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Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) – travel guide: top things to do in the Thailand of China

For a long time, one of the remotest counties in China, Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), has been a fascinating place. In this guide, you can find the top things to do and to see and some useful tips to organize your trip.

jinghong big golden pagoda

Located on the border between Myanmar and Laos and crossed by the Mekong River, Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) is often considered the Thailand of China. Due to its remote location in a province, Yunnan, which historically is also one of the remotest in China, not many people have heard about this place. And yet, it is one of the most interesting regions in the entire nation.

Useful info about Xishuangbanna

buddhist temple xishuangbanna

Xishuangbanna is home to one of China’s only two tropical forests (the other one is on the island of Hainan) and is also home to the latest herds of Asian elephants in the country.

dai women

In the forest, there are tigers, leopards, monkeys, and an infinite number of species of plants and insects. In addition, about one-third of the population belongs to the Dai ethnic group and another third to several other minorities, including the Hani (the same minority that built the rice terraces of Yuanyang), the Lisu, Yao, and other smaller ethnic groups such as the Aini, Jinuo, Bulang, Lahu and, Wa.

The Dai minority professes the Buddhist faith and, specifically the Hinayana philosophy. The Han (the main ethnic group in China) follow Mahayana Buddhism, and the Tibetans follow Vajrayana Buddhism.

This makes Yunnan the only province in China where all three main Buddhist philosophies are represented.

Xishuangbanna is the name of the prefecture, which is divided into 3 counties:

  • Menghai (勐海县)
  • Jinghong (景洪市)
  • Mengla (勐腊县).

The capital is Jinghong (景洪) (Aurora City) and is the starting point for visiting the rest of the region. The name Xishuangbanna comes from the Thai words Sipsong Panna, which means “12 thousand rice fields”.

Mengle temple jinghong

For all these reasons, Xishuangbanna is much more similar to Southeast Asia than the rest of China. It’s one of the most interesting areas for those who have already been to China and want to discover a different side of the country. If you have visited Southeast Asia already, you will be much more comfortable in this part of China than anywhere else.

When is the best time to visit Xishuangbanna?

miglior periodo per visitare xishuangbanna

In this part of China, there are two seasons: the rainy season, from May to August, when it rains a lot but not for a long time and it’s quite hot, and the dry season, from September to April, when it rains much less, and the temperatures are more comfortable.

During the winter months, the sky is almost always cloudy in the morning and clears up around noon. In the surrounding mountains, you can see the “sea of clouds” if you are at least at an elevation of about 1000/1500.

In April, the Dai minority celebrates the New Year (like in Thailand) with a holiday called the water-splashing festival. So it might be a good time to visit Xishuangbanna if you are interested in the culture. Keep in mind that April is very hot, though. If you want to learn more about this celebration, check out this page.

How to get to Xishuangbanna

come arrivare a xishuangbanna

These are the three main options to get there:

  • One option is taking a flight to Jinghong. There are daily flights from Kunming and other Chinese cities, but only two international flights from Thailand: Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.
  • The best option is to take the train from Kunming. I recommend using Trip.com.
  • The other option is getting to Jinghong by bus. Several buses depart from Kunming every day, and it takes about 8 hours. Be careful if you take the night bus because some tourists have had their luggage stolen during the night stops.

Top things to do and to see in Xishuangbanna

Here are some ideas for planning your trip to this part of Yunnan.

Jinghong (景洪)

cosa fare a jinghong

When organizing a trip to Xishuangbanna, you must remember that no city exists with this name. The capital of the prefecture is Jinghong (景洪市), and it is where the airport is located and from where all the buses to the most remote villages and to Laos depart. It is also the arrival point for some cruises on the Mekong River.

Jinghong is one of the few Chinese cities that don’t seem Chinese: the vegetation is tropical, and in the middle of the city, there are long roads with palm trees and buildings built with Buddhist architecture. However, it’s not a city with much to offer in terms of tourism. Instead, it is a starting point for exploring the surrounding areas. Two nights should be enough.

I stayed in a hotel a few hundred meters from the night market: central location, spacious and clean rooms, and very friendly staff who organized the transfer to and from the airport (free of charge). Recommended.

Here are some of the things to see in Jinghong.

Gaozhuang Night Market and Big Golden Pagoda, AKA Dajin Pagoda (大金塔)

Gaozhuang Night Market

Located on the east bank of the Mekong River (which in China is called Lancang), Gaozhuang is a big and interesting night market. It’s quite similar to some of Bangkok’s markets. You will find a lot of food and handmade items from local minorities. Of course, you will also find cheap Chinese stuff.

Gaozhuang Night Market

What makes this market interesting is the Big Golden Pagoda (大金塔). Religious symbols are under attack all over China, but it seems that, for now, this is not an issue in Xishuangbanna.

Big Golden Pagoda o Dajin Pagoda

There are other night markets in Jinghong, including one beside the hotel I recommended, along the Mekong River. But it’s not as interesting as Gaozhuang. To take the best pictures of the pagoda, try to get there just before sunset.

