We’ve written about the road to Phongsali and how awful it is. It begs the question of whether it is worth all that hassle to actually get there. Is it worth going to Phongsali? It all depends on the traveller, the amount of time they have and the sort of experience they’re seeking. Us? We think it’s well worth it.
There aren’t many things to do in Phongsali. The town’s main tourist draw is trekking and the opportunity to visit hill tribes about 50 kilometres away near the town of Boun Neua. Treks can be arranged through the Provincial Tourism Office located just off the main street on the street next to Yuhoua Guesthouse. The treks are between one- and five-day adventures through the hills of the province and are infrequently undertaken by tourists due to Phongsali being out of the way and difficult to get to. The treks start at 500,000 kip for individuals on one-day trips and go up from there.
Freestyle trekking is virtually impossible around these parts as the Provincial Tourism Office is only interested in selling guided tours. So if you’re into trekking and want to interact with ethnic minorities without loads of other tourists, it is definitely worth going to Phongsali.
A top spot to watch the sun set and a fantastic spot at any time of day to see Phongsali from above is the mountain just to the east of the town called Phou Fa. It’s a short walk up the hill from the intersection that Phongsali Hotelcalls home to the roundabout where a right turn is required. This road leads to a set of stairs through a dense forest, which pop out at a stupa overlooking some majestic scenery. From here the views stretch on forever with mist-shrouded hills and valleys on all sides. The view of Phongsali town is great too and you’ll get a good feel for its size.
Sometimes when we travel we want to see and do things — things that make us say ‘wow’ or allow us to capture a magic photo to show the family back home. But Phongsali town offers a different experience for those willing to bring a bookand sit in one of the many noodle shops that line the streets in town. There is a noticeable Chinese influence in town and in the eastern section, narrow roads and lanes and unique architecture give a different feel than anywhere else in Laos. You’ll also see people from a number of different ethnic minorities walking by, going about their business and generally looking spectacular in their traditional clothing.
But the best thing about just soaking up the atmosphere in Phongsali is adjusting to the town’s leisurely pace of life, which is made all the more pleasant by the temperatures experienced at 1,400 metres above sea level.
Although the journey to Phongsali is a shocker, the bad parts of it fade from your memory after about a month and all you’re left with is images of rolling hills, waving children and cute animals walking across the road. And besides, the return journey can always be by boat from Hat Sa to Muang Khuawhich is a worthy activity in its own right.
If you’re a person that has to do things on your travels, Phongsali is certainly worth the effort of getting to as the trekking in the area is superb and much less touristed than areas such as Luang Nam Tha. If you’re a person who likes to observe the local way of life, travel slow and relax, Phongsali is a perfect place to just hang out in for a few days. You’ll find an atmosphere here that is different from other places in Laos and truly unspoilt by mass tourism.
Do take into consideration a few things when visiting Phongsali. Firstly, the town is a long way from any other tourist town. Muang Khua is about six hours down river and Udomxai is a good day’s bus ride away. The return journey is two days out of your visit to Laos. Secondly, the going is rough and not suggested for those that are not used to long distance travel in Asia. Lastly, there aren’t many things to do in Phongsali and you’ll largely be watching the world go by. If you’re an adventure seeker, you might find the investment of two day’s travel to and from Phongsali not worth it as the payoff might not be good enough for you.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 30th January, 2015.