John Couper is back with his second installment about Yunnan Province, China. This time he describes Jinghong town in a way that will surely make you want to go there. John is a regular contributor to Feet to Flight and I look forward to his third installment on Yunnan Province. His eloquent account of his holiday there brings back so many memories for me and my visit there in 2010.
If you missed John’s first post about Yunnan Province, you can find it here at Yunnan Province, China Series Part 1: Paddies and Traditions.
A little away from the town center of this remote area of Asia in Yunnan Province China, a dramatic stilted wooden house stood out from the surrounding standardized structures. A man, leaning forlornly on its wraparound balcony, looked beyond the rough fences that marked it for destruction. Yet another mark of progress (or is it?) in China.
China became huge by conglomerating hundreds of ancient kingdoms; one of the last few corners is the huge southern region of Yunnan Province, whose tropical southern area Xishuangbanna is anchored by Jinghong town. This “village” of half a million is beside the Mekong (Lancang) River, and borders Myanmar and Laos.
The province has China’s greatest botanical and cultural diversity. Its forests still protect the remnants of wild elephant herds, thousands of flower and wild life species, and some undisturbed tropical rain forests. The home of China’s beloved, timeless Pu’er tea trees just north of the city, beckons to travelers, both domestic and foreign.
On December 22, our overnight bus arrived in Jinghong at daybreak. We took a tuk-tuk– always wanted to say that!– to our hostel near the north of town. For about three dollars a night, we had a full ensuite room and use of its full facilities, including a banana tree dining area, Wi-Fi and lounge.
Instead of making the most of the hostel, we immediately set off to discover this different world.
The region is much older than history, though Jinghong was founded recently, in 1180 by King Phanya Coeng as headquarters of his Tai kingdom Sipsongpanna, which means something like “hundreds of rice paddies.” The unique and proud culture we encountered harbors a quiet local resentment against the invading northern culture, such as people pretending they don’t speak Mandarin.
Sure, Yunnan didn’t invent street food, but it has perfected it with stalls selling stampedes of Asian goodies. These not only taste and look memorable, but add the spice of mystery at every step. Most streets become a finger-food paradise after dark. Since almost no foreign tourists come here, very few people know even basic English. This creates some hassles, but mostly discourages the mosquito-like conmen who infest so many tourist destinations.
Our first stop was unavoidable: the Da Fo (Big Buddha) Temple. A high hill, visible over most of Jinghong’s low buildings, is topped by what is claimed to be the world’s largest Buddha statue, sheathed in gold. A fountain centers on a baby Buddha then hundreds of steps lead up past small temples to its largest city of worship. From there, a few more steps guarded by lines of arhats (disciples) ends at the statue itself. The local Dai culture is close to Thai traditions and, in most ways, little like the Han culture that has colonized the rest of the country. Although the religious complex is, well, complex, its design beautifully balances prayer and gawking. For example, each small side temple reproduces the traditional version of Buddhist devotion from around southeast Asia.
The weather in mid-December and early January was perfect. But, probably inspired by the muggy tropical heat most of the year, the city comes alive at night. Its famous Gaozhuang Night Market, crowded and ever–surprising, remains hard to leave… both metaphorically and literally. One corner sells handmade, traditional Dai crafts, another contains dozens of stalls selling every kind of tea in every possible form, with all the splashy garbage of Chinese factories on riotous display. Another night, we visited a beautiful, overwrought family recreation park at the edge of the city with an artificial pond filled with schools of small fish that nibble dead skin from any accessible flesh.
Jinghong’s small parks, scattered like pieces on a chessboard, are prized by old people and sellers of remedies spread across blankets. In one park, we tried a cup of fermented, alcoholic rice slurry. On Christmas Day, we visited a larger park that displays remains of ancient buildings, elaborate flower gardens, and a fake lake that I zip-lined over. Nearby, a small but intense neighborhood Buddhist temple awed and amazed us.
Naila and I love exploring with random abandon (OK, strictly speaking, I love it and she tolerates it). We saw one large traditional–style house near the main bridge over the river. Then we walked down and discovered the region’s tourist center. Of its five workers, only one knew any English, but we quickly made friends. They were bored because, in several visits, only one other family came by and they couldn’t think of the last western visitors. More about them in my next blog.
China needs somewhere to park its worrisome resource – tsunamis of people – and, by Chinese standards, Xishuangbanna is almost empty. The government is forcing almost all of the city’s population from the old town to cram into vertical concrete villages along the table-like river. They also import many thousands from other regions. Only 20 years ago, most of the city was traditional wooden open-plan homes on stilts. Now almost all of these are gone.
Traditional Chinese hospitality can only survive far from tourism’s overkill, so in this rarely-visited destination, people saw our helplessness and treated us with some reserve but currents of kindness. For how long? China’s relentless needs will enfold Jinghong within the next decade. Museums will house its final remnants of cultural independence, unfortunately.
If you missed John’s first post about Yunnan Province, you can find it here at Yunnan Province, China Series Part 1: Paddies and Traditions