Laos Nightlife

Even by 2024, there are not that many social activities in Vientiane that either Lao or foreigners can indulge in, besides drinking Beer Lao or the local cheap but potent (and detrimental to health over time) ‘Lao whisky’, a white spirit known as lao kao.

There are a few public swimming pools apart from those of the better hotels; there are some bowling alleys, numerous fitness centres, cinema complex at Lao ITECC, Hash House Harriers and a few assorted social and sports clubs including rugby. Football (soccer) is very popular among young Lao people.

The Lane Xang Golf Club is at Km14 on the way to the Friendship Bridge and also the Eagle driving range. The Dansavanh Nam Ngum Resort, about 60 km north of Vientiane, has an international standard golf course, 185-room hotel and casino with 150 slots and 60 table games. English is spoken, but most of the customers are Chinese Lao, Thai and Vietnamese.

The Vientiane Times is an English language daily newspaper owned (and censored) by the Lao government, with mainly local events and announcements, and a smattering of regional and international news; also details of local club and organisation activities. It should not be confused with a dot com website using the same name, and run by Lao-American residents (Hmong refugees, dissidents?) with a strong anti-Lao-government bias.

Night clubs – fun for Lao youth and the young-at-heart tourist

Vientiane’s night life is lively but limited in scope. There are no raunchy live shows or titillating ‘cabaret’ such as in neighbouring Thailand or the Philippines.

There are some excellent restaurants. Hotels like Lao Plaza and Novotel, now renamed Mercure, have night clubs catering to the wealthy local ‘elite’ and foreigners.

Beyond that, for the rest, there are a few popular, tightly-packed pub/discos, night clubs, music and karaoke pubs which play a mix of Lao, Thai, Western and other Asian pop music, and where beer is still cheap by any standards. Popular spots include Marina, Mercure Blue Note (Novotel) and Red Sun with live music (opp BCEL) in the city. Romeo is a fairly high-tech venue the clock tower at Chinaimo roundabout on Thadeua Road.

Meena (now closed) has been superseded by Echo which is directly opposite on the same road but nearer the city. The small club at Soradith Hotel in Dong Palane caters mainly to gays and ladyboys. All Lao night venues are mixed and gay-friendly or at least tolerant; it’s part of the culture.

Even with Lao’s early closing times, most places remain empty until 10 p.m., but by 11 they have filled up for the very short ‘night out’.

Closing times vary around 1 a.m. Clubs in hotels like Novotel (Mercure) stay open later, as can some clubs a little outside the city centre like Echo, Marktwo, Dao Kham (Gold Star) and Marina.

Political decisions, Buddhist calendar events, management whim and unknown factors affect the time a club or restaurant will close on any particular evening.

When the white lights come up, then gradually get switched off, that’s the time to pay the bill, finish your drinks and leave. There is no point in asking why. It’s ‘Lao style’ to accept these things with a smile and without question.

There are several easy to find bar restaurants (close by midnight) popular with tourists are Kop Chai Dur, Chess Cafe and Red Sun (Tawen Daeng). The easiest way to meet a pretty (poo sao ngam) Lao girl, handsome (poo sai law) Lao man or ‘katoey’ is by experiencing the Vientiane night scene.

Lao people still tend to label without malice anyone from gay male or tom (lesbian) to transvestite or transgender ‘shemale’ as kathoey. See more on the Buddhist third sex or third gender topic below.

Visit some of the above places and mixing with the local crowd. As a foreign tourist travelling alone, you will often be made a fuss of; you might be joined at or invited to share a table.

Go along if you can with the singing, dancing, clapping and arm-waving to the loud music, while drinking copious quantities of Beer Lao (Johnnie Walker for the wealthier patrons).

These are the places where you can see young Lao people enjoying themselves to the full. By contrast, family celebrations (except for formal wedding receptions for the wealthy) are almost always held at home with the extended family, friends and neighbours and their friends, accompanied by extremely loud blasting pop and traditional music, recorded and live. Karaoke is everywhere.

Sex with Lao ladies, men and other ‘night people’ (free or paid)

After the clubs close, before they go home to sleep, the Lao ‘jet set’ like to soak up the excess of alcohol by stopping for a bowl of noodle or rice soup (Chinese dim sum is also popular) at several late-opening outdoor shops which also serve beer. Some of these people are looking for sex too.

