Phongsaly (ຜົ້ງສາລີ in Lao) is one of the most renowned tea regions of Laos. The city of Phongsaly is rather elevated (1450 metres over sea with the surrounding mountains being higher than 1600) and lies near the borders with China. Unfortunately, the journey from China to Phongsaly is not easy, because the official border is far (days).
Phongsaly is visited by tourists, who are mostly attracted to visits to surroundiing villages, style of which remained unchanged for hundreds of years. The areas around are rich in various minorities and people live very traditionally there; compared to China, it is a real treat to visit such places. The most popular are Akha minorities, whose traditional clothing and adornments of body are very beautiful.
Tea is one of main commodities, produced around Phongsaly. In recent past, another important commodity was also opium, still not quite rooted out.
In the area around the town, there are only two villages with original old tea trees, see below. However, the whole province of Phongsaly contains many more villages having old trees, especially close to borders with Yiwu and Jiangchen regions. The old trees nea Phongsaly town are of the same varietal as trees in Yunnan. However, younger trees and tea gardens which are around most villages around Phongsala are both from Yunnan and Guangxi. Therefore, tea made from younger trees here are technically not a sheng puerh, even though the manufacturing process is similar.
|One of the largest tea factories in Phongsaly, owned by Malay people. The factory produces sheng puerh, as well as green and black tea.|
|This is a small factory making only sheng puerh. The owner comes from Yiwu and most tea he makes heads there too...|
Below is one of our teas being made:
Finding the right teamaker who could work with the work properly was the most difficult and the most expensive. Most local makers did not really know what sheng puerh is and the resulting tea tasted according to this fact.
Our teamaker (of Yao nationality) came with his father and uncle from a village near Guafengzhai (Yiwu), making tea here, in Phongsaly, selling it to Yiwu (marketing it as Yiwu) for a lot of money.
|Another tiny family "factory" producing maocha, owned by Lao people. Here, another of our teas was made as well (however, by a masterly chinese hand).|
|Tea leaves just taken out of a wok. They are then lightly rolled on bamoo plates, left overnight and sun-dried the next day.|
|The entrance to Ban Komaen, a village with ancient tea trees. It is in a high altitude (ca. 1600 meters over sea), being less than 20 km from Phongsaly town.|
And more old trees grow around the village:
Some of these trees are really huge:
And some are more like bonsai:
The second village with old trees is Ban Payasi. Here, however, people mostly make their tea themselves and most of them did not sell fresh leaves for further, more advanced processing. After several visits to this remote, meager village, hidden in forest, we bought finished maocha from several families. The process of production was not as good as that of teas from Ban Komaen, but the price-to-performance ratio was good nevertheless.
The Payasi village has less old trees than Ban Komaen and there are many younger trees growing among the original, old trees. These young trees come from the old trees, however. The tea from Payasi therefore is not pure gu shu, but the ratio of old-to-young trees is very good. Then again, the tea is not as attractive and more bitter. Indeed, some leaves of really old trees that we have bought from locals were extremely bitter: in a rather positive sense, but not well drinkable as young sheng puerh.
We personally like bitter teas which are much unlike the light, nosy, green-tea-like puerh with bad future that are in fashion now. Therefore, tea from Ban Payasi is mainly supposed to be stored. We hope it to be a good surprise after time.
|The forest near Ban Payasi is completely impenetrable.|
|This is the tea being dried in the village.|
|And tea being bought out as well...|
And here are somewhat primitively positioned pans used in production of tea:
Even though the tea wasn't super-cheap here, now in 2014, especially due to crazy prices in Yunnan and Menghai, we're still glad we can offer teas from this mostly untouched region. Another visitors to Phongsaly this year were people from Chen Sheng Hao, who also focus on teas from around borders and, according to our information, bought tea near borders with Myanmar. Due to this, it is likely that prices of teas in these areas will skyrocket in the future as well.
In our products, you can find three teas from here, one cheaper from the Ban Payasi village, and two more expensive (and appropriately better) teas from Ban Komaen. Unfortunately, their price has been also formed due to the fact that their production was very time consuming, and the transport to China expensive. Despite this, it is the best we could offer this year in gu shu quality. Please feel free to ask us further about these teas at firstname.lastname@example.org .Many thanks to readers who got this far in this text :)
Honza and Xuan