Vang Vieng: Laos’ one-time party center no longer “Death in Paradise,” thanks to crackdown

Me at my hotel on the banks of the Nam Song with Laos' towering karsts in the background.

Me at my hotel on the banks of the Nam Song with Laos’ towering karsts in the background.

VANG VIENG, Laos — I’m writing this at my hotel dining room table looking down at boatmen readying their long, narrow boats to ferry travelers up and down the tranquil Nam Song. Across the peaceful river, seemingly as close as a short par 3, are the towering karsts, huge mountains with sheer sides and jagged peaks that have adorned Oriental tapestries since the Ming Dynasty. It’s a scene that has been featured in museums from Jakarta to Tokyo, on collectors’ walls from San Diego to Moscow. Watching it in the cool early morning mist of a Lao winter day last month, I felt as if I was drifting away on a soft current, butterflies shepherding my bow.

Yet this river, as recently as six years ago, was one of the most deadly sites in Southeast Asia.

In 2011, Vang Vieng’s small hospital recorded 27 deaths in the river. This does not include unreported deaths or people dying after getting emergency transported to Vientiane, the capital. Keep in mind, the Nam Song is not the Colorado. It has no rapids. The Nam Song (“song” means “river” in Lao) is as peaceful as a Swiss summer. The only white water ever found on the river was the beer foam that splayed a one-kilometer swath from all the bars that lined the banks.

A file photo of partying while tubing in Vang Vieng. Those are buckets of iced whisky and mixers they're holding.

A file photo of partying while tubing in Vang Vieng. Those are buckets of iced whisky and mixers they’re holding.

It all started with the inner tube, a symbol of leisure akin to a hammock or lanais chair. In the 1990s, adventurous backpackers seeing a path less beaten started trickling into Laos, a tourism backwater ever since the communists ended a 650-year-old monarchy in 1975. In 1998, a 60ish Vang Vieng native named Thanongsi Sorangkoun bought some inner tubes for the travelers who stayed in his guesthouse to volunteer on his 30 acres of mulberry trees and in his vegetable garden.

Word got out.

Soon, backpackers with a thirst of adventure — and, especially, booze — poured into Vang Vieng to float down the Nam Song. The local Lao, still struggling after 20 years of communist rule, cashed in. They tapped into the Westerners with loose wallets and damaged kidneys and opened bars along the river. More than a dozen lined a stretch no more than a kilometer long. Combine cheap beer (a bottle of Beerlao, Laos’ national beer and, well, ONLY beer is about 8,000 kip or about $1) with a river, regardless of its current, and you’ve got problems. Then mix in Lao-Lao, Laos’ brutally strong but surprisingly smooth whisky made even smoother when sold in buckets of ice which tourists mix with Coke and Red Bull.

Then add rope swings along unsurveyed river banks and you’ve got deaths. In early 2012, an Australian man cracked his skull on a rock and died after leaping from a rope in water too shallow to even float, let alone jump. Soon, a hastily written sign was posted near the swing reading, “Do Not Jump or You Will Die.” People tried swimming from bar to bar without an inner tube and drowned.

“I thought I would it would be a cheap and ecological way to see the river,” Sorangkoun told The Guardian newspaper of London. “I accidentally started the whole thing.”

In 2012, the Lao government tired of the Australian and British embassies asking pointed questions about why their citizens were dying in this small town in central Laos. It didn’t help when a TV crew from the Australian news program “60 Minutes” arrived for a documentary eventually entitled, “Death in Paradise.”

Soon, Vientiane police and even Laos’ president stormed in and did what communist governments are really good at. They suppressed free enterprise. They closed down all the unlicensed bars as fast as they could open a beer bottle.

Last month, five years after the crackdown, I walked down Vang Vieng’s dusty, narrow main drag. The town of about 30,000 had a sleepy quality to it although it’s clear tourism still fuels the locals. The streets were lined with adventure companies hawking trips with giant photos of screaming Japanese hanging onto a zipline or a mob of big white guys pulling their inner tubes through a cave.

Where there wasn’t an adventure company stood a hostel or a guesthouse or a restaurant advertising cheeseburgers and Western breakfasts. One place even specialized in fried chicken. I passed one hostel where backpackers filled an open-air lobby showing an old episode of “Cheers.”

On another main road near the abandoned airfield, I met up with Neil Farmiloe, a New Zealander who runs Pan’s Place, a hip, quiet guesthouse with an open-air courtyard in the back and pretty good pizza. He tired of New Zealand’s weather and came to Vang Vieng 11 years ago, at about the time when inner tubing began to explode. At one point, backpackers outnumbered locals here, 15-1.

Over tall bottles of Beerlao, I sat with Farmiloe in his open-air lobby and heard about the bad old days.

“If you were 20 years old, it was like paradise,” Farmiloe said. “It just got over the top with the number of people dying. The local Lao weren’t very impressed, either: people drunk wandering through town in their bikinis and shorts being sick all over the place. Now we still have people going tubing but there are no swings and stuff. There’s no place dangerous.”

The rural Lao are animists. They believe in spirits and firmly feel evil spirits live in the Nam Song after that era of death. You rarely see a Lao older than a boy on the river except for fishermen.

The Luang Prabang Bakery is one of the many French-influenced bakeries in Vang Vieng.

The Luang Prabang Bakery is one of the many French-influenced bakeries in Vang Vieng.

The crackdown hurt the economy only for a short time. Gone were the cheap backpackers. Coming were the middle-aged, better-heeled tourists who want to stare at the karsts while dining on Laos’ excellent French-influenced cuisine. Meanwhile, Vang Vieng kept its adventure chops by emphasizing ziplining, kayaking, caving and rock climbing.

The Nam Song is still around.

“I (recently) kayaked down,” Farmiloe said. “It was amazing. It was so nice and quiet. You could suddenly hear the river. Before that all you’d hear is loud music. It’s a lovely place now.”

I can vouch for that. I’ve kayaked rivers in Belize and oceans in New Zealand and California and nothing matched the tranquility of paddling down a river in rural Laos. I stepped into one of the larger adventure companies where some bored Lao perked up behind desks when I asked about a couple days of adventure. Caving. Kayaking. Ziplining.

Kayaking has replaced tubing as the most popular activity on the Nam Song.

Kayaking has replaced tubing as the most popular activity on the Nam Song.

I joined four Norwegians and three South Koreans for a somewhat riotous trip through a cave on inner tubes. We pulled ourselves through using an elaborate network of ropes that stretched 100 meters into a cave then turned around and returned. About three other groups were inside, all with headlamps which lit up the inside of the cave like Olympic Stadium. The screams of Koreans getting splashed by their guides made the cave feel like a cheap Asian horror movie.

The kayaks were a nice elixir. Kayaking the Nam Song is like a leisurely stroll through a park. It’s low water season, meaning the Nam Song moves at the pace of a swan. The kayaks are long, wide, yellow plastic boats with two seats and foot rests. Back support is limited and I found myself lying prone as if watching TV on a couch. I had no problem paddling.

