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Once Forbidden, Now Easy

“I’m in Vientiane, the capital of Laos,” writes intrepid Correspondent Paul Terhorst. “If you’re thinking of retiring in Laos, start in this city, with its large Western community, ethnic restaurants (there’s a great Sichuan Chinese place called Sichuan across from the museum), French cultural influence, and fine location on the Mekong River.

“There’s an English-language newspaper, the best hospitals in Laos, the best hotels, and imported wine. Plus, Vientiane lies just across the river from Thailand, making visa and airport runs that much easier.

“This morning I was walking through the huge market here, minding my own business, when a woman came rushing over to me. She urgently pushed a box of Viagra into my hand. ‘Good price.’ The box was tattered; I figure the Viagra was phony or at best a generic version from China.

“But I had to wonder, what is it about me that causes people in the market to drop what they’re doing, run over, and implore me to buy phony Viagra?

“Later on, I accidentally bumped into a solution to the visa problem here. According to the best-published information, a Westerner gets only a 30-day visa on arrival (US$35). The visa on arrival can be extended for up to 30 days in the immigration office in Vientiane, for US$2 a day.

“The problem: 60 days seems like too short a stay for retirees.

“So, during my travels, whenever I’ve spotted a Westerner who looked like a resident–working in an office or restaurant, for example, or driving a car with Lao plates–I’ve asked about visas.

“I got the same story again and again: Only a business visa allows you stay in the country long term. Laos has yet to set up retirement visas, non-immigrant visas, or other long-term stay options for retirees.

“One exception: A guy told me he’d lived in Laos for seven years on a business visa, even though he never worked. According to this guy, the secret was money. ‘Hire a fixer to do the paperwork for you. In my case, it cost US$400.’

“This guy was married to a Lao; I figure he might have an easier fix than the rest of us.

“Finally, here in Vientiane, I met the right man in the right place and got the right answer. The right place was a liquor store around the corner from the Asian Pavillon hotel (US$25 a night).

“The Asian Pavillon used to be called the Hotel Constellation. During the Vietnam War, from 1954-1975, the Hotel Constellation was the preferred meeting place for spies of all persuasions. John le Carré’s spy novel The Honourable Schoolboy is set in the Hotel Constellation. The U.S. embassy is right around the corner. I can easily imagine CIA and other undercover types going back and forth.

“I was looking at wine prices inside the liquor store when a Westerner drove up, parked, ran in, grabbed a box of wine, and headed for the checkout counter. He must be a resident, I figured. He knew exactly what he wanted. Just outside the store, I asked him how I could get a long-stay visa. He looked me over.

“‘You want the official or the unofficial answer?’

“‘Start with unofficial,’ I replied.

“‘The Laos try to keep it a secret,’ he then went on to explain, ‘but if you’re over 62 you can stay as long as you want. Get a visa on arrival, as usual, for US$35. Once you’re in the country, go to the immigration office here and tell them you want to stay longer. I just did that for my mother, who visited me for four months. They’ll stamp your passport for the date you want to leave, and that’s it. If you’re over 62 and they’re in a good mood, there’s no charge. If they’re in a bad mood, you might have to pay US$2 a day.’

“What a change from the old days. As recently as 17 years ago, Laos was mostly off-limits to travelers. During my first visit to this border region in 1991, on the Thai side of the Mekong River, I was curious about forbidden Laos on the other side. The bank across the river looked so close. One night after dinner, the owner of our guest house came out to the dining hut. In broken English he said, ‘Tomorrow night there’s a wedding across the river, in Laos. If the village chief there says it’s okay, I’ll take you over in my boat. Lao people sell Lao Kao (local firewater) for 75 baht (US$3), big bottle.’

“A few of the kids and I eagerly said yes, we’d go. A couple of the kids asked our guest house owner if the big chief over in Laos could maybe arrange some, you know, Lao ganja (marijuana) at a good price, say, US$7 a kilo. The next day we got the bad news: The big chief on the Laos side of the Mekong had turned down the idea of having foreign visitors. He was afraid of harassment, or worse, from the Thai border police.

“I got carried away by my own enthusiasm and decided to try to swim across the Mekong. The river looked so shallow, so easy. The kids refused to join me, so, on the afternoon of the wedding night, I waded into the river by myself, to test to see if I could make it.

“I walked slowly, through the mud, and was almost across, some 30 meters from the Lao side, when, suddenly, I hit the Mekong’s main current. Wham, I was upside down and floating downstream. I figured I could swim all right, but I’d wind up several kilometers downstream. I kicked out of the current and went back.

“That was then; now, Westerners enter legally and easily. According to the guy in the Vientiane liquor store, we can even stick around a while, especially if we’re over 62 and maybe if we’re younger. Let’s hope he’s right. There’s still plenty of Lao Kao, still very cheap. The kids still buy ganja. The big chiefs still preside over weddings. But now, we Westerners can run around the country, anywhere we want to go, legally, cheaply, and easily. Laos is overland, look-around, be-there travel without crowds.

“Adventure travel at its easiest.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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