In my trip to Yunnan, I spent three of my days out of my week in Xishuangbanna, also referred to as “China’s Thailand”. Wanting to be a bit of an adventurer, I decided to go to this area as it’s generally less touristy, filled with rainforests, underdeveloped, and borders Laos! Wild elephants roam down here, the Dai ethnic group is located here and I expected there to be some awesome hiking.
Sounds exciting and totally adventure worthy right? No. I actually thought Xishuangbanna was a bit of letdown. Although I had fun on my trip when meeting other Chinese people, I wouldn’t recommend the area to anyone else.
So what exactly made Xishuangbanna lame?
1. It’s hard to get to
This wouldn’t be a problem if the place was awesome. Then all the effort would be worth it. But as it wasn’t, Xishuangbanna is just a huge inconvenience. The main capital is Jinghong which is basically where you have to stay in the area. To get to Jinghong you can either bus it or take a flight from Kunming. No trains. Not wanting to spend more money on flying, I took the bus route. Which is a solid 8 hour trip. Add in the frequent breaks and time to get to the bus station from Kunming (about another hour), and you’re looking at a long day traveling.
2. The ethnic groups are too touristy
So I think having natives to an area is a really cool thing. And I understand that people are interested in their culture. However, I also think that the culture is ruined when it becomes “commercialized”. Xishuangbanna has a huge area devoted to cultural tourism. The Dai villages you can go see require you to pay to get in and you can then see some of their traditional dances. Done of course, purely for show. Not really what I like to do personally when traveling.
3. You’re not going to see wild elephants
This one shouldn’t have been too much of a shocker. But still. They advertise that you can go to an elephant valley where the wild elephants are. Apparently lots of crowds go there because they also have elephants in captivity and perform shows. Perhaps there are wild elephants in the area, but the crowds of people scare them away so you’re not seeing anything there. One of the workers at my hostels suggested going to a nearby park instead where you can see elephants and there’s a Buddhist temple. The Buddhist temple is actually free to go to but the park isn’t and it’s pretty expensive considering it’s just a park. Nothing special about it. And there is an elephant show that draws a lot of people, but the show isn’t great and I felt a bit sorry for the elephants.
4. Everything is far away
The things I did like about Jinghong didn’t take place in the city itself. I really loved the Botanical Gardens and getting to walk around the rainforest was awesome. But it took an hour to get there. And you definitely need some Chinese to get around. Other things I thought about doing were similarly far away and hard to get to. The closest things you can do in Jinghong are an hour away. The further things could be three to five hours. Way too far for a day trip.
5. What trekking?
I thought I would be able to do lots of hiking in the area since it’s underdeveloped and there are plenty of mountains and forests to get lost in. Did not work out that way. I read on TripAdvisor and other sites that people who did go hiking booked in advance with a local guide. After spending a few days there and trying to figure out my options, I think that you have to get a guide if you want to do any trekking in Xishuangbanna. I’m sure lots of hiking is out there; however, where these hikes were remained a hidden secret to me. I think the only way I’d consider going back to Xishuangbanna would be through a trekking trip.
The hostels in Jinghong suck. Mine in particular was definitely not comfy-with a mattress about as thick as a tissue. I felt like I was sleeping on wood! Other backpackers I met who had been to the area also noted hostels in the area aren’t the comfiest.
7. Thai Markets
One of the most famous things to do in Jinghong is go to the night markets where you can eat Thai food and walk around. Maybe I’m a bit disillusioned and have been to too many night markets, but I didn’t think these markets were especially interesting. All of the stuff the vendors had for sale you can buy anywhere in China. I see the same little trinkets all the time in Shanghai. The street food was pretty good, but they were all selling the exact same thing. Down to the spices. So even this area of Jinghong did not feel unique.
8. Tourist hub
Strangely, Xishuangbanna doesn’t have that many tourists. Way more Chinese tourists go to other cities in Yunnan such as Dali. However, the general vibe that I took away from Jinghong was that everything happening there was done just for tourism. Everything was just a show or designed to maximize profits. Which kind of made the whole place feel like a big fake. Traveling to watch performances and paying to look at animals just isn’t my cup of tea.
Driving out into the countryside was awesome as the views were amazing; yet, I don’t feel like I particularly got to experience or do anything special in the area. I still had a lot of fun in Xishuangbanna. One temple in particular was pretty cool. And it was interesting to see that this area of China had much more Thai than Chinese influence. I have never been to Thailand and have yet to explore Southeast Asia; however, I believe that if you want to see these cultures you’ll probably have a much better experience in actual Thailand.