Yuanyang (元阳), since 2013 a UNESCO world heritage site, it’s famous for some of the biggest rice terraces in the world. However, planning a trip to this remote spot in southern China is not that easy. Read my post to find out when is the best time to visit Yuanyang, how you can get there, and how to plan your trip.
China is a truly unique country: despite being the most populous and one of the biggest in the world, it’s still somehow a mysterious country for many people.
Of all the truly unique places in this country, there is one in particular that I always wanted to visit: Yuanyang (元阳) in Yunnan, famous for the huge rice terraces built on the cliffs of mountains, at an elevation of about 2000 meters.
There are many countries with rice terraces but none of them are as nearly as amazing as Yuanyang. In the past, I visited Sapa, in Vietnam, famous for the rice terraces as well but I didn’t like it that much.
What about Yuanyang? Is it worth getting to this remote part of China close to the border with Laos and Vietnam? Absolutely yes!
Yuanyang (元阳): a bit of history
Yuanyang is located in the HongHe (红河) prefecture (here an article about Mile in the same prefecture). The elevation of this prefecture ranges from 144 meters to almost 3000 meters. This means that the climate varies a lot, depending on where you are. 34% of the people belong to the Han group (what we generally call Chinese people) and the other 66% are people belonging to other ethnic groups. One of them is the Hani (哈尼), who built, during the course of several centuries, the rice terraces.
How did those people managed to fill the rice terraces with water since they are built on steep mountains? The Hani took advantage of the unique climate of this region! Basically, in winter, there is a big difference in temperature between the valleys (with a tropical climate) and the mountains (with much colder weather) and this causes a lot of evaporation.
The water, in the form of fog and clouds, evaporates and filters through the forest in the mountains. All this mist forms streams of water that flow into the rice terraces and go down to the valley again. Simple but very efficient!
What to see in Yuanyang
Even though there are several rice terraces in Yuanyang, there are only three places that have been included in the list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites. In every one of them, observation platforms have been built to accommodate hundreds of tourists and photographers.
To get to these platforms you’ll have to pay a fee of 100rmb: not very cheap but I think it’s worth spending that money. In my experience, every time I see a lot of tourists, I try to avoid the crowd and find some off-the-beaten-path spots. Often those spots are empty and have a better view, but Yuanyang it’s an exception. The official platforms have the best view you’ll find in Yuanyang, and even though you can still find great “unofficial” observation spots, you can’t miss the three platforms.
This is how they are called:
- Bada (坝达)
- Duoyishu (多依树)
- Laohuzui (老虎嘴)
Duoyishu is the best place to see the sunrise and for this reason is a good idea to find your accommodation nearby. In this way, you can just walk to the platform early in the morning without looking for some kind of transportation (there are no public buses). It will be difficult to find someone who can drive you to Duoyishu before sunrise unless you hire a private driver.
This is the hotel I recommend if you are looking for accommodation in Duoyishu.
Duoyishu is famous for the sea of clouds that early in the morning covers part of the terraces: truly a beautiful sight. This place is named after the nearby village and the Hani people call this place “the paradise on earth”.
EDIT 2020: sadly these rice terraces have been damaged by a landslide and this location is currently closed.
Laohuzui means “tiger mouth” and got its name from the shape of some of the fields that remember somehow a tiger mouth. The elvation of this place is 1400 meters and it’s one of the two ideal spots to see the sunset.
Laohuzui is the steepest, most spectacular and magnificent terraced landscape. For this reason it’s a good idea to come well before sunset: there are a lot of people in China and they seem to like Laohuzui too!
Bada is a direct translation from the Hani language and it means that “Hani is the nearest place to the sky”. Bada is the other ideal place to see the sunset.
This place is really huge: it covers a surface of 56 squared Km. Keep in mind that all the rice terraces were built by hand and it took centuries to make them so 56 squared Km is a lot! The place is honestly really stunning.
The terraces start at an elevation of 800 meters and go all the way up to an elevation of about 2000 meters. The whole place really looks like a “stairway to heaven”.
Laoyingzui (not to be confused with Laohuzui, one of the three official platforms) is one of the “unofficial” viewpoints. Laoyingzui is at the top of a cliff and you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the terraces below (Laoyingzui means Eagle’s beak).
Be careful though: the place can be a bit dangerous since there are no protections and the wind can be really strong.
Laoyingzui It’s on the way to Bada but strangely it’s not mentioned on the maps nor on the street signs so it’s very easy to miss it. The only way to find it is to ask around or to show the Chinese name to some local people and they will surely know where it is.
Shengcun Market (胜村市集)
Besides the rice terraces, Yuanyang is the ideal place to see how the Hani e Yi minorities live. By exploring the countryside you’ll see how most of the Chinese people live their lives.
Just 4 or 5 Km from Duoyishu you can visit the Shengcun market. Just a word of advice: before heading to Shengcun ask in your hotel which day exactly the market is open because it runs only a few days a week.
Yuanyang rice terraces best time to visit, how to get there and how to get around
The best time to visit Yuanyang rice terraces is when the fields are filled with water. Due to the elevation, even though Yuanyang is on the Tropics, the rice it’s harvested only once a year and this means that the fields are filled with water only from November until the beginning of March.
If you are planning a trip on that season be sure to avoid the Spring Festival (usually between the end of January and the beginning of February).
Getting to Yuanyang it’s not fast at the moment, since there are no airports nor trains going there. The best solution is to take a long-distance bus from the Kunming South Coach Station. Getting to the bus station is fairly easy since it’s one of the stops of the subway. There are 3 buses per day: one at 9:30, one at 12:30, and a night bus at 18:00 but the timetable can change at any time so it’s a good idea to ask your hotel to check the exact time.
My suggestion is to book the tickets at least one day in advance. This is true both when you go to Yuanyang and when you come back.
Keep in mind that the bus doesn’t get to Yuanyang but it stops in the town of Xinjie about one hour from the rice fields. From Xinjie you can take a minivan to your final destination. The price should be around 20RMB per person. The other solution would be to hire a driver but it will obviously be more expensive.
Once in Yuanyang remember that the three observation platforms are quite scattered around the area. The best way to get around, since there are no public buses, is to stop one of the many vans, ask for a lift and show the driver the name of the place you want to get to in Chinese characters.
Traveling in China is not easy and doing it in remote places it’s even more difficult but you will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful landscapes on earth.
Useful tips for your trip
- Besides the three main platforms, I suggest you walk around and explore the villages nearby so that you can see how local people live. Despite what you might think you know about Chinese people, they are really nice and always ready to make new friends especially with 外国人 (foreigners).
- Remember that the internet in China is censored so you can’t use Gmail, Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. If you need to use one of those websites you need a VPN. I use ExpressVPN.
- Bring a good camera and a tripod. You’ll need it. Here my guide on how to take better travel photos.
- A very important suggestion: if you have a tripod and want to find a spot on the observation platforms you must get there about three hours BEFORE sunset and at least 1 hour and a half BEFORE sunrise. If you’ll be late most probably you won’t find a spot to set up your tripod (if you go during the high season). In all my life I have never seen so many photographers (both men and women) in one place!
- To visit Yuanyang you should spend at least two whole days and if you count the time to get there and to go back this means that you’ll have to spend 4 days and 3 nights in Yuanyang (one day to get there, two days to visit the terraces and another day to go back). You can find good deals for the hotels on Booking.com.
Here you can find some more pictures I took in Yunnan. Don’t miss this post if you want to discover wildlife in China. Another interesting place to visit in Yunnan is Yiliang, where in August you can see the colorful rice fields.
If you want to visit Zhangjiajie don’t miss my complete guide to the top things to see.