Trekking in The Hidden Land of Phongsali, Laos
Traveling in Asian cities is an undeniable thrill. The food, the nightlife, the chaos and the people make wandering through Asia’s big cities like Hanoi and Bangkok an endless maze of discovery. But, for many of us, experiencing the true soul of a country means getting out of the cities and getting into the more rural places.
Especially for countries like Thailand and Laos, which house vast hills and deep jungles, experiencing these places means further understanding the country. A fun and exhilarating way to experience the hills, jungles and forests of Asia is to trek through them. Being able to communicate with other locals through an interpreter makes the experience all the richer.
One of the main starting points for a trek Northern Laos is the city of Phongsali. Phongsali is a tiny town nestled high in the hills near the Chinese border. The town has a distinctly sleepy vibe: there are few cars or motorbikes, dogs wander around the streets and the few restaurants in the town close around 9 pm (a warning to late-night snackers!) The town, due to its proximity to China, is home to many Chinese settlers who came to Northern Laos to start businesses. Chinese snacks and beer have an equal representation to Laos foods in the restaurants.
There aren’t many things to do in Phongsali. The town’s main tourist draw istrekking and the opportunity to visit hill tribes about 50 kilometres away near the town of Boun Neua.
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. 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.
Getting to Phongsali:
Getting to Phongsali is not easy and is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. The journey entails a 9 hour+ bus ride from Oudomxai, a busting and slightly-mediocre Chinese trading town. The local bus station is close by most of the guesthouses, so catching transport North is easy and cheap. Be aware that if there aren’t enough passengers who buy a ticket, the bus company will simply cancel the route until the next day. This means you should be ready to spend a day or two in Oudomxai.
The bus ride from Oudomxai takes a full day, with several stops included for restroom breaks and food. The road is mostly un-paved, which makes for a very bumpy ride. The roads are very windy, but the scenery is spectacular. The road passes by dozens of tiny traditional Laos villages dotted with small thatched-roof huts. The rest stops are quick, but the small vendors are equipped to satisfy hungry travelers. Most sell packets of sticky rice (white and black), grilled meat (anything from chicken to rat) and soft drinks.
Once you arrive in Phongsali, you’ll need to take a motorbike taxi into town, or else walk with your bags for about 30 minutes.
Arranging the Trek:
There aren’t many tour agencies (maybe one or two) in town, so you should arrange a trekking tour before you depart. Hiring a trekking guide is highly recommended for treks in this area.
Trekking solo in this region would be extremely difficult and is only recommended for highly experienced trekkers and mountaineers. The trails are often not clear because of the light foot-traffic and getting lost in Northern Laos would be easy, and would likely have disastrous results.
Most need to be accessed by a boat, which is difficult to figure out without a guide. The guides know the best starting and stopping points for the boat and can arrange for a boat to pick you up and take you back to town after the trek is over.
* Travel Tip: Treks can be arranged through the ACTIVETRAVEL ASIA offering a wide selection of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal & Bhutan adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling - located in Vietnam. The treks are from about 5-7 days adventures through the hills of the province and due to Phongsali being out of the way and difficult to get to. If you’re into trekking and want to interact with ethnic minorities without loads of other tourists, it is definitely worth going to Phongsali.
• Awesome scenery
• Combination of jungle trails and village roads
• Home-stay in tribal villages
• Cruise on the mighty Mekong Rive