’s also blooming expensive by Southeast Asian standards. Chinese money is pouring into the city and it’s not unusual to see a Lamborghini bouncing down the potholed, badly sealed roads. It is the only city with a co-working space.

We love Luang Prabang, which may be the most beautiful city in the region, but the downside (other than the usual ropey internet and electricity, that is) is a near-total lack of nightlife. This is the city you go to detox and sleep before 10 p.m. Seriously.

Then there’s Vang Vieng, once a famous party town where anything went, well, that’s all gone now. After the 30th (or so) drunken tourist drowned in the local river, the authorities came in and made Vang Vieng “family-friendly” and it pretty much is now. It’s pretty but the Internet is dire.

Finally, we offer up Pakse which is at the edge of the “thousand islands” of the Mekong and is as close to a beach city as Laos gets. It’s a bit grim though the surrounding area is nice but once again, Internet reliability is dire. Be warned if you decide to come overland from Cambodia to reach Pakse, the border is one of the worst crossing points in Indochina – it is corruption on steroids.

There are other cities in Laos but without a good command of the local language and a year or two’s experience of living in the country; you’d be fairly mad to try and make a go of digital nomad life in them.

The country is full of wonderful places of natural outstanding beauty and the world-famous Plain of Jars is well worth a visit. However, let’s be upfront about this – at the moment, it’s not the perfect destination to settle in as a digital nomad.

Getting Into Laos – Visas And Other Stuff

 

Buddhas in Laos.

You can get into Laos fairly easily if you want to visit as a tourist and almost every digital nomad will visit as a tourist. Almost everyone gets a tourist visa on arrival to Laos.

Unlike most other countries in the region, Laos does not have fixed pricing for a tourist visa. The price varies depending on your country of origin. It is typically going to cost $20-$50.

You may find that if you enter the country by land that there are some other petty contrivances to deal with too. There may be an official crossing charge of $1-$2 (depending on the time of day).

And if you don’t have the right amount of US dollars on you to buy your visa, expect the most criminal exchange rate in history if you try to pay with Thai Baht, Vietnamese Dong or Cambodian Riel and that’s if they will take them at all.

Unlike Cambodia, however, nobody will try to fill in your forms to try and earn an extra buck or two. Which is a shame because the Laos visa paperwork takes quite a while to fill in.

In our experience, you won’t be asked for onward flights, hotel bookings, etc. when arriving in Laos. Though, if you are one of those with money to burn that is flying into Laos you may be asked for these things at the check-in counter before you board the plane.

Laos needs tourists. It’s that simple. So, if you have the money to pay for your visa, as a general rule they’re going to be very pleased to see you.

You can only, normally, buy a tourist visa on arrival in Lao. If you qualify for any other form of visa, you’d know about it.

All tourist visas last for 30 days and maybe extended once for an additional 30 days. After this, you must leave Laos. You can, however, return immediately once you’ve been stamped into (and out of) another country. Visa runs are just fine if you want to stay in Laos.

If you do decide that you want to stay long-term; it is possible to arrange a (not quite legal) 1-year business visa through certain travel agents. This will set you back $1,000-$1,500 for the year.

Language In Laos

 

A Lao Painter

The language of Laos is Lao. It is similar to the Isaan dialect spoken in North-East Thailand. Lao people can understand both Isaan and Thai, but Thais often struggle to understand Lao.

English language skills in Laos are fairly scarce though you will find people at most major tourist destinations, banks, and fast food joints are fine.

We’ve not spent enough time in-country to learn any Lao which is a little shameful. If you want to learn Lao, you’ll probably need a local tutor. There are very few formal programs available.

Internet In Laos

 

Life On The Mekong

They say the Philippines has the worst Internet in South East Asia, we’d beg to differ and would nominate Laos for that title.

In our experience it’s always slow, it’s always on sometimes and always off at others, and electricity is also unreliable. That means if you have tight deadlines to work to, Laos may not be for you and it means that for those who teach online English or who have regular online commitments, it’s definitely not for you.

I try to clear the decks of any client work before visiting Laos now. Spending nearly 3 days to do 4 hours work in a four-star hotel in Vientiane was quite the learning experience.

Money In Laos

 

Guarding the important stuff in Vientiane.

Money in Laos is complicated. The official currency is the Lao Kip and it is used in practice, unlike in Cambodia where the Riel is rarely used in big cities. However, the US Dollar is often the preferred currency of transactions in Laos and they’re also quite happy to take Thai Baht (particularly in cities, like Vientiane, which is close to the Thai border).

There are roughly 8,000 Kip to the US Dollar as it is a pegged currency. Lao Kip is, generally, worthless outside of Lao and while you may be able to change it in border towns, you will get a horrible exchange rate. Try to get rid of yours before you leave Laos.

