August 24, 2010
Yesterday I wrote to you about Sophia Antipolis, a beautiful place in the South of France that’s just about perfect for expats with families who don’t want to make any compromises… what I call the “Internationalists” from the 7 expat categories.
Today I want to tell you about another French-influenced place that’s great for “pioneers” and “expedtioners” who are opportunity-focused but not concerned about being in a developing country. I’m talking about Laos, and the capital city of Vientiane in particular.
Vientiane definitely has a lot of French influence… like Beirut, New Orleans, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires, there are French elements in the architecture, cuisine, and local culture. Unlike those other cities, however, most people have never heard of Vientiane. This is why I want to bring it to your attention.
Given the recent boom that has occurred in parts of Southeast Asia, most notably Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I think Laos has several of the key ingredients to prosper in the long run.
First of all, it’s already one of the poorest countries in the world. To give you an idea, the top tax bracket in Laos applies to people who make more than $1,800 per year.
It’s hard (though not impossible) for a country to head anywhere but up when it’s sitting at rock bottom. But what really sets Laos apart from other cheap countries is that it is home to massive amounts of the world’s most valuable resource.
No, I’m not talking about oil & gas, or gold for that matter. I’m talking about the stuff we all need to survive– food. Laos is covered with nutrient-rich arable land that is among the most productive on earth… yet only a small percentage of it has been industrialized and cultivated.
I am a strong believer that the growing world population will increase global demand for food, especially in major Asian population centers. This spells rising food prices. Laos is well-positioned to capitalize on that trend because of the combination of low costs and high yields.
Consequently, it won’t be long before both Chinese and western companies start leasing and developing large tracts of land there to cultivate agricultural products. In my experience, anytime foreign companies enter a new market, it creates tremendous opportunities for local entrepreneurs who can facilitate business services.
So what’s it like being in Laos? Well, as the only landlocked nation in Southeast Asia, Laos is not a place to go looking for beautiful beach resorts… but you’ll find 5-star hotels, inexpensive guesthouses, and everything in between.
For businesses, it’s a far cry from the tax nightmares and rising costs in other, more developed countries. Although a one-party Politburo runs the country’s socialist political platform, the bureaucrats are fairly hands-off with foreign companies that create jobs in the country.
They realized years ago that the only way to prosperity was loosening restrictions and adopting a more market-oriented economy. They’re in the middle of that transition right now.
I think there’s ample opportunity in Laos for anyone looking for a crowd-free, low-stress, low-cost place to do live and business. Vientiane would make a great spot to retire, open up a small restaurant or bar, get into the tourism business, or just lay low for a couple years.
The city sits on a bend of the Mekong river, literally a stone’s throw over the water from Thailand. Vientiane is a cozy little town with unbelievable food and a pleasant, laid-back expat atmosphere. It’s distinguished by beautiful Buddhist temples, traditional monasteries, and French colonial architecture.
Vientiane is cheap too. Imagine eating an impressive 3-course French dinner (with wine) at one of the city’s finest restaurants for less than $20. You can also rent a luxury serviced apartment for only $1,200 per month.
One evening on my last visit to Vientiane, I ducked into a comfortable expat-owned pub that was brimming with locals and travelers alike. Sitting at the bar, I met a friendly Australian woman who turned out to be the owner; she’d been in Laos for eight years and absolutely loved her new home and business.
There are hundreds of small foreigner-owned establishments like hers in Vientiane– restaurants, pubs, hostels, and tourism businesses. And as she told me, police officers and government cronies are actually a very rare sight.
With so much available at an incredibly low cost, it makes for a great getaway for expatriates who need an escape from the hustle and bustle. Given the future opportunities that I expect, it’s a solid destination to plant a business flag or start a new life abroad.