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Jinghong and Other Towns

Xishuangbanna is the Chinese pinyin spelling of a Dai phrase which means Twelve Thousand Rice Fields. A thousand rice fields constituted an administrative district under the medieval Dai princes. A couple of the Banna were lost to French Laos, but most were incorporated into this border prefecture in this century. The historical capital, called Cheli in Dai (Daybreak City) when the Mekong Expedition explorers passed through, was little more than an overgrown village at that time. Now it is the busy city of Jinghong. Sprawling west from the bank of the Lancangjiang, it is the largest and most important city in the prefecture.

For the first several years after Jinghong was opened to foreigners it was still a small and quiet town, flanked by traditional Dai villages, and the rural area lay within walking distance from the heart of town. Cycle-rickshaws were more common than taxis and only a handful of hotels were open for business. The main market centre was near the Banna Binguan, the only place foreigners were allowed to stay, and every morning hill people and local Dai came there to buy meat, vegetables, fruits, grains and clothing items. Manding village was a short stroll away, still a traditional Dai village, its farms adjacent to the city.

In the mid-90's Jinghong underwent rapid growth, in large part due to an almost phenomenal increase in tourism. Flight frequency out of Kunming rose from four per week to 9-12 per day, nearly every flight full.Fancy hotels sprang up all over the city and a whole new subdivision took over the rural area beside Manding village. The produce market near Banna Binguan was relocated and a new lane of shops built, their proprietors mostly Burmese selling jade ornaments.

Yet in spite of its growth the city retains some charm. Stately royal palms line the main avenues. Parks are still quiet refuges. In the less congested areas the Dai still set up fruit stalls and outdoor grills, often beneath huge banyan trees. In preparation for Expo 99 the city widened its downtown streets, emptied, cleaned and refilled the ponds, and passed laws that required the employment of Dai architectural motifs, such as the sloping roof, in all new.high-rise buildings.

Dining remains a special experience. Buffets offer the range of Dai cuisine, both in expensive hotels and in ordinary restaurants on the streets. New restaurants vied for the tourist money by building bamboo and wood dining halls in the Dai style, placing them next to quiet ponds. Those on Manding Road offered suppers with twelve or more dishes, including rice baked in a pineapple, plus a floor show at certain hours.

Before the mid-90's development push only two such places had floor shows. Nowadays groups of young women in bright sarongs and blouses stand outside the restaurants just before show time and the prospective diners can take a look at a whole street full of these performers and then decide which ones they would like to see dance.

A typical Dai dance set will include a variety of acts. Sometimes four or more girls will perform by themselves, sometimes with the boys. Rural life influences the choice of props like the spinning wheels, carrying poles and baskets, umbrellas, etc. In some numbers the dancers mime the manners of courting, while in others the choreography is decorative rather then narrative.

The most beautiful performance, a must in every Dai dance set, is the Peacock Dance. Wearing a long, flowing, sleeveless dress with the peacock feather pattern sewn on, the girl arches her hands to suggest the peacock's head and ripples her neck and shoulder muscles to mimic the bird's movements. Done to slow, melodious music, the Peacock Dance is usually a solo and a unique creation of Yunnan's Dai.

The second most popular dance is probably the ramwong, which often closes the set, with the performers inviting the audience to join in. Dancers form a line and to the beat of an elephant-leg drum (so-called for its shape) and gong move forward in short steps, gracefully waving their arms to the sides. The line moves straightly or sinuously, depending on the space, and continues until the dancers are tired of it.

Besides the restaurants with floor shows the other place to observe minority dances is at the Nationalities Park in the western part of Jinghong. This place has been set up for the group tour¬ists, with exhibits of the domestic architecture of various peoples, employees in full ethnic costume and performances of various dances, as well as a sampling of the main activity of the Water-Sprinkling Festival.

Within Jinghong County are three popular small towns, each with its own special feature. The nearest is Menghan, 30 km southeast, right beside the Lancangjiang, on the edge of the fertile Olive Plain (Ganlanba). The town core has been built up somewhat and a large reservoir constructed just south of the business district. A market street connects the upper and lower main roads and is fairly active every morning. Menghan's primary feature,though, is its multi-gabled, traditional Dai houses, which make up the bulk of the buildings. Nowhere else is the peacock motif used so extensively. Carved and painted peacocks are mounted on rooftops, on the apex of the gable or beneath, the tail feathers spreading across the triangular niche. Some are stylised peacocks and others are expertly sculpted and painted with great attention to the details of the plumage.

East of Jinghong, just past the turn-off to Menghan, the road winds its way up the mountain, affording occasional glimpses through the trees of the river scenes down below. Descending slightly to a high plateau, it comes to Mengyang, 35 km northeast of Jinghong. On the west side is the original Dai village and on the east is the modern town and the Elephant Tree that gives Mengyang a bit of fame.

Originally this was a banyan with roots above the ground in a shape resembling an elephant. But in the mid-90's the area became a walled-off park, with some landscaping, tea houses, shrines and a ticket booth at the entrance. Unfortunately, the famous tree began to fall down. And now it has been propped up with wooden beams and the part resembling the elephant's trunk wrapped in planks. So if it still resembles an elephant it's more like a crippled pachyderm on crutches, with its broken trunk in a cast.

