Notes on Vang Vieng: The one with all the Friends Bars

It’s official. I’m old. 38 years old. Ancient really. I was born at a young age, but I’ve got to say that in all of my life I have never been this old before. I was reflecting on my age while staying in Vang Vieng, Laos.

Vang Vieng is set in an incredibly beautiful location. The river is of the crystal-clean mountain variety, and imposing limestone karst landscape make for an impressive backdrop.

Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng

The town itself feels more like a resort than a town. A backpackers resort. I have heard it be described as Khao San Rd in the jungle (the famous backpacker road in Bangkok). If you had to build a Club Med type place exclusively for backpackers, you would use Vang Vieng as a model. Apart from government administrative buildings it’s hard to find a business here that isn’t given to tourism.

There are bars, restaurants, guest houses, internet cafes, banana pancake street vendors, travel agents and souvenir shops everywhere. There are sports bars playing Australian cricket and English football, serving up Australian steaks and English breakfasts.

Pancakes in Paradise
Pancakes in Paradise

Then there’s the Friends Bars. when I arrived in town one of the first bars I saw had “No Friends” on the front sign. I couldn’t work out why you would sell a bar to someone who has no friends. I soon worked it out after doing a lap of the main street. Every second bar was playing Friends on repeat. It’s a surreal sound hearing Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross, and the sound of canned laughter everywhere you go.

Bars that weren’t playing Friends were playing Family Guy. I haven’t discovered the delights of Family Guy yet, but seeing I like the Simpsons I’m sure I’ll like this show.

Vang Vieng is a base for activities such as kayaking, caving and rock climbing. The number one activity in Vang Vieng by far is tubing. Here you rent out an old tractor tube and then you are driven to a launch spot a few kilometres upstream. The float will take 1 to 3 hours, depending on the season. Being the dry season I got stuck in the river navigators version of the doldrums, and had to paddle my way downstream by hand for a while.

While tubing down a lovely river with stunning scenery is a nice way to spend a day, the real attraction for “tubing in the Vang Vieng” for most people is the bars that line the river. Some bars throw ropes out to you to try and reel you in. Some bars have attractions that are a lure enough in itself, such as mud volleyball, flywires and even a giant slide.

Tubing Slide - Vang Vieng
Tubing Slide – Vang Vieng

Judging by all the “Tubing in the Vang Vieng” T-shirts that you see on sunburnt Scandinavians all over Southeast Asia, Vang Vieng has become one of the premier stop-off points on the banana pancake trail.

Tubing in the Vang Vieng Singlets
Tubing in the Vang Vieng Singlets

If you are a twenty-something backpacker, you will probably love this place. At 38 though I was feeling my age here. I am now twice the age of a 19 year old, which this town had in abundance.

When I was 19 the Seattle grunge scene was the soundtrack to my life. Now I’m meeting kids – adults actually – who haven’t heard of Kurt Cobain. It will only be a matter of time before I meet adults who weren’t born when he was alive.

I turned 38 in Luang Prabang. I had timed my travels to make sure I spend my birthday there rather than in a bus. It turned to be an ideal place to have a birthday. In hindsight I now see that Luang Prabang is a flashpackers paradise, with all those cafes and bakeries with wi-fi and trendy villas. And I, for want of a better word, have become a flashpacker.

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  1. haha it’s true. Everyone there is very young and it is kinda like Khao San. I’m in my late 20’s but don’t look it and had the time of my life. I’m glad I went when I did b/c if you go when much older, will be a totally different experience.

    Luang Prabang is a flashpackers paradise. I spent more time there than I did in Vang Vien.

  2. Hey James, it’s G from the BKK tweetup! Had to comment on this one because I hear you allllll too well. Ray and I are already starting to feel this with disconcerting frequency! We want our own bathroom…we’re uncomfortable without AC…we’re getting old! (And it’s only his 28th bday – today :D).

    We went to the Full Moon Party the other day and I actually had to ask him, so, did we “party”? Because we had fun, but we didn’t dance to a single beat and rather spent a whole lot of time chilling in a hammock watching the world (or crazy drunkards, anyway) go by, or in Ray’s case…sleeping in the sand. And not even for too much alcohol consumption.

    What have we come to, James? What have we come to?

    • Hi G, that’s funny. If you are travelling around the world for an extended period then by all means make the most of private bathrooms in Asia. Once you hit Australia or Europe you’re going to be in for some “sticker shock” at the price of private accommodation. I’m ok with fan rooms myself, but I have Australian desert heritage to thank for that.

  3. Great post, James! The photos are a bit shocking to me (especially that gargantuan slide). I was first in Vang Vieng in 2002. There was not a single waterslide then, and our tubes drifted past livestock and villagers all day. By the time I returned just 2.5 years later, Friends had moved in and the change had started. So I guess while we the travelers are getting older, the towns we visit are growing up too!

  4. @Angela that’s great that you saw two versions of Vang Vieng. When you say 2002 it doesn’t sound like that long ago, but it is 8 years already!

  5. 38 is the new 20 I hear. Great post James, but Nirvana were never a match for Soundgarden or STP. Safe travels!

  6. 38 is the new 20. Please tell me that means 40 is the new 22.

  7. I don’t think you’d want to turn any older than 21 in Vang Vieng. Perhaps ‘No [Banana Pancake] Trail for Old Men’ would have been an appropriate title.

  8. Brian Hill says

    I am 67 and would have no problem going there! I spent a night with 125 seniors from Heritage Highschool in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma at the Blue Parrot Beach Bar in Carmen Del Playa, Mexico. Had a great time. I do tubing. water slides, ziplining, coasters, and just about anything that won,t kill me! The only thing I do not do is get drunk. but I do drink. I also went to Coco Bongo and loved it! Average age, maybe 19. I like people of all ages but younger people are more fun! I have never worried about my age and never will. Stop worrying, that will make you old! Rock on everybody.

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