Phongsaly – Misty Days in Laos’ wild North

Phongsaly & Trekking-1716I get up very early and as I leave my guesthouse, it is foggy and drizzling again – a phenomenon that seems to be typical in Laos and which I still have to get used to. The already not so charming town of Oudomxai presents itself grey and depressing. Tired and weary, I arrive at the local bus station and the sight of this muddy and bland place just completes the picture. Bound for Phongsaly, the remote and wild North of Laos, I am worried if the bus will make it there. There are rumors that yesterday’s bus had to turn around due to bad road conditions. The almost antique bus is completely overloaded with people sitting on plastic stools in the aisle, others even standing and sacks of rice and other produce stacked behind the driver. With lots of luck, I secure myself a seat, send a quick prayer to heaven and the bus squeaks off for its 9 hour journey to Phongsaly.

9 hours to Phongsaly – Overloaded and squeaking  over hill and dale
Surprisingly most of the farang (Asian term for Westerners) sit in the back of the bus. I meet Pablo and Deo, a spanish couple from Madrid, Chris from Germany, Terry from Canada and Liam from Ireland. We are trying to make the best of the ride and share food and good travel stories. Around midday the bus takes a break in the middle of nowhere and all the locals get out to have lunch by the road. Walking around aimlessly, a group of squatting Lao invite me to share their lunch with them. I happily accept and squat down with them. Their food is great and we try to make a little bit of conservation and laugh a lot.
The second half of the ride is very scenic with the old timer bus winding up and down hills along breathtaking mountains and valleys. We arrive around 6 o’ clock and our little group checks in the near guesthouse. The first sunset in the North ends this day on the road.

Our bus at one of the stops along the way.

Our bus at one of the stops along the way.

Lunch with the locals by the road. The food was tasty.

Lunch with the locals by the road. The food was tasty.

Our first sunset in Phongsaly from the balcony of our guesthouse.

Our first sunset in Phongsaly from the balcony of our guesthouse.

Phongsaly – A strange place above the clouds

Phongsaly itself is a very strange place. It is not Laos anymore and it is not yet China – it is something in between. It also becomes very evident that Laos is actually a communist country. Propaganda posters greet us on the way into town and we got woken up every morning by monotonous “news” out of public loudspeakers. The people themselves also seem to be different. My impression was, that they dress more uniformly and behave more distanced. Phongsaly is characterized by frequent and sudden changes of weather. The meteorological mix of thick and persistent fog in the mornings, drizzling to heavy rain and short periods of sunshine completes this image of a strange but yet mystical town in the Laos’ far North.

Phongsaly in the morning. That day the fog cleared surprisingly fast.

Phongsaly in the morning. That day the fog cleared surprisingly fast.

The Sea of Clouds at Phongsaly. This was taken close to the Hat Sa bus station.

The Sea of Clouds at Phongsaly. This was taken close to the Hat Sa bus station.

The Fog .... creeping up the hills.

The Fog …. creeping up the hills.

Trekking around Phongsaly. Old forest and a poor village
The next day Chris, Pablo, Deo and I arrange a 2 day / 1 night trek through the jungle including an overnight stay in one of the Akha villages. We originally signed up for a 3 day trek, but the guide for this trek wasn’t available. The next day we meet our guide Dui in the neighboring village of Boun Neua. It was actually sunny out but with the weather said to change soon, we hope that it won’t rain. We walk through picturesque rice paddies along a small river to enter the jungle. The Phongsaly area still features a big percentage of primary forest which makes trekking there so interesting. We pass old tree giants, wines and all sorts of flora. Once we climb higher the already familiar mists sets in, spoiling the views but adding to a very special and mystical atmosphere. Unfortunately our guide proves to be not very talkative which is always a downturn and can make or break a trek.

Our group of four at lunch in the forest. Not too far from the village.

Our group of four at lunch in the forest. Not too far from the village.

Arriving in the Akha village where we were supposed to stay overnight.

Arriving in the Akha village where we stayed overnight.

