Before I even arrived in China, I was told that if I was fortunate enough to be able to travel in the winter, I needed to get down to Xīshuāngbǎnnà 西双版纳. A bit remote for the average traveler, this Thai-influenced region is located in Southwestern China near the border with Lao and Myanmar. It’s located in the far south of Yúnnán 云南 province, which translates to Southern Clouds.
Being so close to the border, and being rich with ethnic minorities, Xīshuāngbǎnnà or Bǎnnà for short, gives its visitors the feel of different countries without having to leave China. The diversity, mixed with its warmer weather, makes it a popular winter destination when the rest of China cools down. The weather isn’t the only draw- the Thai, Lao and Burmese influence means flavors that are unknown in other parts of China (like my beloved trio of basil, avocado, and lime) are available. I deeply missed those flavors. Many of the tropical fruits that are available in neighboring provinces are also grown in Yúnnán.
I found there to be very few foreign tourists. I assume that most Western tourists stick more closely to the Beijing-Xi’an-Shanghai triad, and if they travel to Yúnnán it’s to Dàlǐ 大理and Tiger Leaping Gorge. It’s also likely that with the ease of traveling to Thailand and Laos, most non-Chinese don’t feel compelled to visit border cities and will simply save time and skip to the real deal. However, for most Chinese international travel is more complicated. For those who don’t have a hùkǒu (a government residential permit) from a large city, it’s much more difficult to travel abroad. Bǎnnà is as close to a foreign country as they’ll be able to travel. I know this is the case for some of my colleagues who wish they could travel to Thailand, but don’t want to deal with the red tape.
So, I decided to check out where the Chinese go for a winter holiday. My first question was: When Chinese tourists travel to Bǎnnà, what do they do?
After asking around, talking to some of my colleagues who had been recently, and searching Chinese travel sites, it seems that two of the major draws in the area are attractions that I wouldn’t recommend.
Skip It: Elephant shows
One of the first stops for many people’s trip to Bǎnnà is an elephant show. There’s several different options in the area, some promising a natural setting with “wild” elephants, others seemingly more just a low budget circus. Local travel agency windows are filled with pictures of elephants in costumes spinning hula hoops on their legs and playing soccer. These shows draw huge tour groups of predominantly Chinese tourist with their cameras drawn. Even my (educated) colleagues went to a show and raved at how much they and their children enjoyed it.
Whatever you do, please don’t go see the elephants. Even worse, don’t ride one. After spending a day at the Elephant Nature Park outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand, I now know the painful process of breaking an elephant to get them to succumb to their masters. It’s torturous.
As I’ve mentioned before on this site, animal welfare is a growing concern in China but their standards of proper care aren’t yet in line with the West. In fact, most of my friends in China assume that as a vegetarian, I would want to go to an elephant show to be able to see the animals up close. I understand their line of thinking, but I firmly believe that it’s wrong to treat these incredible animals with such cruelty.
Many of the venues that host these shows do so in one small part of the park while touting the rest of the park as a zoo, nature reserve, or cultural park. Do your research online before you go- checking out pictures on TripAdvisor or Chinese websites should be enough to confirm if they use trained animals for entertainment. If so, please don’t go- to pay an entrance fee would be financially supporting the abuse.
What To Do Instead
Instead of visiting a park claiming to care about wildlife, yet abusing the animals, visit the botanical gardens. There’s two options in the Jǐnghóng area : Měnglún Tropical Botanical Garden and the Tropical Flower & Plants Garden.
If you have the time, make Menglun Tropical Botanical Garden (also called Tropical Plant Gardens or several over similar sounding translations) your top priority. You can easily spend an entire day, first taking in the well-manicured garden than branching off on the trails of jungle section. Though you never leave the comfort of a paved path, the scenery is beautiful and it sure feels more natural than watching animals twirl a baton.
Měnglún勐伦is a small city located about a 60 minute bus ride away from Jǐnghóng. From the bus station in Měnglún, the entrance to the park is a short walk. Head left and toward the river. The entrance is a booth next to a small bridge over the water. Students with an ID get a 50% discount. Make sure to pack snacks and plenty of water.
When you enter the park you’ll be in the eastern section. It’s essentially a lovely botanical garden, which is well worth a quick stroll and can be very beautiful at peak flower seasons. However, I recommend not wasting too long in this section and quickly making your way into the western section. Immediately you’ll notice that you’ve lost most of the crowd, the manicured gardens have given way to natural jungle and you no longer have carts toting groups of tourists. Spend your day here, exploring as far as you can before your water runs out. Be warned- the café in the western section wasn’t opened during the day when I visited and there wasn’t any other place to buy water. As an alternative, there was an open restaurant in the Eastern Section with an excellent patio with a view that was open all day.
As mentioned before, The Tropical Flower & Plants Garden is also worth a visit. It’s essentially a smaller botanical garden in Jǐnghóng city and it’s nice as well. It won’t take long to have a leisurely stroll through them, but consider taking a book and avoiding the afternoon heat in the shade of the trees.
Skip It: Minority Villages
The other major tourist trap in most of Yúnnán province is minority villages. Hotels have maps outlining which towns belong to which minority group and you can take tours through these villages to “see how they live”. It should be quite obvious to anyone reading this that if you’re paying to enter a village, it’s not going to be authentic. This especially goes for any place where people are forced to wear traditional clothes and parade around posing for pictures.
Sadly, you’ll see families taking their children to these places where they gawk at the “primitive” lifestyle. Most of the families that visited these villages reported back on how well the government treats the minorities, so I’m assuming there’s a good dose of propaganda mixed in. Again, much like the difference in the treatment of animals, many Chinese feel that it’s appropriate to even important to visit these sorts of villages to learn about the minority cultures. This might just be a cultural difference, but I find it exploitative and discriminatory and, until I’m convinced otherwise, I strong encourage you to skip these spots.
What To Do Instead
Get a bus map, ask a local, and go. If there’s a billboard with a smiling woman in her traditional ethnic clothing, go the other way. Find a small town with a daily bus connection and go there. Hike along the main road of the village and stop to talk to people. Eat where they eat. Repeat.
During the winter, many local minorities will have their New Year’s celebrations, which are not necessarily the same as Chinese New Year. If you can make it to a village during that time, you’re guaranteed to be met with drinking, food, and lots of hospitality. Unfortunately, my friend Pip and I arrived a day too late and everyone was sleeping off their hangovers. Still, the village we went to was located in the mountains overlooking rows of tea plants which made for great hiking.
When visiting villages and small towns outside of Jǐnghóng make sure to dress modestly (no tank tops or short shorts) and bring your passport. Police road blocks are common in these areas and they will board your bus and ask for ID. Pip and I didn’t know this and we held up the bus as we tried to explain to the officers why we did have our passports on us.
Do you have other recommendations for things to do in Xīshuāngbǎnnà? Let me know below.