With its strong Chinese influence and large number of local ethnic groups, Phongsali is one of the most fascinating and unique towns in Laos. The picturesque Chinese Quarter features narrow, crowded cobblestone streets lined with small, low-roofed houses made of wood and stone. Simple decorative details are carved or painted in muted colours.
The two main ethnic groups are Phou Noy, whose members wear traditional white leggings, and Chinese Ho, ancestors of the old Yunnan traders, who wear baggy trousers. Chinese is more widely spoken here than in other parts of Laos and in fact, if it wasn't for the French, Phongsali would most likely now be part of China's Yunnan province.
The town winds along the top of mountain ridges in the shadow of Phou Fa, or Sky Mountain. Spectacular views fall from either side: deep valleys and rolling mountains of patchwork.
At an altitude of 1,400 metres, Phongsali can get cool in the winter months and some will be more comfortable with a jacket and long pants while others will just put up with the chill. At night its height and distance from other towns means that the view of the stars can be magnificent if the mist and clouds stay away.
Wandering the streets during the day, the predominant sounds are of birds and rushing water. As dusk falls, the sounds of playing children mix with farmyard noises, reinforcing the rural feel of the place.
Trekking trips allow you to explore the countryside, seeing a special part of the country that is rarely visited. Not many international travellers come to Phongsali and it's a shame. This is mostly because the journey, either by road from Udomxai or by river from Muang Khua via Hat Sa, is long and hard, but it is worth the effort.
The tourist information centre is located in the centre of town on a side road just next to Yuhuoa Guesthouse but disappointingly staff are more interested in selling tours than providing good information for independent travellers. Worse still, the opening hours are quite short and extended lunch breaks are not uncommon.
Phongsali now has a number of ATMs and cash exchange facilities as well as a post office and hospital. The airport is inconveniently located 41 kilometres away near Boun Neua although the winding road is sealed. Fast 3G internet is available on ETL and Unitel.
By Adam Poskitt.