ATMs are not as common as in other countries in South East Asia. We’d recommend bringing a decent amount with you for your first day until you can track down an ATM.

Officially, if you want to open a bank account in Laos you need a business visa and/or a work permit. There are private banks offering tourist visa bank accounts but be warned – these banks can and do go bust and they can and do take your money with them when they do. We’d advise against opening an account in Laos.

Transferring money into Laos is thus a bit of a pain, you’re either going to pay ATM fees or Western Union fees. We’d suggest opening a Bangkok Bank account in Thailand and then using Bangkok Bank in Laos to withdraw as the cheapest method.

Laos just isn’t cheap for anything. Much of the things you can buy in the country are made in China but cost more than in Cambodia, Thailand or Vietnam.

We wouldn’t buy electronic goods in the country without it being an emergency requirement. Warranties are worthless. Goods are way overpriced. Just no.

Credit and debit cards are not taken in most businesses and in those where they are – expect to pay an additional transaction fee for paying by card.

All told, if you’re careful with your money – Laos is not the country for you. It will slowly leak out of your pockets in a million ways. We wouldn’t mind if this was offset by cheap local pricing, but you can get a beer much cheaper in Cambodia or Vietnam along with everything else.

One final warning: we told you the Internet was terrible in Laos and it’s no less so for the banks. The ATM networks are prone to canceling transactions while they’re in process for no reason at all. Also, the entire ATM network can go down for hours a time which makes it impossible to get out any cash at all. Try not to run out of money before going to get more.

Finding Accommodation For Digital Nomads In Laos

 

You won't be staying here it's the monument in Vientiane, again.

There’s a wonderful English word which works well to describe cheap accommodation in most of Laos. That word is squalid. If you want budget accommodation, stay away from Laos, seriously, a long way away.

Competition in the local market from wealthy Chinese businesspeople means that accommodation is much pricier than in other parts of the region and even when you’re prepared to pay for it – it’s often not as luxurious or well turned out as in the rest of the region.

You could find a room for as little as $50 if you want to share with rats and cockroaches and are prepared to live under a fan.

We’d expect to pay $500-$600 a month for anything of an acceptable standard and often quite a bit more than that. You will find cheaper away from Vientiane and Luang Prabang but at the price of Internet services and other services.

There is not a huge amount of homes for rent to foreigners and few laws which govern a transaction. Rents, deposits, contracts, etc. are thus all up for negotiation to some extent. You may/may not get your deposit back at the end of a contract.

Burglary is not uncommon in Lao and you should look to rent as secure a place as possible.

You will probably be expected to pay for utilities directly to the provider. This means fair rates but can be a bit of a hassle too. Electricity and Internet are not cheap. We’d expect bills of $150+ if you use air conditioning.

Co-Working Spaces In Laos For Digital Nomads

 

You can't nomad here, it's a temple.

As far as we can tell, there’s exactly one co-working space in the country. It’s in Vientiane. I went to look for it once, as it’s on the Mekong path running through town. I couldn’t find it.

This doesn’t bode well for co-working in Laos and it’s another reason many digital nomads will steer clear except for a visa run or quick visit.

We’d expect monthly charges to be on the high side if you find it which is simply a reflection of the costs of Laos as a general rule.

They will almost certainly have a generator, but the Internet in Laos is simply not good for anybody, there’s no reason to expect much more in a co-working space.

The good news is that there are plenty of cafes with Wi-Fi. They are all happy to have you come in and work as long as you buy something occasionally. We’re not huge fans of co-working, so, it’s fair to say this is something we’re not too bothered about.

Food And Drink In Laos

 

Vientiane maybe my favorite city in South East Asia for fine French dining. It’s awesome. We wish we could give the same level of enthusiasm for Lao food, but we just can’t. We don’t know anyone from any country (including neighboring nations) that has any enthusiasm for Lao food, either.

It’s edible enough but it’s just not great. Laab is the most popular dish but I find it really hard to eat.

Street food is a relative rarity unlike in Thailand. There’s a superb street-side stall selling umm… Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwiches in Vientiane and quite a few selling seafood and kebabs at local markets but otherwise it’s not common.

It is, however, reasonably priced (for Laos) and it won’t kill you even if it’s not great.

Café and restaurant meals are more expensive than in other countries in the region, we’d suggest budgeting $5 for a small meal and $10 for a bigger one, minimum. The fine dining is “cheap” for what it is but we’d put aside $40+ per person for that.

Eating out in Laos is a great experience but you can’t help but resent the price tag in most places. It’s not bad value compared to the West, but it is bad value compared to the rest of Southeast Asia and while it never reaches “Singapore prices”, it also never reaches “Singapore quality” either.