Vientiane is quite different from the ‘in your face’ entertainment of Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiangmai or Philippines cities, but it’s easy to have a good time when you know where to go.

‘Night people’ and club-goers are from teenagers to early 30s, a lot of them college and university students as well as the many unemployed being supported by the family (another strong Lao tradition).

Most will have money enough to buy a couple of drinks. Richer friends take care of those without. Local families often rely on regular support from relatives living overseas, mainly in the USA; this seems to give many young Vientiane people little incentive to work or even consider looking for jobs.

A high proportion of these go to clubs several times per week – not only to enjoy the company of their friends, but also in the hope of finding customers for sex, preferably farang (foreigners) who are always expected to have money.

Famous in the sixties and seventies, Vientiane brothels have long gone, prohibited by Lao law, but places do exist if you have a local friend who ‘knows the scene’.

There are many ‘short time’ guesthouses and hotels (they call them love hotels in Japan) and hotels scattered around the country catering primarily to this trade as well as ‘normal’ overnight guests.

The women who frequent the clubs and ‘lady bars’ are mainly ordinary girls who don’t think of themselves as prostitutes; they are known as phuxao bolikan (service women).

Sadly, it’s the easiest and most lucrative form of regular income for young Lao (and Thai), and this is how many of them support their families. Babies and young children are often at home, being taken care of by parents or grandparents.

Marriages seem to fail very rapidly nowadays. Like their parents (and school teachers for that matter) are mostly badly educated, with few real skills. They are unlikely to find jobs in Vientiane. If they do, the pay is very low.

Living at home and going out at night to sell their bodies is an easy option, with far greater income potential and little stigma among their peers. The families turn a blind eye, sex is never discussed openly of course, and everyone ‘saves face’.

Although virtually everyone has a mobile phone or tablet these days with internet (and Facebook access), Internet shops are still popular in Vientiane, not only for tourists but many young Lao women and men ‘video-chatting’ with friends at home and overseas.

Some are looking for more than friendship with visiting foreigners. It’s very easy to make friends in Lao or elsewhere in Asia. See more below.

Societies of Asia, especially Buddhist, the ‘third gender’ is recognised and accepted
In Laos, as in Thailand, there is no discrimination against gays or transvestites (TGs – transgenders) in clubs, pubs and night spots in Lao and other Asian countries like Thailand and the Philippines.

They are not always easy to recognise as they just of the Lao urban scene. Born biologically male, they are referred to by Lao and Thai people as katoey (gatoey, kathoey), lady-boys or she-males’ (read more below).

Lesbians, both ‘butch’ or ‘fem’ are known as ‘tom’. Some young Lao men behave as boys by day, but become girls by night. Some appear wholly male, while transvestites appear sometimes in ostentatious drag, often outdoing their ‘sisters’ by looking far more attractive and feminine than the real thing!

This is commonplace in many Asian cities and capitals including Vientiane, Bangkok, Manila and other Asian capitals. A beer-filled farang (foreigner) looking for a real woman sobers up quickly when he discovers what lies beneath layers of make-up, jewellery, wigs, panties and padded bras!

Many foreigners in Asia prefer and search for just that. There’s no accounting for taste in today’s modern world. Basically, everyone is in search of fun and sex – both free and for money.
Some of the ‘gender-confused’ take things further.

With the help of relatively cheap cosmetic surgery available in nearby Thailand, young men can be transformed into the women they already feel they are ‘inside’ and wanted to be from an early age. After cosmetic enhancement and the final step of sexual or gender reassignment surgery, they can live as women (although not recognised as such officially by Lao or Thai authorities).

Some trans-sexuals find husbands or permanent partners and live in Europe, where this is more generally acceptable. With the right connections, a transformed katoey can have his passport gender changed to her, avoiding potential problems when applying for a visa or entering a different country.

It is believed that a future kathoey is predetermined by the ‘powers that be’ at birth; a young boy who is effeminate will be discussed by the family as a possible kathoey. Parents do not feel shame or hostility toward the child.

These beliefs are still respected and even reinforced under the influence of Buddhism – in fact the Buddhist version of the story of creation refers to them: “in the beginning there was man, woman and kathoey.” Each gender has its individual role and unique sufferings.

