A tropical spread of rainforests, plantations and paddy fields nestled 750km southwest of Kunming along the Burmese and Laotian borders, Xishuangbanna 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 increasingly touristed 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. 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. 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.
Although the Dai once spread as far north as the Yangzi Valley, they were driven south by the Mongol expansion in the thirteenth century. These days, they are found not only in southwest China but also throughout Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Reputed as skilful farmers, they have always flourished in fertile river basins, growing rice, sugar cane, rubber trees and bananas. Accordingly, Dai cuisine is characterized by sweet flavours not found elsewhere in China – you’ll encounter rice steamed inside bamboo or pineapple, for instance. Oddities such as fried moss and ant eggs appear on special occasions.
Dai women wear a sarong or long skirt, a bodice and a jacket, and keep their hair tied up and fixed with a comb, and often decorated with flowers. Married women wear silver wristbands. Dai men sport plenty of tattoos, usually across their chests and circling their wrists. Their homes are raised on stilts, with the livestock kept underneath. Some of the most distinctive and ornate Dai architecture is well decoration, as the Dai regard water as sacred. They’re Buddhists, but like their compatriots in Southeast Asia follow the Thervada, or Lesser Wheel, school, rather than the Mahayana school favoured throughout the rest of China. When visiting Dai temples, it’s important to remove your shoes, as the Dai consider feet to be the most unclean part of the body.
Dai New Year celebrations, once set by the unpredictable Dai calendar, are now held April 13–16 annually. The first day sees a dragon-boat race on the river, held in honour of a good-natured dragon spirit who helped a local hero outwit an evil king. On the second day everybody in Jinghong gets a good soaking as water-splashing hysteria grips the town, and basinfuls are enthusiastically hurled over friends and strangers alike to wash away bad luck. Manting Park also hosts cockfighting and dancing all day. The finale includes Diu Bao (Throwing Pouches) games, where prospective couples fling small, triangular beanbags at each other to indicate their affection, and there’s a mammoth firework display, when hundreds of bamboo tubes stuffed with gunpowder and good-luck gifts are rocketed out over the river. Nightly carousing and dancing – during which generous quantities of lajiu, the local firewater, are consumed – take place in the parks and public spaces. Look out for the Peacock dance, a fluid performance said to imitate the movements of the bird, bringer of good fortune in Dai lore, and the Elephant-drum dance, named after the instrument used to thump out the rhythm.