Sunset in Vang Vieng.

Sunset in Vang Vieng.

The scenery is of an Oriental tapestry. On a brilliantly blue day in the low 80s, the krasts towered over us to our right, On the other side was quiet village life. A fisherman in a conical hat and pole over his shoulder walked along a path under a palm tree. Fishermen in T-shirts holding nets dove in the shallow river. We passed under little bridges. Butterflies fluttered over our paddles. Except for the growing tension in my biceps, it was the most peaceful time of my four weeks in Asia.

We also saw the remains of this river’s deadly past. Along the river are numerous crude wooden platforms built in trees. This is where many rope swings hung. This is also where many travelers met their deaths, swinging out of trees, tanked to the gills, and hitting their heads on hidden rocks or just failing to respect the current. We also passed areas where an entire series of tables and chairs were left vacant, the remnants of a party long gone quiet. These were some of the unlicensed rave bars the government closed in 2012.

Only a couple bars remain. They looked lonely. I saw three bearded men in their 20s pour themselves onto their inner tubes, hooting and hollering although there was hardly anyone else around to hear it. We stopped at another. Estelle’s “American Boy” played on the loudspeaker as we climbed the steps. I had Beerlao for 15,000 kip ($1.80). The Koreans crashed in hammocks, another couple appeared to sleep on a table. I stood over the river and photographed kayakers — sober kayakers — paddling along with smiles. My God, I thought, did I look this peaceful? Not one inner tuber floated by.

We traveled about five kilometers over about two hours, a nice little workout in brilliant weather. We docked right below my hotel where I sat on my sun-splashed deck and had a Beerlao.


Laos: My 100th country is slowly emerging from its poverty-stricken communist cocoon

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism's past efforts to curb religion.

Laos remains a center for Buddhist study despite communism’s past efforts to curb religion.

VIENTIANE, Laos — What do you call someone who’s been to 100 countries? Am I now a centenarian? A countriarian? It makes me sound so old. I guess I am. It’s 100 countries in 60 years. I need to include the caveat “(and territories).” Purists wouldn’t include Puerto Rico and Guam. Some wouldn’t include Scotland and Wales. The World Almanac recognizes Scotland and Wales. That’s good enough for me. Puerto Rico and Guam have their own governments and teams in the Olympics. That’s good enough for me, too.

Whatever, I’ve come a long way from graduating from college owning more cars in my life (one) than passports. From my first step across the British Columbia border after the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962 to landing in Laos on Feb. 4, 2017, I have hit about every corner of the globe. Considering I didn’t go to another foreign country from 1962-78, that is some serious globetrotting. I climbed Kilimanjaro and one of the Great Pyramids. I scuba dived with sharks in French Polynesia. I rafted with crocodiles in Costa Rica. I ate Chateaubriand in Chateaubriand and drank Chianti in Chianti.

Patuxai is Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe replica built in 1969 with cement the U.S. donated earmarked for a new airport.

Based on the somewhat stodgy school of thought that you haven’t traveled unless you’ve suffered, well, I guess I’ve traveled. I caught typhoid in Thailand, got stuck in an underwater cave in Australia, got in a fistfight in Haiti, got chased out of a hotel room in Indonesia by giant wharf rats, had a machete pulled on me in Morocco, I thought I got kidnapped in Hungary and once stayed in a hotel in Egypt so filthy the shower and toilet shared the same drain. And once I even — and I shudder to even write this next sentence — woke up in Detroit!

In the realm of world travelers, 100 countries isn’t that many. The United Nations lists 195 member states. However, China blocks Taiwan from being a member. I do not. I have not been everywhere. I’ve missed all of southern and West Africa, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and Antarctica. The oceans are dotted with lots of island nations I’ll never visit. I see no sense visiting an island with no beach unless you want to go to Kiribati and watch the locals drown stray kittens. (They really do. They say cats are bad luck.) I’m not into numbers. I only know it’s 100 because about 10 years ago I tired of people asking me. I finally counted. I didn’t even go to a new country in 2016. I revisited Hungary, Czech Republic and Belgium instead.

This year, No. 100 is attracting the same response from everyone.

“Why Laos?”

I always like that response. It means people know nothing about it. It’s the capital of one of the few communist countries left in the world. It has emerged from a past so provincial its economy as recently as the early ’90s was dependent almost totally on foreign aid.The government, following China’s lead, opened its arms to tourism and limited free enterprise in the 1990s under a reform called the New Economic Mechanism. The number of tourists jumped from 14,400 in 1990 to 4.68 million in 2015. According to Laos government records, revenue from tourism went from $2.25 million in 1991 to $406 million in 2011.

Yes, even communists need to eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

Street stalls along the Mekong are where the locals in Vientiane eat.

From what I saw over four days, Vientiane, a city of 255,000, still has one rubber sandal stuck in its colonial past — which makes it one of the most charming capitals I’ve ever visited. It stretches languidly along the Mekong River separating Laos from Thailand. The narrow, quiet streets are void of many streetlights, let alone traffic jams. Street stalls share sidewalk space with family run noodle shops. The riverside is lined with locals selling fresh grilled fish and meats on a stick. You can eat fresh barbecued chicken for $1 then go upstairs to one of the many bars across the street and drink an ice-cold Beerlao while looking out over the Mekong.

From the moment my AsiaAir flight landed from Bangkok, I knew I’d like Vientiane. Its airport isn’t much bigger than some islands’ airfields in the Caribbean. Its immigration center is the size of a cafe. Standing in the long line waiting for my visa, I met a Canadian woman named Phillipa doing what I’d hear a lot of in Laos: She’s working in China and vacationing in Laos during the Chinese New Year which started Jan. 28. She’s been working in Shanghai for three years and still has that youthful exuberance of someone still excited about eating new foods and learning new languages. We met an Aussie who’s here for a six-month water maintenance project and a dour German woman who never paid me back for the cab we shared to our hotels. For nearly 20 years, Laos has become a haven for backpackers. Cheap beer. Sun. Good food. Laos has done something right.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

The pool at my Vientiane Garden Hotel.

We’re all on Sihome Road where the communist government put many backpacker hostels and hotels. It’s far from a gulag. My Vientiane Garden Hotel is set behind the girls’ Garden Hostel and an absolute palace for a budget traveler. I’m writing this near a pretty, little pool under the shade of huge trees and ferns. The hotel’s white concrete walls are set off by nice dark wood staircases and doors. A rusted barbell and two yellow buckets of empty Beerlao bottles in front of me are the only indication that this is still a developing country.

Actually, this is communism. During the Vietnam War, Laos had a neutral coalition government, whose Royal Lao Army the U.S. supplied with arms and money, while North Vietnam plied the communist Pathet Lao rebels. When the North won, Laos became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, ending 650 years of monarchy. (Why do communist countries like German Democratic Republic and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea call themselves democratic when there’s not a hint of democracy?).

