Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture

As an area of both extreme ethnic diversity and biodiversity, the prefecture of Xishuangbanna is one of the last known refuges of both the Jinuo ethnic minority and the rare Asian elephant. Although its full name, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, suggests that it is dominated by the Dai ethnic minority, this is far from the truth. The Dai people only account for 30% of the 990,000 strong population and the prefecture in fact supports 13 of China’s 56 resident ethnic minorities. From the Jinuo people, who are peculiar to the prefecture, right through to the mysterious Blang people, cultures of all kinds have found their niche in this tropical paradise.

Xishuangbanna shares its borders with Burma and Laos, and its southerly location, coupled with its low altitude, means it benefits from a near tropical climate. In ancient times, the Dai referred to the region as “Mengbanaxi” or “Miraculous Utopia” because, even in winter, it was as hot and balmy as summer. With an average annual temperature of between 18 and 22°C (64.4-71.6°F), the weather is so consistently warm that the locals often say there are only two seasons; dry and rainy. It is often recommended to visit between November and April, during the dry season, but the exceptional condition of the roads means that even a trip during the rainy season is feasible if you want to avoid the tourist crowds. Just be sure to pack an umbrella since, in these temperatures, wearing a raincoat will practically turn you into a walking sauna!

Tropical fruits, herbs, teas, coffee and Yunnan tobacco are all in abundance throughout Xishuangbanna and form part of the rich, lusciously multi-coloured tapestry of the landscape. Some of the highest quality pu’er tea is produced in this region along what are known as the Six Famous Tea Mountains. In a place where even the mountains are famous, you know there will be plenty of stunning attractions to keep you occupied! In Wild Elephant Valley, visitors can stay in hostels near the Mengyang Nature Reserve, 45 kilometres (28 miles) from the prefectural capital of Jinghong, and make their way through virgin forests, occasionally being treated to rare glimpses of China’s only community of Asian elephants. In the Single Tree Forest you can marvel at the nine-hundred-year old banyan tree, which covers an area so large (over 120 square metres or 143.6 square yards) that it is practically a forest in of itself!

Xishuangbanna’s proximity to other Southeast Asian countries means that is has been heavily influenced by Buddhism and much of its architecture reflects this. The magnificent Manfeilong Pagodas, a complex of nine snow-white pagodas in Manfeilong Village, are the perfect place to witness the religion in action. The Water Splashing Festival of the Dai people, a Buddhist festival which normally takes place from the 13th to the 15th of April each year, is held at this complex and represents one of the most popular ethnic minority festivals in China; perhaps because it affords the opportunity to throw buckets of water on your friends! However, if you happen to miss it there’s no need to fret as the Dai Ethnic Garden holds their own Water Splashing Festival every day of the year!

From the Menglun Tropical Botanical Garden to the Mandian Waterfall, from the wild elephants through to the diverse ethnic peoples, Xishuangbanna is undoubtedly an exotic utopia that you don’t want to miss.

The Manfeilong Pagodas

With its golden tip glinting in the blinding sunlight, the main stupa of the Manfeilong Pagodas rises up like a shimmering lighthouse in a sea of rich tropical greenery. Buried in the rainforests of Xishuangbanna, on a hill near Manfeilong Village just 70 kilometres south of Jinghong City, these towering edifices are rumoured to be over 800 years old. Yet for so many years it appears they have been called by the wrong name! They are actually stupas, not pagodas, as a pagoda is a multi-tiered temple or place of worship whilst the Manfeilong Pagodas are hemispherical structures with small interiors designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation. They look like large gourds and so earned the alternate name the “Bamboo Shoot Pagodas” for their striking resemblance to bamboo shoots. That being said, we don’t recommend trying to cut them up as part of a tasty stir-fry!

The site is made up of one central stupa that is approximately 16 metres (52 ft.) in height, with eight smaller stupas surrounding it at about 9 metres (30 ft.) in height. Some say that the main stupa looks like a caring parent surrounded by her bulbous little children! According to Buddhist records, the complex was built in 1204 AD or the year 565 according to the Dai ethnic minority’s calendar. It was originally designed by three Indian Buddhist monks and was sponsored by the chieftain of a local tribe, but has recently been renovated. Today the stupas pure white bricks still shimmer as the sunlight hits their calabash shaped bodies and the bells that dangle from the top of the main stupa still chime sweetly in the wind.

Inside each stupa you’ll find a niche featuring a statue and a relief of Buddha with another niche above it containing a relief of a flying phoenix. The gates of each stupa are topped with engravings of two giant dragons and both the interior and exterior are heavily decorated with sculptures, reliefs, and colourful paintings, all in the style of the Dai ethnic minority. All of these mystical figures combine to give the stupas an ethereal appearance. With dragons guarding the outside and phoenixes keeping watch over the inside, it’s no wonder the Manfeilong Pagodas have survived for so long!

Just to the south of the stupas, you’ll find a large footprint imprinted on a rock. According to local legend, this is the footprint of Sakyamuni[1] and is thus greatly revered by the local people. Both the Manfeilong Pagodas and the nearby Black Pagoda were built in honour of this rock. The Black Pagoda, towering over the Manfeilong Pagodas at 18 metres (59 ft.) in height, is equally famous and has an equally misleading name, as it is now silvery white in colour! It is seven-storeys high and was originally black, but has suffered numerous paint jobs that have now led to the confusion regarding its name.

The Manfeilong Pagodas and the Black Pagoda are dedicated to Hinayana Buddhism, a small branch of the religion that is known for being particularly conservative, and if you visit the Black Pagoda nowadays you’ll still find monks diligently worshipping there. Every year, usually from the 13th to the 15th of April, Dai people from Manfeilong Village gather at the stupas and the pagoda to celebrate the Water Splashing Festival. This Buddhist festival represents the New Year according to the Dai calendar and involves chasing your friends and family while splashing water on them! The Dai people are known for their friendliness and will happily let visitors take part in the celebrations. After all, it’s always better to have more targets in a water fight!

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.