Vang Vieng Music Festival Thai DJs on stage

How I Almost Missed an Unreal Experience Because of False Assumptions

In Southeast Asia by Daniel S. Johnson8 Comments

“So, you’re gonna film this one, right?”

Jess smiled back at me as she readied her camera. “Duh.”

I looked to Daniela and Merijn on her right, and they grinned back encouragingly. I nodded, turned and approached the backstage stairs to make some final preparations.

My mind was surprisingly tranquil as I stared down at the two glowing orbs in my hands. I carefully cycled to my LED setting of choice – solid rainbow fade. After a final glance at my three backpacker companions, I took a deep breath and slowly ascended the stairs. The thinly carpeted stage shook rhythmically to the beat of deep house music, sending soft reverberations through my bare feet. I passed the raised DJ booth and eyed the German artist energetically spinning his set amongst a sea of strobe lights and LCD screens. As I reached the center of the stage, I focused intently on the tempo of the bass thumping behind me, gazed out briefly on the undulating throng of festival-goers below, and raised each of my arms to my sides.

Wait – maybe I should start from the beginning.

I’d like to establish a theme, both for this post and for the site in general: the importance of questioning one’s personal assumptions cannot be understated. More often than not, this is neither a simple nor intuitive task. Despite “questioning everything” being one of my guiding principles in life, I too often notice myself falling prey to just the opposite – that is, gathering limited information about a subject, making an initial assessment, and then holding on to those preconceived notions with far more attachment then they deserve.

Such was the case for me with the city of Vang Vieng. The small town in central Laos had become a backpacker mecca most famous for the advent of inner-tubing down the nearby Nam Song River. In its heyday, roughly 11 bars lined the water, where staff would throw out ropes and pull you in for a few drinks of Lao whiskey and/or beer before you floated on to the next establishment. Sadly, combining hundreds of backpackers, a shallow river, and 10+ consecutive bars serving dirt-cheap alcohol led to some predictably deadly results, and by the end of 2012 the government had largely cracked down – rumors abounded that three bars or less remained open, and that a multi-week total shutdown following a drowning earlier in the month had only just been lifted.

Vang Vieng, circa 2010.

This was the information I’d been given about Vang Vieng in the first few weeks of my trip. As such, I’d determined even before reaching Laos that, if a washed-up drunken tubing scene was the main event, there wasn’t much there for me. Combined with the fact that it was out of the way of my next destination (northern Vietnam), the decision seemed easy in my mind – chill out and enjoy the gorgeous and quiet city of Luang Prabang in north central Laos for a week or two, and skip Vang Vieng altogether.

This very likely would have transpired were it not for two backpackers I met downstairs in my hostel my first morning in Luang Prabang – Jess from California (originally Pennsylvania), and Daniela from Germany. A casual conversation over breakfast turned into a day of exploring the city together, which turned into three days, and the next thing I knew I had been convinced to book a bus with them for a detour to Vang Vieng. We seemed to have a lot in common, and I figured that if they thought it was worth the trip, there might be something I was missing.

After a long bus ride and late-evening arrival, we awoke early the next day, rented mountain bikes, and rode across a couple river-spanning bamboo bridges into the countryside. Almost immediately, the folly of my previous narrow-minded assumptions about the town became apparent. Dramatic mountain ranges, scenic rivers, complex cave systems – there was so much more to it than its overindulgent reputation entailed.

Sitting on top of Pha Poak with view of Vang Vieng mountains

Pictured here: Me humbled by 360° of awesome natural beauty.

And then we heard about the first-ever Vang Vieng Music Festival.

When I’m not travelling, music festivals are what I live for. So when I heard about a chance to experience both of these personal passions simultaneously, my plans for the evening were set.

Jess, Daniela, Merijn (a Dutch friend we met in Luang Prabang) and I all made it to the festival at around 8pm. The first few acts consisted of Laotian, Thai and Japanese performers playing an eclectic mix of hard rock, pop, and electronic house music. All high-energy, entertaining and very danceable.

Crowd at Vang Vieng Music Festival 2015

Another unique sensation – being at a concert where the whole crowd is singing along passionately in a language of which I know roughly two words.

When the Japanese DJ finished her set, a couple of the festival organizers came on stage to announce the final act of the night – an artist from Germany called DJ Nicone. A few minutes later, his set began. My ears perked up as a steady, minimalist beat that slowly built in complexity began to waft over us.