When the communists took over in 1975, they curtailed the private sector, forced the collectivization of agriculture and curbed religion. About 10 percent of the country fled. Those who stayed circled the drain of what became an Asian backwater. In 1991 the World Bank listed Laos among the 10 poorest countries in the world. Then it hit rock bottom during the global economic crisis of the late ‘90s. What does it tell you about a country’s economy when it must get bailed out by Vietnam?

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the '70s.

A photo from the Lao National Museum of street protests in Vientiane during the ’70s.

Laos also remained extraordinarily dangerous, not by gangs but bombs. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. conducted a “secret war” trying to keep Laos from becoming a communist domino. According to Legacies of War, a website dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos over 580,000 missions from 1964-73, many landing in the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos. Today, many of those bombs still rest in the countryside, hidden by overgrowth. Laos does nothing to hide the fact, even on maps. Anyone want to vacation in Bomb Village? Yes, that’s the name of a town near the Plain of Jars. Every year more than 60 Lao die from leftover bombs.

However, opening up the economic purse strings gave Laos a major financial injection. Here in the capital, they refurbished the waterfront and built new hotels and roads, mostly financed by China. Today Laos has one of the fastest growing economies in East Asia. From 2006-16, according to the World Bank, its poverty level dropped from 33.5 percent to 23.2 percent. More than half a million people were lifted out of poverty. Among the world’s poorest countries today, it’s not even in the top 25.

Vientiane now has the same relaxed vibe as during its days as a French colony from 1893 to 1953. I first noticed France’s lingering influence when I walked to dinner. On a dusty sidewalk, I walked past a tattered flag of the old USSR waving over a conference hall. In front of the hall stood a big clear glass case filled with gorgeous French pastries, some sprinkled with chocolate. And bread. Laos is crawling with bread, something I never had in Bangkok.

So the French left recipes, the Americans left bombs. Viva la France!

This goes back to answering the question, “Why Laos?” A big reason is food. While debating between Myanmar and Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma) seemed like 90 percent pagodas and 10 percent human rights violations. I read virtually nothing about food. It makes sense. Who ever says, “Let’s go out for Burmese”? Laotian cuisine is heavily French influenced and I could tell by my first meal.

I took a local’s advice and went to Lao Kitchen. Walking past I saw it was clean and open air — and filled with tourists. The only Lao was a woman with a white guy. Maybe she was rented. Maybe they met on the Internet. I sat down next to three painfully young American girls scooping up their last bits of rice and nearly orgasming how great it was.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Laab at Lao Kitchen.

Whenever I enter a country for the first time, I try their national dish. In Laos it’s called Laab, or Lahp as Lonely Planet calls it. It’s either duck, chicken or beef mixed with fish sauce, shallots, mint leaves, lime juice, roasted ground rice and lots of chilies. It was one of the best national dishes I’ve had anywhere in Asia. It’s light, spicy and crunchy. The chilies didn’t overwhelm the lovely duck and the rice made for a nice crunchy substance. It was all of 40,000 kip ($5). My first Beerlao left me underwhelmed. It had the same industrialized taste as Singha or Budweiser. At 5 percent it didn’t give much of a wallop. But it was ice cold which means I can use it as a substitute for water the next three weeks.

I then found myself fed and lonely. I needed to talk. Two blocks away I found IBeam. IBeam is the perfect traveler’s bar. Arriving at about 9:30 p.m., I was one of only three Westerners. The rest were a bevy of gorgeous Lao women all dressed in skirts and heels. Not a single one winked at me or licked her lips. I didn’t have to learn the Lao term for “I have a girlfriend.” The bartender served me a Beerlao in a tall, elegant glass you’d find in Belgium and I settled back to watch a quartet called Black Magic play a nice collection of Western and Lao hits. While they played “Lady in Red,” “Desperado” and “Move Like Jagger,” I talked to a short, fit, bald American. He’s lived in Laos 16 years, right about the time of the economic explosion. I asked if he was happy.

“Not really,” he said. “I’m bored.”

He made Vientiane sound like a really small town, where places like the IBeam are the refuge after a long day battling communist bureaucracy. I asked him what he did for fun.

“This,” he said, raising his beer.

He works in ecotourism which has cleaned up its act over the last six or seven years. However, there’s a problem in going forward.

“They lack creativity here,” he said. “They never come up with anything new.”

He said the biggest problem facing Laos is lots of dam projects are threatening the livelihood of the rural fishermen who need the Mekong River, the 12th longest in the world, to make a living. Bridges are destroying the environment.

I left four beers and 80,000 kip later. That’s about $10. I wandered home, stopping briefly at an outdoor bar, one of the few allowed open past the 11:30 cutoff mark. Filled with expats and tourists, I nursed one last Beerlao and heard a Brit and French woman’s tale of their Danish friend thrown in a Chinese prison for two years for a murder he never committed. He’s still awaiting trial.

Communism isn’t dead yet, folks.

Touring Vientiane doesn’t take long which is why many travelers don’t stick around. Too bad. The relaxed atmosphere makes it feel like a giant fishing village. Vientiane is the only capital I’ve been to where you can count the street lights on two hands. Vientiane has a history going back 1,000 years with remnants still around through a 650-year-old kingdom, American imperialism and now full-fledged communism. But in pace, size and manageability, compared to Bangkok, Vientiane is color by numbers compared to Rubik’s Cube. I about walked the whole town in one afternoon, at least the central part.

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

Laos still drips with French influence such as Le Banneton cafe..

I started the day at Le Banneton, a cafe right out of a back alley of Paris, no question built to remind the Lao that parts of the French yoke weren’t bad. I had a French chocolate pastry not much different than my fagottino back home in Rome and an espresso twice the size and just as tasty as mine. Lots of backpackers sat around reading Lonely Planet. Some expats sat inside from the growing heat working on their laptops. I couldn’t start the day any better.

Vientiane is lousy with pagodas. Unfortunately, none remain from its time in the sun: the 16th century when King Setthathirat moved the capital of the Lan Xang kingdom, Laos’ first monarchy dating to the 13th century, from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Vientiane became a Buddhist mecca of sorts, attracting scholars from all over Southeast Asia.

But the Vietnamese, Burmese and Siamese took turns transforming the pagodas into so much kindling. The Lan Xang kingdom eventually crumbled and so did Vientiane’s period to shine. It became part of Siam’s empire in the late 18th century and Chao Anou, a Lao educated in Thailand, took over. He did a remake of the pagodas which is what dominate central Vientiane today.

It’s where I started my walk.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket is one of the few temples in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese.

Wat Si Saket, built between 1818-1824, is a large block covering a bevy of temples. A long row of reclining gold Buddhas and black Buddhas are lined up on the side of the complex like sleeping sentries. The main temple has a sign that says, in English, that it’s due for a makeover — in 2014.

