Living in Laos
Laos is among the least-populated, and thus least-spoiled, of the countries in Southeast Asia. Even the capital city of Vientiane feels like a small town, and it’s always easy to get away to the countryside. If you’re looking for a laid-back lifestyle and a small but close-knit and active expat community, Vientiane could be a good place to look to find work.
The Lao language is one of the more difficult to learn in Southeast Asia because it is a tonal language which uses a unique script. However, it shares many similarities with Thai so if you know that language you’ll have a good start on Lao.
Lao uses five tones in total, and the tone with which the word is pronounced can impact the meaning. It can be difficult for foreigners to get used to pronouncing the tones, and it’s even more difficult to get used to hearing them. However, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds because you can usually determine the meaning of a word from context even if you’re not sure about which tone you heard. For example, a certain word might mean “to come,” “horse,” or “dog” depending on the tone used, and you’ll usually be able to tell which word is being said from the context of the sentence.
The Lao script includes 27 consonants and 33 vowels, which is quite a lot more than English. However, don’t be daunted as although English has only 5 vowel characters, each character can be pronounced in a variety of different ways depending on the context. On the other hand, each time you see a particular character in Lao you’ll be able to tell exactly how it should be pronounced.
Eating in Laos
Lao food is similar to other Southeast Asian food in its liberal use of fresh vegetables and meats in a variety of stir-fried dishes. You’ll find soups and curries, and fresh fruit in abundance as well. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, two unique foods in Laos are sticky rice and big, fresh baguettes.
Sticky rice is eaten with most meals in Laos, and it’s perfectly polite to pick up a pinch of rice and a bit of the main dish between your fingers and put it in your mouth. Baguettes are a leftover from French colonial days, but you can find them stuffed with a variety of ingredients including fresh vegetables, pate, fried eggs and cheese. Some vendors get more creative, offering combos such as tofu, peanut butter and soy sauce, which is actually very good!
Compared to other countries in the region, eating out in Laos is a tad more expensive in comparison with a teacher’s salary. The selection of international food isn’t as large as in Bangkok or Phnom Penh, but you’ll still be able to find Japanese, Korean, Indian, and western food in the capital city of Vientiane. Western-style fast-food chains and coffee shops haven’t made much headway yet in Laos.
When it comes to cooking for yourself, you’ll likely do most of your shopping at local markets and small food shops. Even Vientiane has yet to open a modern supermarket like Tesco or Big C, though there have long been rumors that one will open in the future. There are a few supermarkets in town which stock western food, but these mostly cater to the budgets of foreign aid workers rather than teachers. Still, you’ll be able to buy a few blocks of cheese and bottles of wine sometimes.
Vientiane has a small but close-knit community of expats, and Luang Prabang has an even smaller one. If you live in any city besides those, you’re almost sure to soon meet every other foreigner in town. The expats in Vientiane are an active lot, though, and there are a fair number of activities going on. Vientiane doesn’t have many events magazines like Bangkok or Phnom Penh, so you’ll hear about most events through social networks or Facebook groups.
Find out more about the kinds of activities you can get involved in in my eBook!
Vientiane doesn’t have much of an intra-city public transportation system at all, though you’ll find public buses with limited routes in Vientiane. Just about all foreigners will end up buying a bicycle or motorbike to get around. Luckily, traffic even in Vientiane moves slowly (unlike Bangkok) and the roads aren’t terribly crowded (unlike Ho Chi Minh City), so you can ride around with few worries.
However, like other Southeast Asian countries, Laos has a quite extensive inter-city public transportation system. It’s easy and cheap to find buses going between different cities, and they tend to leave quite frequently. This makes travel around the country quite easy. However, when you’re in a city you’ll be dependent on tuk-tuks, motorbike taxis, or rented wheels to get around.
Teaching in Laos
As Laos is smaller and poorer than neighboring countries, there is admittedly not as much work to be found there. There are a few private schools and language centers which will pay a good wage, however. It’s especially important to actually visit Laos before looking for work, though, as very few job offers in the country will ever get posted online. Thailand and Hanoi (Vietnam) have well-known websites where many teaching jobs get posted, but there’s no equivalent website for Vientiane or for Laos. You’ve got much better chances of finding work if you travel to the country and start asking around and visiting schools in the city where you want to live.
While jobs may be less plentiful and the pay not as high as neighboring countries, the reward for living in Laos is a laid-back lifestyle in a country where it’s easy to get out to the countryside. If you stay in Vientiane, you’ll have a small city with a close-knit expat community and a relaxed pace.
Laos has one well-known international school, as well as a few other private schools which employ foreigners. You’ll find a few colleges and language centers which cater to adults, and a few private kindergartens as well. To learn more about the different kinds of schools you can find, as well as the most extensive list of schools in Laos you can find online, check out my eBook!