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Laos Life: Phontan House

We’ve been living in our lovely Lao home for eight months, but haven’t gotten an opportunity to really talk about it — until now!

This June 22nd, we will have been living in Laos for nine months — and our lovely Lao home for eight of those months. Yet, in that time, we haven’t really talked about the house — or our neighborhood for that matter. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m hoping to change that, starting with this post on our house for the 2+ years we’ll be living in Vientiane.

•  •  •

We’ve always endeavored to live fairly simply, and generally prioritize location over space, and being out and about over hanging around at home, so it took a little while to adjust living in a larger space. We’ve never felt like we needed a lot of space, and have been unwilling to pay for it in the past. The one big exception prior to Laos was our house in Southern Belize, though at US$300 per month, we couldn’t pass up that opportunity to have a couple extra rooms for hosting family and friends there.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived as close to the level of my neighbors in my small community as Peace Corps would allow (a reed house with no running water and limited electricity). While I felt it went a long way in gaining acceptance and credibility, I think I was always perceived by many in that community as the crazy “rich” white person who refused to live in a “real” house like all the other white people do.

Owing to this, Lori and I originally endeavored in Vientiane to find a comfortable yet modest little home within walking distance of local eateries and shops. We wanted to avoid falling into the trap of a big modern house in a predominately expat community far from local amenities. As a family, however, Lori’s employer preferred we have at least three bedrooms — in the rare occasion that we might need to house visiting staff. We enjoyed having extra space for visitors in Belize and were not against the idea.

Well, there were many factors that went into our decision and after eight months, have been happy with our decision. In many places we’ve traveled to (or lived) this place would be considered palatial (and to us, it certainly feels that way), but surprisingly here in Vientiane, it is modest by expat/foreigner standards, but also by Lao families living in Vientiane (this is not at all the case for the rest of the country where most people live in small stilted wood and thatch houses, which goes to show just how much wealth is concentrated in the capital).

We viewed about a dozen homes before viewing this one — several much nicer and more modern (with swimming pools!) and several that were not so nice. From the moment we walked into this house, we knew it was the one for us. It’s got a ton of character and is certainly large enough for our needs, but not too much house. It is by far not the largest house in our neighborhood, but not the smallest either — about midsize for this area of Vientiane. It is also the largest property that Lori and I have ever inhabited together, and while coming in around 1,400 square feet in size, it feels absolutely palatial to us.

The house is a concrete modern “villa” style home with an abundance of “Lao” wood (sandalwood) throughout, and is located in a predominately Lao neighborhood a short drive from Lori’s work. The exact date of its construction is unknown to us, but there are several indications that it is at least a few decades old. The design/ floor plan is actually quite common throughout the city (we’ve found at least half a dozen houses scattered throughout Vientiane that appear to be nearly identical on the outside), yet the interior is quite unique from most. We have found few other houses with the hardwood floors and eaves, wainscoting and Lao-style custom doors and windows throughout.

Here, the yard looks pretty dry and dusty in the dry season (December), but now (June) is looking quite lush at the beginning of the rains. We’ve got a mango, sugar-apple (sweetsop), and coconut tree, along with a smattering of non-fruit trees.

As is the norm in Vientiane, the property is completely surrounded by a concrete wall — more for privacy than for security. Lao families are extraordinarily private people and theft is rare to non-existent, particularly in predominately Lao neighborhoods (such as ours). We’ve also got an electric remote-controlled gate, which is pretty sweet.

There’s a concrete trench around the periphery of the property to prevent issues with flooding (and also where our grey-water goes (i.e. sink/shower/washer water). Vientiane has a vast network of canals in which rainwater and grey water is funneled. The water feeds communal farms and works well in preventing flooding. While it’s not a perfect system, it actually seems to work much better than the drainage system in Portland or DC.

On the left is the front room (living room), and the staircase on the right.

The house has a total of four bedrooms of various sizes (three upstairs, and one downstairs), and four bathrooms (two up and two down). The fourth bedroom and bathroom are attached to, but separated from the house (in the rear), originally intended as a maid or guards quarters.

The house came with basic furnishings, all made of sandalwood — incredibly hard, dense and heavy! It takes a couple of people to move around the various pieces of furniture, and the giant dining room table is essentially a permanent fixture due to its heft.

With the exception of the drapes, we added most of the decorative furnishings (cushions, pillows, etc.) either from local markets here or lightweight decorative items we brought with us.

We created this comfy alcove for relaxing, playing with Noe and movie watching. As Noe’s gotten older, it’s gotten a lot more use.

We weren’t planning on having a TV in the house, but this one came with two (one in the living room and one in the master bedroom). Connected to antenna, they get about 30 channels, with about ten English channels. The TV has proven useful for watching the occasional movie via our laptop, but doesn’t see much use otherwise. As far as we know, Noe still has never seen a TV on in the house.

