Vientiane, Laos Report of what it's like to live there - 01/22/14

Personal Experiences from Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, Laos 01/22/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No, we were previously in Pakistan and Hong Kong.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Pennsylvania. We departed from Dulles and it was at least a full 24 hours through CA, Japan, and Bangkok.

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3. How long have you lived here?

2008-2011. It was originally a 2-year tour, but we extended for a third year.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

U.S. government.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

The houses were big with little storage space in some houses, and large outdoor concrete sheds in others. Some have huge yards, mostly in the front of the house. Phone wiring in some houses were old and people could lose internet and phone service at times, especially during the rainy season.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

While we were there, we were given a consumables shipment. So we did take advantage of that. Household supplies were found, just not as adequate as one may like from the U.S. Groceries, especially European and American ones could be found at Phimphone, Simeung, and the small "twin peaks" market for a cost higher than in the US.

With the Embassy, we had access to the Commissary in Bangkok and 3 or 4 times a year we would arrange shipments of orders from Bangkok that would arrive via train and customers could pick up their items. We could receive frozen/fresh items on dry ice, dry items, sodas, etc. It was a good benefit.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Car items, as we often waited for Amazon to deliver wipers, filters, etc. Tires. We came to post with nice tires, ended up blowing two of them, and got the best they had, which looked a little used to me.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

No McDonald's or Burger King while we were there. There were great cheap restaurants where you could get a large bowl of mee/pho for less than US$3. Some of our favorite restaurants included L'Adress de Tinay - great French food, La Banneton for great baguettes, Le Silapa - my favorite by far - and I-beam. There was a cute crepes place that opened as I was leaving. Also Nudle - a take-out/delivery place. Silapa was probably the most expensive, but between the atmosphere, the gourmet food, and the friendly owners - it was worth it!

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Mosquitos mostly, especially during the rainy season. We had nets over the beds (that GSO installed for us) and sprayed the kids. We managed three years with only a handful of bites. There was a great company in Canada that had pre-treated nets and shipped them pretty quickly.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We had an APO and the pouch when we were there. We did not have a PO that we could buy stamps from, so be sure to have a USPS.com account. You can buy and print stamps from home and bring in the packages to mail. Mail took about 3 -4 weeks to arrive at post.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Cheap and available. Cooks, nannies, gardeners are most common. I believe I paid around US$350/month for our nanny, housekeeper and gardener. We were told we paid more than most, but it was worth the peace of mind as we both worked.

Our nanny worked 6 days a week, including some late evenings. Our housekeeper/cook did everything including overseeing our menus for entertaining. Our gardener worked twice a week and took care of the yard and our dogs.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There is a gym at Sengdara that many expats used. There was also a gym called BeBe (?) that opened. We used the Embassy gym, so I am not sure how much it costs. I think it was around US$300 for a year at Sengdara when we arrived.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

We did not use our credit cards or ATMs in Laos. We know people who did, most were successful.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

There were a number of options. The CLO office will have a list of denominations and locations.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Learn it. It's difficult, especially with all the tones, but the Lao are so sweet and forgiving of your mistakes as you try to speak to them in their language. Many shop owners know enough English. Hand gestures can get you pretty far,too.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

There are very few handicap-accessible buildings. Roads are in pretty poor condition and sidewalks are almost non-existent outside of the city center.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

There are buses, but I would not travel on them. I don't know of anyone who actually did. Tuks tuks were everywhere and can be cheap.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

We saw many different vehicles from small sedans to minivans. SUVs with 4-wheel drive would be great because of the roads and helpful especially during rainy season. If you have a American specific car, consider bringing along your own wipers, filters, etc to speed up the process when having your car serviced. We brought along a 2-year old Kia Sorento and were able to have it serviced regularly. It took trips throughout the country and never gave us any problems. Expect dings and scratches and at least one run in with a motorbike.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

When we were there internet was provided by the Embassy. It was nice to have but would fail often. There were 3-4 outside companies that provided service. PlanetOnline I recall being more popular and offering better speeds. We paid for a full year when we signed up about US$150-$200, I think.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Our phones were provided by the Embassy, so I can't speak for personal cell phones. I do know sim cards were cheap.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

We did not bring a pet into the country, but I do not believe there was any quarantine. Remember to contact GSO with size of pet containers and information on your pet. There were two recommended vets that I recall.

Stray dogs are abundant here.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

There are some EFM jobs at post. During our time one expat worked as a speech therapist. There is no real ability to work on the local economy.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

I volunteered with the Women's International Group (WIG) often and at the schools.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

The dress code was more business casual in most offices. The Lao women would wear the long skirt called a sihn. It was pretty comfortable. Most men wore slacks and short sleeve Lao shirts. It is usually hot.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

We did have a few house break ins during our time, but no one was hurt as it was a time when people were away. During our time we also had 24-hour guards posted at Embassy housing clusters. As in any city in the world, there is petty theft (e.g., purse stolen from person on motorbike, pickpocketing in touristy areas).

