Phonsali Travel Guide | Things To Do

phongsali travel guide laos

Situated in Northern Laos, home to the popular 400-year-old green tea plantation, and one of the only places in Laos to avoid the Vietnam War bombings is a rarely visited place by tourists, Phongsali – a luscious mountainous, green city that is perfect for off-beaten-path travelers and adventurers to venture to. In this article I’ll cover Phongsali in-depth, what there is to do, whether it’s worth the travel, if you can still hike there, and more. Why? On my huge 3-week motorbike journey on a 110CC (terrible decision) Honda Wave, I stopped in Phongsali for a while – it’s well worth the stop and you’ll learn why you should consider going here.

Interesting historical fact: the CIA recruited the Hmong (a tribe local to Phongsali) and trained them as a special force to fight the Pathet Lao in the Laos civil war.

Video traveling to Phongsali:

How To Get To Phongsali

You can get to Phongsali in 3 ways:

  • Bus
  • Rented motorbike
  • Rented car

You can’t get a direct train to Phongsali, but it could be useful to make use of the new high-speed bullet train that links with China. This could get you quite a bit of the way before you have to get a bus. The furthest point you can get to is Muang Xai, then you’ll have to sort out a bus from here.


From most stations in Laos, you will be able to get a ticket to Phongsali. Depending on where you’re going from, this can be an extremely long ride and there may be changes between cities and stations. We got a bus from Oudomxay province as a last resort when we got food poisoning and had to take a few days out. If we didn’t do this we wouldn’t have made it back in time for our bike rental return.

Fortunately, most buses allow you to store your bike underneath where the luggage goes, providing they have enough space. They do this for an extra charge. This can vary between 250k – 1 million KIP ($12-$50), depending on how long the journey is.

Buses in Laos are extremely uncomfortable. Most will be sleeper buses (try to avoid these), and they are not made for people above 5ft8. You’ll also have to share one bed with another person, so you sort of slide into each other during the ride on hard bends (get used to no personal space). If you’re prone to travel sickness you will 100% need tablets, the bus drivers drive recklessly.

Top tip: be careful for people trying to rip you off. I asked 3 people the price and they all gave me different figures. I went with the lowest which was 250k.

To transport your bike they’ll dismantle the front wheel, the mirrors, and various other items of the bike to fit it in. When you arrive they’ll put it all back together for you again too.

Rented Motorcycle

Me and my trusty Honda Wave

For motorcycle rentals in Laos, you should go to Vang Vieng. There are very few places you can actually rent motorcycles in Laos aside from the bigger cities, and out of all of them, Vang Vieng offers the lowest rates. In Luang Prabang, you’ll be asked for $10-15/day for a Honda Wave, whereas you’ll get the same Honda Wave (probably in better condition) in Vang Vieng for $5-10/day. I got mine for 130,000 KIP ($7/day).

Also if you’re renting a motorcycle, you need to barter the price. Especially if you’re renting for a long period of time. Additionally, it may be cheaper to just purchase some other backpacker’s used motorcycle (depending on journey length) and then resell it after you’re done.

Make sure you get a Honda Wave semi-auto, or Honda Win/Detech. Parts are readily available and it’s and most issues are extremely cheap to fix at garages.

Here are some tips you need to know before renting a motorcycle in Laos:

  • Get a semi-auto or manual, it’s better for the mountainous roads you’ll encounter (see below they’re really bad)
    • Honda Wave, Win or Detech are best
    • Parts are very available and cheap fixes
  • Police rarely stop you and if they do you can pay a fine and continue on (although we don’t recommend driving without proper licensing)
  • Vang Vieng is cheaper than anywhere else, so get the bullet train there
  • Robbies and break-ins are very uncommon in Laos, but be aware
    • Actually left my bike in the open with the key in at least 5-6 times, with all the stuff on the back, and nothing was ever taken
  • In an accident, you cannot leave the country until damages are paid to the other parties
    • Don’t admit guilt or your insurance will not cover
    • Don’t move the motorcycle either, as this is considered an admission of guilt in Laos
  • Avoid driving in the rainy season as roads can get really bad
  • For long rentals you can barter the price down, but it might be cheaper to purchase a motorcycle and sell at the end of your trip

Rented Car

If you are renting a car you should go with a reputable company, such as AVIS (or SIXT) that can provide comprehensive insurance. You can find AVIS in Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Pakse, and Savannakhet.