Deep house music. This was my jam.

It should be noted that, for the prior six months, one of my primary hobbies had become poi spinning. Poi, in their simplest form, are weighted objects attached to strings, which are held in each hand and spun around the body as a performance art. It becomes especially interesting to watch when these weighted objects are color-changing LED capsules – which is exactly what I had with me in my backpack at the time. While the previous few hours of uptempo EDM had been great for dancing, it wasn’t music that I found myself naturally inclined to spin to.

Lower tempo music with a more consistent beat, however – like that emanating from the stage directly in front of us – that was exactly what got me in the mood.

I started taking off the long-sleeve shirt I was wearing over my tank top and said to Jess, “I think it’s time.”

She turned excitedly and informed Daniela and Merijn. I took my poi out of my backpack, strapped them on, and held them in front of me as I nodded to the beat for a few bars and focused on the rhythm. Once I sensed a build-up coming, I cycled to the second LED setting (rainbow fade with a strobe effect), walked over to the unoccupied patch of ground behind us, and started to spin:

After about five minutes, I wrapped up to take a break. Thirty seconds later, I received a tap on my shoulder. I turned to face a man wearing a large event staff badge around his neck. The event organizer asked, “You spin the lights?”

I replied affirmatively.

“You come spin on stage?”

I glanced at my friends, whose faces reflected my own excited amazement. After a pause, I looked back at him and answered.

“Yeah, sure, let’s do it.”

I hastily gathered my belongings, and the organizer immediately started leading me toward the stage. I stopped him and said, “My friends come too right?”

“Yeah, yeah, ok,” he said back over his shoulder.

With Jess, Daniela and Merijn close behind, we made our way through the crowd and climbed through a short bamboo fence into the backstage area. Forcing myself to be as present and focused on the music as possible, I strapped on my poi and checked that Jess was ready to film. I then turned on my lights, chose my setting, and walked up the backstage stairs into one of the more surreal moments of my life:

When the DJ changed the pace of the music a few minutes later, I did a few final spins, wrapped up, and breathlessly rejoined my friends waiting downstairs.

“So that was pretty epic.”

We talked briefly about how crazy this all was, and I started to collect myself so we could get back into the audience and enjoy the rest of the show. The festival organizer from earlier walked up to introduce himself properly (he goes by “Eck”) and then beckoned over a stage assistant, who appreciatively handed us a grocery bag full of cold beers. We accepted, I added Eck on Facebook, and the four of us climbed through the bamboo fence and back into real life.

A final thought occurred to me a few seconds later, and I ran over to the fence once more. “Hey Eck,” I shouted, “I forgot to ask – do you know what the attendance was tonight? How many tickets did you sell?”

He thought for a second, then replied, “About 3,000.”

I floated through the rest of the night in an adrenaline-fueled state of partial disbelief.

I suppose it’s too early to say whether that night in Vang Vieng was a “trip-defining” moment. What I do know is that it’s the most vivid and memorable lesson I’ve yet received about what I can miss out on if I let my assumptions go unquestioned. And I can be thankful that, this time, I was lucky enough to meet the few incredible people who could strip me of my preconceived notions before it was too late.


  1. Peter Gort

    That was pretty cool! Grandma and I enjoyed reading this blog entry and watching the videos of you spinning. Can’t wait for you next entry.

    Uncle Peter

    P.S. And Grandma still can’t wait for you to be back home!

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Thanks Uncle Peter! Haha yeah that sounds about right. Maybe it’ll help if I keep showing her how a great a time I’m having over here =).

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Thanks Mandy!! Your guys’ support for my poi helped make this possible!

  2. Becky Lincoln


    Love your blog and the progression of videos. Epic, indeed! And a great reminder for all of us to live fully in each moment.

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Glad you liked it Becky! I’m excited to explore mindfulness/living in the moment more deeply in future posts.

  3. Alan Wexler

    My Friend…. I wish I was there for your poi moment on stage. It’s as if the crossroads of your life all came together at once. Keep that moment in your mind well beyond your travels. It will carry you far. I’m glad to have met you this year and proud to have you as my friend. Happy New Year!

    1. Author
      Daniel Johnson

      Thanks Alan, that means a lot. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that feeling of weightlessness as I left the stage – I definitely intend to channel the memory in similar situations in the future. Likewise man, happy New Year to you too!

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