Photo: Old shopfront in Phongsali.

Introduction

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Bordered by Yunnan, China and Dien Bien, Vietnam, Phongsali is the northernmost province in Laos. Unforgivingly mountainous, sparsely populated, remote and mysterious, it doesn’t get much further than this.



Draw a straight line due north from Laos’ capital Vientiane and it would intersect Phongsali. As the crow flies it’s 416 kilometres, yet by bus, if hypothetically driven continuously, it would take 24 hours of travel to reach. Clearly, getting to Phongsali takes time and effort—and a strong constitution to handle its serpentine mountain roads. The lure is some of the most authentic hill tribe trekking to be found in Laos.

Wandering the old Chinese Quarter. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Wandering the old Chinese Quarter. Photo: Cindy Fan

Resting on a ridge in the shadow of Phou Fa (“Sky Mountain”), the small provincial capital and former French colonial outpost is the jumping-off point for treks in the province, which was once part of the Ancient Tea Horse Road (also known as the Southern Silk Road). Since the 7th Century until as late as the mid-20th Century, tea was exchanged for precious metals, salt and horses on this caravan trade route that spanned southwest China and Tibet.

Tea is still grown here on the slopes—luckily bartering is no longer required and you may find yourself drinking buckets of it to keep warm. We’re half joking, half serious when we call Phongsali “Laos’ North Pole”. At an altitude of 1,400 metres, the town can experience four seasons in one day. In the winter months, nighttime temperatures drop to freezing. Indoor heating (other than a bucket of coals to huddle around) is rare. Come prepared.

The town is worth a wander. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

The town is worth a wander. Photo: Cindy Fan

China’s presence is prevalent, using the province as their gateway to reap the natural riches of northern Laos. But unlike Udomxai, which is experiencing a modern China takeover, Phongsali is a vestige of old world China. The town was spared from bombing during the war and its historic Chinese quarter is one of the best examples of traditional Yunnanese architecture anywhere in Laos. A stroll reveals original stone streets and walls, a charming collection of crumbling homes made of wood or brick, the low roofs now topped with satellite dishes. Sadly these buildings are slowly disappearing, adding to the town’s air of decline.

Phongsali feels like a forgotten outpost. Commercial activity has shifted to Boun Neua, 43 kilometres west, directly on Highway 1A connecting to the Chinese border. Boun Neua has the airport and even some of the provincial government offices have moved there. Phongsali, like Muang Sing and Luang Nam Tha, used to be a trekking centres but tourism and tourist infrastructure have dwindled. It’s a pity because the province has some of the most interesting trekking available in Laos.

Impressive headdresses are worn by Akha women. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Impressive headdresses are worn by Akha women. Photo: Cindy Fan

According to the Museum of Phongsaly Ethnic Groups (take a look if it is open—it often isn’t), there are 15 officially recognised ethnic groups in the province, with many sub-groups that pushes the number to over 40. The town is mainly populated by the Hor, Chinese speakers who are descendants of Yunnanese traders, as well at the Phunoi.

Other groups include the Khmu, Yao, Hmong, Tai Lue, Lolo and Akha, each with their own language and customs, some still wearing their traditional dress. There are villages high in the mountains that lack road access, running water or any form of sanitation. The hardscrabble life is raw and real, and a guided trek is an eye opening experience. Read up to see if trekking in Phongsali is for you.

The view from Phou Fa on a rare clear day. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Stuart McDonald.

The view from Phou Fa on a rare clear day. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Pre or post trek, exploring the town can easily fill up a day. When it isn’t shrouded in its characteristic fog, Phongsali has a mountainscape of rolling green peaks and deep valleys, best taken in from the viewpoint atop Phou Fa at sunset. The well-marked trailhead and road entrance are both in the northeast side of the town. On the ground, that means heading to the large roundabout north of the old Chinese quarter and taking the road leading east. The distance by road is 1,790 metres, while taking the stairs/trail is 669 metres, a 30-minute cardio-riffic climb up to the viewpoint at 1,625 metres.

At the top is a stock standard stupa and a golden seated Buddha sheltered by a nine-headed Naga. However, the real draw for visitors is the fantastic panoramic view of Phongsali—that is, if Phongsali’s characteristic fog hasn’t rolled in. If it has, there’s little chance of seeing two metres in front of you, let alone the surrounding verdant mountains, deep valleys and the town resting below. Purchase a ticket at the mid-level, which has a picnic area with concrete tables. Adults cost 5,000 kip, children 3,000 kip, motorbike 3,000 kip. Open Mo–Su: 07:30-17:30.

Expect plenty of mist at the top. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Expect plenty of mist at the top. Photo: Cindy Fan

After the climb you’ll no doubt be hungry, so it is a good thing there’s also two excellent markets to look at: the permanent covered market in the centre (06:00-17:00) and the morning market that pops up at the main intersection in front of Viphaphone Hotel, around 06:00 to 10:00 (weather dependent).

With good weather, venture 16 kilometres to Ban Komaen and its scenic 400-year old tea plantation. If you’re lucky, the Phunoi women will be picking the leaves. Stroll around the village and buy some tea before walking up a paved path to the small lookout.

Traditions survive but it’s uncertain what the future will hold. As of 2018, the Nam Ou Hydropower Project by China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation was nearing completion. A major tributary of the Mekong, the Nam Ou River is the lifeline of the province and many communities are dependent on its resources. Villages along the water have been relocated and Phongsali now has four of the total seven dams that span 350-kilometres of the 450-kilometre long river. Dam 6 lies just upriver from Hat Sa, the boat landing village on the Nam Ou 18-kilometres northeast of town.

Above Dam 6. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Above Dam 6. Photo: Cindy Fan

Unsurprisingly, data on the project’s environmental and social impact are scarce. For locals, who obviously had no say in the matter, modernisation could bring electricity and infrastructure. We’ve heard rumours of a new road that would connect Phongsali to Ban Samphan in a few hours, eliminating a whole day of travel on the river. If the journey down the Nam Ou from Hat Sa to Muang Khua, Muang Ngoi and Nong Kiaow is on your bucket list, do it now before this river transport network (figuratively) dries up.




Orientation
The Tourism Information Centre is on a road leading down from the market and main street. If the office is shut, a number is usually posted where people can call to arrange for treks—they’ll meet you with a programme binder. The main goal of the centre is to sell trekking tours. As of 2018, the only other trekking outfit in Phongsali is Amazing Lao Travel, just west of the intersection. Elsewhere in the province, Muang Khua’s tourism office offers one trek.

There are ATMs scattered around town on the main roads. BCEL works with Visa and Mastercard network. WiFi is available at guesthouses and 4G is surprisingly good.

Do swing by the market. Photo taken in or around Phongsali, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Do swing by the market. Photo: Cindy Fan

Viphaphone Hotel can arrange for private van transport and rent bicycles without gears for 25,000 kip per day, with gears 40,000 kip per day. Amazing Lao Travel rents motorbikes for 100,000 kip per day.

Make a difference
If you’d like to give back, the Lao Red Cross works in the region on hygiene, sanitation and health education projects. They also distribute donated winter clothes, shoes, warm blankets in northern provinces, where it drops to freezing in the cold season. Donations can be dropped off at the office in town or branches in larger cities like Luang Prabang or Vientiane. http://www.laoredcross.org.la/en/

Travelfish subscriber resources

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Phongsali.
 Read up on where to eat on Phongsali.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Phongsali.
 Read up on how to get to Phongsali.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Phongsali? Please read this.



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