When getting insurance, choose every possible package you can. Driving on Laotian roads is no joke, they are incredibly dangerous at points. Some are still being built and you’ll have to drive on gravel, with sheer drops down the side of a mountain. People drive quite recklessly and a lot will drive in the middle of the road going up and down mountains. On our way we saw 2 crashes on the mountain roads, you’ll see why in the pictures below.

Here are some tips you need to know before renting a car:

  • You don’t need a 4×4, but it’s advisable considering the bad road conditions (especially in the north)
  • Always park your car in a place with surveillance (most guest houses have areas where you can park)
    • Robbies and break-ins are very uncommon in Laos, but just to be sure be aware
    • Actually left my bike in the open with the key in at least 5-6 times, with all stuff on the back, nothing was ever taken
  • In an accident, you cannot leave the country until damages are paid to the other parties
    • Don’t admit guilt or your insurance will not cover
    • Don’t move the car either, as this is considered an admission of guilt in Laos
  • Avoid driving in the rainy season as roads can get really bad
  • Renting a car is pretty expensive in Laos compared to bus travel & motorbike rental

Things To Know Before Going

Phongsali used to be quite a visited town before COVID, but when we last went it was not as lively as it once was. The tourism offices are open, but they rarely open regularly, and it’s very hard to find a local guide to take you hiking. It’s a pretty unknown location, so there is not much there for tourism. There are a few decent guest houses and some great restaurants, as well as a local fun and sports stadium – however, there is not much to do in terms of attractions.

If you’re into history and off-beaten-path travel, then this location is fantastic for you. If you are into more of a touristy experience and like to have activities and everything laid out for you Phongsali is probably not for you.

We went recently. It was great fun to motorbike around, and we would highly recommend you take a motorbike with you as there are no motorbike rentals here and very, very few Tuk Tuks floating about (if any). We didn’t actually we didn’t see any, but online people say there are Tuk Tuks here (not sure how verifiable that is).

There are lots of unexploded bombs from the Vietnam war, so if going hiking, please hire a professional hiking guide. Prices for hiking have increase since COVID and finding people able to take you is a lot more difficult than it was before, so be aware of this.

Things To Do in Phongsali | An Interactive Map of The Area

Here is an interactive map I made of all the interesting points in Phongsali:

Visit The 400 Year Old Tea Plantation

The green tea plantation is located in a village called Ban Komen. It’s about an 18km drive from Phongsali, on very, very bad roads. If you’re going on a motorcycle, or in a car – be warned. They are very bumpy, there’s a lot of holes and rocks, and there’s a huge drop down the side of the mountain. You could easily fall.

Either way, it’s a great visit and you can buy a ticket to look around the tea plantation. It will take you around 30 mins to an hour. You’ll be able to meet some of the workers and maybe (if you’re lucky) even get to try some Lao Cao (the local, extremely strong rice liquor).

Visit The Nearby Ethnic Tribes

There are a lot of ethnic tribes up in Phongsali, including Hmong people (who I originally went to find). I personally couldn’t find any Hmong people, but my Lao is not up to scratch to ask those questions and I’d say I’m intermediate in Thai, so some basic conversations and understanding didn’t lead me very far.

Interesting fact: the Hmong tribe is particularly interesting because, during the civil war between the Royal Lao Army and the Pathet Lao, the CIA recruited Hmong tribesmen and trained them as a special force to fight the Pathet Lao (who were much better at guerilla fighting).