I guess Soviet-level efficiency hasn’t reached Laos.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

The Presidential Palace once housed the French colonial governor.

Across the street stood the gargantuan Presidential Palace, as French as brie on a baguette. It’s what is called beaux arts and has three beautiful archways over an entrance. In a nod to the surroundings, the three steeples in the back give it a very Laotian taste.

I then strolled up Lan Xang Road, Vientiane’s main boulevard that is as wide as the Champs-Elysees. Here is where you feel the most French presence outside a bakery. At the end of Lan Xang stands the Patuxal. It’s similar to the Arc de Triomphe with a giant archway in the middle of a roundabout but the top deck is ringed with Oriental artwork and little pagoda domes. The American military gave it to the Lao government in 1969 to build a new airport. The Lao took the concrete and, instead, built a memorial to all the Lao who died in pre-revolutionary wars.

Thanks, Yanks.

The view from Patuxai.

The view from Patuxai.

The view isn’t bad. It’s just that there isn’t much to see. Vientiane is as flat as a rice paddy. I don’t think there’s a building more than five stories. It reminds me of Bangkok in the late ‘70s before foreign investment built a skyline and the new affluent Thai bought enough cars to ruin the air forever.

But some commercialization has ruined parts of Vientiane. Just past Talat Kua Din, a classic Asian fresh food market, stands Talat Sao. Apparently, for a generation, Talat Sao was Vientiane’s largest market and the place to go for famed Lao textiles. Now it’s just Vientiane’s largest market. A renovation turned 80 percent of it into a glittering mall. In the remaining 20 percent is stall after stall selling jewelry so gold it almost looked orange. In fact it’s about as valuable as fruit. An Indian shopkeeper told me it’s copper made in India. The famed textiles have been reduced to brightly colored wrap-around skirts with a sash, great if you’re going to an affair at an embassy here or filling some weird man’s fantasy but not appropriate anywhere in the Western world.

The walking took its toll. I tried looking for some place called Spirit House an allegedly classy cocktail bar perfect for sipping an overpriced cocktail as the sun sets on the Mekong. Instead, my thirst got me intercepted across the street at Chokdee. Chokdee means “Cheers” in Lao and the sign said, “Belgian Beer Bar.” The place was expensive. Imported beers were 35,000 ($4, about four times the price of your average Beerlao) but the lahb chicken with sticky rice was fantastic.

I kept a conversation with a retired Dutch guy named Andre. With the tired manner and frazzled hair of a world-weary old Asia hand, Andre spun a tale about his son who has lived in Laos for 18 years and runs textile factories. Andre told me you can get fined $2,000 if caught with a prostitute here. As in Thailand, it’s illegal; unlike in Thailand, it’s not overlooked.

Yes, despite the great French-laced food, quiet streets and meandering river scene, communist tyranny remains alive and well in Vientiane. The Vientiane Times is the English version of the communist rag that toes the party line. Laos has one TV station. It had endless video of government meetings with interviews of stoic officials talking about the coming rice crop. After watching for 45 minutes I thought I was in Pyongyang. Freedom of speech is strictly forbidden. The Lao are passive observers of a life that will never match that of neighboring Thailand. They don’t protest, not even to visitors. Then again, they know something.

Life in Laos could be worse.

Bangkok: After 30-year absence, tastes remain the same in Sodom & Gomorrah East

Wat Arun, "The Temple of Dawn," symbolizes Thailand's Buddhist foundation but underneath lies a pulsating sub-culture.

Wat Arun, “The Temple of Dawn,” symbolizes Thailand’s Buddhist foundation but underneath lies a pulsating sub-culture.

“One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.
Not much between despair and ecstasy.
One night in Bangkok makes the tough guys tumble.
Can’t be too careful with your company.
I can feel the devil walking next to me.”
— “One Night in Bangkok” by Murray Head

BANGKOK, Thailand — Welcome to the land that morality forgot. Bangkok is where visions are blurred, not only through the haze of too many Singha beers but the vast tolerance of a Buddhist culture and tourist industry run amok. It’s where a he is a she and a she can do things I didn’t learn on the streets of Eugene, Ore.

When I started traveling in 1978, Bangkok became my gateway to the extremes of Asia travel. It guided me through an education that hardened me on my way to visit 100 countries. It nurtured me while racked with a vicious case of typhoid that cost me 20 pounds in eight days. It’s where I smoked Thai stick in a bamboo home over a pond and hallucinated about snakes wrapping around my ankles until my Thai host said, “You’re not hallucinating. They’re real.” Where else could I watch a woman fire darts out of her vagina and pop balloons held by men ringing her stage then have her sit on my lap and ask to come home with me?

Chicken on a stick at a typical street stall.

Chicken on a stick at a typical street stall.

But it’s also where the perpetual sweet smell of fish sauce and chilies led me around every corner looking for the next cheap, delicious street stall. It’s where the warm air blew across my face as I darted around the streets in tuk-tuks, Thailand’s charming little three-wheeled, open-aired taxis. It’s where I learned the bad rap given the beautiful Thai women, the vast majority of whom are among the most advanced in South Asia.
Malaysia Hotel

Malaysia Hotel

Malaysia pool

Malaysia pool

It is here where I returned last month for the first time in 30 years. Bangkok wasn’t a destination. It was a base to come and go sandwiched around a three-week journey through Laos. Being gone from Bangkok for so long, I wanted some familiarity. So I booked two stays at the ol’ Malaysia Hotel. I still call the Malaysia my old stomping grounds. I spent so much time here in three previous visits, I should’ve received enough points to get a free week’s stay. Or, at least, a free lap dance. As it is, you don’t really need points at the Malaysia. It has always been one of the best bargains in Thailand. I’m paying only $28 a night. That’s for a great room and swimming pool in Lumphini, the neighborhood with Bangkok’s biggest park and most expensive bar. So if you want to save your money for larcenously priced drinks to impress a lady, the Malaysia is the place for you.

In my past visits to the Malaysia, the way you impressed a lady was buy her breakfast the next morning. The Malaysia’s whory reputation was known to every male with a passport and a drop of testosterone. It became famous in the ‘60s as the R&R destination for battle-fatigued and horny American soldiers. By the time I arrived the first time in 1978, it had become nothing less than a pseudo brothel, a hangout for hookers, hippies, backpackers, short-term workers and the occasional world-weary expat. At 22 years old, I had to cut through the hookers in the lobby like the entrance of an NFL stadium just to reach the elevator. I remember one time a young, lithe thing in stilettos was dry humping an Aussie’s leg as they entered the elevator. I stood back looking, expressionless from sexual overload common in Bangkok. The woman rested her head on the man’s shoulder, winked at me and licked her bright red lips.

The Malaysia has changed quite a bit in 30 years. The swimming pool, complete with a balcony deck where a gay Thai tried chatting me up once in ‘79, is still the same. Also left over is the sign on the elevator that no one ever read, saying, “Anyone not a guest must register at the front desk before entering elevator.”

