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

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 that was ever on the river was the beer foam that splayed a one-kilometer swath from all the bars that lined the banks.
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Laos: My 100th country is slowly emerging from its poverty-stricken communist cocoon

“Why Laos?” I always like that response. It means no one knows anything 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 it hardly had any street lights in 1998. 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.
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Bangkok: After 30-year absence, tastes remain the same in Sodom & Gomorrah East

Welcome to the land that morality forget. 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.
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Ten wild things I didn’t know about Michelangelo

The advancements Michelangelo 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. 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:

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Myths of the gladiators: Through Eternity tours sets the record straight

I learned a lot about gladiators from books, particularly Daniel Mannix’s excellent 1958 tome, “The Way of the Gladiator.” However, I learned even more from Through Eternity’s Colosseum, Forum and Palatine Hill tour. Over five hours, it started with tours of the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. At the final stop at the Colosseum, tour guide Gracelyn Monaco blew away a lot of myths people have about the famed gladiators. Forget what you saw in the movie “Gladiator.” It was accurate but didn’t tell the whole story.

It wasn’t nearly as violent as the real thing.
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On the road in Serie D: 4th Division Trastevere flying high in Italy’s soccer lowlands

His 35-year-old face is weathered, in kind of a rugged Italian sort of way. He has a perpetual scruffy beard. Lines are forming around eyes that have seen too many patchy soccer fields, tiny towns and lonely roads.
Stefano Tajarol has the look of Serie D.
This is the bottom branch of Italy’s soccer tree, hanging just above the rubble of amateurism. Serie D has 162 teams spread from rural Sicily to the foothills of the Italian Alps. Francavilla. Ghivizzano. Darfo Boario. They are towns you’ll never see in a guide book. They’re all trying to climb atop one of nine divisions for promotion to Lega Pro, Italy’s third division where there are higher salaries, historic stadiums and — gasp! — television.
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New Year’s Eve in Stockholm: Sauna, Swedish meatballs and a beautiful blonde

Those views changed on this trip. Stockholm will never make the cover of Budget Travel magazine or the to-do lists of hygiene-challenged backpackers. It will, however, continue to be a world leader in progressive thinking and healthy living. I couldn’t think of a better place to end the last year on earth before Donald Trump blows it up after Xi Jinping flips him off on Twitter.
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