Saturday, March 7, 2009

Tea In Laos Part 3: Phongsali Production & Product

*continued from last entry...

When we finally arrived in Korman village of the Phounoy hill tribe people we threw ourselves onto a bamboo woven porch and ate a traditional meal of sticky rice and other fruits and nuts. We ate in the company of dogs, ducks, chickens, and hundred year old tea trees, but no towns people could be spotted as they were busy in the fields, most likely the tea fields. When we made our way into the village we heard many labours singing tranquil songs, songs of a hundred years ago, as the worked to mainly clear debris and other growth from the tea fields- the work of the dry season. Although we could hear their happy working songs, more often than not we couldn't actually see them working through the blinding fog.

Even now in the village, the fog was not letting up. The more one thought about it, the more one started to think that we might not be in fog, but might instead be in the clouds. This was actually a legitimate possibility as Korman village was located over 1500 meters above sea level.

After finishing a well deserved meal we walked the village to admire the town and tea. We stumbled into an old man on the porch of his stilted house that backed onto a steep drop off. Majestically old tea trees and bamboo shoots seemed to reach toward the wood structure, supporting it.

The old man made small talk with the guide then one made the inquiry whither one could obtain some tea from a local villager. The old men beamed as he seemed to understand what one said to the guide-cum-translator.

The old man reached for a large sack that was untied leaning up against the wall of his house. He offered to sell some. After giving the dark, blackish green tea leaves an inspection, one didn't particularly find it that appealing. The leaves seem to be over processed and stale, very little qi seemed to be left in the leaves and they emitted a dank, salty, seaweed smell that was so faint. One was quite charmed by the old, toothless man that had a glow about him, excited about the possibility of selling tea to someone who hiked all the way to his village from a country far away. So, one asked for just a bit to taste but ended up walking away with more than one wanted. But just costing $2.00 one could hardly say refuse the man's offer.

We wandered the village a bit more before making our journey back to Phongsali. On our way back we hoped to check out one of two tea producing facilities. One was owned by a Malaysian company and the other, Syuen Classic Tea, was owned by a Chinese company. Each company was part of a state and UN sponsored program to provide a profitable alternative to opium production.

We came across the Chinese plant just at the outskirts of Phongsali, actually very close to the government sign pictured in Part One. The guide was awkwardly reluctant as we approached the factory. When we got to the driveway leading up to the factory's entrance, the guide stopped and said this is as close as we could get to the factory. One expressed interest in seeing the production in process as smoke rose lightly from the building's chimney. The guide pointed to the large locks on the doors and said that we couldn't go in. He proudly proclaimed that the tea produced behind those doors is some of the best tea produced in Phongsali. The way he and, later, others spoke about the simple brick facility left one with the feeling that this factory and it's tea was revered here in Phongsali. And so in such reverence we left into the town of Phonsali.

We went into the market in search of a container for the green tea that was purchased from Korman. The market was a simple affair with long wood tables set up in a large sheltered building. Food was laid out on small section of the table, fresh fruit, vegetables and even strange meats mingled together, the smell was unreal. On at least one section of each long table was a pile of tea. The tea for sale in the market was different than what one had seen before in Phongsali, in fact it looked a lot like a type of tea that originated in China.

The tea in the market was called 'smoked' or 'baked' green tea by the locals. It was produced by packing tea leaves into a shoot of bamboo where it was left for up to one month. The tea was then baked in a stove before being removed from the bamboo and bound in groups of four by thin strips of bamboo leaves.

This tea wasn't at all a 'special' Phongsali way of producing tea but seemed to be identical to a method that the Chinese developed years before (one can't recall the name of this type of bamboo tea produced in China... if any readers could help one's memory that would be great).
This type of tea is apparently the way most hill tribe peoples produce tea. It is the cheapest tea here and is generally consumed by those who cannot afford the green tea which is preferred by the locals. The way of producing tea in bamboo in this manner likely traveled with the flow of hill tribe people from the Yunnan Province of China as the people migrated further south into Laos.

One picked through these stacks of 'smoked' tea. Some of them smelt of other food or spices, likely absorbed from poor storage, others stacks seemed rather odourless, while others smelt of deep rick tobacco. Despite the difference in apparent quality, they all sold for the same price- four rolls for 60 kip ( $7.00 USD).

Tired from hiking, one found a container and sauntered back to ones guesthouse to enjoy some tea.



Nerval said...

Fantastic post. Thank you for sharing this experience.
An insight into the local customs of making and drinking tea is always refreshing. I brewed my 2006 Xizhihao 8542 this afternoon with more humbleness and gratitude.
Best, Nerval

Matt said...


Ahh... one hasn't tasted puerh in quite some time now. The sound of that 8542 makes one's mouth water. Be thankful for every sip.


Salsero said...

Wonderful story and pictures. Thanks for sharing these moments from your travels.