Built on the steep slopes of Phu Fa (1625m), Phongsali possesses a year-round cool climate that comes as a welcome relief during the hotter (March to May) season. In fact the climate is closer to what you would find in northern Vietnam than much of Laos. It can be quite cold during the cool season, with temperatures as low as 5Â°C at night, 10Â°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. The capital district is surrounded by rolling, deforested hills.
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. Reaching this area involves walking two or more days. Phongsali does boast some colonial architecture, and wandering about the town's back streets and alleys can be interesting. The staff at the Phoufa Hotel can help arrange village trekking outside of town.
Electric power is available from 6pm to 9pm only. There is a post office 200m south-west of the Phongsali Hotel and across the street from the card phone.
Money A branch of Lane Xang Bank next to the post office, south-west of the Phongsali Hotel, can change US dollars, Thai baht or Chinese yuan (but no travelers chouse) for kip.
Places to Stay
Phongsali has three places to stay now. Phongsali Hotel (412042) Dorm beds US$1.15, rooms with cold-water bath US$3.40, with hot-water bath US$4.50- 5.65. The Chinese-built Phongsali, in a centrally located four-storey building, is said to be the highest structure' in the province. The hotel offers 28 plain rooms, most with three beds and good mattresses. The staff speak Lao, Phu Noi and Chinese.
Laksun Hotel Rooms US$1.70. Opposite the Phongsali Hotel, the rustic Laksun is a two-storey, metal-roofed wooden structure with a few basic rooms with mosquito nets. There's a cosy restaurant downstairs.
Phoufa Hotel (412057) Rooms US$5.65. The wooden Phoufa, on the hill of the same name (Phu Fa), was a walled- in Chinese consulate and military base in the 1960s. Secret tunnels crisscrossing the hill can still be seen. Recently upgraded, the Phoufa is now the best place to stay and eat in Phongsali. The hotel commands a good view of the area from the pleasant terrace, complete with a beer garden. Down- stairs is an attractive restaurant with an open fireplace (see the following Places to Eat section) Hat Sa Hat Sa, a stopover for visitors heading for Phongsali via boat, has a guest-house with multi-bed rooms for US$0.90 per person.
Places to Eat
Phongsali Hotel (412042) Dishes $1-3. Phongsali offers the largest menu, mostly Chinese food plus a few Lao dishes.
Phoufa Hotel (412057) Dishes $0.90- The hotel serves surprisingly good central Lao food, a relief from standard Chinese-influenced Phongsali fare and its obsession with pork fat.
There are several noodle shops on the main street through town towards the market; bowls of foe are among the cheapest in the country. Chinese beer is cheap all over town, while Beerlao is relatively expensive. The local lao-lao is tinted green with herbs and is quite a smooth tipple. Good Chinese- style tea is also available.
Getting There & Away
Bus & 4WD From Udomxai in Udomxai Province it is now possible to travel by road along Rte 4 north-east to a junction about 30km west of Muang Khua in southem Phongsali, and then head north on a relatively new graded, unsealed road all the way to Phongsali. Buses (US$4, eight hours, 253km) leave once a day (early morning) from either end as long as there are enough passengers. The new road north (as yet unnumbered) is in relatively good condition despite its lack of sealing.
HHat Sa From the boat landing at the small town of Hat Sa, passengers can share a 4WD vehicle for the 20km journey to Phongsali. Originally built by the French, this once rutted and rough dirt track is locally known as the 'buffalo road' since it seemed more fit for beast than vehicle. Now that's it's been improved, the trip only takes half an hour and costs US$O.25 per person.
Mengla (China) Another way to reach Phongsali is from Luang Nam Tha Province via Yunnan. If the Yunnan Phongsali border should open to foreign travelers in the near future (it is currently open to Chinese and Lao nationals), it will be easier to reach Phongsali from Mengla,Yunnan, than from most points in Laos. Rumours say negotiations between the provincial governments of Yunnan and Luang Nam Tha will eventually allow foreigners to travel across this stretch of China. The road from the Lao settlement of Ban Pakha (a village of Akha refugees who fled the communist takeover of China in the 1940s) near the Chinese border to Phongsali is relatively good; local buses cost around US$0.60 per person and take about two hours to reach Bun Neua, where you must change to another bus (another two hours, US$0.60) for the final leg to Phongsali. There is a guesthouse in Bun Neua should you get stranded.
Boat Phongsali can also be reached via the Nam Ou from Muang Khua. From Muang Khua you can hop on a boat to Hat Sa, a short distance by road from Phongsali. When the level of the river is low, however, the boat service may be cancelled; lately this doesn't seem to happen until March or April, though in previous years it has stopped much earlier - much depends on the annual monsoon.
From Muang Khua slow boats (US$3.75, five to six hours) and speedboats (US$6.25, 1112 to two hours) leave irregularly (in the mornings only) for Hat Sa.
Muang Khua and Hat Sa can also be reached by river from Luang Prabang along the Nam Ou (except when the river is low). See the Luang Prabang Getting There & Away section for further details