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...



Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. Tea tourism AND a closeup on a part of the world that I rarely hear about. Makes up for the lack of beautiful Korean teaware.


Unknown said...

Tea Road Trip


My friend Joe and I are taking a T inspiried road trip this March. We are reaching out to T people across the country to see if they want to meet up with us and have a cup of T. I don't know where you are located, but if you are on the way and are interested in having some T travelers stop by for a cup of T, please let me know. We can't stay longer than a T session, as we have many miles to cover, but we would love to stop by and share a cup.

We are leaving from Connecticut, heading towards Houston, dipping into Mexico, then heading to San Luis Obispo, CA, from where we will start heading east again, through the middle swath of America (Denver, Kansas City, Indiana, etc) on home to Connecticut.

If you are interested and along the way please write back.


Matt said...


One is glad you are enjoying this adventure with tea. Expect more posts on Korean tea culture when one settles down, but for now, enjoy the travels with tea.


Your idea is brilliant! Currently one is very much on the move. With no permanent base it's hard to say where one will be from day-to-day. After settling down one will be sure to drop you an email.


Anonymous said...


I agree, the T inspired road trip sound fantastic. If your in the neighborhood when you get to CA stop by for a cuppa on us. Merkaba Tea, Idyllwild, CA


Anonymous said...


Not sure if you are on your road trip or not, but if you pass through Chicago, contact me! Would love to have some tea with you.

Anonymous said...

does laos have a lot of tea plantation.. especially near china but still in laos border... can tell me??? i am intrested

Matt said...


One never heard exact output numbers for the tea produced in Laos but from personal experience one can tell you that planting, especially in Northern Laos is certainly growing. This was evident by the large number of small 1-3 year plants that one spotted while trekking to Korman and a number of fields nearby that were being clearing for tea. The government, privet business, and the United Nations are all supporting tea planting initiatives up North. This way the farmers are guaranteed a wage from their product.

In the South, production seems to be much lower, mainly small privet gardens owned by locals with small output. There also seems to be a lot of grassroots momentum on the Bolaven Plateau which could increase production in the coming years.

Hope that helps you out.