Tucked almost unnoticeably south of China's Yunnan Province, this would seem like the most obvious place to find tea in Laos. When you arrive from the ten hour drive on twisty, arse-jarring, unpaved, mountain roads, it certainly doesn't take you very long to discover that the people here aren't sipping cups of thick coffee. All they're crazy about is tea!
Ohh yes, Phongsali is a tea city. Every restaurant and local home alike greets you with a cup of Phongsali tea. They are all very proud of their tea. While walking down the street of Phongsali, it wasn't uncommon to be coaxed of the street and into a strangers house for a cup.
Because Phongsali is quite secluded and because it is the main center of trade in the region, hill tribe people wonder throughout in the most beautifully crafted traditional dresses. It truly feels like you are flipping through a page of National Geographic and it also makes it quite believable that tea traditions here in Phongsali are over 400 years old.
To Investigate this claim and to see the tea production first hand one set off on a 4 hour trek from Phongsali to where tea in Laos originated from.
One set out at the crack of dawn as a guide led the way through a thick, blinding fog and an orchestra of cock-a-doodle-dooling roosters. A large government sign announcing "The planting project Replace of poppy" stood our in the background of faded white as we hit the outskirts of town. The hill tribes of this region made most of their income producing and selling opium, a drug that many tribe peoples still use today and consider sacred.
The United Nations has reigned high praise upon the Laos government as in their very successful efforts to replace the lucrative poppy crop with that of tea and other heavy crops in the last decade. According to the UN poppy production continues to grow in South-East Asia and has not completely disapeared in Laos. The UN is touting Laos as a model for which this problem can be tackled all the while pushing Laos to remain vigilant in its efforts to eliminate this dangerous crop.
Way past the sign we met up with some plantation owners and tea field labourers on their way to toil in the fields.
One of the plantation owners that we were walking with invited us to check out his tea plants. They were mainly young plants with a few older ones that were 9 years old. He, like almost every other farmer in Phongsali, uses absolutely no pesticides, herbicides, or any other chemicals and processes an all organic crop. A crop that he makes his living from. We thanked the man and continued on our way. While hiking further one wondered if this kind man was once an opium farmer...