Preserving Laos’ Heritage of Herbal Tea Making
Laos’ most northern province, Phongsaly, was once a renowned tea-growing region famed for its ‘tea gardens’ or plantations that supplied China’s Emperors and the wealthy elite. A vassal state of the Ming Empire, tea growing in Phongsaly became popular in the 16th century and continued for more than 200 years, until the province officially became a part of French Indochina in 1893.
With the arrival of the French, tea growing declined and was slowly replaced by coffee. Today the tea plantations have all but disappeared, although attempts are being made to resurrect the herbal tea trade in Ban Komaen, a village in Phongsaly where 400 year-old ‘Camellia sinensis’ tea trees still grow.
Now, in the city of Luang Prabang, it is possible once more to explore the ancient tradition of herbal tea drinking in the city’s Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens. Situated at the base of a cliff, after which the gardens are named, the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens are dedicated to preserving plant-based medicines and herbs – an important part of Laotian culture, especially among ethnic minority communities, whose knowledge of herbal and medicinal plants (ethno-botany) is passed on orally.
A centerpiece of the gardens is the ethno-botanic garden where the ‘Camellia sinensis’ tea trees are grown. It is from the leaves and leaf buds that various herbal teas are produced, including red tea, green tea, and Sheng tea. In Phongsaly, the tea gardens flourished on the slopes of Mount Phu Fa where the foggy winters and warm, wet summers resulted in a perfect climate for the trees. The climate in the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens is similar, enabling the trees to thrive.
Covering 40 hectares and tended to by 50 Laotian staff, a team of scientists and botanists, there’s plenty to see at Pha Tad Ke. The tea-tasting experience will tour the gardens, walking along neat gravel pathways that pass through thriving plots, supporting fruit trees, a ginger garden, limestone habitats, and an arboretum.
Those taking part in the herbal tea tasting can harvest the leaves themselves from the ethno-botanic garden. These are then brought to the beautiful Pha Tad Ke café, where they are prepared for tasting. Following an ethno-botanic lunch, herbal teas are prepared with the harvested leaves. Some refreshing iced tea is served while you wait.
After the tasting, there’s time to sit and relax in the café overlooking the lily pond, or you can roam freely through the gardens to learn more about medicinal plants, gingers, bamboos, palms, and other flora. Though still in its infancy, the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens are an important step in helping to preserve the botany of Laos – 70 percent of which has still not been officially cataloged. Preserving the traditional knowledge of medicinal plants will ensure that a critical part of Laos’ heritage is not lost.
For more information on this tour and other Luang Prabang experiences, get in touch with us at: [email protected].