Groceries are also not cheap when compared to Thailand or Cambodia. Worse, there’s also a real absence of Western goods – so, you’re going to find your choices are much narrower than elsewhere. You can get good deals on fruit and veg in the markets but the wet markets are rank and we wouldn’t trust meat or fish from them unless you cook it to extinction.

Alcohol pricing, as we’ve already said, is a little on the high side for beer and a lot on the high side for wine and spirits. If you go clubbing (only in Vientiane) it can be very pricey, indeed.

Safety And Security For Digital Nomads In Laos

 

Don't slip up with safety like this person on a banana peel.

Laos is not the safest country in South East Asia but it is relatively safe. As long as you employ common sense, you should be fine but it is worth noting that there are some risks.

Sexual assault on foreigners is rare but your chances of this increase if you’re drunk and alone late at night. Never engage a moto driver to take you home in this state.

Street crime is not as common as it is in Cambodia and is likely to be limited to snatch and grab theft. We recommend carrying bags over the shoulder on the inside (e.g. as far away from the road as possible) when walking. Ideally, wear bags strapped across your body because this makes them much harder to snatch.

But let’s be clear about this. If someone does grab your bag, let it go. Violence is often the answer in this instance, and you will not enjoy being on the receiving end. Nothing in a bag is worth dying for. Let it go.

We recommend paying your tab as you go, though we’ve had no experience of a “loaded check” in Laos, it’s just the best rule of thumb.

ATM skimming is a popular hobby in Laos. So, be careful which ATM you use. The best are inside banks. The worst are stuck outside of stores.

Tuk-tuk drivers are insufferable thieves and while you can haggle, they are much, much more likely to refuse than elsewhere. You can rent an air-con taxi for as much as a tuk-tuk in most instances. Sadly, they are the most convenient way to go in most of Laos and Grab Taxi is not, yet, available in most places.

Mugging is almost unheard of but walking around on your own at nighttime is just not a good idea anywhere in the world.

Lao people are friendly and kind for the most part. As long as you respond to them in a similar fashion everything will be fine. Be aware that Lao people have a reputation for being so laid back they’re nearly horizontal – don’t expect anything to be done in a hurry.

We’d recommend that digital nomads insure their gear for visits to Laos.

Clothing And Footwear In Laos

 

Clothes at a market stall in Asia.

You are going to struggle to find anything in larger Western sizes in Laos. In fact, if you’re in this position, we’d recommend you visit Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur for a shopping trip.

Clothes are available in Asian sizes throughout Laos. They tend to be lower quality and higher priced than in the rest of Indochina, though.

Tailors are an option if you’re particularly desperate and can’t get away, but we’ve not come across any Lao tailor that is of any real standard. Cobblers are available but more expensive than in Cambodia and again, they’re not great.

Forget online ordering as import taxes are high and within Laos, it’s next to impossible anyway. Your best bet for clothes and shoes in Laos is to bring what you need with you.

Health Care In Laos For Digital Nomads

 

Lovely Nurse/Doctor not in Laos.

Lao healthcare can be charitably described as basic nearly everywhere and in reality, unless you have a very strong stomach, horrendous might be a better word.

If you have anything much worse than a common cold – we’d recommend heading to Thailand or even Vietnam for treatment. If you need a dentist, go to Cambodia where treatment is excellent and cheap.

If you are foolish enough to use Lao healthcare, it will cost money, ideally have a health insurance program at the ready because expenses can mount up fast, particularly for foreign tourists.

Pharmacies are plentiful, however, and you can buy most (though not all) medications over the counter in Laos.

Illegal Drugs In Laos

 

The best way to get high in Laos - take a balloon ride over Vang Vieng.

There used to be some tolerance for illicit substances in Laos. Those days appear to be over.

There are Draconian punishments levied even for the slightest sniff of marijuana and everything else will be treated worse.

It is often possible to pay a bribe to get out of trouble with the law in Laos but as in Thailand – these are much higher than they once were. For this kind of offense expect to be asked for thousands of dollars.

Laos may also because it’s the poorest Southeast Asian nation, have the worst jails of anywhere you’re likely to be.

As always, our advice is simple, stay away from illegal drugs in Laos. The penalties simply aren’t worth it.

Dating In Laos For Digital Nomads

 

This is how Laos once looked when it was illegal to date locals.

It’s not so long ago that if you were caught in a bedroom with a Lao girl unchaperoned, you could get a large fine for doing so. In fact, hotels and guest houses were quite happy to tell on you in order to get a slice of the action as a kickback.

Those days are gone. You’re quite safe to date a Lao girl or, indeed, a Lao guy now.

Lao girls are quite conservative though we’ve also found that there is a growing minority that is quite forward about their interest in foreign guys now. We’ve not seen anything similar from Lao men though, but to be honest – we’ve never seen a male Lao and female foreigner dating, either.

