Phongsaly - Things to See and Do
Phongsaly Province is the northernmost and one of the remotest of the Lao PDR Provinces. It is dominated by rugged, mountainous terrain and an abundance of thick forests and fast-flowing rivers. The province borders China in the west and north, Vietnam in the east and Oudomxay and Luang Prabang provinces in the south. Most of the land is between 500 and 1,500 meters elevation, which moderates the heat of the surrounding areas and makes the climate more suitable for trekking and other physical activities.
The location of Phongsaly Province
The history of Phongsaly is not well known but in times long ago the area between China and Laos or the territory of north-western Phongsaly 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 be part of Phongsaly and incorporating it into French Indochina. Its bigger part went into Yunnan province (China). But the province as we know it today was only formed in 1916 when the French colonial powers joined lands that had until then been subject to different administrations.
Phongsaly covers an area of 16,270 square kilometres and has a total population of 170,260 people (2007). It comprises seven districts - Muang Gnot Ou (Nhot Ou), Muang BounTai, Muang Phongsali, Muang Boun-Neua, Muang Samphan, Muang Mai and Muang Khua. Its capital, Phongsaly town, is the highest city in Laos PDR at 1400 m above sea level.
The population is made up of 28 different ethnic groups including Austro-Thai speakers who are represented here by Lue (Tai-Kadai/Tay-Tai/South Western Tay-Tai/Lao-Lu), Tai Daeng, Tai Dam and Tai Khao (Tai-Kadai/Tay-Tai/South Western Tay-Tai/Tai), Giay (Tai-Kadai/Tay-Tai/Northern Tay-Thai) and Hmong and Yao (Hmong-Mien); Austro-Asiatic speakers by Khmu (Mon-Khmer/Khmuic) and Bid and Keu (Palaungic); and Sino-Tibetan speakers by Haw (Han) and Akha, Ha Nhi, Kado, Lolo, Phunoi, Poussang and Sila (Lolo-Burmish).
It is home to the Phou Daen Din National Biodiversity Conservation Area which lies along the Vietnamese border. Access is difficult, but Phou Daen Din can be accessed by boat along the Nam Ou and Nam Khang. From Phongsali, the NPA can be reached by a short drive to Ban Hatxa on the eat and a then a half-day boat journey or a 2-day walk. However, a trip to Phou Den Din is only for the most adventurous as you will have to take food, camping equipment and a guide which can be arranged from Phongsaly Town. Phou Daen Din is home to the Asiatic black bear, banteng, clouded leopard, elephant, gaur and tiger.
In addition to the Phou Daen Din NPA, there is also the Nam Lan Conservation Area on the western border with China. The Nam Lan Conservation Area (NLCA) covers an area of 22,000 ha of mostly densely forested, very steep terrain, at between 600 metres and 1,850 metres elevation. Picturesque villages, mostly growing lowland irrigated paddy flank part of the northern and eastern boundaries of the area. Ecotourism lodges are being set up in five of these villages. The attractive little town of Boun Tai is a good base for visiting the NLCA.
The weather in Phongsaly is well suited to the saying that it has four seasons in a single day. In the morning and evening the cold rolls in, the daytime is very humid and the afternoons are rainy, rendering the forest and surrounding vegetation a luscious green color throughout the year.
The provincial capital - the town of Phongsaly with a population of about 25,000 people (mainly Akha) - is built on the side of Phou Fa mountain with a height of 1625 meters above sea level. Due to its high altitude, the town enjoys a fresh climate in the dry season, but at the time of rains it is regularly plunged into the fog. In December, in January and February, the temperatures during the night can drop to less than 5oC.
Unlike many other cities in Laos, Phongsali town has not been destroyed in the American war. It features an old quarter with Yunnanese wooden architecture now rare to find in Yunnan itself. Most of the people living here belong to the Haw ethnic group, speaking Chinese. Until the 1970s there was a Chinese consulate in Phongsali town, located at what is now the “Phu Fa Hotel”.
Useful Contacts and Information
The Phongsali Provincial Tourism Office can be contacted at 088-210098, Email:firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.phongsaly.net. For information on trekking visit http://ecotourismlaos.com/phongsaly.htm. Please note that they are closed on Saturday and Sunday but there is a sign on the door with a phone number of an official from the office who speaks good English and will help you with information, etc. outside the normal office hours.
Two of Phongsaly's districts have their own District Tourism Offices which can be contacted at:
- Boun Neua (at the bus station). 020-55787399 or 020-56989005
- Muang Khua (opposite Sernalli Hotel) 020-22848020
- A new tourism office is planned to open in BounTai soon and also one in Muang Mai
There are 4 ATMs in Phongsaly town, where you can withdraw money with international credit card. You can rent a motorbike at "Amazing Lao Travel Co,.LTD", Phone 088-210594 or Mobile: 020-55774354
Things to See and Do
Phongsaly is not very rich in tourist attractions like caves, waterfalls, etc. and, as in most provinces in Laos, there is very little "hard information" available for these attractions.