The dogma further maintains that everyone may experience masculine and feminine forms in different ‘lifetimes’ or even during the same one. Traditional ‘logic of invisibility’ allows any kind of social behaviour as long as it neither hurts nor offends anyone else. Sexual acts, however, are treated differently.

Sexual behaviour and Lao law

Brothels in Laos are now prohibited as mentioned above. Regarding sex with minors, there is apparently little in Lao law relating to children and under-age sex. The penal code states that adults who have sexual intercourse with children under 15 are liable to penalties.

Lao family law establishes 18 as the age of sexual consent, and a desired minimum age for marriage. However, since among certain ethnic groups marriage was traditionally contracted as young as 12, an average of 15 is accepted, but not encouraged as the age of sexual freedom.

While homosexuality is officially illegal, the law relating to sexual acts in private between consenting same-sex adults is unclear, according to Amnesty International’s findings. Gay couples, same or mixed race e.g. Lao and farang, as long as they are discreet in public, rarely have problems with the police.

Relationships and Lao social issues

In Laos it is officially against the law for an unmarried or even previously married Lao woman to have sex or sleep under the same roof as a man who is not her husband or close family member. While this is usually overlooked for casual liaisons in city hotels and guest houses, it is quite strictly adhered to elsewhere.

Longer term residents (more than tourists) need to be aware of this; aggrieved families can cause problems or expect marriage or financial compensation for the ‘de-flowering’ of a daughter. Local officials will take action if requested.

On the other hand, males sharing rented rooms for economical or ‘other’ reasons is common and quite acceptable. What goes on discreetly behind closed doors is of little interest to anyone.

The Lao people as a rule are tolerant and accepting by their Buddhist-influenced nature, and have quite open attitudes to sexual and gender preference. They find katoeys (gays) amusing company. Thailand promotes this noticeably with live TV shows. Lao TV is much more conservative, but Vientiane is within range of Thai television.

In this part of Asia at least, it’s not uncommon for a self-perceived normal heterosexual male to have fun and even sex with someone who appears to be (or wants to be seen and treated as) ‘female’, whether born that way or not.

The concept of ‘man and man’ i.e. two basically ‘normal’ males having sex also exists in Asian society, but as long as liaisons are discreet no one seems to mind. MSM (Men-Sex-Men) is a term now used for this group.

A survey of the sexual behaviour of men in Vientiane reveals that a significant percentage of Lao males (heterosexual in their own eyes) experience sex with other men, usually gays or katoey, for fun or for money, and more likely after drinking a lot of alcohol.

Traditional sex facilities in Laos

Conventional male-female sexual encounters are available all around Vientiane, primarily for Lao men. The city was once famous for its brothels, but things have quietened down since the 70’s.

The only alternatives are dimly-lit small beer shops also selling food, that have ‘ladies’ in attendance. These are not paid by the establishment, but ‘take care’ of the patrons – serving drinks and acting as table company; more by mutual arrangement, and always off-premises in a guesthouse (Japanese-style ‘love hotel’).

Prices are probably lower than Thailand for similar facilities. Foreigners are not unwelcome, but they don’t usually frequent this type of place without be able to communicate in Lao or Thai; they are likely to be accompanied by Lao male friends.

Very few locals, except in the city bars and clubs speak much English or other foreign language. City pubs, night clubs and karaoke bars are the best places for foreigners looking for company.

Cruising takes place near the Mekong River in Vientiane and possibly other towns and cities along the river that traverses the whole of Laos.

Lao family celebrations and ceremonies

Lao people are socialists by nature and they socialise – frequently! Usually in their homes or those of neighbours. Anyone is welcome to drop in at any time unannounced, and will automatically be expected (even forced) to share any food that is being eaten – and this can be at any hour of the day or night.

These little get-togethers may develop into a game of petanque or boule or a card game which later will evolve into a party when the first crate of beer (available everywhere) appears, and it will! It quickly develops into a raucous affair with plenty of food and lots of beer lao or lao kao being consumed.

There may be loud music, spontaneous shrieking and singing, karaoke, hand clapping, and ‘Lao dancing’. Unplanned parties like this can occur on any day of the week and can go long into the night. There are also many family events which require a ‘baci’ (Buddhist blessing ceremony) followed by a party. These are pre-planned and often the whole extended family and friends are expected to attend.

