Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tea In Laos Part Two: The Legend of Laos' 400-Year-Old Tea Trees

We continued to glide through the dense fog like ghosts in search of tea. We reached our halfway point, Phousom Village of the Phounoy Hill tribe people. The old wooden stilted homes of this small village were almost completely clouded and gave the effect of barely visible floating houses. This supernatural dream-like feeling was actualized by the fact that by the time we arrived most of the towns people were working in nearby fields, some of them undoubtedly tea plantations. We didn't spend very long in this peacefully eeriy town before heading on our way.

Tea plantations exclusively lined the dirt path for the next 4 kilometres occasionally sharing the odd space with mystic patches of dew covered bamboo.

The tea shrubs grew in size as we progressed on foot to our final destination. From plant, to shrub, to tree, and to large tree. Finally after 4 hours of trekking up a mild incline we arrived in Korman village of the Phounoy Hill tribe people, the birthplace of Laos tea!

According to the elders of the Korman Village, there was once an old tree. This tree was located on the path to the local stream. The villagers would travel this path daily to cast their fishing nets. The fisherman noticed the wonderful bright green young leaves of this old tree and would always make sure to pluck some off as a treat to nibble during the trek back to the village.

This is the way it always was. Around 400 years ago things changed in Korman, the old tea tree began to spread its seeds and, with the help of the residents of Korman, it spread throughout the small village.

Today, scientifically verifiable 300-400 year-old tea trees envelope the small quiet village. It is unknown when the Phounoy started steeping the tea leaves in water and consuming tea as a beverage as they do today.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Tea In Laos Part One: Phongsali Tea Vs. The Poppy

In the most remote province of Laos, surrounded by hundreds of kilometres of mountains on both sides and poor, unpaved twisty mountain roads to match is Phongsali. This is the small, cut-off capital city that the province of Phongsali also gets its name from.

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.

After about one hour into the mildly steep hike we came across our first tea plantations. They looked to be planted just a few years ago and were hardly visable through the blanketing fog that seemed to be getting thicker.

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...


Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Introduction To Tea In Laos

As one passed through long, black, jagged peeked mountains coming into Laos from North-Central Vietnam, one expected tea consumption to drop significantly. One had heard many go on and on about Laos deep rich coffee. Little did one know that the quiet communist nation of Laos has been producing tea for quite some time now. And what was even more surprising, that the tea, like the coffee, was good.

As one traveled throughout this beautiful country one found that Laos' tea culture goes back 400 years and that there are two distinct tea producing regions in Laos- one in the far North Province of Phongsali and the other in the far south province of Champasak. Each region has its own separate, and interesting tea history and produces very different types of tea. Over the next few posts one will devolve closer into each region and share a few of their hidden secrets.