China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>
Someone looking out the window over Jinghong, Yunnan, might be forgiven for thinking they were no longer in China. Lush, tropical vegetation and plantations of banana and rubber trees cover a jumbled landscape of mountains. Spired Theravada Buddhist temples stand amidst palm trees and rice paddies. Even the street signs, written in Dai minority script, look more akin to those of Thailand or Laos than China, despite the Chinese characters below.
The capital of Xishuangbanna prefecture, Jinghong is the biggest city in the area, but that's not saying much. In stark contrast to the Eastern China rush and bustle, this is where China meets laid-back Southeast Asia.
Where time slows down
From the air, you can see Jinghong lacks the urban sprawl of even a small Chinese city. It's small enough to walk around, and getting out of the city is just a bike ride away. Taxis are available, but not often necessary outside of a ride to or from the airport.
Like Xiahe in Gansu or Yangshuo in Guangxi, the commercial center of Jinghong is a largely unremarkable swathe of lower-tier-city China. Its generic shopping centers, stores, restaurants and cinema lie around the intersection of two main streets: Xuanwei Dadao (Xuānwèi Dàdào, 宣慰大道) and Mengle Dadao (Měnglè Dàdào, 勐泐大道). Down Mengle Dadao, enormous hotels borrow from local Dai architectural styles and advertise local minority song-and-dance shows.
However, along Manting Lu (Màntìng Lù, 曼听路), near the intersection with Mengla Lu (Měnglà Lù, 勐腊路), a line of cafés aimed at the Western backpacker crowd offer a mix of Western and local Dai food and outdoor seating areas in cooling shade of palm trees. Most of these cafés offer more than just food; bike rentals and information on local sights, tours and treks in and around Jinghong are also on the menu. Smaller than West Street in Yangshuo, this strip does not have much in the way of accommodation, but it's a great place to get one's bearings even if it's not the best place to stay in Jinghong.
From the center, it's relatively easy to get out and see the areas outside the city, such as the Tropical Plants and Flowers Garden or the many picturesque villages nearby. Alternatively you can head for more distant attractions like Wild Elephant Valley and, if time allows, perhaps join a tour of Xishuangbanna and explore even further afield.
When the Mongols rolled through Asia, many peoples were displaced as they fled from the onslaught of the unrelenting horde. Among them were the Dai. Forced from their kingdom in Dali, they moved south to the region around Jinghong and the powerful Dai princes took control of the area, though they still owed their allegiance to larger suzerains. Even after falling to the Chinese empire, the region stayed relatively independent until the 1950s. Today, the Dai are the largest of the many minority groups living in Jinghong (13, according to the government, but because some do not belong to the official 56 minorities of China, the actual number is higher).
Despite an increase in development driven largely for and by Han Chinese, the Dai culture still maintains a presence in the city, though some fear elimination of their culture through assimilation. Dai-style Buddhist temples like Wat Manting (Màntìng Sì, 曼听寺) on Manting Lu can sneak up on travelers wandering the city—with its thinly-peaked roofs and snake-like nagas decorating the entrances, it looks more like a transplant from Thailand than a building in China. One of the city's main draws, the traditional Dai Water Splashing Festival, sees domestic and international tourists alike descend upon Jinghong in April and, like many parts of the Dai culture, it survives, despite commodification.
Outside of the city the Dai's numbers quickly increase, the Dai language replacing the slightly accented Mandarin floating in the air. To really learn about the culture, ignore the Disneyfied stage productions and minority theme parks and venture beyond the confines of the capital. Several fascinating villages are just a bike ride, trek or tour away. Cafés like Mei Mei Café or the Forest Café at 23 Mengla Lu are full of helpful information to plan your trip, whether you feel like a DIY tour or joining up with an experienced tour guide.
From Jinghong to Southeast Asia
Many travelers find themselves in Jinghong when making their way to Southeast Asia. Jinghong borders Burma and Laos and, although they don't share a border, it is also a popular jumping off point for Thailand via a ferry that runs from the Jinghong Wharf.
Once upon a time there was also a ferry from Jinghong to Luang Prabang, though it seems that ship has sailed and it is no longer available. The cheapest, easiest way to travel from Jinghong to Laos is by daily bus. Travelers who are time-poor or cash-rich can also spend a bit more and fly from Jinghong to Laos, though the flights (operated by carriers like Lao Airlines) are limited.