But I’m writing this outside next to a koi pond where a squadron of big, fat white fish float motionless under a big fern. The bar has moved to the other side of the lobby and a big screen TV is showing CNN’s preview of the Six Nations Rugby tournament. Some old men, looking tired and bored, sit over half-filled orange juice glasses and coffee rapidly cooling in the pleasant winter morning. I can’t help but think of what Thai teenager they violated last night. Bangkok does that to you. I have become a sexual cynic. As it turns out, I was right. Later in the lobby, I heard too older men, one New Zealander and the other Aussie, talk about their experiences with Asian men on Tinder. They were later joined by a chubby, pale American man in his 50s with his Thai boyfriend in his ’30s.

The Malaysia has turned into, at least those days, as a gathering place for old queens.

The neighborhood changed, too. In ‘78, I went around the corner to a courtyard of cheap open-air restaurants. I’d sit with Aussies and Dutch and eat passable French toast for $1. I’d overhear tales of their “cure.” That was the catch-all word for post-sexual trysts in Bangkok. This was pre-AIDS 1978. Nearly every corner in Lumphini had a VD clinic on it. The “cure” was sticking a needle down your dick. Even at 22, underloved and oversexed, I didn’t care how beautiful a woman was. I didn’t want sex if the price was getting a needle stuck down my dick. (While writing that sentence, I just subconsciously crossed my legs and bent over.)

Today, the neighborhood has gone to a higher-end tourist. Down the street is an Ibis hotel and some ugly high-rise hotels. Across the street is a 7-Eleven, one of 2,700 that have sprouted in Bangkok. I didn’t recognize the place. The Thailand I remember was a Thailand of the streets. Everything was outdoors: eating, drinking, sometimes shtoinking. Now the gross over saturation of tourism I saw in the ‘70s, 40 years later, has vomited up a sick concrete jungle.

However, the smell of Bangkok hasn’t changed. The aromas of tangy fish sauce, firecracker chilies and grilled fish swirled in the air as soon as I left Bangkok’s sparkling Suvarnabhumi Airport, built only 11 years ago. In fact, all of Bangkok’s public transportation has transformed over the last 30 years. When I first arrived at 22 on a trip around the world, I walked out of grimy, gray, Don Muang Airport and piled into a public bus so packed I had to sit on one end of my duffel bag, like a golf fan sitting on one of those stick-type seats. When I left Suvarnabhumi, I took the Airport Link train to the MRT, Bangkok’s subway, and took it to Lumphini station. Cost for two train tickets? Two dollars.

I emerged from the MRT with an Aussie on his first overseas experience. He’s 50. This I found odd. Aussies are born with wanderlust. They do their first “OE (Overseas Experience),” or “walkabout,” at 22 or 18. They’re the most traveled people in the world. No wonder their xenophobia is lower. But this guy was on his first journey.

“I had two jobs, worked my whole life, wife, two kids,” he said, almost exhaling in relief. I didn’t have to ask what happened to the marriage. He arrived in Bangkok two days earlier and had the same over-the-top exuberance I had when I first arrived in Asia. He was hopping around like a puppy.

I clued him in on some key Thai words I still remember from 30 years ago: “Korp kun cow” (Thank you), “Sawadee” (Hello) and “I don’t pay” (My jai.).

This really isn’t fair to Thai women. An estimated 2 million Thais work in the sex industry. That’s both women, men and men pretending to be women. A couple in the countryside has an attractive daughter and they send her to Bangkok to send money back home. For some reason, there’s a particularly fertile breeding ground of beautiful young girls in northeast Thailand.

However, the Thai women who aren’t hookers, the vast, VAST majority, are great, modernized women. When I was here in the ‘70s, there were more female college students than men. According to the Harvard International Review, last year 80 percent of the total employment of Thailand’s 10 largest export industries were women. Rural Thai women have always been the central bread winners and have owned land since the decree of King Rama V (1853-1910). Last year Thai women had the fifth most PhDs compared to men (57 percent) in the world and made up 51 percent of science researchers. I have often talked to Thai women business owners. During a short stint with The Associated Press in Bangkok, I worked with a female journalist.

And they’re not promiscuous. I dated a couple Thai women in the ‘70s and they adhere to Buddhist morals. In Buddhism, premarital sex is tolerated but not condemned. The average Thai woman wants the same thing any other woman in the world wants first.


They did have an odd dating ritual. After I met my translator for a beer after covering the Asian Games, the tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the Malaysia. I didn’t ask her in. Instead, she handed me a piece of paper. I noticed that she was writing on it before we left. “It’s a Thai custom to write something about a person when you first meet,” she said sweetly.
In the lobby I read it and wasn’t sure if I was more impressed with her sharp observations or command of the English language when I read, “You are a truly evil troll and really only worthy of extermination.” (I made up the line but not the custom.)

The Moon Bar occupies the 63rd floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

The Moon Bar occupies the 63rd floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

The beauty of returning to destinations is you get to peel away another layer of culture. I spent a month in Thailand in 1978, a week in ’79, a smattering of days in ’87. I’ve seen the reclining Buddha and the Grand Palace. I wanted to see the new, modern Bangkok. So I went to the Moon Bar. It advertises itself as having the best view in the city and I wanted a place to hang out before diving into Bangkok’s culinary delights.

Getting there was an adventure. In previous trips, the mode of city transport was the tuk-tuk, these motorized trishaws that cost maybe 50 cents or a buck to go a kilometer or two. They have evolved into a blatant tourist trap. For the tourists who want the novelty, not to mention selfie, of the tuk-tuk experience, they charge more than an air-conditioned taxi and negotiate prices as if they’re down to their last dollar.. Instead, I got directed to a guy in a gray and orange vest leaning against his motorcycle. I negotiated his price from 40 baht ($1.15) to 30 (90 cents) and we whizzed around cars, my knee barely missing their side mirrors. We went down modern, wide Soi 1 to the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was right out of Lower Manhattan, a 63-story skyscraper with doormen, guards and a fountain at the entrance. Two elevators later, I was on the top floor weaving my way through candlelit dinner tables to the elevated bar. It was a square, back-lit bar with a mind-boggling 360-view of modern Bangkok. This isn’t your father’s, or my Bangkok. Skyscrapers stuck up haphazardly all over downtown. The architecture is something out of an acid trip. One skyscraper even taller than the Banyan Tree zigzagged up toward the sky with uneven sides. It looked like a Lego structure missing some Legos. Another skyscraper had a swirling outer wall like giant snake.

Me with my $16 Moon Bar Mojito

Me with my $16 Moon Bar Mojito.

But I don’t know if I was more blown away by the view or the prices. One of the cute, young cocktail waitresses with a blouse off one shoulder handed me a drink menu. The cheapest cocktail was 580 baht ($16). I turned to a young American blonde and said, “I don’t know if I’m secure enough in my manhood to order a Lychee Ginger Smack.”