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Post now has a MED unit that was receiving a FSNP when we were leaving. Most of us used the Australian Clinic, with whom we had a contract at the time. For dental and most medical visits, we arranged through Bangkok or Udon Thani Hospital.

The local hospitals are very sad. We toured them and heard of stories from friends who had gone in for motorbike accidents and came out of the hospital with staph infections.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality was between moderate and unhealthy, and can depend on where you live. We were in an area with more expats so we did not have as much garbage burning as some other parts did. Motorbikes are plenty. There is not a lot of heavy industry, so you do not have the smog you would expect from China.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

There are three basic seasons in Laos. Monsoon season from about July/August to November, dry season from November to March, and hot season from April to August.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

There is essentially one international school that all dependents attended. Vientiane International School (VIS) is an accredited IB school starting from Pre K at age 3 to Grade 12. There was an active "Parents & Friends" group during our time that held great community events for VIS. I got to know many of the teachers in the Primary Years program and most of them were very dedicated to the students and genuinely caring. Of course, you also come across some who don't seem to have the passion for teaching anymore, which is a shame. VIS offered a lot of after school activities. During our time, my children took tae kwon do, soccer, baseball, rugby, art classes, played board games, etc. My experience was in the Lower School. So I do not have personal experience with the MS or HS although my friends seemed very happy with the teachers and curriculum.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

During our time we outsourced a speech pathologist and occupational therapist for our son. VIS administration and the teacher were very willing to work with both therapists and myself to 1) offer a room for the sessions to be held during school at a time when work would not be too heavily missed and 2) come up with a plan of action.

From their website:
VIS serves a diverse community and therefore provides some limited services to students with mild learning difficulties. Defining "mild" is difficult and depends on many factors. A general definition for VIS is that a student with a mild learning difficulty can access the regular curriculum with;

some limited or short term additional adult intervention,
some limited additional time to compete tasks, or
some limited adjustment to expectations.

Learning difficulties are beyond mild when a student:

requires a separate programme of instruction,
needs significant ongoing adult intervention to access the curriculum
is unable to meet the requirements of the programme for a sustained period

Children can experience mild learning difficulties for a variety of reasons and the school will make accommodations where it is possible. Whether VIS can provide a suitable programme with support or not will be determined by considering information provided by previous schools, parents, external agencies and professionals and in-school assessments. Our programmes are challenging and are designed to meet the needs of college-bound students, and the context of the programme will be considered in assessing the likely success of the student. The basis for the decision will be in the best interest of the student and whether the school can provide a programme in which the child is likely to be successful. As partners in the education of your child, we seek to consider all relevant information during the admission process.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are a few preschools with 2-3 Montessori schools. Santisouk Montessori is where my youngest went and it was good. If I had to do it again I would have put him in Alpha. I served on the Board for Santisouk and the Lao teachers were very caring of the children at the school. The advisor at the time was from Australia, I believe, and she was very instrumental in setting higher standards during the time I served on the board.

Nannies can be hired for daily childcare, including nights and weekends.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There was Sunday rugby open to all ages and abilities. There was horse backing riding, gymnastics at the Lao circus. Most sports programs were available through the school (soccer, basketball).

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

During out time it was pretty small. Our first year, morale seemed pretty low as some people seemed to want to be elsewhere. With turnover, a new group arrived and morale really seemed to improve.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

For somewhere that seems like it has not much to do, as far as American comparisons, we were always busy. We'd have game nights, BBQs, swimming at the Ambassador's pool, playdates with kids' friends.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

This is a great place for all.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

In 2012, Laos held its first gay pride event. Homosexuality is legal in Laos. We did not witness any problems for gay or lesbian expats.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Nothing really that I witnessed.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

It was amazing to tour to the country and see the life of the Lao people from Sam Neua all the way down to Champasak. We loved celebrating along our colleagues and neighbors during Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year).

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

Sitting at a restaurant on the Mekong at sunset. Boat cruise on the Nam Ou. Explore the Kong Lor caves, drive to see the many beautiful waterfalls just outside of Vientiane. Visit the Plain of Jars, learn about silkworms and making natural dyes at Mulberry farm. the night markets in Luang Prabang and in Vientiane. Get up early one morning and give alms to the monks. Head south and visit the 4000 islands, go to Champasak and vistWat Phou.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Silver, wooden elephants, fabrics.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Laos is very cheap! Even with amazing French and Italian restaurants, and trips around the region, and weekly massages and mani/pedis. Some nice fresh markets found in the villages, as well as small mini marts catering to expats.

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10. Can you save money?

Yes! Even with regular trips to Bangkok, Phuket, within Laos, and neighboring countries, we were still able to save a lot of money.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

I just wish I was more prepared for the sheer volume of motorbikes that will come up on other side of you while waiting at a light.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely! It is a hidden gem.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Winter clothes, heavy jackets (unless you plan to travel back to the cold areas for winters).

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4. But don't forget your:

Patience. Laos is a great country, but you will need to practice patience as not everything will happen as quickly as you may expect it to. And sunscreen and bug spray.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

The Dr. Siri books by Colin Cotterill such as The Woman Who Wouldn't Die (Dr. Siri)

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