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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Chinese Lured by Laos

Jan. 13, 2017

More Chinese are moving to neighboring Laos, as tougher market competition in their homeland forces them to build businesses and seek a better quality of life elsewhere.

Laos is a country about the size of the United Kingdom. Most of its people are farmers, and a third of the population lives on less than one dollar and 25 cents a day. They are self-sufficient in food production, and life is relaxed and easy going. People say they are poor but also rich.

The city of Vientiane was once the quietest of capitals, but it's getting noisier year by year as tourism and other businesses have grown.

A long-distance bus connecting Laos to China runs once a day, bringing in Chinese tourists and businessmen. But many are now coming to stay -- it is believed that almost 100,000 Chinese now live in the country.

"Many Chinese have been coming to Laos recently. Everyone says China is a hard place to live," says a worker at a local cell-phone store.

Many of the new arrivals end up in the country's biggest Chinatown, known in Vientiane as "the Chinese Castle." In the last 10 years, the once small enclave has grown into a community employing about 10,000 Chinese.

One of the mall's success stories is a Chinese herbal medicine shop owned by Qin Zhen from Shanghai. She began here with a small souvenir shop 3 years ago, and now makes 600,000 dollars a year in sales.

Her products are made from medicinal plants that grow wild in Laos. Bracket fungus is one of the most popular. It's used to treat diabetes and high blood pressure, and is cherished in China for its rarity.

Qin's early customers were mostly tourists, but once she started selling online, sales exploded. Success has come to her after much struggle though. Qin had an electronics factory in Shanghai and when it failed, a friend told her she could start a business in Laos with very little money, so she decided to give it a shot.

"I came here because my business went bust 6 years ago. I did everything here, even street vending. I worked my way up," Qin says.

Two years ago, Qin bought 2 houses in a quiet, residential area south of Vientiane built for Chinese investors and wealthy Laotians. She uses one of the homes as a warehouse.

"It's easy to make money here, and it's a comfortable environment for me," Qin says.

Laos is an affordable place to live if you don't earn much. Monthly living expenses in Chinatown are about 600 dollars, less than half that of Chinese cities. And as the number of Chinese grows, so do the businesses targeting them.

A Taiwanese-owned taxi company started out 4 years ago with 3 cars, and now has 20. Taxi driver Wang Junchang moved to Laos 2 years ago. He managed a local transport company back in China. It had 20 trucks and employed 50 people at its peak, but went bankrupt after a major competitor entered the market.

Wang's new life in Laos has been good, with fellow Chinese as his customers. Most of his customers are regulars who call him from wherever they are.

"Wang serves as my guide, interpreter, and driver. And he gives me an affordable rate. It's much better than driving myself," says one of his customers.

"Here, human relations are simple, not complicated like they are in China. There's no competition, stress, or pressure," says Wang, who's now thinking about bringing his parents to Laos.

At 4 a.m. in Vientiane, the sound of chanting sutras fills the air. In the past, people came with rice or vegetables as offerings, but now they bring cash. Laotians are also seeing the economic opportunities brought by Chinese, and more are attending Chinese language schools.

"If you learn the language, you can talk to Chinese people. You could get work," says one Chinese-language student.

Ton Khun yo tha is an important Laotian business partner for Qin, who runs the herbal medicine business. Ton used to run a farm but now he procures wild herbs for Qin and other predominantly Chinese clients full-time.

Ton heads to a village 2 hours from Vientiane to find plants. Three years ago, the village of 50 farm households grew all their own food. Then they discovered that herbs and fungus growing wild in the mountains could sell at a much higher price than the vegetables they grew. Half the villagers now make their living picking wild plants, and their lives have changed drastically.

Ton bought 100 kilograms of a prized medicinal root called tongkat ali from a villager for 600 dollars. He'll get twice that price when he sells it to a Chinese vendor.

Orders for Qin’s products keep coming in. She’s thinking of building a factory and warehouse to accommodate new business. Her ambition is to start another company back in Shanghai with the money she earns in Laos.

"Laos is still being developed. It's like China in the 1970s and '80s. It may get tougher, but we should be able to make a profit for another 5 years," Qin says.

People from different regions of China continue to flow into "the Chinese Castle." Some have had businesses that failed. Others have simply lost direction in life. All of them dream of success in Laos. They've left their homes in a rapidly developing economy to make a new start in a new land.