The North of Laos


by Sarah Rasmussen, USA

Global Mark : 15.17    Top Five : No1

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Parks Culture Minor. Market Relax Fiesta 


4 5 1 4 5 3 5 3 3 14.67

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
6 100% 83% 83% 13 to 18 15.67

Note from Passplanet (Jan 02) : not everybody is apparently enthusiastic about Phongsali. Some reported rude people and an ugly & deforested area. Since I did not go myself, I can not subjectively compare it with other places... As usual, it will be a matter of opinion...

Description : One of the remotest towns in Laos, Phongsali has closer ties, culturally and economically, to Southern China than to the rest of Laos. Architecturally, it's very different from other Lao towns. But it does have the distinctive Lao friendliness and laid-back attitude. And because it's so high in the mountains, it's refreshingly cool. It's a great place to use as the base for treks and day-trips to neighboring villages. 

What to do ?  Wander around the back-alleys of this medieval-seeming town  / Accept numerous glasses of lao-lao and tea from the very friendly locals  / Walk to the top of the mountain for a beautiful view  / Arrange a 1 to 4 day trek at the "bakery"  / Walk west along the road to closer hill tribe villages  / Relax...

What you may not like ?  If it's rainy, you can't see the views / None of the "backpacker comforts" (i.e. email, banana pancakes, etc.), though that's also a benefit!  / Long trips to get there and back / The boring market

Itinerary ? Phongsali makes a nice variation on the well-worn Huay Xai - Muang Sing - Muang Ngoi - Luang Prabang route. 

How long ? Budget three days getting there & back.

Where to stay ? 

  • Songsali GH - the best place in town, has three double rooms for 25,000k each. On the main road, halfway between the 2 bus stations
  • Phongsali Hotel - OK place, has rooms ranging from multi-bed rooms with common bath for 10,000k a bed to 40,000k for a double with attached hot water (between 6 and 10 pm) bath. Very unfriendly though
  • Phongsali GH - across from the market, the worst of the three. Dirty, unfriendly and doubles as a brothel. There's really no reason to stay here.

Where to eat ? There is a good restaurant accross the street from the Phongsali Hotel. They serve excellect buffalo steak (yum).

Backpacker's Tips : Richard C. Doty, USA (June 03)
 I visited Phongsali this spring. This wasn't my first trip. I served in the US military during the Vietnam war and was part of a special forces unit assigned to Long Tieng, Laos. I frequently visited Northern Laos, including Phongsali. This was my first trip since 1970. What major changes occurred. Having once mastered the Lao language, I was surprised that some of it came back. Most spoke Lao, however, we did meet some people who only spoke various dialects including Chinese. The people were, for the most, friendly. We did meet some very "reserved" citizens. You mentioned several places to stay but you forgot Bok Toy. Although it was out of the norm, we stayed there and the owner was very polite and very friendly towards Americans. We met several French couples staying at the same hotel. I remembered Phongsali as being very "cool" and it was. The daytime temperature averaged about 70 degrees and the nighttime temperature went down to the low 50s. I brought some sweaters and sweatshirts, which was a good idea. Some French were caught off guard and had to borrow sweaters. Not much to purchase in the small shops as far as clothing. I was surprised of the lack of gardens. In the late 60s, Phongsali residence grew everything. Now days, they buy it. Not much in the way of fruits.

Backpacker's Tips : Peter Christiaen, Belgium (March 02)
 Phongsali : In contrast with Passplanet website, for sure not a highlight for me.
Phongsali is actually a nice town, but for sure not nicer than other smaller towns in Laos like Muang Khua or Nong Khiaw. Also here I have the feeling that travelers rate it very highly just to show that they have been there (and yes, it takes a long way to get there). It is one of those towns in Laos with a nice atmosphere but not much to do. As many places are like this, I don't see why you would do all the effort to get there. Almost no minority people in the village. You can go on a trekking, but without any private transport first, you will not really get into minority area. Old village itself is interesting, but the road to get to Phongsali is for sure much nicer than the town itself. Rather a disappointment.
Hotel : there's a brand new guesthouse (Yu Hua) that was full when I arrived. They serve decent food as well (although Phongsali is definitely not a culinary paradise). People are very nice (3rd generation Chinese; I could speak Chinese with them and was even able to order a whole Christmas dinner with stuffed turkey). / I stayed in the more basic guesthouse next door. 10.000 kip; common bathroom with Chinese style toilet; no shower, no hot water. / Pick-up to Hat Sa (4000 kip; 1 hour). Slow boat to Muang Khua (40.000 kip; 4 hours) 

Muang Khua : I liked this place. Busy town centered around the Nam Ou river. A lot of normal life going on : barber shops, fishing, washing in the river, pig slaughtering, ferry boats, I believe this is Laos like it was like everywhere only a few years ago. / Hotel : Sing Savanah Guesthouse : 25.000 Kip for a big room with private bathroom (Chinese toilet + cold shower). / Slow boat to Nong Khiaw (5 hours; 45.000 Kip)

Transport to & from ? 

There are two ways to get to/from Phongsali. One is to take a truck from Udomxai. This takes one very long day (8 to 12 hours) on a horrible road. The real downside to this trip is that you can't see the views because there is a tarp covering the whole truck.

The better, but longer way to go is to take a boat from Nong Khiaw or Muang Ngoi. You will stop overnight in Muang Khua, another nice town. The next day, you go to Hat Sa, where you can catch one of the frequent truck to Phongsali (first truck at 7-8, 5000-15000k, depending on the truck, 45 minutes, good road). 

The trip from Nong Khiaw & Old Muang Ngoi to Muang Khua takes about 4-6 hours, depending on weather and direction (upstream and downstream). The season also plays a big part: it's much faster to go downstream than upstream in the rainy season. It should cost 40,000k to Muang Ngoi and 45,000k to Nong Khiaw. More if you have to hire the boat, obviously. The boats leave at different times every morning. Enquire at the landing the evening before. There is usually only one public boat a day, so get to the pier early. The boatmen, especially in Muang Khua, will try to get you to charter a boat. If you have the money, this may be a good idea. But if you don't, just tell them you can only pay 40,000k pp (the rate for each leg) and they'll put you on a public boat. And bring food, because the villages along the way have no restaurants... 

The trip from Muang Khua to Hat Sa should take between 5-8 hours, again depending on
season, weather and direction. It should cost 45,000k and these boats also leave at different times in the morning. If you are heading downstream from Hat Sa, you should
leave on the first truck from Phongsali.

Make sure that you go by river at least one way. it takes two days, but the journey is stunningly beautiful.