've been feeling restless and unsure of what to do with my time, and where to go next. My mind races in a million directions and I feel that I should be up and about doing something. Laos has proved to be a sleepy place where the pace of life is slow and the days ahead become uncertain. This slow rhythm is exactly what I was seeking, yet I find this restlessness to be building and building each day. The solution seems to be slowing down even more, to the moment and for days, paying attention to the subtleties of life, acting when the signs are clear, and most importantly- being ok with all of this.
One week ago...
It’s early morning in Vang Vieng, Laos. Most people in this town never actually see the morning except from a drunken state if they stay up till sunrise. It’s a brazen town that completely caters to the drunken backpacker crowd and it’s been built entirely for westerners. Situated on a river surrounded by mountains, it’s an ideal place to party, but also one to retreat to for an outdoor vacation. I anticipated on only coming here for a few nights, but I’ve already adapted to the slow-paced culture here and find myself doing nothing at all. Every morning I wake and tell myself I’ll move on soon, but every afternoon and evening I get distracted and drawn back into the easy lifestyle that this town provides.
Tasty baguette sandwiches are everywhere as street food here since the French had occupied Laos at one point. Hamburgers and pizza can be found everywhere along with big beers, buckets of mixed booze, and a wide variety of drugs. It’s a town with a sinful, hedonistic reputation, but today it’s nowhere as bad as it once was.
Made famous years ago for drunk tubing on the river, Vang Vieng saw a number of tourists come and go, literally. The city has a poor track record for tourist deaths, mainly because there were so few laws in place pre-2012. As such, the Lao government finally stepped in and cracked down on some of the most extreme activities (massive ropes to fly across the river on, giant swings, drunk zip-lining, and so on). Today backpackers can happily drink booze and tube down the river more safely, and there’s many more sobering options too, including taking a serenely calm kayak ride through the same river, going rock climbing, exploring caves, and so much more. Vang Vieng is also famous for their Friends bars, which play the classic, internationally known TV show all day long as patrons sprawl on cushions and order food and drinks.
Yet even in such a place that provides an easy, inexpensive, lifestyle, I feel frustrated with doing nothing. I feel myself in a spiral of repeating behaviours, unable to make big decisions, and staying mostly idle. How can I bring back a healthy sense of intrigue for the place I’m in? How can I be ok with doing nothing instead of dwelling over what I 'should' be doing and where I’m off to next?
Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes about ‘taking pauses’ in her incredibly mindful book Radical Acceptance:
“A pause is, by nature, time limited. We resume our activities, but we do so with increased presence and more ability to make choices. In the pause before sinking our teeth into a chocolate bar, for instance, we might recognize the excited tingle of anticipation, and perhaps a background cloud of guilt and self-judgment. We may then choose to eat the chocolate, fully savoring the taste sensations, or we might decide to skip the chocolate and instead go out for a run. When we pause, we don’t know what will happen next. But by disrupting our habitual behaviors, we open to the possibility of new and creative ways of responding to our wants and fears”.
Then there’s taking extended pauses throughout your day. The Italians call it Dolce far Niente (which translates to the sweetness of doing nothing), and it’s a concept that’s lost on many of us. But there's something truly blissful by doing nothing. An afternoon spent watching. Joyfully waiting in transit. Swinging in a hammock. Ok, so you can’t ever literally be doing nothing, but you can certainly slow down the amount you’re doing. Disconnect from your electronics for a while, quit all the multitasking, enjoy the act of gazing (on others, or just your surroundings) and do no more. There is delight in not rushing from place to place and trying to always get things done. We need to take rest. We do it every night when we sleep, but then again, most of us don’t sleep properly anyway.
So this brings me back to this phase I’m in. This phase of mostly doing nothing and then shaming myself for not going to see the closest temple or explore the nearest cave. I shouldn’t feel guilty about not doing these things, because in the past 4 months, I’ve done a lot of new things. It’s nice to take rest along the travels, and this really can be applied to everyone in life who keeps a busy schedule or who doesn’t slow down when they ought to.
So my new strategy for my final days in Laos is to just relax here in the charming capital of Vientiane, sit at nice French coffee shops like I'm doing now, watch the people on the boardwalk at sunset, and wait for the answers to come. What's the rush anyway?
Sometimes it’s ok to do nothing. If it becomes a trend and you find yourself feeling lazy and slipping into a rut, then something needs to change. But if you’re rushing about your day, your days, your months, and your years- then you ought to take a pause, consider dolce far niente, and don’t blame yourself about it. Life goes by too quickly anyway - we might as well take it slowly and mindfully. ■
Take a pause now before moving on. What do you notice and feel?