Yunnan is one of the most traveled provinces in China, if not Asia. However, have you ever heard of “Xishuangbanna”? In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated travel destinations and not many people have heard of it. When I traveled this region in the province of Yunnan this summer, it simply took my breath away and I just want to go back and explore more.
Xishuangbanna is the Dai autonomous prefecture in the extreme south of Yunnan Province, China. It’s capital is Jinghong, the largest settlement in the area and one that straddles the Mekong River.
Here are the 5 best ways to experience Xishuangbanna:
1. Stay in Jinghong
The first thing I recommend it settling down in the capital city Jinghong. It’s in the ideal location, in the middle of the Xishuangbanna area and therefore the perfect starting point for your travels. It’s not a big city but rather a big town – no real high-rise buildings and it’s divided by the mighty Mekong. There are also 2 express bus stations and an airport for easy connectivity.
Jinghong is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever traveled to. It has this magical South-East Asian flair to it and the entire city seems to be “elephant-themed” with statues of the giant animal everywhere in town. I highly recommend staying in the “traditional village” part of the city, across the Mekong from the bus terminals and airport. There are even buses that take you to Laos or Thailand!
2. Eat Local Food
All around the traditional village, you can find restaurants offering local food. Some menus even have English descriptions which makes traveling easier if you don’t speak Chinese. One of the local specialties is spicy papaya salad – and yes, it is really spicy! They also serve all kinds of fish dishes caught right from the Mekong.
If you are looking for a cheap snack, go to the market in the traditional village. You can buy fresh fruit shakes for little money or try local appetizers right there.
3. Visit a Minority Village
Xishuangbanna is home to numerous minority peoples, the largest being the Dai, which dominate the area even before the Chinese Han: Dai making up around 30% of the population and Han 29%. Other minorities are Hani, Yi, Lahu, Blang, Jino, Yao, Miao, Bai, Hui, Va, Zhuang and other smaller groups.
The Dai even have their own language and alphabet, which you can clearly see all over the area and especially in the city of Jinghong on every street sign or some advertisements.
I visited the Jino minority village because the Jino are the smallest minority in Chin, with only around 20,000 people. They are a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group and were recognized as a national minority by the Chinese government as late as 1979.
The village is about a 45 minute drive east from Jinghong. The entrance fee to the village is 120 RMB per person including a guided tour through the village with tea tasting, a dance performance and traditional meal.
The authentic Jino traditional marriage is rooted in this rich cultural soil. Jino’s big drum dance is the foundation of Jino’s tradition.
Jino’s other traditional crafts include tea making process, the traditional brewing process, dyeing with branches and leaves, and bamboo weaving.
4. Search for Elephants
An hour north of Jinghong lies the local wild elephant valley. It is a reserve made up of low hills and wide valley bottoms with waterholes that contain enough salt to meet the biological needs of the wild Asian elephant.
This unique valley is one of the few places in the world where wildlife, including elephants, monkeys and birds, can be viewed in its natural habitat.
The area around the entrance of the park does, however, remind of a zoo-style place where some elephants are shown for entertainment and picture taking. However, when you take the cable car up the hills into the hidden spots, you get to see wild elephants which life in the sanctuary.
5. Don’t Forget The Temples
Temples in Xishuangbanna look nothing like the temples you find in other places around China. The architecture reminds of places like Thailand. The main temple in the center of Jinghong which also serves as a museum explaining local culture. It is simply referred to “Golden Tower” (金塔).
The most breathtaking temple located in Jinghong is the Mange Buddhist Temple. Facing east, the temple is huge featuring wooden roof-beams, thick eaves and tiled-roofs. The unique main temple is supported by sixteen red haven tree columns and there are also 16 elephant sculptures from the Qing dynasty. Climbing the top of the mountain, you will be rewarded with a spectacular view of Jinghong.
One temple I had read about that seemed to be a must-see was the Manfeilong Pagoda. It takes up to 2 hours to get to the particular location of the pagoda. The temple area was under construction at the time so I didn’t spend a lot of time there. I was a little disappointed as the pagoda seemed a lot smaller than expected. If you don’t have enough time, there is no need to check it out really.
Bonus: Beautiful Mekong views
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