Picturesque Phongsaly town waiting to be discovered

Welcoming Visit Laos Year 2018, Vientiane Times is publishing a series of feature articles and images inviting you to experience the authentic nature, culture, history and hospitality of Laos, Jewel of the Mekong.

Phongsaly town, located in the northernmost mountainous province of Laos, is hoping to entice more domestic and foreign tourists to enjoy its picturesque landscape. 
And now it is more connected through better road networks offering many natural and cultural attractions for visitors. Despite this connectivity, the town still doesn’t see that many tourists.

Phongsaly province links to China via the Laos-China border crossing in Luang Namtha province.

Phongsaly province shares a border with Yunnan province of China and Dien Bien province of Vietnam.
Numerous Chinese and Lao people venture across the Laos-China Lantouy-Sobhun border crossing in Phongsaly but few foreign visitors cross the Laos-Vietnam Panghok-Taichang border.
Some people in Vientiane still don’t understand the lack of foreign tourists travelling to Phongsaly province- perhaps they are put off by its perceived remoteness.
A senior official from the provincial Information, Culture and Tourism Department, Me Oun Sanlasy told Vientiane Times on Thursday that not many foreigners visit because there are not many attractions.
“Only the Phongsaly’s town in Phongsaly district, tea farms in the mountains and an Akha village are the only tourist sites they like,” he said.
Chinese companies have well-established tea plantations on the fertile slopes and more recently have started planting coffee at cooler higher altitudes.
According to the provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department, about 2,500 hectares of coffee is now being cultivated. Provincial authorities are hoping Chinese growers will plant crops across the whole 12,000 hectares of mountainous land.
Even when foreigners do enter Laos via the Panghok-Taichang border crossing between Laos and Vietnam most of them bypass Phongsaly town and travel on to Luang Prabang province and Vientiane.
However, foreigners entering Laos from Vietnam’s Dien Bien province often visit the famous Dien Bien Phu battle site which is celebrated by the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodia people as it ended French dominance in Indochina in 1954.
According to the provincial Public Works and Transport Department, the road that connects the Laos-Vietnam Panghok-Taichang border to Phongsaly town is about 200 kilometres long.
A road linking to Phongsaly province from Yunnan province in China offers a shortcut for motorists but not many people opt to take the route.
It is about 100 kilometres from the Laos-China border in Luang Namtha province to the Laos-China border in Phongsaly but many people don’t want to queue up to check in and out at the borders. Many people prefer to go to Phongsaly via Luang Prabang and Oudomxay instead.
Luang Namtha now has the Laos-Myanmar Friendship Bridge which links the province with Xienglab Township in Thachilek district of Myanmar’s Shan State. This is the first bridge linking Laos and Myanmar. It was built to boost trade, investment and tourism in the region, especially between Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand and China and it is hoped it will open up links to India and Bangladesh in the future.
Currently, domestic visitors from Vientiane come mainly by domestic roads which are in good condition. There are also air routes for small aircraft and the government plans to enlarge airfields so they can take larger aeroplanes to satisfy the demand for growth in the region.
All of this infrastructure and tourism development is expected to attract more international visitors in the near future which will, in turn, contribute to the development and improvement of livelihoods in the border areas.
A cultural visit to Phongsaly
Phongsaly is well-known for its colourfully dressed minorities. The population is officially made up of 28 different ethnic groups, but if we were to count them by the way the people identify themselves there would be more than 40.
Many of them came from elsewhere, mostly from China, fleeing wars and famine during the 19th Century. In Phongsaly town, the two main ethnic groups are the Phunoy, and the Hor, descendants of the old Yunnan traders. Thai Dam people are mostly found in Meuang Mai district; Yao, Hor and Lolo people in Gnot Ou district. Many Khmu live in Meuang Khua and Samphan districts.
There are at least 14 different groups of Akha and related people. Most of their villages are remote and up in the mountains, some of them creating a perfect trekking destination. Akha people practice spirit worship and several taboos are to be respected in their villages. The Museum of Phongsaly Ethnic Groups provides detailed information about the different ethnic groups, their origin and way of life.
The Old Town
Unlike many other cities in Laos, Phongsaly town was not affected by bombing during the Indochina 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 had been a Chinese consulate in Phongsaly town, and now it is the Phou Fa hotel.
Ethnic Museum
The Museum of Phongsaly Ethnic Groups’ newly-designed exhibition was inaugurated in January 2013. It presents the province and its people, their origin and way of life. It also includes information and exhibits about different aspects of their daily life: clothes, music, agriculture, housing, social organisation, their rituals and ceremonies, as well as Buddhism. 


By Times Reporters
(Latest Update April 20, 2018)

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