The air is redolent of mouthwatering grilled meat at Hwang Hye-hun’s residence at Naxay village in Sisattanak district. He is hosting a dinner party for the opening of his consultation clinic, KMC Center, with a few of his Korean friends ― volunteer nurses, doctors, professors and businessmen here. Without any formal ceremony, everyone just begins eating kimchi, kimbap, grilled pork and chicken, fresh leafy vegetables and other Korean dishes, and drink soju and Beerlao.
Some of Hwang’s visitors have lived in Vientiane for many years, like Han Kyu-suk, the owner of K-Mart on Dongpalane Road.
“There was no other Korean food mart before I opened it in 2007,” he tells Vientiane Times. While most of his customers are Lao, Han expects to have more Korean customers with more and more of his fellow countrymen visiting Laos or opting to live here. Over 2,000 Koreans are now living here for work or business reasons.
Laos has become attractive to Koreans recently. Nearly 54,000 visited the country last year, an increase in arrivals from Korea of 55 percent compared to 2011, according to the Director General of the Tourism Marketing Department at the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, Saly Phimphinith. He expects a continuous flock of Koreans here this year as well. They do not require entry visas and direct flights from Seoul to Vientiane will be regular by October.
“Laos is attractive to me because I have a chance to work and enjoy my life here. And I still have many chances to do run another business here,” Han says.
It is especially citizens from Seoul that choose this option, says Choi Young-un, an international surgeon with the Korea International Cooperation Agency who is working as a volunteer at the Lao National Children’s Hospital in Vientiane. “The economic problems in Korea these days are leading more elderly Korean people to consider Laos as their second life place.”
A group of Korean tourists at Luang Prabang Airport in August. (Vientiane Times)
He mentions Kolao, which is owned by a successful group of Korean investors. It is probably best known for automobile sales, repairs and maintenance, but is also involved in banking, farming and the K-Plaza electronics shop.
The families of young Koreans who work for the company have taken up residence here.
In Seoul, space is becoming scarce. Almost one quarter of the citizens of the Republic of Korea live in the capital. The best companies, hospitals, schools/universities, and even restaurants are based in Seoul, according to Hwang In-chang, also a volunteer doctor at the Children’s Hospital: “Although the concentration into Seoul makes it really difficult to survive in this megacity, most Korean people still hope to live in the capital.”
The situation, he continued, has resulted in a big increase in housing prices compared to that in other cities. He explains that, for example, “to rent a beautiful private house with a garden in Seoul, one has to pay $14,000 per month.” The monthly rental of a small apartment with one bedroom and one bathroom in Gangnam (south of the Han River) area, costs $2,000 plus a deposit of $2,000. For an apartment with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, rental is about $3,500 a month. To buy a “big house,” one has to put up anywhere between $400,000 and $2 million.
On the contrary, in Vientiane, one can rent a big house with four bedrooms for $480 a month. “The KOICA office pays the monthly rental fee for my house, which is bigger than anything I could rent or buy in Seoul for my entire life,” he says.
Therefore, many “average Korean people” want to live in less developed countries after retirement, Hwang In-chang says.
Normally, they “save money during their early career to send their offspring to university, to get married and buy a house” and, consequently, they do not have enough money to live in Seoul.
Their choices are limited, he noted. Either they find an appropriate place in a smaller city or a peaceful (and less expensive) place in other countries. The majority of Korean people choose the first option. They move to suburbs or another, smaller city. However, many emigrants choose Laos: “For people who are looking for more peaceful and calm country, the Lao PDR is a good option.”
But Koreans don’t pick Laos only for monetary reasons. There is a recent trend in Korean society that In-Chang calls “healing.” He explains: “There is a new consciousness that people need to heal their minds to live a peaceful and happy life. It means getting rid of our obsessions about money and power, and just LET IT BE AS IT IS.” He mentions a Korean talk show on late night TV called “Healing Camp, Aren’t You Happy”, which has been covering “healing” dishes since 2011. Blogs that introduce traditional medicine are increasingly popular. Other “healing” trends in Korea include “healing” music, “healing” travel, “healing” exhibitions and “healing” movies.
He says “healing” is essential for every marketing strategy. “The social trend is that we have to heal ourselves to strengthen our mental health and to be successful. Why? Just to survive in this competitive society,” he explains.
The “healing” trend has also changed the mindset of young Korean travelers. Last May, 29-year-old Korean Hee Su Jung stayed in Vangvieng for a full 12 days. She saw it as “therapy.”
College students in Seoul, Choo Ji-yong and Bae Joong-hyeon travelled together in Vangvieng and Luang Prabang for 10 days last August. “I think that if I get tired of living a city life, I may come back here and stay, just drawing all day long and going swimming. That’s something I couldn’t get tired of,” said Bae.
They went tubing and kayaking in Vangvieng, and swimming in Kuangxi waterfall in Luang Prabang. “We also went to local markets and stores just looking around, observing how people live. It was very interesting. I would say my favorite experience in Laos was meeting the people,” said Choo. Admitting that their whole trip to Laos was cheap, both Korean students said they chose the country for its nature and culture.
“For healing our injured minds, Laos is one of the best places in the world,” says Hwang In-chang. Word has long gotten back to his home country. Tour operators in Korea are advertising Laos as a tourism destination for “healing” with ads like “Laos Healing Tour.” There is no end to the Korean influx in sight.
By Lorie Ann Cascaro