Walking off the plane I knew that something was different. The air was thick from a recent storm and a perfume clung to the air in a way I’d only ever experienced in one other place, Thailand. In fact, almost everything about Xishuangbanna at first seemed more like Thailand than southern China, a feeling that only intensified over the coming days. I was in this extreme part of China for one major reason – I hadn’t been there before. I never expected to fall in love with this quirky part of the country, but I did and in a way I honestly never thought I’d find in China. It’s also a place that I am fairly positive no one else knows about, so today I want to share my experiences in the Golden Triangle city of Banna.
What’s in a name?
The first challenge I faced was what to call this mist-enveloped land full of green mountains and steamy afternoons. The airport name is Jinghong, I think that the official name is Xishuangbanna but everyone just seemed to call it Banna. So it’s a little confusing and honestly, it stayed that way for me throughout the course of my stay at the luxurious Intercontinental Xishuangbanna. The nomenclature isn’t the only way in which things are a little confusing down in Banna. Thanks to its spot in extreme Southeastern China, Banna is completely unlike any other spot in the country. Located adjacent to the Golden Triangle, neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand are very close and, over the years, that’s meant a fluid border with a lot of cross-cultural sharing. Exploring more of the region, the buildings all look Thai, the smells are Thai – everything about the place screamed Chiang Mai instead of China. It was an odd sensation, one that I never expected but one that I dearly enjoyed.
I looked down at the wriggling bugs and then back up again at my guide and then back down at the bugs. A kind member of the Intercontinental Xishuangbanna staff showed me around town, and we ended up at the popular night market in Jinghong. Attendance was light thanks to a day of scattered storms, which suited me just fine as I tried to learn more about the local food favorites. Roasted corn, meat skewers and diced pineapple were all fine, but the worms I just couldn’t do. Just as I couldn’t ever manage to eat them in Thailand, where the night markets mirror the one I found in Jinghong almost completely. Set up in front of a massive, and I later learned new, temple, that religious site put into visual terms what I had been thinking all day. The overall design was Burmese, but the accents were a strange mix of both Lao and Thai elements. It was as if someone picked up the pieces from the region’s temples and smashed them all together. That’s what all of the temples in and around the city were like, a beautiful cross-cultural comingling of traditions that is actually rare to see, especially in China.
Something just clicked
Before landing in Jinghong, I had never heard of this place before and I knew nothing about it. I usually do fairly in depth research before visiting new places, but for a variety of reasons that didn’t happen in Xishuangbanna and I actually think this time I was the better for it. I allowed myself the opportunity to learn about the region organically, to let Xishuangbanna reveal herself to me slowly and methodically. Each time I noticed something new it felt like a discovery, there was a rush of excitement and wonder. That has been fairly rare in the travel experience for me lately, to have those moments of complete and total surprise and it further fed my own desire to get out and see more of this remarkable part of China.
I spent a lot of time on social media comparing Banna to Thailand, and looking back at that now I don’t think it was quite fair. Yes, absolutely everything about the region reminded me in every conceivable way of Thailand, but there’s one important thing to consider – it’s not Thailand. This is a very unique part of not only China but of the world with its own distinct culture, traditions and lifestyle. Landscapes and temples in China vary widely, something important to keep in mind. I ignored that at first by simply labeling them as a cross-cultural phenomenon, but thankfully I realized my mistake in time to learn more about the area and people who live there.
Several ethnic minorities call the region home, but the one I saw the most of were the Dai people. The name comes from the word Tai and, yes, they are very closely related to both the Lao and Thai people. At one point in their history they were nomadic, which is why the culture of the Golden Triangle today can’t really be isolated by national boundaries, but by a broader geography instead. These clues to cultural identity for me were actually best seen in the local Buddhist temples. The style and shear number of them again mirror what one finds in other areas of Southeast Asia, and the Dai people have added their own customs to the practice of Theravada Buddhism. Extremely large gongs and bells form the cornerstone of many folk dances and music, common during festivals like Songkran. It was really their history and traditions that taught me the most during my time in Banna, whether at a night market stall or walking through mist covered tea plantations set amongst the rolling hills.
A few times a year I discover remarkable places like this one that simply resonate with me on a profoundly deep level. I don’t know why it happens and I can certainly never anticipate it, but when it happens it is magic. Ultimately, it’s for this feeling that I travel, to explore and chance upon these singular moments of pure and utter happiness.