“Sure you are,” she said. “I’ll order it and slide it over to you.”

I went with the Moon Bar Mojito, not only because it sounded a little more manly but also it was the cheapest drink on the menu. It was Absolut Mandarin, Pampero rum, vanilla, mango, mint and lime all of which cancelled each other out to where I was basically drinking slightly flavored crushed ice. It was a $16 Slurpee.

The blonde was one of three San Diego women who had been all over Southeast Asia for three weeks. This was their last night in Bangkok and were splurging at the Banyan Tree. They were drinking a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon which the waiter poured with a thick, white napkin wrapped around it. Price: 23,000 baht ($65). When I first visited Bangkok, I lived on $5 a day. Think about it. We talked about the usual traveler banter. Best island: Ko Ngai. Best food: Vietnam. Nicest people: Thailand. We were joined by a skinny kid in his 20s who’d traveled around Thailand alone between jobs.

“I’m tired of traveling alone,” he said. I wanted to say, “You’d better get used to it. Southeast Asia isn’t for everyone.” It isn’t. Not everything is the Moon Bar. It’s hot, real crowded, chaotic. Bangkok has no visible street signs.

Pad Thai at Uncle John.

Pad Thai at Uncle John.

However, like Rome, when Bangkok gives you a headache and you’re exhausted and frustrated, there’s always dinner to look forward to. A guy on InterNations Bangkok told me to go to a restaurant called Uncle John. The name alone told me to stay away but locals know where to find two things: women and food. Uncle John is on a smaller street off Rama IV and was the typical rudimentary Thai restaurant. Crude white plastic chairs were set up outside with a cheap, dirty yellow sign reading “UNCLE JOHN: Thai and French cuisine.” A tired middle-aged woman in an unfortunate short haircut stood behind a busy desk where she poured multi-hued syrup onto shaved ice for locals seeking dessert. The place wasn’t crowded. I almost got up and walked across the street to the street stall with a sign in Thai and the place packed with locals. But they were all eating soup, a food I can not stomach in the tropics.

I went with my usual habit for a first meal: the national dish. I ordered the pad thai which was better than anything I had in the States: long, flat noodles with big, fat chunks of chicken and bits of green onion and ringed with peanuts. That and an ice-cold Chang beer was all of $7.



Uncle John is a Michelin star restaurant compared to where I went the next night. Bangkok’s Chinatown may be the biggest in Asia outside China. I tried eating in one of Bangkok’s plethora of Western shopping malls but I couldn’t handle eating next to an escalator and on a Pokemon placemat. I returned to the heart of where locals go: Chinatown. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, not far from my hotel. The main drag of Chakrawat Road is lit up like the Las Vegas Strip with vertical neon signs flashing giant Chinese characters. It may be the brightest street in Southeast Asia. The sidewalk was lined chock-a-block with cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The tables were covered with large iron-frying surfaces sizzling with crayfish, chicken and whole fresh fish, their eyes, still open, staring off at the diners packing the sidewalk. Bangkok’s air may be dirty but the air in Chinatown may be the most delicious in Asia. Fish sauce. Chilies. Grilled chicken. It all blended together to make me crave wherever my nose took me. I wasn’t hungry when I arrived. One block out of the taxi I was starving.

I’m here during Chinese New Year and Thais packed nearly every stall. At one on the corner, a line snaked around the side of dozens of tables filled by sweating, devouring humans. Occasionally I’d see the white face of a bedraggled backpacker or some savvy old Asian hands going native.

I skirted my way up a side street, each one I passed becoming a little less crowded. By the time I reached the corner, I was hopelessly lost. The streets in this part of Chinatown have no signs. The main streets are in two languages, neither of them English. I asked a man selling fruit from darkened stalls for a restaurant called Nai Mong Hoi Thod. Like many Thai place names, it sounds like a cat that gets its paw stuck in a lawnmower. But down three stores there it was, home to reputedly the best fried oysters and mussels in Bangkok. I took a plastic chair outside and a 30ish guy with bushy black hair handed me a grease-soaked, plastic covered menu. He said he’s out of mussels but nodded when I pointed to the fried oysters in oyster sauce. I thought, I’d better like oysters.

Just then an old Thai man at the table next to me saw me writing in my notebook.

“You a food critic?” he asked in remarkable English.

“I write about food,” I said. “Damn. You caught me. Usually I read a newspaper while I’m taking notes. I can’t really get away with that with a Thai newspaper. Good food here?”

He waved his hand back and forth.

“Overrated,” he said. “I know two places better …”

Fried oysters at Nai Mong Hoi Thod.

Fried oysters at Nai Mong Hoi Thod.

He went on to give me directions that would confuse Indiana Jones. Also, he was full of shit. The fried oysters were great. They were little greasy, gray balls in a brownish-gray glue that looked absolutely disgusting, like polyps from a cancer dying cancer patient. But I’ve never had a more flavorful oyster. And the sauce gave it a thick gravy that exploded in my mouth.

Unfortunately, its price of 150 baht ($4) also reflected the size. I was still hungry when I squeezed my way through the mob trying to find a seat, any seat, in the mass of sweating humanity. It’s been pleasantly cool in Bangkok. About 80 and dry. Here in Chinatown at night with all the flavors and steam filling the air, it felt like the inside of a pressure cooker. Not finding a single seat, I wandered up a side street and saw an old man hawking whole slabs of gray crabs tied with string. A huge iron barrel held clams. A young cook was grilling crayfish. I asked the price for the clams.

Chinatown seafood.

Chinatown seafood.

“One hundred fifty,” the old man said.

“What? One fifty for one?” I said. What else could it be?

“No. 150” and he formed a circle with his forefinger. Four dollars for a whole plate of clams.

I took a seat in the back and sweated like a pig heading to slaughter. I drained half the liter bottle of Chang beer in one gulp until the fans mercifully turned on. The clams were small but good. However, about a third of them were steamed shut. My greasy fingers couldn’t get purchase trying to pry them open with the fat forks. They were clams basically telling me, “Fuck you!” Then again, what should I expect from a seafood restaurant that uses a roll of toilet paper for napkins?
You see, Thailand has so much to offer than sex. (I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.) I’ve read that Patpong, the neighborhood of more flying testosterone and sperm than any in Asia, has devolved into somewhat of a sexual theme park. The girly bars are still there but it’s more of a place to view its seedy past than lay any seed. The last time I was there, a billboard outside a bar called Mary Queen of Scots listed the following: “Dart throw. Ping pong toss. Signatures. Bottle opener.” Use your imagination. Yes, it was all true.

