A tropical spread of rainforests, plantations and paddy fields nestled 750km southwest of Kunming along the Burmese and Laotian borders, Xishuangbanna (西双版纳, xīshuāngbănnà) has little in common with the rest of provincial China. Foremost of the region’s many ethnic groups are the Dai, northern cousins to the Thais, whose distinctive temples, bulbous pagodas and saffron-robed clergy are a common sight down on the plains, particularly around Jinghong, Xishuangbanna’s sleepy capital. The region’s remaining 19,000 square kilometres of hills, farms and forest are split between the administrative townships of Mengla in the east and Menghai in the west, peppered with villages of Hani, Bulang, Jinuo, Wa and Lahu; remoter tribes are still animistic, and all have distinctive dress and customs. Cultural tourism aside, there are plenty of hiking trails and China’s open border with Laos to explore.
Xishuangbanna’s emphatically tropical weather divides into a dry stretch between November and May, when warm days, cool nights and dense morning mists are the norm; and the June–October wet season, featuring high heat and torrential daily rains. Given the climate, you’ll need to take more than usual care of any cuts and abrasions, and to guard against mosquitoes (see Health). The busiest time of the year here is mid-April, when thousands of tourists flood to Jinghong for the Dai Water-splashing Festival; hotels and flights will be booked solid for a week beforehand. Getting around Xishuangbanna is easy enough, with well-maintained roads connecting Jinghong to outlying districts. Place names can be confusing, though, as the words “meng-”, designating a small town, or “man-”, a village, prefix nearly every destination.
Historically, there was already a Dai state in Xishuangbanna two thousand years ago, important enough to send ambassadors to the Han court in 69 AD; it was subsequently incorporated into the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms. A brief period of full independence ended with the Mongols’ thirteenth-century conquest of Yunnan and the area’s division into twelve rice-growing districts or sipsawng pa na, rendered as “Xishuangbanna” in Chinese. A fairly “hands-off” approach to Chinese rule ended in the 1950s, since when more contentious aspects of religion have been banned, extensive deforestation has occurred, and recent mass planting of rubber as a cash crop has changed the landscape. Many minority people feel that the government would really like them to behave like Han Chinese, except in regards to dress – since colourful traditional clothing attracts tourists – and it’s certainly true that Xishuangbanna is a rather anaemic version of what lies across the border in Laos.