Xishuangbanna: A Little Southeast Asia in China

Xishuangbanna. Located in Southern Yunnan Province of China, on the borders of Laos and Myanmar, lies a region that feels remarkably foreign to a seasoned backpacker of China and welcomingly familiar to the experienced traveller of Southeast Asia…

Arriving here, which one can only do by flight or a long haul bus ride (I opted to fly), one immediately gets the sense that this is a place caught between two worlds. With streets signs in both Dai and Chinese, Southeast Asia style Buddhist temples, and a plethora of palm trees and rolling mountains all around, this is a region with a definite exotic feel.

The mountains and countryside of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.
The blue hills of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.

Yes, Xishuangbanna or ‘Banna’ as it is more commonly referred to, is not the easiest region to make sense of at first glance, nor is it the most well-known of destinations on the Chinese or Southeast Asian backpacking circuits. However, its obscurity and tongue-twisting name aside, this is a region well worth checking out for a certain kind of traveller.

How does one end up in Xishuangbanna?

I came to China after receiving a research grant to write a report on the current state of the Dai people’s culture and Theravada Buddhism in southern Yunnan Province. While I am not a career Anthropologist nor plan on becoming one, I wanted to go abroad after graduating college in the US and what better way to do it than to get compensated to study and immerse myself in a culture and religion completely different than my own.

Rainbow over Jinghong, China, Xishuangbanna's biggest city.
Rainbow over Jinghong, China, Xishuangbanna’s biggest city.

I started my trip in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province, and made my rounds to the backpacker cities of Dali and Lijiang in the northwestern part of the province before turning south and arriving in ‘Banna.’

Banna is characterized by its Dai minority community and culture who make up about 34% of the population in the region. The rest of the population consists of 13 other ethnic minority groups, as well as Han Chinese. With such a mish-mash of different groups and cultures living in the area, Banna helps give Yunnan province its reputation as being “the most diverse province.”

A local Dai woman, Xishuangbanna.
A local Dai woman, Xishuangbanna.

The Dai Culture

Dai people are the only minority group in the region with a written language which is very much related to the Thai language and other languages in Laos and Myanmar. The Dais practice Theravada Buddhism, the dominant form of Buddhism in most Southeast Asian countries, while the rest of Buddhism in China belongs either to the Mahayana or Tibetan lineages.

Speaking to one of my guides and interpreters who is native to this region and of Dai heritage, he informed me that Dai people feel a much stronger cultural bond and connection to the peoples and countries of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand than they do to the rest of China. So, understanding these facts, it is much clearer as to why this region doesn’t feel like typical China.

First stop: Jinghong

Jinghong, the major city of ‘Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture’ is much easier to navigate than most other Chinese cities and noticeably operates at a slower pace. This is a welcome change, as you don’t have to worry quite as much about getting hit by a motorbike or car when walking around the town.

Xishuangbanna Caffy and Ken Backpacker Youth Hostel.
Xishuangbanna Caffy and Ken Backpacker Youth Hostel.

This is where you will want to book your accommodation and coordinate any activities you wish to do in the area. There are not a lot of hostels but having stayed at two different ones during my stay, I can’t help but recommend Caffy and Ken’s Backpacker Hostel.

As with the rest of Yunnan Province, English speakers are scarce so I found the owner of this hostel’s ability to speak English as invaluable in helping me make connections and get around the area.

I also recommend checking out MeiMei’s Cafe and Mountain Cafe. These two expat owned cafes serve an outstanding cup of coffee and I found the staff at Meimei’s to be incredibly helpful in helping me find a translator, a hiking guide and also putting me in touch with a Chinese language teacher.

Things to do in Jinghong

Great Mengle Buddha Temple

The city is known for its  Mengle Great Buddha Temple which is enormous and stands tall overlooking the city. It’s great eye candy, though to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend paying the 120 Yuan (Approx $18 USD) to go see it up close due to the fact that it lacks historical authenticity.

Some say it was built on the remains of an old Dai temple but that is only a rumour and the present temple and Buddha statue was built in 2007 entirely for tourist purposes. No doubt it is remarkable to see it overlooking the city but I suppose personally, I prefer to see things with real historical value and context.

Tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province
Tea plantations of Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province

Hiking in the mountains

The hiking in the surrounding mountains is superb and in m, opinion one of the main draws to this area. You can arrange 1-5 day treks and tours through the mountains and valleys, which will give you the chance to stay at Dai and other ethnic minority villages. Many of these villages are nationally known for making tea and you will have a chance to try some of the best in China – which when you think about it, is a quite the big deal!

Wild Elephant Park

Other things to do include visiting the wild Elephant park in Mengyang Natural Reserve which is an absolutely beautiful 900-acre park about 45 kilometres from Jinghong. The reserve is home to 70-100 elephants and there are viewing platforms from which to see the elephants.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden

It’s also worth going to see the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden. This is the only tropical garden in the whole of China and a nice place to get away from the city for a while.

Renting a bike and exploring the city of Jinghong and the nearby Dai villages without going into the mountains is also a must do in my opinion and doesn’t require much planning.

"ni-rou mien-tao" (beef noodles)
“ni-rou mien-tao” (beef noodles)

Food and drink in Jinghong

The food here is known to be a little spicy and there can also be a sour tendency to some dishes but overall I thought the numerous garage style Chinese and Dai restaurants had an array of fantastic food. If you’re not into spicy food, just remember to say “bou-la”, meaning ‘not spicy.’

The average cost of a meal will is around $2-$4 USD. My average meal consisted of ‘ni-rou mien-tao’ or ‘chae-fan’ (beef noodles or beef fried rice).

For those interested in the nightlife scene, there are numerous bars overlooking the river on Meng Peng Road in Jinghong. I’m not much of a drinker so I only went here one night but with the rooftop bars and terraces, it’s definitely a scene worth checking out if nightlife is your thing.

Generally, beers are not as cheap in China as they are in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries but it still isn’t going to bleed your wallet too much if you’re going to have a few. Also, if you decide to check some of these bars and clubs out, as a foreigner, be prepared to have many pictures taken with you and perhaps even bought a free drink!

A Buddhist character at the Great Mengle Buddha Temple, Jinghong.
A Buddhist character at the Great Mengle Buddha Temple, Jinghong.

Overall Xishuangbanna is a unique, beautiful and amazing place and a destination that every backpacker should consider if they want to get off the beaten path, out of their comfort zone and experience a different blend of southeast Asia in the wonderfully diverse province of Yunnan China.

Written by: Bryce Sellers.

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