Mengyang's genuine attraction is its people. Both the Huayao Dai and the Han Dai have villages in the vicinity and their women, the older generation dressed in traditional garments, frequent the town market. One kilometre north of the town a branch road heads west to Menglun and the first small village is Han Dai. Their women wear black turbans and sarongs and in the dry season may be seen at work on the front porches, at ground level, weaving cloth on four-shaft looms. Another kilometre east lies a much bigger Huayao Dai village, with fenced yards and brick houses, fish ponds and a winding creek at the southern edge.

South of Jinghong, 68 km across a long, flat valley,the last half watered by the Nana River, with rubber tree plantations covering the foothills, is the town of Menglong. Several traditional villages lie at the bases of the hills across the river. The modern part of Menglong runs along the bottom of the hills, while the older residential section is nestled in the valley west of the main road. Its claim to tourist attraction, besides its small-town ambiance, rests on its religious monuments. On top of the hill at the south end of town is the yellow Menglong Pagoda. Atop the hill behind the next village north is the Manfeilong White Pagoda, with a large Standing Buddha and a few ornate buildings in the complex.

Both highways going east, the northern one going through to Jinuoshan and the virgin forest tract, and the southern route via Menghan, enter Mengla County just before Menglun. This town, near the Nanhan River and backed by forested hills to its north, is noted for its Botanical Garden. The spacious park has samples of nearly all of the prefecture's tropical trees and plants, including a pond featuring gigantic floating lily pads, so big a baby could ride on one. The arrangements of the trees in their respective groves, all in perfect order, may be too artificial-looking for some, but it does have its secluded, shady areas. And for a more authentic jungle walk one can take the trails into the hills just beyond the town's northern edge.

Mengla is one of the least densely populated counties in Yunnan. The ride to the county seat passes several protected forests and scores of rubber tree plantations. The county seat lies in the south, 58 km north of the Laos border. For travellers it is mainly a quick stopover on the way to somewhere else and its long main street is full of hotels.

Yet the northeast quarter has some attractive Dai-style buildings and the original village lies here, next to the Namla River. In the centre of town the local wenhuaguan (cultural centre) holds a small museum featuring the costumes, jewellery, material and religious objects of the county's ethnic minorities. It also houses an old boundary stone marked "France/China.”A small hill behind the southwest quarter is the site of Mengla's largest temple and the Manbenggang Pagoda.

Directly west of Jinghong the road gradually ascends through the hills of Menghai County until it reaches the broad plain around the county seat. Xishuangbanna's second largest city, at a relatively cool 1300 metres, Menghai has modernised as much as Jinghong, but less gracefully. Its central market, however, does attract colourfully dressed hill folks and its plain is home to several traditional style Dai villages. Often on the hillsides behind them stands a white or golden pagoda.

One village about 6 km east of Menghai, called Manlonghui, is different. The inhabitants are Paxitai, or Dai Muslims, and though the women dress the same as their Buddhist neighbours, no veil nor head scarf, the houses are brick and not elevated. In the front of the village stands the mosque, erected in 1993, its whitewashed walls and roofs in the Chinese style, its green-domed minaret in the Arabian style.

Buddhist pagodas and temples are the main draw in the county, but it is also home to two venerable tea trees. One of them, aged around 800 years, grows on Nannuoshan, halfway to Jinghong, while the other, 1700 years old, lies in a valley near the Burmese border, in Bada township in the west. The county is famous for its Pu'er brand tea and tea plantations cover much of the cultivated area in the hills.

One spot popular with Chinese tour groups organised out of Jinghong on a one-day or overnight excursion is Daluo, 81 km southwest of Menghai. One lure here is the Forest Park, featuring a banyan tree whose forked trunk and lower branches are supported by many tall, straight roots, earning it the name the Forest of a Single Tree. But the principal lure is the Myanmar border town of Mengla, which Chinese are permitted to visit., After posing for photos with their pretty Dai guides at the sign marking the border, they then cross into Mengla, only to discover it looks almost exactly like an ordinary Chinese city, maybe richer. Big new Buddhist monuments adorn the suburban hilltops. The restaurants serve Chinese cuisine and are in fact run by Chinese. Chinese renminbi is the currency used locally and the neighbouring Dai villages look the same as in Banna.

What brings the tour groups here, besides the casino, is the mid-afternoon transvestite show. These creatures, all Thais recruited out of Bangkok, are on a four-year contract for a general in the Autonomous Wa State in Myanmar. They receive a modest salary for their daily show, which means dressing up in heavy make-up, feathers and sequins and ballroom gowns, and lip-synching while dancing to recorded music. They are permitted to keep tips from the theatre clients. Chinese tourists pay 100 yuan to touch their faces and artificial breasts. The most naive and incredulous of them pay 200 yuan for the transvestite to lift his dress and prove that he hasn't gotten the operation yet and really is a boy.