I had no interest in returning to a scene that made me flaccid at 22. I took another local’s advice and took a taxi clear across town to Zak’s, which he billed as a great place to meet locals and expats alike. It was along Sua 17 off Ploenchit Road where the apartment buildings grew bigger and nicer. This is definitely where the Thai white-collar class lives. Soi 17 was lined with upscale bars, all with modern signs and big glass windows and soft lighting. Zak’s, more of a restaurant, was dead, forcing me next door to the culture-killing establishment, curiously named the German Beer Bar. At least I knew Thais ran the thing. Cute waitresses in Germany’s red, yellow and black colors skirted around with big pint mugs of beer. It was happy hour until 1:30 a.m. and I sat between a young couple and two young Swedes.

Gary, the guy in the couple, was a white Hong Kong native. He spoke fluent Cantonese and Mandarin and English with a slight British accent. He chatted with me in English and his Chinese girlfriend in a smattering mishmash of English and Cantonese. He misses Hong Kong. The UK’s relinquishment of it to China in 1999 didn’t change it politically. It’s a free democracy with a free press. Unfortunately, Gary has an export business and is stuck in some small town four hours north of Shanghai. They watch movies at home for fun. He was clearly clinging to the happiness that his lovely, curvy Chinese girlfriend gave him. Of course, I had to ask.
“What does China think of Donald Trump?”

“Ha! I was afraid to bring him up,” he said. “They hate him. They’re worried. He’s going to make it worse for both countries.”

Hey, maybe Trump will bring both Chinese and American people together. Maybe we’ll all celebrate the Chinese New Year in a joint effort to erase that motherfucker from the face of the earth. We toasted to the death of Trump, which I repeated with the two Swedes who said, “Only 2 percent of Sweden likes him.”

“Two percent?” I exclaimed. “WHAT 2 percent?”

They were 19 and on one of Sweden’s many government-sponsored holidays. They had traveled around Cambodia and the Thai islands, drinking a lot of beer and oggling at the flying vaginas all over Thailand. I asked one of them, a skinny kid in a tanktop with hair the color of straw, about what he thinks of the supermarket displays of sex.

“I’m too inexperienced,” he said. He then went on to describe a lady boy show where a boy dressed like a woman gyrated on stage for customers obviously wondering about the vagueness of man.

The other Swede, a tall, handsome, rakish kid with two cheap island necklaces, said, “I’m all for expressing your sexuality. But when you become a tourist attraction …”

The novelty has long since worn off on me. I no longer see if Thai women make eye contact with me. I don’t spend boring time alone trying to figure out if a woman is a woman or a man. Across the bar sat two women, one with dangling diamond earrings and gorgeous, thick, black hair and the eyes of a doe. She was also skinny as a rake. She was staring at me. Her friend had the high cheekbones that transvestites just can not hide, no matter how much surgery they have. I asked the Swede to weigh in.

“Why don’t you go find out?” he asked.

“I don’t WANT to find out,” I said.

At the corner of the bar was a late middle-aged man, with graying hair and bulky stomach. Resting on his shoulder, maybe asleep, was a reasonably attractive Thai woman no more than 20. He tried to talk to her but her English was strictly rudimentary, “blowjob talk” as expats call it here. He. Talked. Like. This. To her. She looked bored with him and only gave him the ubiquitous smile that basically said, “Hurry up and pay me.”

Starving as the bar closed at 1:30, I went across the street to an all-night diner. Over some fantastic chicken fried rice in chili paste, I saw four couples, all old Western men with young, lithe Thai women, each one more bored than the last. No affection. No connection. No communication. The women were eye candy and an orgasm at the end of the night. The men were a way to get them to the next day.

On the bright side, Thailand is the one place in the world where geeky, ugly Western guys can get a pretty girlfriend. It’s also where pretty women can get out of poverty real fast and easy. It’s a trade off that has less communication than animals in the Serengeti.

As I took a long tuk-tuk ride back with a driver who had no clue where my hotel was, I thought of my Marina back in Rome. I don’t remember missing a woman more than I did then.

Q&A: Through Eternity tour guide Luca De Angelis

Luca De Angelis, center, has a master's in archaeology.

Luca De Angelis, center, has a master’s in archaeology.

I will do regular Q&As with tour guides at Through Eternity, Rome’s outstanding tour company for which I started blogging in December. Check out all its tours around the city at,, 1-800-267-7581, 39-06-700-9336. I’ll talk to them about insights into their jobs, their lives and Rome. This month it’s Luca De Angelis, 38, a Rome native.


I’ve always liked very much to share information about this kind of stuff with people. When I was a little kid and in my young adult life I’d take my parents to tours of parts of Rome or archaeological ruins. Or a lot of my American friends would come over to Rome and I’d take them as their tour guide.


I just decided to get my license as a tour guide a couple of years after I got my master’s degree in archaeology in 2008. I set out for an archaeology job in Val d’Aosta for most of 2008. Then at the end of 2008 I decided to get into post-graduate school and decided to take the exam as a tour guide.


It’s impossible to understand the city unless you try to get a very, very quick grip on how the city developed and the different strata superimposed atop of each other in almost 3,000 years of history.


The Roman Empire collapsed like any empire, because of several factors. They seem to be the same across civilization. One is the huge expansion of the military expense which at some point was impossible to compress, it was impossible to do without. It was a matter of keeping the integrity of the empire by trying to always keep off the empire all these barbarian populations, That was only possible with the expense of huge amounts of money. This huge expense at some point, which was impossible to avoid, triggered a vicious circle which in two centuries dropped the Roman Empire to a very, very noisy collapse.


There’s not that much to look at. It’s all stuff that’s made of shapeless stones and mud and very, very perishable material. So there’s very little remaining of that which makes the discovery even more sensational and exciting. Because you have little clues here and there that are hardly visible and you have to try and fill the holes. It’s like detective work and it makes it even more challenging when you’re dealing with such old stuff.


Of an incredible brutal society that’s all based on sex, violence and greed. For sure it was a much more brutal society than our own society even but if you look at the last 2,000 years of the history of the world, I don’t think after the collapse of empire and the advent of Christianity that took over the West, there was a decrease in the bloodshed. Just take a look at the last century of our history. It’s continuous tragedy non stop.


It can open for them a wider perspective for archaeologist sites because there’s very little to see and it’s hard to visualize what you’re seeing if you don’t have someone who knows his stuff, who guides you and somehow tries to weave a story out of the rock you see here and there. That’s incredibly important. Also, in museums, to look at more visual art like paintings and statues, having a guide really helps you understand the development of art and how the art process goes through the centuries which is incredibly interesting and incredibly important to be aware of and it’s very hard without a guide.


Ancient Rome, for sure. I’d like to live in the time of Hadrian (117-138 AD), when Rome was this incredible construction site when they were building the Pantheon, the Temple of Venus in Rome. The empire was doing really well, in a state of relatively calm political stability and financial prosperity.


I constantly read new things. I’m always updating my knowledge or re-reading things I read a long time ago. I try to rotate the things that I say and I adapt to the knowledge that I think that the people I have in front of me have and their interests.

