In Thailand, but not quite …this was the feeling Xishuangbanna gave me when I first stepped into this lush tropical region in China. Located in southern Yunnan, Xishuangbanna is unique in landscape – its lush, tropical rainforest contrasts sharply with the alpine meadows and snow-capped mountains in northern Yunnan. Besides the rainforests, Xishuangbanna is also well-known for its exotic plants, Pu-er tea, delicious tropical fruits and most of all, its colorful ethnic minority people.
Most visitors’ first contact with Xishuangbanna is its provincial capital, Jinghong. Bordering Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, Jinghong is an important gateway city for trade with other Southeast Asian cities. It is a typical Chinese city and there is not much to see and do here. However, it is a good place to base yourself as day trips to the many surrounding countryside can be taken from here. Better accommodation can also be found in Jinghong.
Many well-known highlights near Jinghong include Menghai for its Pu-er tea plantations, Menglun for its famous botanical gardens (arguably one of the richest and best on the world) and Damenlong for its Buddhist pagodas.
But the highlight of my trip was visiting the many ethnic minority villages. Xishuangbanna is home to a cultural mix of almost one million people – Dai, Han, Hani, Bulang being the larger ethnic groups. Each group has their own customs which makes Xishuangbanna a very colorful and fascinating destination to visit.
Our trip coincided with the annual water-splashing festival or New Year’s Day of the Dai Minority people. Held in mid-April, the festival’s purpose is to wash away the bad luck of the old year and welcome the new. It lasts a few days and like all festivals, it was a visual treat. Parades, fairs, song, dance and boat races are held during the first few days. It culminates in crazed water splashing on the final day and everyone, tourists included, are welcomed to take part. It was all very good fun as well as a photographer’s delight (but do watch the water on your cameras!)
The best part of my visit to Xishuangbanna was that with a little more organization and effort, we could visit many villages that were not on the standard tourist route. Being in Xishuangbanna did not feel like being in China. The locals were dressed in long skirts like the Thai, had the complexion of the Burmese and the grace and gentleness of the Laotians. Agriculture is still the main livelihood and most live in wooden huts with thatched roofs. We spent time exploring the villages on our own and interacting with the locals. What truly captured my attention was the simplicity of life, the friendly, warm smiles on the faces of the locals and their sincerity.
Would I visit Xishuangbanna again? The answer is a definite yes. Not so much for the purpose of escaping the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. Rather, it is for the simple reason of getting back to basics and learning again how to enjoy the simple things in life.
• Weather – Xishuangbanna has a mild climate year-round and can be visited anytime. It has two seasons: wet and dry. The wet season coincides with the summer months of June to August, where heavy rain can be expected almost daily. But summer is also the time where you can enjoy eating many delicious tropical fruits. The dry season lasts from November to April and is the best time to visit with cooler temperatures. Many festivals are also held in Spring (Mar-Apr)
• Accommodation – Unless you are game for a rustic experience with the locals, it is best to stay in Jinghong as hotels of a reasonable standard can be found here. However, hotels are basic at best, so do lower your expectations.
• Packing Essentials – Sunscreen, lots of water, insect repellant and your camera!
• Tongue-twisters – In Dai language, ‘Xishuang’ means twelve; ‘Banna’ means a thousand pieces of land. ‘Xishuangbanna’ therefore means twelve thousand pieces of land. How then does one remember such a tongue-twister of a name? Well, think of ‘Twelve Bananas’ ie. Xishuang+Banna. No offence to this lovely area or its people, but this sure helped me!
Written By: Sharon Heng
Trip organized by Country Holidays.
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