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. Longji, in Guangxi, is actually very beautiful and almost as spectacular (here’s my complete guide).
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 over the course of several centuries the rice terraces, Yi, Miao, Yao, Zhuang, and Dai.
How did those people manage 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 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 these three platforms:
- Duoyishu (多依树)
- Laohuzui (老虎嘴)
- Bada (坝达)
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 guesthouseI 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: unfortunately, the terraces were damaged by a landslide and then rebuilt NOT taking into account the geography of the mountain. So they are no longer as photogenic as they once were.
Laohuzui means “tiger mouth” and got its name from the shape of some of the fields that remember somehow a tiger mouth. The elevation 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 most 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”.
Dawa is a little-known place ideal for photographing the sunset. There are no special places for photographers and space to place the tripod is very limited but there are also fewer tourists than in other places. Keep in mind that it is not possible to find minivans after the sunset so plan ahead on how to get back to your hotel.
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.
Azheke 阿者科 mushroom village
This is a village who has recently been rebuilt but local people are still living there. It’s also located right above a big area full of rice terraces so it’s definitely an interesting place to visit.
Take some time to wander in the back alley of the village and take some pictures of the local people. It’s a very photogenic area, especially if you visit right after the sun rises above the mountains.
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 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 your hotel which day exactly the market is open because it runs only a few days a week.
Best time to visit the Yuanyang rice terraces
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 during that season be sure to avoid the Spring Festival (usually between the end of January and the beginning of February).
If you prefer to visit the terraces with rice, August and September are the best months.
How to get to Yuanyang and how to get around
Getting to Yuanyang is not super easy since there are no trains or airports nearby.
Here are some options for getting to Yuanyang from Kunming:
- Bus from Kunming to Xinjie: This is the easiest option but also the most inconvenient one since the journey can take up to 7 to 8 hours, depending on traffic. You can take a long-distance Bus from the South Bus Station in Kunming. There are three buses per day: one at 10:20 a.m., one at 12:30 p.m., and one at 6 p.m. but the times may change so ask for confirmation at the hotel. The bus arrives in the town of Xinjie, about 15 km before the rice terraces area. From there you have to take a minivan to get to the hotel you booked. It’s best to book the bus a day before departure and the same goes for the return bus. Unfortunately, foreigners cannot use online services to book buses so you will have to go in person to the bus station.
- Train from Kunming to Jianshui (建水) and then bus to Xinjie: not the fastest option but has some advantages over the previous option. You’ll avoid spending too many hours on the bus and you can stop in the town of Jianshui, which I recommend visiting. It’s very beautiful and has a great night market. I recommend staying one night there. From Jianshui you can take a bus to Xinjie and then a minivan to the hotel.
- Train from Kunming to Mengzi (蒙自) and then bus to Xinjie: similar to the option above but faster. There is not much to see in Mengzi so you can take a bus as soon as you arrive in town to Xinjie. From there take a minivan to your hotel.
- Car from Kunming: This is the best option but also the most expensive. You can ask the hotel where you are staying to help you book a shared car (cheaper option) or a car just for you to take you directly to Yuanyang. If the driver takes the new highway it takes only 5 hours to get to Yuanyang and you won’t have to stop in Xinjie.
Once you arrive in Yuanyang keep in mind that the rice terraces are quite spread out. The best way to get around the area, since there is no public transportation and you can’t rent a motorbike, is to stop one of the many minivans that serve as public transportation and connect the villages. If you don’t speak Chinese write the name of your destination on a piece of paper in Chinese and show it to the driver.
If you like to meet new people, you can try to talk with some photographers who rented a car to explore the area and share the costs for that day, which is what I did and it honestly was a good choice.
Traveling in China is not easy, and doing so in such remote, if famous, locations is even less so, but you will be rewarded with landscapes unparalleled in the world.
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.
Where to stay in Yuanyang
Given the absence of public transportation and the impossibility of renting a motorbike, it’s important to choose carefully where to sleep in Yuanyang. I recommend staying around the Duoyishu area so that you are within walking distance of the best spot for the sunrise.
The best place to stay is Jacky’s Guesthouse, located in the village called Pugaolao 普高老 exactly overlooking the Duoyishu terraces. The guesthouse is very basic and there is no heating (something to keep in mind if you come in the winter months when the temperature in the morning can drop to around zero degrees), but the owner speaks English and is a photographer who can tell you the best hiking spots to explore the area. He can also help you arrange your return trip, or book a driver to take you around Yuanyang. Strongly recommended!
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.
- 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 this one.
- Bring a good camera and a tripod. You’ll need it. Here is my guide on how to take better travel photos. You can make the most out of this trip if you also have a long lens and a drone.
- A very important suggestion: if you have a tripod and want to find a spot on the observation platforms you must get there about 1 hour and a half BEFORE sunrise or sunset. 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 3 nights in Yuanyang (one day to get there, two days to visit the terraces and another day to go back).
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. Here you can read my Yunnan travel guide.