I saw one of these hand-painted decorative fans at our favorite local eatery we frequent and asked where we could find one ourselves. They told us the Morning Market (Talat Sao). It took us four attempts, but we finally found this one hiding out in the depths of the market. I love this fan. I often work on the computer at the head of this table and thus spend a good portion of my waking hours staring at it.

Our original plan for this room included lots of plants, but ultimately we didn’t want to deal with the bugs and knew that there would only be a small window before Noe would be interested in them.

The front room lets in a good amount of light, but is probably the coolest room in the house due to its orientation and the exterior wall that keeps the room shaded. It also has the largest AC unit in the house, that mammoth refrigerator-looking thing in the back corner. Even on the hottest days, this room stays nice and cool.


There are quite a few light switches in the room. Thankfully, they are all clearly labeled…

We had to negotiate a bit, but were able to get the landlord to throw in this bad boy:

Water coolers are a common feature in Lao homes here in Vientiane. When the water gets low, we have our cleaning lady give the company a ring and they come out with refills — all which seems like an absolute luxury, as I’ve never lived anywhere in the tropics with regular access to cold water (or ice cubes, for that matter).

And yes, we do have a lady who comes for four hours once a week to clean the house — mostly floors, kitchen, bathrooms. Most expats we know here have a maeban who comes nearly every day and does a lot more, including cooking, laundry, etc., but we don’t really mind that stuff. It’s the first time we’ve ever had someone else clean our floors and kitchen/bathrooms, and with a baby, it’s been a particularly welcome change (and nice to have him crawling around on clean floors, as we would certainly not be able to clean the floors ourselves every week).

Another great feature of this house is my pink, porcelain friend:

The fact that they make these in pink is just awesome. And why shouldn’t they! It even says on the sticker: Pastel Pink. I’m a firm believer that every house should have a urinal, if only for the environmental benefit…

I originally got this batik in Mozambique over a decade ago. It’s hung in nearly every place I’ve lived since and, though getting quite faded, now hangs proudly in stairwell.

Our spacious bedroom. It seems that most beds in Laos are king size, and there are two of these beds in our house. Originally, this bed came with a bright pink and blue comforter that was stiff as a rug and not the most comfortable piece of bedding, particularly since Lao people don’t believe in top sheets. Neither of the beds in our house originally had a top sheet, so it was just you sandwiched between a fitted sheet and a stiff comforter that was impossible to wash. Thankfully, over the course of guests visiting (with Amazon purchases in tow), we’ve been able to put proper sheet sets on both beds, which has made for a much comfortable night’s sleep. Oh, and if you’ve ever visited Laos, you know how hard these beds are. If you like your mattress firm (i.e. FIRM!), you’ll love it in Laos.

That tennis racket-looking thing against the wall is an electric bug zapping racket. They are an amazing item, particularly when you just have that one mosquito in your room that you need to put down. Admittedly, not very Buddhist, but ironically every Lao person here seems to own at least one, and uses them liberally and with impunity.

There’s a large balcony off of the master bedroom that we’ve dressed up with a small patio set and couple of plants (not pictured).

While only partially covered by the house’s massive eaves, this area stays surprisingly shaded from about 1pm onward, due to the orientation of the house (east-facing). As such, we get abundant morning sunshine, but can’t see the sun set from anywhere convenient in the house — the one semi-practical viewing spot is from the window behind the bed in the guest bedroom, so guests have that going for them, I suppose.

We certainly don’t use this space enough, particularly since we moved the downstairs patio set into the carport and made that the grilling/ outdoor dining space. Still, it’s nice to come up here with Lori and a bottle of wine after Noe’s gone to sleep and relax.

Sunrise, as viewed from the master bedroom balcony.

A common sight in the tropics and developing world (but surprisingly uncommon in the northern U.S.), the ductless mini split air conditioner.

Efficient, economical, and practical, these units cool (and heat) individual rooms without taking up space in a window. Heat and cool the room you are in in a matter of minutes without wasting electricity heating/cooling vacant parts of the house. Our house here came with one in each bedroom and the gigantic standing unit pictured above. We would have loved to have had just one of these puppies in Belize on the hottest days, though we wouldn’t have appreciated da cool sea breeze nearly as much when storms rolled in, I’d imagine.

Built in Lao wood (sandalwood) cabinets in all the bedrooms — a nice perk over Belize where for some reason people just don’t believe in built-in storage.

Our swanky pink and maroon master bath with bathtub and…

…rainwater shower head! Absolutely luxurious compared to every other place we’ve ever lived together. This house has two water pumps and AMAZING water pressure. And the water geyser (water heater) gets the water HOT — again, luxurious. We’ve got well water here, so haven’t had to worry about water outages. In Belize, the water went out frequently, and our water heater was finicky (either scalding hot or cool water), so it was Navy-style showers for us. But not in Laos. Some days, though, I do miss our funky in-ground shower with a tranquil jungle view at the apartment we were in before moving into the house.

The boy’s room. Thankfully, he keeps it tidy, for now.

