Phongsaly Province is one of the remotest of the Lao PDR Provinces, and is dominated by rugged, mountainous terrain and an abundance of thick forests and fast-flowing rivers. It is inhabited by 25 different ethnic groups, each with their own culture, traditions, costumes, and languages. Most of the land is between 500 and 1,500 meters elevation, which moderates the heat of the surrounding areas of Southeast Asia and makes the climate more suitable for trekking and other physical activities. The forests contain an abundance of animal, bird, insect and plant life, and there are certainly many undiscovered species, new to science.
Farthest north in Laos is Phongsali, which shares borders with Yunnan (China) and Dien Bien (Vietnam). Most of Phongsali province lies at a high altitude. Its capital, Phongsali town, is the highest city in Laos PDR at 1400 m above sea level. Up there the climate is pleasant and refreshing covering the endless mountains down to the canyon of the Nam Ou river, biggest tributary of the Mekong. The population is made up of officially 28 different ethnic groups, of which the majority being Khmu, Phounoy, different Akha, Tai Lue and Hor. Several trekking tours have been established by the Provincial Tourism Office Phongsali.
Most visitors of Phongsali province get a feeling of “no longer being in Laos, not yet having reached China”. History tells fascinating stories, though much of it still lies in darkness. Between China and Laos the territory of north-western Phongsali and southern Yunnan once was the independent Tai Lue kingdom of Sipsongpanna. In 1895 the French colonialists drew new boundaries along the watersheds of the Nam Ou river, claiming Sipsongpanna’s eastern part to Phongsali incorporating it into French Indochina. Its bigger part went into Yunnan Province, China.
Unless many other cities in Laos, Phongsali town has not been destroyed in the American war. It features a remaining old quarter with Yunnanese wooden architecture now rare to find in Yunnan itself. Most of the people living here belong to the Hor ethnic group, speaking Chinese. Until the 1970s there has been a Chinese consulate in Phongsali town, now the “Phu Fa Hotel”. In the “Museum of Ethnic Groups in Phongsali Province” you can admire the various local cloths, artifacts and handicrafts.
The town itself is surrounded by rolling hills and is built into the side of Phu Fa Mountain (1,625m). The 45 min hike up to its stupa on top offers spectacular views of the town from above and the mountains in the far distance.
Although a bit off the main tourist circuit, visitors can spend plenty of time in Phongsali province trekking to remote villages around the provincial, Boun Neua, Muang Khoua at the Nam Ou River and in Boun Tai district’s “Nam Lan Conservation Area”. In the northern most district of the country, Gnot Ou, visit Vat Luang, a magnificent Tai Lue style Buddhist monastery dating back to 1445 AD. In the future “Phu Den Din National Protected Area” along the border with Vietnam will be opened for boat trips. Wild animals like monkeys, elephants and tigers still claim it their territory !
The province offers a delicious variety of Lao and Yunnanese cuisine that consists of wild forest ingredients such as fragrant herbs, bamboo and rattan shoots. After dinner try a shot of the local Lao Lao, smooth, strong and tinted green ! During the final stage of the distillation process this rice whisky is running over fresh picked raspberry leaves absorbing the green color.
Chinese-style green tea of Phongsali receives worldwide recognition for its highest quality and superb taste. Tea leaves are picked by Phounoy minority women from up to 400 year old tea trees, standing 6 m high with a stem up to 30 cm in diameter. These precious tea leaves are compressed in bamboo cylinders and sold in cigar-shaped tubes. In this wild tea grove fertilizers and chemicals have never been used. Drinking a daily cup keeps the body in good health, reduces fat and preserves a clear mind.