Violence is prevalent in relationships in South East Asia and women may need to be cautious if they want to date a Lao gentleman.

Prostitution is less overt than in Cambodia or Thailand but it’s still there surrounding the expat scene. We strongly recommend that you don’t date a prostitute. It’s never a good idea.

You will probably need to learn to speak Lao if you’re serious about finding a Lao partner. Apart from a handful of tourism workers and the occasional Lao-Am or Lao-Australian returnee, English language skills aren’t common in Lao.

We don’t know any expats or digital nomads who have married a Lao partner (though this can be partially explained by the previous dating ban). The expats we know in Laos who are married have partners from elsewhere in South East Asia.

Be warned, if you want your Lao partner to join your digital nomad journey, Lao passports are very weak and it’s hard for a Lao national to visit many of the countries outside of South East Asia.

General Shopping In Laos For Digital Nomads

 

Some Lao local art.

There are some cute boutique stores in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Supermarkets are pretty poor imitations of their counterparts in the rest of the region.

There is some basic access to fast food in Vientiane and Luang Prabang. There is a half-decent bookstore in Vientiane.

There’s not much else. If you want local art or local craftsmanship, it can, of course, be bought at source for the best prices.

If you want anything that costs more than a few bucks, though? We’d recommend doing a run over the border into Thailand, Vietnam or even, at a push, Cambodia to do your shopping. You’ll get more choice and it will cost you less money.

Laos is not really a shopper’s paradise.  For some, this is part of its appeal.

Religion In Laos

 

Buddhist monks queue for alms in Laos' second city.

Nearly all Lao are Buddhist. This is quite surprising given the communist nature of the Lao state but there is no deterrent to the indigenous religion and, in fact, the two have existed quite happily together over the years.

There is freedom of religion in Lao but as any missionary will tell you, Buddhists are highly resistant to conversion. When you believe you have an infinite number of reincarnations to get it right before you reach Nirvana, why would you swap that for a “live once and then on to heaven or hell”, deal?

Lao Buddhism is traditional and well-established unlike that in neighboring Cambodia. It is a good country to learn about Buddhism if you can find an English speaking monk to teach you.

The number one celebration of the year as with Thailand and Cambodia is the Lao New Year (Songkran). This is similar to the Khmer festival in that light splashes of water are given rather than full blast soakings, as a general rule, though the Thai approach has leaked a little across the border.

This New Year is celebrated in March/April and not at the same time as Western New Year or the Chinese Spring Festival (often called “Chinese New Year” in the West).

In general, as long as you are respectful towards the local religion – you won’t find it interferes with life in Lao very much for a digital nomad. Please be aware, however, that it’s rude to photograph monks without their permission to do so. You may be expected to make a small donation to get that approval.

And yes, this is just as true of the huge parades of orange-robed monks that throng the streets of Luang Prabang each morning in that city’s most exciting spectacle.

General Thoughts On Laos For Digital Nomads

 

Reclining Buddha in Vientiane.

We’ve probably, in balance, made Laos sound a bit grim and that’s because, well, it’s not perfect. We won’t apologize for painting a fairly bleak picture for would-be digital nomads.

However, we also won’t pretend that Laos isn’t a great place to visit because it is. It’s just not, at this moment in time, built for long-term stay for those who work online. Which is fine, use it as a getaway, clear your backlog and head to Vientiane, Luang Prabang or somewhere even further afield for a break from it all (and possibly to renew your Thai visa)

Note: For those renewing Thai visas in Laos, Vientiane has an online queuing system for Thai visas, you must use this system (and book weeks in advance) if you want to get a visa. For this reason, many people are choosing to visit Savannakhet (also in Laos but not as nice or touristy) to get their visas renewed.

Note 2: It appears that for those renewing Thai tourist visas anywhere in Laos – there is now an unofficial rule of “2 visas and no more”. 

The people are among the warmest in the world, even if they’re not particularly industrious. The temples and monuments are uniquely Lao and the scenery in the remoter parts of the country is majestic.

We have developed genuine and lasting affection for Laos over the years but we’re never going to live there. You probably won’t want to either.

Hopefully, we’ll catch you for a beer when you’re passing through and we can moan about the price of everything in Laos in person.

 

Nicholas Barang

Nicholas Barang is a veteran digital nomad. In fact, he was probably "digital nomading" before it was called that. He believes that anyone can make a free and independent life if they want to. He wants to help those who commit to finding their own path. And to cut through the nonsense told about this "lifestyle" by those in search of a quick buck. If you want to reach him you can send him an e-mail at nicholasbarang@gmail.com or to nick at nomadtalk.net.

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