Trekking/eco-tourism seems to be the most important "tourist attraction" and the tourist offices in the province and districts are offering a range of one to multi-day treks to ethnic minority villages as well as the protected areas.
However, visitors can spend plenty of time in Phongsali province trekking to remote villages around the provincial capital, in Boun Neua, Muang Khoua at the Nam Ou River and in Boun Tai district’s “Nam Lan Conservation Area”.
The province offers generally Lao and Yunnanese cuisine that consists of wild forest ingredients such as 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.
Green Lao Lao (local whiskey) at Ban Kounsouk
Chinese-style green tea of Phongsali receives worldwide recognition for its highest quality and superb taste. Tea leaves are picked by Phu-noy minority women from up to 400 year old tea trees, standing 6 m high with a stem up to 30 cm in diameter. In order to pick the leaves on the tall trees, the women balance on rickety bamboo ladders set against the tea tree branches. The dry tea leaves are compressed in bamboo cylinders and sold in cigar-shaped tubes. Fertilizers and chemicals have never been used in these wild tea groves. The 400 year old tea plantation can be visited as it is quite close to the town (Ban Komen/Korman on the south of Phongsaly Town). Best is to ask for directions at the Tourist Office.
Tea plantation along the road to Ban Komen/Korman
Picking leaves from the Tea Tree in Ban Komen/Korman
Phongsaly tea drying in the sun
Tea packaged in cigar shaped bamboo containers ready for sale
At present the growing of tea is being promoted as a substitute for the growing and processing of opium.
Phongsaly city is located along the flank of the Phou-Fa mountain (1625 M.). The peak of the mountain covers an area of about 300 square meters on which the Phou Fa Stupa is located as well as Communication towers. From the top you have a good view of Phongsaly town. In 1999, local villagers constructed a path with 431 steps, up to the peak of the mountain making it become a symbol and a tourist attraction of Phongsaly.
The Phou Fa Stupa
View of Phongsaly town from Phou Fa Mountain
View over Phongsaly’s mountain ranges
Another attraction in Phongsaly is the provincial museum called the "Museum of Ethnic Groups" or in short the "Museum of Tribes". Originally opened in 1993, this provincial museum was rebuilt in 2000. It houses a variety of historical, ethnological and revolutionary artifacts relating to Phongsali Province and its people, including no fewer than 32 different ethnic costumes. A visit to the museum will explain all the subtleties you might not yet have grasped about the indigenous customs including the different style of dresses, head covers, etc.
The “Museum of Tribe” in Phongsaly
Some of the many different tribes found in Phongsaly Province
Phongsaly as well as Boun-Neua and Boun Tai are thriving market towns (best time to visit the markets is early morning), and now do a lot of trade with nearby Yunnan Province in China. Even-though there are some rumors that the border crossing in the far north of the province will become an International Border Crossing, at present this crossing as well as the two other crossings with China on the western border of Phongsaly, are only open for local traffic. The crossing at the east of Muang Mai to Vietnam (linking with Dien Bien Phu) is now an international border crossing and the road leading to it from Muang Khua will be paved sometime next year (2013).
New Customs and Immigration building at the northern-most border crossing of Laos at Ban Lantouy – Coordinates: N22.47870 E101.71522
In the northern most district of the country, Gnot Ou (Nhot Ou), you can visit Vat Luang, a magnificent Tai Lue style Buddhist monastery dating back to 1445 AD. You can find it in the District Capital in Ban Ou-Tai. It was constructed by Phraya Chakawattiraja. Within the monastery, there is Haw Thane Keo (the place where Buddha images are kept) which was constructed of mud and decorated with the motifs on the stones, with beautiful drawings and decorations of daggers, swords, flowers and flags entirely crafted from wood. Besides the monastery, there is a shrine constructed with bricks.
Vat Luang in Ban Ou-Tai in Gnot Ou District - N22.12516 E101.79206 (photo by Pnomsin)
Although some of the tourist sites pictures show waterfalls (not surprising as the province is quite mountainous and has lots of rivers), no information what so-ever can be found on their location and it can be assumed that these waterfalls shown are all in remote and in in-accessible areas. In the western part of Phongsaly, (west of Boun Tai) there is a hot spring which, while on a trekking trip, can be visited. However, it is only accessible by foot as it is located in the forests near Ban Na Taen (Naten) which is a Tai-Yang tribal village. (Coordinates Ban Naten - N21.33064 E101.87845)
Other things to see:
Old French Fort in Boun Tai which is now the District Cultural Department which includes Tourism – Coordinates: N21.38941 E101.97451
Tai Lue Temple in Ban Ngay-Neua north of Boun-Neua (in the village – top) and seen from the road (bottom) – Coordinates: N21.83817 E101.90186
Tai-Lue temple in Ban Navay south-west of Boun-Tai and the new stupa in the same village – Coordinates: N21.36131 E101.97907
Hundreds of Pico-Hydro power generators (each ranging from 100-500 Watt) east of the Nam Ou bridge to generate electricity for the Nhot Ou (Gnot Ou) District Capital – Coordinates: N22.11987 E101.79205