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Phongsali

Tel Code: 088
Pop: 25,000
Elevation: 1400m

Enclosed on three sides by China and Vietnam, Phongsali is a visual feast, kept pristine by arduous journeys and unwieldy terrain. The road north from Udomxai ribbons around infinite hills; their lush counterparts cascading into the distance beyond the line of sight In parts the forest is so congested that vines and trees clamor on top of each other in competitive and glorious mayhem. Tiny baan appear around random bends, tumbling down dusty slopes, and villagers are still a little flummoxed at the sight of foreigners. This will change if road conditions ever improve, but for now this neck of the country remains relatively remote to the tourist trail.


Phongsali's population density is just 9.4 per square kilometre, the lowest in the country after Sekong and Attapeu Provinces. Twenty-two ethnicities make up the province's population of approximately 166,000, among them Kheu, Sila, Lolo, Hanyi, Hmong, Pala, Oma, Eupa, Loma, Pusain Mien, Akha, Haw, Thai Dam, Thai Khao, Thai Lu, Phuan, Khamu, Phai, Vietnamese and Yunnanese. The Phu Noi (recognizable by their white leggings) are by far the most numerous, followed by the Thai Lu, Haw, Akha and Khamu.

As in Udomxai ui Luang Nam Tha, the Chinese presence has increased steeply with recent road and construction development. In fact Chinese-style tea continues to replace poppy farm as a significant cash crop. Phongsali's Phu Den Din NPA covers 1310 sq km in the northeastern corner of the province along the Lao-Vietnamese bonier, adjacent to Vietnam's Muong Nhe Nature Reserve. Mountains in this area reach up to 1948m and bear 77% primary forest cove.

Many threatened or endangered mammals live in the area, including elephant, tiger, clouded leopard, banteng, gaur and Asiatic black bear. Access to Phu Den Din remains difficult due to the lack of roads, and there are as yet no guided ticks to the NPA. The best areas for bill-tribe village exploration are found in the extreme northwest corner of the province, where there are also few roads.

Reaching this area involves wafting two or more days; guides are available in Phongsali. Sitting high on a mountainous platform on the steep slopes of Phou Fa (1626m), the provincial capital of the north is a petite town with one of the most colorful populations in the country. About 70% of the population is Phu Noi, but modernity has begun its steady trickle, and stoic Phu Noi women carrying ungainly loads on their backs totter alongside cell phone-clad Chinese and brand-new 4WDs.

The town remains dormant until around 10am, when vendors open their wooden shutters and the streets suddenly teem with spirited schoolchildren keen to practise their English, or simply offer a shy sabai-dii. It's an enchanting place to hang the boots for a while and observe. Phongsali possesses a year-round cool climate that comes as a welcome relief during the hotter season (March to May). In fact, the climate is closer to what you find in northern Vietnam than in much of Laos.

It can be quite cold during the cool season, with temperatures as low as 5C at night and 10C during the day. Fog and low clouds are common in the morning at any time of year. Rainfall can be intense and cold. Be sure to bring a pullover, jacket and waterproofs, even in March, April and May, just in case.

Information
Lao Development Bank Can change US dollars, Thai baht or Chinese yuan (but no travelers cheques) for kip.
Lao Telecom Office Cardphone available.
Post office Across the road from the Telecom Office.

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