In Phongsali you will find 13 ethnic minority groups who live in the surrounding villages. These include: Khammu, Thai Dam, Thai Daeng, Yao, Leu, Hor, Hmong, Akha, Yang, Bid, Lolo and others.

Go Hiking

Phongsali is a region known for its beautiful hikes. Many come here to trek to the local villages and stay there for the night. To do this you will need a trekking guide. This can be sorted at the tourism office, but right now (due to COVID) it’s extremely hard to organise and prices are quite high for the daily fees of your local guide.

I met a French man in Phongsali who came especially for hiking (as he had hiked before), but he couldn’t find anything and had to change his trip plans because there was nothing available.

Explore The Old Chinese Town

There’s a great area that was completely unaffected by the Lao Vietnam bombings (the most bombed country in history btw). Phongali is one of the few regions in Laos that wasn’t destroyed by these bombings. You can see the old town and architecture exactly how it was! It’s a small area, so it should only take you around 1hr to explore.

Head To The Markets

market stall in phongsali

There are some great markets around, with some amazing street food. The market is quite big, but there’s only one here, and there are street stands dotted around the town. It’s a great time to try Lao food! Sticky rice and anything and you’re good to go. You can also try the Lao people’s take on Vietnam’s Pho. Due to the fact they’re bordering countries, Pho has been commonly eaten in both and there’s a cool cross-over between the cuisines.

Personally, I prefer Vietnamese Pho, but you might love Lao Pho!

Get An Epic View From Phu Fa Mountain

One of the greatest views you’ll get in Laos. Phongsali is already in the mountains and this takes it a step further up. You can get a taxi service at the bottom and purchase a ticket to go up. It takes around 5-10 minutes to get to the top, and at the top you’ll find a temple as well as this absolutely stunning view (shown above).

Explore the Culture & History

There are some interesting propaganda signs dotted around the town, many anti-drug signs and there’s also a great monument to Kaysone Phomvihane in the center, but it’s locked and you can’t go in, unfortunately.

Drink and share Food With The Locals

Lao people are incredibly friendly and there are barely any foreigners who come to Phongsali. If you know a little Thai or Lao, you will easily make friends here. I personally met these people at the bus station restaurant (which is fantastic and I’d highly recommend you eat there). We shared some beer and some food. On my journey out of Laos, some people invited me for breakfast too, but I declined.

Culture, Language & The People of Phongsali

Lao people are very friendly, but they also tend to keep to themselves. Don’t expect people to be totally open at first. However, they are very kind, gentle, and warm people who are happy to share their culture with you. If you know a little Lao (or Thai as it’s mutually intelligible), it will open your doors to making many friends in this country as very few foreigners bother to learn.

Budgeting for Phongsali

Phongsali is extremely cheap. Laos in general is extremely cheap. You can eat a good meal for around $1-2, beer is $0.5 for a bottle and a cheap guest house is around $5. You will easily survive Laos on $10/day or less (with fuel). If you want to rent a motorbike I’d allow $15-$20/day (including the motorcycle rental price).

The most expensive thing is the flight and insurance for Laos. If you’re from any developed country you will be absolutely fine for money during your stay here. If you spend $30-$50/day you will have a very nice, luxurious time.

Safety in Phongsali

Laos is extremely safe and Phongsali is no different. Robberies are extremely rare, and crime is exceptionally low for a developing country. The Lao people are very friendly and many will help you if you’re lost. Still exercise caution and in tribal areas, be careful if you are hiking alone.

Food In Phongsali – How To Find Amazing Food

Finding good food in Phongsali isn’t difficult. There are some great restaurants here that serve delicious Lao food. There are also areas that sell Chinese food due to the close proximity of the Chinese border. There are no foreign restaurants here, so you won’t be able to find anything other than Asian food.

There aren’t many restaurants here, so it won’t be hard to find food. I’d recommend the restaurant by the bus station, everything they cooked was delicious. Don’t expect any high-end restaurants here. They are all mainly street, open-front-style restaurants and are similar to street food stands.

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