Around two we arrive in the village we will stay at overnight. It is inhabited by people of the Akha Hilltribe and can only be reached by the small path through the jungle we also used. The village is very simple and the people seem to be very poor. People in the village are a little distanced but the kids are very curious. However, no one likes to get their picture and after asking a few times, we gave up on it. I was still able to get a few shots while walking around, but it was very difficult and had to be quick affairs. Nothing compared to the relaxed session during the Mae Hong Song Loop. After our dinner at the village chief’s house, we found out that the next day would be the Akha’s new year. The kids were already going crazy with their fire crackers. I just had to join in since it reminded me so much of my own childhood. The night in a basic bamboo hut was cold and short, being woken up by the many animals living freely in the village. The next day we took off after a simple breakfast and made our way back to our guide’s village.

Back in Phongsaly, we arranged our boat trip down the Nam Ou River from Hat Sa to Muang Khoua with our final destination Muang Ngoi. Chis, Pablo, Deo and I decided to do that leg together. At that point we didn’t know that it would be an exhausting but very rewarding journey.

Last thoughts …
The bus ride to Phongsaly gave me a real impression of the transportation in Laos. The rides are scenic but can be very tiring and time consuming. This has definitely to be taken into account when making plans to travel Laos. The stay in Phongsaly was sort of an eye opener because there it became very clear that Laos is still a communist country with all of the negative aspects that system features. Traveling the country is very rewarding and exotic but I think it is also important to be aware of the political situation. It is easy to forget about that or not even take notice of it at all. Talking to people about these issues can be difficult, but Phongsaly definitely helped to get a better understanding.
This setting combined with the dramatic weather and dramatic nature makes it a special and mystic place. The town itself is not pretty, that’s for sure, but all the other aspects made it a very interesting side trip.

Categories: Laos, Trekking | Tags: , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Phongsaly – Misty Days in Laos’ wild North

  1. Reblogged this on A Gem Named Meg and commented:
    I can’t believe she was just here. Glad she enjoyed her adventure.

  2. Loving your blog! The pictures are beautiful.

    • Hey Eiser,
      thanks for your kind feedback. Are you into photography as well? I am struggling with a bit of creative block at the moment. Hope I can shake that off quickly….. Greetings from Laos, Philipp

  3. Really enjoying reading about your trip through Southeast Asia. I begin my own trek next month so it’s nice to have a little preview of what awaits me. Enjoy the rest of your time in Laos!

    • Hi Suasan,
      thanks for your feedback. Great that you will start traveling in a month. I am sure you will have a wonderful time. Where will you go and what’s on your itinerary? Greetings, Phil

      • Hi Phil,

        My plan is to travel to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Phillippines. I haven’t yet finalized my itinerary but I’m really looking forward to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, maybe learning to dive and surf in Indonesia or Thailand, and just getting to experience cultures very different from my own.


      • Philipp Dukatz

        Hey Susan, your itinerary looks almost exactly like mine. I will travel the same countries as you plan to, so if you need any advice just get back at me. I am also excited to go to Angkor but also a little bit worries since I heard it is one of the most busy sights in the world. I will find out soon. Two recommendation for learning to dive and surf since I do both. Learn diving in Thailand since it is comparably cheap and the diving is good. Second, learn how to surf in Bali, Indonesia. Good waves, great for beginners since the waves come in very consistently and the teaching is usually good. Wow, I am sure you will have the time of your life.

        Greetings from Laos, Phil.

      • Hi Phil, thanks for the advice about where to learn surfing and diving. I’ve heard they’re availble in both locations so it will definitely help me decide. I’m sure Angkor will be great despite being a popluar tourist destination, and make sure to catch a sunrise/sunset while you’re there. I hear it’s a sight that is not to be missed. I’ll be sure to let you know if I need any advice as I finish planning and begin my trip. Take care, Susan

  4. If you choose to participate, I nominate you for the Versatile Blogger Award:

    Cheers! 🙂

  5. Pingback: Visiting Laos: Tranquil, remote, restful ← Totally Travelling

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