Manting Park (曼听公园)

manting park

Located in the city’s center, Manting Park is a beautiful and rather large park. To access it, you’ll have to pay an entrance fee (about 30RMB), but it’s money well spent. In the park, there are several temples built in the Dai style. and it feels like being in Thailand.

You will find tropical trees, orchids, and some trained elephants. Some sources say the park is about 1300 years old, but the buildings are all new. A visit to this beautiful park is well recommended.

Buddhist Temple of Mengle (勐泐大佛寺)

Mengle

In the southern part of Jinghong, there is a huge complex of Buddhist temples called Mengle (勐泐大佛寺). The last Stupa is still under construction. This site is the Buddhist equivalent of the Three Pagodas in Dali, only much newer.

Inside the complex, there is also a theatre where, several times a day, there is a Water Splashing Festival (New Year’s Eve Dai and Thai) performance.

At the top of the complex, you’ll see a beautiful view of Jinghong City. The entrance to the Temple area is rather expensive, about 120RMB, but you can save money by asking the hotel where you are staying to buy the ticket for you. Using a Chinese ID, you’ll pay “only” 80RMB.

Take a walk along the Lancang River (Mekong)

Dajin Pagoda

One of the most beautiful places in the city is the huge pedestrian area along the Mekong River. It’s quite a long and well-developed area. I suggest you get there around sunset time.

A similar pedestrian area is currently under construction on the other side of the river. About halfway along the road, you will be in front of the Dajin Pagoda, and you can take pictures of the temple from this side of the river.

In the evening, the clubs and numerous bars along the river open, and, like in all places with a torrid climate, the city will come to life.

What to see outside Jinghong

Here are some of the most interesting things to see and do outside Jinghong.

Wild Elephant Valley (野象谷)

wild elephant valley

The Wild Elephant Valley is the best place in China to see elephants. To access the park, which is about 45 minutes by bus from the city, you must pay about 80RMB plus another 30RMB for the cable car. It’s not crazy money, but considering it is China, the entrance fee is quite expensive.

The park, located in the tropical forest, consists of two main parts. At the park’s beginning, right after the entrance, there is a theatre, some small areas similar to a mini-zoo where you can see butterflies, snakes, and other animals, and an area where some trained elephants perform several times per day (not cool, really).

After this area, you can take the cable car that will take you to the farthest part of the park, and from there, you can walk back on the elevated wooden path through the tropical forest.

Go through the first area as fast as possible and take as much time as you need to walk back through the forest.

elephant valley yunnan

For “only” 1888RMB, it’s also possible to camp in the park (renting the tents you see).

Seeing the elephants is difficult, especially during the day. There are more possibilities in the early morning or late afternoon. The risk is, therefore, of “wasting” half a day and quite a lot of money. I was unlucky, and that’s exactly what happened to me.

Getting to the Wild Elephant Valley is easy since several buses leave from the main bus station of Jinghong every half hour. Going back to Jinghong is more complicated because, for some reason, there are fewer buses. There are several taxis waiting outside the main entrance.

Octagonal Pavilion Jingzhen Bajiao Ting (景真八角亭)

Octagonal Pavilion Jingzhen Bajiao Ting

Built around 1700, this religious building is one of the few that survived the Cultural Revolution. During that time, almost all historical religious buildings in China were destroyed.

Next to the Octagonal Pavilion is a new temple where young people study Buddhism.

I don’t recommend visiting this religious site unless you have a driver who can take you around Xishuangbanna. Getting there by bus is inconvenient; there is nothing else to do after seeing the pagoda.

Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden o XTBG (中国科学院西双版纳热带植物园)

Founded in 1959, the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden is the largest in China and plays a fundamental role in studying and conserving the country’s tropical forests. Inside the park, there are about 13,000 species of plants, and it is the only place in China where the flower of the rare plant Sapria Himalayana was photographed.

The entrance fee to the park is 80RMB, and getting there from Jinghong is quite easy. Take the bus from the bus station to Menglun (勐伦), about 80 km away.

Photographing the Pu’er Tea Plantations

pu'er tea

One of the main sources of income in different parts of Xishuangbanna is the cultivation and processing of Pu’er Tea (although technically, Pu’er Tea should only be grown in Pu’er County).

Pu’er Tea is a fermented tea variety that is typical of Yunnan. If you want more info, check this page. In short, it is a rather expensive and very popular type of tea in China.

If you travel around Xishuangbann, you will see a lot of Tea plantations, and some of the most spectacular ones can be found in Xinhuoshan (星火山). I didn’t know about them and just saw them while driving by. Luckily, we stopped, and I could take pictures even though the weather wasn’t the best.

Visit the most isolated villages in Xishuangbanna and Lancang

villaggi remoti xishuangbanna

One of the reasons why it is worth getting to this remote corner of China is to visit the villages of the minorities.

There are two things to keep in mind, though:

  • The development has also reached this part of the country. While it’s really good news to know that more and more people are no longer below the poverty threshold, this, unfortunately, means that the villages are being “modernized” using materials such as plastic and concrete to build new houses. However, some exceptions exist where local tourism boards have banned modern materials and provided local people with traditional materials to renovate their houses.
  • The second thing to keep in mind is that these villages are often 2 or 3 hours from Jinghong, and it is not possible to reach them by public bus (at least in a reasonable time), so you will be forced to rely on a local English speaking guide, and they are not cheap.