Ten wild things I didn’t know about Michelangelo

It took him 4 1/2 years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It took him 4 1/2 years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

When you live in Rome, you get a lot of visitors. Walking the streets of this remarkable outdoor museum that is the city, they often ask me questions only a tour guide could answer: What’s that block of marble next to the Fiat? Who is that temple named after?

I don’t mind really. As a friend from my hometown once told me, “John, if you didn’t want visitors, you should’ve moved to Milwaukee.”

But I’m not a tour guide and don’t pretend to be. Instead, I have always given one bit of advice to first-time tourists.

When you go to the Vatican Museum, go straight to the Sistine Chapel. It’s at the end of the museum and if you stop and stare at every incredible piece of art along the way, you may not be as overwhelmed as you normally would.

After tagging along Through Eternity’s Vatican tour, I will never give that advice again.

I learned something from our tour guide that day. Luca De Angelis, an archaeologist who also studied art history at the University of Rome Sapienza, took us from start to finish. I learned to see changes in art styles from one century to the next. The graduation from stiff and flat in the 14th century to the human forms of the Renaissance to the beauty of the Baroque added so much more meaning to the art I was seeing.

It made me appreciate even more the magic that is Michelangelo. The advancements he took art during the Renaissance stood out like the Sistine Chapel when compared with what came before and after him.

It’s one of the many things I learned about Michelangelo during Luca’s five-hour Vatican tour. It was part of my new part-time gig: blogging for Through Eternity, one of the top tour companies in Rome (,, 1-800-267-7581, 39-06-700-9336). He told me so many things about history’s greatest sculptor that you won’t find in guidebooks or even “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” Michelangelo’s biography I devoured in my youth.

Here are 10 things I learned that I will never forget:

1. Michelangelo sold one of his first statues in 1491 when he was 15 years old. However, it wasn’t he who sold it. He sculpted a sleeping Cupid so beautiful that a friend sold it to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, claiming it was an ancient piece of art. An art expert, Riario couldn’t tell the difference. However, Michelangelo’s friend wouldn’t share in the sale’s profits and Michelangelo ratted him out to the cardinal. Five years later, the grateful cardinal called Michelangelo to Rome and became his first patron.



2. Michelangelo even amazed himself. Before him, Donatello in the 1400s initiated realism and naturalism in sculpting but Michelangelo took it to the heavens, turning marble into near-lifelike figures. When he made his Moses, a crack appeared in the knee. Some say Michelangelo made the crack out of frustration. He made Moses so real, an obviously lonely Michelangelo grew angry and said, “TALK! DAMN YOU, TALK!”
Michelangelo was 33 when he got the ceiling assignment.

Michelangelo was 33 when he got the ceiling assignment.

3. Michelangelo got the Sistine Chapel gig because of a crack in the ceiling. In 1506, the Sistine Chapel was 33 years old and was beginning to deteriorate. A giant diagonal crack appeared stretching from one corner of the ceiling to the other. Pope Julius II wanted it repaired but the repaired crack was extraordinarily ugly. Combined with an already boring blue ceiling with gold stars, the pope thought about a total makeover. He commissioned Michelangelo, then 31, who was a sculptor, not a painter. He didn’t accept it until two years later. Said Luca: “He was afraid he’d screw up the whole thing.”

4. Speaking of blue, Michelangelo didn’t believe in just any blue, along with gold the most expensive color available at the time. In 1536 when he was 61 he was called to do “The Last Judgment” on the Sistine Chapel wall. He spent two years looking for the best blue on the market. Unlike when he did the ceiling, this time the church had an unlimited budget.

5. Michelangelo’s obsession with muscles wasn’t necessary due to the rumor that he was gay. Greek statues inspired him and the Greek artists often depicted their figures, gods and mortals alike, with large muscles. In turn, even Michelangelo’s women and children had bulging arms.

Apollo Belvedere

Apollo Belvedere

6. One of Michelangelo’s favorite statues in history was Apollo Belvedere. Made around 150 AD, it’s a Roman copy of an ancient Greek original, possibly bronze, from 400 years earlier. Blessed with a beautiful, confident face, “It’s the perfect example of classical Greek art,” Luca said. This contributed to the birth of the Renaissance: the rediscovery of antiquity. It’s believed Michelangelo used Apollo’s curly hair as a model for Jesus’ in “The Last Judgment.” So impressed, Michelangelo had a pupil restore the missing arms to the statue which is found in the huge courtyard outside the Belvedere Palace.
The Last Judgment

The Last Judgment

7. Michelangelo took out his revenge on one enemy in “The Last Judgment.” Cardinal Biagio da Cesena had criticized the many nudes he depicted. The cardinal said, “This is ‘The Last Judgment,’ not Roman baths.” A furious Michelangelo went to work on his version of hell in the lower right-hand corner. There, painted on the image of Minos, the judge of hell, is the unmistakable face of Cardinal Biagio.


8. Michelangelo had a bitter rivalry with Raphael. Their careers coincided. Born in 1475 in Florence, eight years before Raphael did in Urbino, Marche, Michelangelo came to Rome in 1495. Raphael came in 1508. Raphael was one of the first artists to put more life in paintings. He put red in children’s cheeks. He put saints flying on clouds. A baby looked like a baby, not, as Luca said, “like a disturbing little adult.” Michelangelo was merely the biggest star in Italy’s art world. At one point, they both lived in apartments in the Vatican. “Imagine how crazy and cool it would’ve been to hang around the Vatican back then,” Luca said, “these two incredible geniuses working in the same place, avoiding each other and were full of sarcastic comments any time they bumped into each other.”

9. Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel up to 18 hours a day. He also rarely bathed.

St. Peter's

St. Peter’s

10. Michelangelo would hate St. Peter’s today. Bernini was asked to decorate the inside of the basilica in a way to make people gasp in astonishment. It became one of the hallmarks of the Baroque style in the 1600s. “If Michelangelo could see the church as it is today he’d probably have a heart attack. Because in his mind, all these walls, all these floors, were supposed to be completely plain, only white plaster. Because in the Renaissance all the attention was on the architecture, not the decorations.”

Michelangelo is like the ghost of a mysterious, reclusive movie star still haunting the world’s most lavish home, the Vatican. Once you learn a little, you want to learn a lot. Every tour I take sheds new light on a man whose astonishing work stood out in the golden age of Italian art. His name still rings loudly around the world after 500 years. Even in a five-hour tour, there is so much more to learn about him. I would come back to hear Luca give the next chapter.

Just hanging out in the Vatican is worth the trip. For 16 months, from 2001-03, I lived two blocks from the Vatican Museum. When I walked home from Centro Storico, I had to walk through St. Peter’s Square, long after the last tourist had left. It was only me, a few security guards and the two fountains, the gushing water only adding to the romance. In the Vatican, around every corner is another story. Michelangelo is only one of them. Through Eternity tour guides know the rest.