Birthdays are popular now among families with babies and young children. This is not a Lao or Buddhist tradition; birthday parties and celebrations used to be looked down upon by the monks. Nevertheless due to Western influences and TV in particular, young people in Vientiane especially, celebrate their birthdays more and more as they see parties are held (and presents given) almost everywhere else.

Parents and friends have them and they copy them. The Lao love parties and birthdays are another excellent excuse! Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, other nations’ New Year celebrations have been added to the ‘party calendar’ together with the many traditional ones.

A child’s birthday party in Vientiane, apart from a token cake with candles, and a local version of “Happy Birthday to You”, is just another excuse for a party for the ‘grown-ups’ and copious quantities of beer (and a few soft drinks for the ‘real’ guests) are consumed.

Younger family members usually prefer to go out for their fun. There are large and small beer shops and garden restaurants in the ‘suburbs’ and villages, offering food and drink with music, sometimes from a live group.

Closing times vary on the whim of the government. Sometimes up to 1.30 a.m. unless there is an international delegation in town or arriving soon. Then all bars and restaurants may have to close as early as 10.30 p.m. Locals are only mildly irritated by this. As with all things in Lao, apparent acceptance without complaint is the norm.

In the home, though, there are celebrations and ceremonies which must be performed in accordance with Buddhist ritual, and which all family, friends and others are invited to. It is expected that everyone contributes something (cash followed by food and drink) to these affairs.

Parties can become large and very noisy, with a band or DJ providing music and commentary, often running into the early hours of the next morning. Again there is benign acceptance from neighbours who are not part of the family.

They will probably ‘get their own back’ at some point, by attempting to have a bigger, noisier one. It’s a bit of a status thing and seems to be part of life, certainly in and around Vientiane, where most of the wealth is.

Lao New Year (Pi Mai)

The dates depend on full moon in mid-April (often coinciding with the West’s Easter). See all Lao Public Holidays on this page. Pi Mai is a unique experience in itself.

Often a whole week of celebrations, parties and public holidays beginning with the three official New Year days of Songkran, similar to Thailand, with water (often iced) being poured or thrown over everyone in sight.

Over pedestrians and motorcyclists on the roads or near shops and houses. Most activity in Vientiane city centre. This is followed by two more official New Year Holidays. Not a good time to visit unless you know the scene and don’t mind spending time being soaking wet.

If you know Lao people, you will be invited to a party somewhere new every day, and they start in the morning, going sometimes throughout the night. Very loud amplified music, karaoke singing, dancing and beer and whisky consumed in amazing quantities.

Peace and quiet basically reign supreme in this still laid-back, almost sleepy capital, but sometimes the authorities tend to be over-zealous in their attempts to show off Vientiane as a well-behaved even sterile city with nobody on the streets at night.

This seems to be for the benefit of visiting foreign dignitaries and promoted by the old, traditional ‘die-hards’ still in government. It may be worth mentioning here that a few days before a major international conference or political event takes place in Vientiane, there will be a sort of curfew imposed by the early closing of entertainment venues.

Occasionally, the visa-on-arrival service has been suspended for several days, sending casual tourists back across the bridge into Thailand.

The official reason is the lack of suitable or sufficient accommodation in the city, but it seems more of an attempt to secure the streets around the city with road blocks and inspections of vehicles, thus preventing possible incidents by dissidents from outside the city during these international events.

The Lao Embassy in Bangkok’s website should publish warnings of this nature, so you might check before you leave your previous destination. Visitors arriving with visas already have no problems with entry.

In spite of a few strange quirks for resident foreigners, part of that ‘culture shock’ we have mentioned, there is an increasing number of people who decide that the Lao PDR can be a sublimely pleasant and relaxing place to live cheaply, away from the rat race and hustle and bustle of the ‘real world’.

Living as a expatriate in Vientiane is by no means for everybody – it is unsophisticated and far less western-influenced compared to say Thailand.

Some prefer living a slightly ‘retro’ existence across the river for that reason alone, hoping that the slow almost serene pace of life remains and the worst effects of consumerism don’t smother it too quickly, as it has done in many parts of the region.

Photo of author


Retire Asia

Read more from Retire Asia