That said, from my perspective, it was well spent. Two of the villages that I recommend visiting are Wengji (翁基) and Nuogang (糯岗). Surely, there are others, and if you know any, please let me know with a comment.

The village of Wengji (翁基) in Lancang

wengji village lancang yunnan

Located at 1350 meters and with a total area of 11 square kilometers, the village Wengji (翁基) has about 350 inhabitants belonging to the Dai and Bulong ethnic groups. The main source of income is the processing of Pu’er Tea.

The village is built on a hill with a beautiful valley view. Behind the village, there is a temple that has no monks. The guide explained that this is a rather common situation since there are not enough monks in the country.

Unfortunately, taking a photo like the one you see above is impossible without a drone. The only elevated place is from the temple, but the position is not high enough for a nice landscape picture.

The village of Nuogang (糯岗) in Lancang

Nuogang village

Nuogang (糯岗) is the most beautiful village I visited and is also the most isolated. The full name is Nuogang Dai Water Village (the name comes from a local legend), and also, in this case, the people living there belong to the Dai and Bulong ethnicities.

The village is located about 74 km from the nearest town and is one of the best-preserved. All the houses are built with local materials, and even the road leading to the village (several Km at least) is not built with asphalt but with porphyry because, according to the village elders, and rightly so, it’s more eco-friendly.

Also, having a drone will give you more opportunities to take good pictures. There is a small elevated building from which you can take pictures with a regular camera, but also, in this case, not very high.

Nuogang

In both Nuogang and Wengji, you will have several opportunities to photograph people who live as they did 100 years ago. Don’t mind asking to go up on their balcony if you see someone engaged in some typical activity, such as making tofu (as seen in the picture above). Remember that you will find more people on the street late afternoon.

Final considerations about Xishuangbanna

cosa fare a xishuangbanna

A Dai woman with teeth blackened by Betel’s nut was considered a sign of beauty in the past

I’ve wanted to visit this part of Yunnan for a long time and am glad I finally did. As in the rest of China, everything is changing very quickly.

The city of Jinghong is currently the victim of unprecedented real-estate speculation: Chinese people from the northern provinces are buying an incredible number of properties as second homes (to escape the northern cold winter), so prices are rising rapidly.

To deal with this problem, the other tropical zone in China, Hainan Island, has banned the purchase of real estate to those who have not had a job on the island for at least two years, and therefore, even more people have started buying properties in Jinghong. Unfortunately, Xishuangbanna is a much poorer area than Hainan, and I don’t think it can give up this influx of capital.

In addition to this problem, the other challenges that Xishuangbanna faces are the preservation of the tropical rain forest, which is endangered by rubber tree plantations and banana trees, the conservation of endangered species of fauna, and the preservation of minority villages and their traditions.

If you can, I suggest visiting Xishuangbanna before it’s too late. Currently, however, it’s still one of the most fascinating places in all of China.

Here are some more photos I took during my trip. Here is my travel guide to China. Here is my photographic guide to two of the most beautiful places in China: Yangshuo and Xingping.

You can read my Yunnan travel guide here.

13 thoughts on “Xishuangbanna (西双版纳) – travel guide: top things to do in the Thailand of China”

  1. Herbert

    Great report, many thanks! I will be in Xishuangbanna for a business trip in October and this is the best source of information for me.

  2. Tiph

    Thanks for the this, really useful. Are you able to share the contact details for your guide please. Keen to get off the beaten track if possible. Cheers!

    1. Fabio Nodari

      Thanks. Sorry I don’t have that contact anymore.

  3. Lindsey

    Hello! What an informative guide—and such beautiful images! I’m heading to Bana in a couple days. Could you please share your guide’s info with me as well? I’m very keen to do some hiking and get “off the beaten path” while there. Cheers!

  4. Astrid Anna

    Hello.
    Thank you for a very interesting guide. Beautiful pictures. We are planning to go this December and will try to reach the villages Nuogang and Wengji to visit.

    1. Fabio Nodari

      Hi Anna, glad you enjoyed the article! Have fun in Banna!

  5. Zona

    Thank you for the information. Well done! Can we have the name and telephone for the guide that you used to go to the villages?
    Do you know of any hikes around the area?

    1. What made you wanna visit there? Who introduced you this place? And what is your full time job now? Thanks!!!!^^

  6. Özge

    Thanks for this such informative guide. We will be traveling to Jinghong with our three children. I’d really appreciate if you’d share your guide in Jinhong who took you to the Wengji and Nuogang villages. Normally we just hire a car and go on our own since we can speak a bit chinese but at that area we will have the language barrier. Also would you recommend Jino minority village since it’s closer by. But I read your comments already about the bad development about villages. Frankly it would made me really sad to see villagers use plastic instead of their ancient sustainable products. anyways it encourages me to read your post about traveling in China and not necessarily see all the same neo- capital mentality of development.

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