We had those drapes custom made up on That Luang road, as the ones that came with the place were cream-colored semi-sheer curtains (see guest room pics below). Generally, Noe’s pretty good about falling asleep almost anywhere, but mornings were particularly tough as the rising sun would shoot directly into his room at 5:30am and light it up like a spotlight.

The guest room/ room that we run to when the neighbors have a party/ room that we cower in when our A/C unit is on the fritz/ room that we put Noe in when his room is having issues. All that to say, it’s nice to have an extra bedroom.

…and bathroom!

If you’ve ever had the chance to visit Asia, I don’t have to tell you what this is. I won’t get into it here, but will say that we generally opt for the fibrous alternative on the left. I have learned recently, however, that parents in the States are now installing these as a “cloth diaper sprayer.” Call it what you will, but we all know what it’s really used for. If you live in the U.S., you can now buy and install one in your own home. If anything, it’ll make for an excellent conversation starter.

And, the kitchen. This is what really sold me on the house.

Most houses we looked at (except for the ultra-modern, ultra-fancy Western-style houses) had the kitchen in the most inconvenient place imaginable — down some back stairs, on the other side of the guest room, or completely detached from the house. In several houses, the placement of the kitchen was fine, but the fridge was in the living room!

I planned to eventually do a fair amount of cooking (and now cook dinner 3-4 times per week, in addition to the food prep we do for making all of Noe’s solid foods from scratch and our green smoothies for the week), so we were quite excited when we saw the kitchen.

It’s got a full-size fridge, serviceable gas oven and range (though currently only 2/3 of the burners work — but hey, two out of three ain’t bad, right?), a microwave, a good amount of cabinet space, and that amazing double sink with drying section! Lori and I have never had a double sink together! For the better part of a decade, we’ve resigned ourselves to washing our dishes in one single basin, which is pretty much sucks, particularly, if you are like us and have only had a dishwasher two out of the past eight years. Now, we fill one side up with suds, and rinse on the other — LIKE A BOSS.

Oh, and that stainless steel double-decker drying rack is amazing. I’m not even going to attempt to link to something on Amazon because we had one of the best-reviewed racks from there in Portland and it was not nearly as amazing as this one is. We got this one locally — it’s big, bad, and solid as a rock. So, if you want an awesome drying rack, I’m sorry to say, you’re just going to have to come to Laos and get one yourself.


We had this hammock at our house in Belize and freighted here. The most practical place to hang it ended up being on the front porch, right out in front of the main entry. Initially, I feared it might be annoying and obtrusive, but there are also steps on each side for coming and going, and it’s nice to open the front French doors and not be completely isolated from what’s going on in the house.

Having seen too many hammock incidents in my day, I’m a firm believer in hammock safety. For one, this should go without saying, but you should never hammock after you’ve been drinking a lot. If you’re too drunk to drive or operate machinery, you’re too drunk to hammock. Period. Number two, put some serious thought into your hammock hanging scheme. Poorly planned and implemented knots are the number one cause of all hammock accidents (number two is tying at least one end of a hammock to a coconut tree — the reason should be obvious).

Here, I’ve implemented an interlaced redundancy system, utilizing two completely separate rope circuits and my favorite knot from my sailing days.

Okay, I may have over done it a bit here, but I probably wouldn’t have gone through all this effort if I wasn’t going to hammock frequently with a young child and the hammock wasn’t hovering over concrete and tile stairs (not the most pleasant thing for your back to come in contact with, even from three-foot, I’d imagine). But it really wasn’t that much more difficult, and now I don’t have to worry about anyone of any size swinging on the hammock — well, sober swingers, that is.

Here’s our water tank setup — just a few hoses and spigots shy of a steam engine, I’d say. But there is really a reason to all of it. Oddly enough, I don’t see a lot of elevated household water tanks in Laos like I’ve seen across Africa and Latin America. Rather than have one pump that pumps the water from the ground up to the tank, then letting gravity do the rest, they often use a two pump system — the first to pump the water from the well, and the second, to pump the water up to the top of the house, from where gravity distributes it to faucets and toilets below.

The rarely used rear of the house, featuring the septic tank (concrete rectangle with plug on ground), grey water concrete moat around the house (follow the verdant weeds), and of course, our dear geyser (water heater) on the right. We have found that in the spring this area has been useful for setting out our drying rack, as it gets some intense afternoon sunlight.

Side yard, as viewed from the laundry area.

Well, that’s about it. I leave you with a photo we shot using our selfie-stick (one of maybe three times we’ve used it so far) on our first evening in the house, which also coincided with the chubster’s four-month “birthday.” As you can tell, he could hardly contain his excitement.

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Jeanette Bailey
Jeanette Bailey

Such a welcoming home! I love the light coming in the windows, the shiny wood floors (I was wondering how you kept them so clean!), the great bathrooms, the balcony… Thank you for sharing! love, Aunt Jen


What a beautiful home!! Simply gorgeous