Tripadvisor traveler choice Traveler choice

Phongsali Guide - All you need to know

Phongsaly is one of the remotest provinces  of the Laos, and is dominated by rugged, mountainous terrain and an abundance of thick forests and fast-flowing rivers. 

Phongsaly is a remote town in northernmost of Laos, which was strongly influenced by China and enclosed three sides by China and Vietnam and cut off to overland travel from Oudomxay to the south. The capital of the province is the city of Phongsaly - the highest city in Laos at 1400 meters above sea level.

The province borders China to the north and west, Vietnam to the east, Luang Prabang Province to the south, and Oudomxai Province to the southwest. Phongsaly is the primary trade gateway between Laos and China, exporting lumber and importing several types of finished goods.

The highest mountain in the province is Phou Doychy with an elevation of 1.842 meters. Protected areas in the province include the Phou Dene Din National Biodiversity Conservation Area and Nam Lan Conservation Area.

The population is made up of officially 28 different ethnic groups, each having its own culture, traditions, traditional costumes, and languages.

Built on the steep slopes of Phou Pha (Sky Mountain) at the altitude of 1625m, Phongsaly possesses a year-round cool climate. It can be quite cold during the cool season, with temperatures as low as 5°C at night, 10°C 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.

Phongsaly is a very remote province that has only just begun to be explored by tourists. Despite being a large town, it lacks any real tourist infrastructure, and wandering around you will most likely find yourself the object of curious (but not bad-natured) stares. Though at first you may wonder where you’ve ended up, soon enough the lack of other tourists, cool mountain air and stunning surrounding countryside will work their charm on you. Trekking trips allow you to explore the countryside, seeing a special part of the country that is rarely visited. With the fairly low-key trekking scene, the town is a great place to do an overnight trip to the province’s fascinating hill-tribe villages.

Reaching this area involves walking two or more days. Phongsaly does boast some colonial architecture, and wandering about the town's back streets and alleys can be interesting. It’s worth making a walk up the forested hillside of Phou Pha hill, the top of which offers excellent views over the town and surrounding countryside on a clear day.

The town’s inhabitants are made up of the Phunoi people and the Chinese Haw, descendants of Yunnanese traders who annually drove caravans of pack-ponies south into old Siam. If you've come expecting to see lots of colorfully garbed minorities in the market or around town, you'll be disappointed unless you arrive during a major holiday like Lao New Year in April, when residents from all around the province visit the capital. The best areas for hill-tribe village exploration are found in the extreme north-west corner of the province, where there are no roads.

On a slope directly behind the Phongsaly Hotel is the town’s old quarter. A wander through these friendly medieval-looking lanes is like stepping back in time. The quarter’s three main streets run parallel for a stretch and then converge at a large basketball court, from which leads Phongsaly’s main commercial thoroughfare, a tidy street of low shop-houses.

Anyone interested in seeing what ethnic groups in Phongsaly dressed like before the influx of Western-style clothing should pay a visit to the Museum of Tribes on the main road. Unfortunately, the rather small display of costumes and traditional wooden utensils isn’t done any favors by its lack of English explanations.

The nearby market is fairly small, considering this is a provincial capital.

Get in:

Unless you have your own transport, local buses provide the only option directly into Phongsaly. From Oudomxay, it is now possible to travel by road along Route 4 north-east to a junction about 30km west of Muang Khua in southern Phongsaly, and then head north on a relatively new graded, unsealed road all the way to Phongsaly. Buses leave once a day (early morning) from either end as long as there are enough passengers. They will take 8 hours and cost around 4 USD.

Alternatively you can travel to Phongsaly via the small riverside town of Hatsa if you have caught the boat up the Nam Ou River. From Muang Khua you can hop on a boat to Hatsa, a short distance by road from Phongsaly. From Muang Khua, slow boats take five to six hours and cost 3,75 USD while speedboats take one to two hours and cost 6,25 USD.

Read more
Plan your tailor - made trip with a local expert
Book securely with money-back guarantee
Travel stress-free with local 24/7 support