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8 Reasons to Skip Xishuangbanna

8 Reasons to Skip Xishuangbanna

Asia, China, Yunnan

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.

IMG_6437Sounds 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?

So tropical!
So tropical!


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.

Trying on Dai clothes
Trying on Dai clothes


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.

This temple was awesome to see
This temple was awesome to see


Cute, but definitely not wild
Cute, but definitely not wild

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.

Botanical Gardens were extremely gorgeous
Botanical Gardens were extremely gorgeous




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.


6. Lodging

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.

This little guy on the other hand, was pretty cool
This little guy on the other hand, was pretty cool

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.

Dai dance
Dai dance



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.

IMG_6501Have you been to Xishuangbanna or do you want to go? If you have been, do you agree or did you have a better experience?

About the author

Vegetarian foodie and tree hugger over here. I've got all the blog tips on traveling sustainably. So follow along for epic hikes, savory food, and all around ethical travel.


  1. YoMomma
    November 15, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    You look awesome in that red dress!! Sorry your visit was less than spectacular, I guess it had to happen sometime. LuvYaLots, miss ya :-*

      November 16, 2014 at 2:46 am

      Every place can’t be the best! And I still had a good time:)

  2. Joella in Beijing
    December 15, 2014 at 12:50 am

    Hey- just found your blog! I live in Beijing and was thinking of visiting Xishuangbanna at some point next year. Your post has basically confirmed my hesitations! I wanted to see a different part of China but I have to always remind myself ‘it’s still China’ and as much as I love it, they do go all out with the touristy, commercial stuff and the treatment and touristification of minorities can make me feel uneasy. Thanks for your honest post!

      December 15, 2014 at 5:01 am

      Thanks for the comment-I’m glad this post helped you! ‘It’s still China’ is definitely an accurate way of summing up my feelings about the country.

  3. Sonia
    January 26, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Completely agree! I’m in Jinghong now and wish I had seen this earlier haha. I also don’t get the fascination with Meimei’s Cafe. The owner told us to do a trek on our own and made it seem really easy that we didn’t need a guide, and we got completely lost in the rainforest with no food or anything, really horrible experience.

    • Phyllis @phyllisonthemap
      January 27, 2015 at 1:13 pm

      Ahh sorry we had the same kind of experience. And yeah-I think the rainforest is what lots of people want to see but there’s no real infrastructure or marked hikes to actually go on!

  4. Baksi
    November 17, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Fully agreed with your observations. Xishuangbanna is govern by their own Dai people. They are too obsessed with making money. Entrance fees to many of their parks or villages (all artificial) are pretty high and to make it worse, you need to pay exorbitant transport charges to and fro. It not worth going to anyone of them. The local government it not interested to promote trekking as there are no income benefit to them. The airlines that from Kunming to Jinhong cost you a bomb due to monopoly. The people keep mentioning there will be a railway line and they had been talking about it for the last ten years. Go to Chiangmai, Thailand if you want a truly Tai (thailand) or Dai culture. It much better than Xishuangbanna.

    • Phyllis
      November 18, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Yep-Xishuangbanna was a big disappointment.

  5. Francisco Po Egea
    May 11, 2017 at 11:36 am

    I am sorry about what you tell in your post. I was in Xishuangbanna in 1987 when i spend 3 months around south of China. For me it was a fantastic experience. I think I was there for 4/5 days. I didn’t see a single tourist. I was walking from village to village: dais and also other minorities. I had the feeling of discovering. The trip from Kunming took 2 days, not direct buses. I am astonish tha a 8 hours bus trip is too much for you. In the 80s and 90s it was normal 10/12 hours trip for going to one place to another in India, Burma, and most countries in Asia.

    • Phyllis
      May 12, 2017 at 9:18 pm

      Unfortunately Xishuangbanna seems to have changed a lot since you went there! You seem to have had a fantastic experience. However, now minority groups are commercialized for profit and there’s little infrastructure for trekking or other outdoor activities. Also as I said in my post, 8 hours is fine for a trip if you end up going to a great destination. I’ve had much longer trips in cars before. I just don’t think it’s worth it for the poor experiences available in Xishuangbanna presently.

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