Agriculture and Craftwork of Dai Ethnic Minority


Since the vast majority of Dai people are concentrated in Xishuangbanna Prefecture and Dehong Prefecture of Yunnan province, they benefit from the richly fertile soil and temperate climate found in these regions. They have become accomplished farmers and are renowned throughout China for their high-quality rice, tea, bamboo, and sugar cane. In fact, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the pu’er tea grown by the Dai was considered so superb that it was worthy of being presented to the emperor! I’m sure you’ll agree that any tea good enough for an emperor is, at the very least, worth a try! Unfortunately, in recent years large portions of Dai farmland have been exclusively used to farm rubber and this has tragically proven rather destructive to the area’s natural ecosystem.

rice-cooking bamboo02Like many groups found in Southern China, the staple food of the Dai ethnic minority is rice, with people in Dehong preferring long-grain non-sticky rice while people in Xishuangbanna preferring glutinous sticky rice. Their cuisine is characterised by its love of spicy, sour flavours and features lots of pickled meats and vegetables, while also incorporating some bitter flavours. They have a preference for fish and chicken but will also eat duck, pork and beef, avoiding only mutton. Their signature dishes are slow roasted chicken, which is as tender as it is delicious, and pickled fish wrapped in lemongrass, which has a sharp but aromatic tang.

rice-cooking bamboo01From November through to February, the Dai enjoy what is called the Bamboo Season. This is when species of fragrant bamboo, characterised by their thin stalks and long joints, become mature. The Dai call it “maihaola”, which means “rice-cooking bamboo”. They cut segments of it so that one end is open but the other still has a joint at the bottom. They then put rice into the bamboo tube, plug the opening with palm leaves and roast the tube over a charcoal fire until it emits a tantalising aroma. This bamboo cooked rice has a distinctive flavour imparted by the thin, fragrant film on the inside of the bamboo stalk. However, watching these jade green tubes as they are filled and gently roasted is a visual feast in of itself!

The diet of the Dai people may seem simple enough, but they have one quirky eating habit that has become somewhat notorious and has evolved out of living in a humid sub-tropical climate. Whether they’re grilled with spices, deep-fried, or roasted, the Dai people love eating large insects. They are particularly fond of cicadas, bamboo worms and several species of spider. So while most creepy crawlies would have many foreign tourists running for cover, the sight of them is enough to give the average Dai person a rumbling stomach! When it comes to quenching their thirst, the Dai normally wash down these squirmy snacks with partially-fermented sweet wine or large-leaf un-perfumed tea.

dai Paper-cuttingPaper-cutting is one of their traditional folk arts and is often used to design patterns on household articles such as bed linen, bags, and pieces of clothing. They employ beautiful and intricate motifs of trees, birds, insects, humans, and a myriad of other animals. Some even contain complex story-telling images that are relevant to Dai folklore. These patterns are similar to those found on “tong pa”, a type of satchel used by the Dai people for safekeeping a variety of items, from cigarettes and seeds to sewing kits and love tokens.

These satchels are also intricately carved with images of animals, trees, and flowers, but the motifs and colours used bear some significance. For example, the use of green or red signifies respect for your ancestors, the image of the peacock symbolises good luck, and the image of an elephant denotes a good harvest and a happy life. This symbolism reflects the Dai’s reverence for nature and for their desire to strive for a better life.


Dai Ethnic Garden

Dai Ethnic Garden

Deep within the Ganlan Basin, obscured by the verdant tropical jungles that loom over the banks of the Lancang River, the five small villages of the Dai Ethnic Garden have thrived for hundreds of years. They are just 28 kilometres from Jinghong, the capital city of Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and all of them are occupied by ethnically Dai people. The basin benefits from the hottest climate in Xishuangbanna and is able to sustain numerous tropical plant species, which is what earned the place the name “ethnic garden”. It is in fact more of a theme park, where visitors can learn about Dai culture and visit traditional Dai villages.

The villages are called Manjiang, Manchunman, Manting, Manzha, and Manga, and together they house approximately 300 families and 1,500 villagers. They consist primarily of traditional Dai buildings, which are square, two-storey houses that are built on stilts and made entirely from bamboo. The ground floor is used as a storehouse and stable for livestock while the upper floor is used as a living space. The upper floor is normally 2 metres off the ground and can be reached via a wooden ladder, which can make ascending the house with a hot cup of tea quite a challenge! Yet this is how the Dai people will undoubtedly welcome you, as they are known for their incredible hospitality. The Dai ethnic minority are traditionally Buddhist and so every village has its own Buddhist temple. It is important to note that you should take your shoes off before you enter any Dai home or temple, as a sign of respect.

Dai handicrafts are on sale throughout the villages and performances of Dai folk songs and dances, as well as other folk customs, occur regularly on the main stage. There is even a recreation of the Water Splashing Festival every day at 3pm, where visitors can join the Dai people near the fountain and throw water at each other. It’s one of the more delightful festivals celebrated by China’s ethnic minorities and nothing compares to the sheer joy of dousing your friends with buckets of water. If you want to extend your stay, there are plenty of guesthouses in each village that are sure to welcome you.


In the Dai language, the word “man” means “village”, while the word “jiang” means “strips of bamboo”. The Dai people commonly strap bamboo strips to heavy items in order to help carry them. According to local legend, long ago one of Buddha’s ancestors came to this village and commented on a stone, which he said had a particularly auspicious aura. He asked the locals if they could carry the stone to a small hill by the river, thus making the hill a holy place for people to visit. The stone was far too heavy to move simply by pushing it, but with the help of bamboo strips the locals were able to carry it up the hill. Buddha’s ancestor was elated and renamed the village Manjiang in honour of this good deed.

manchun templeManchunman

The name “manchunman” translates literally to mean “the village of gardens”. That being said, bizarrely Manchunman is not famous for its gardens but rather for the magnificent Buddhist temple at its centre. The Manchunman Buddhist Temple is over 1,400 years old, making it the oldest temple in Xishuangbanna, and stunning painted murals of Buddhist legends further enhance the value of this sacred place.


manzha templeYou’ll be pleased to know that the word “manzha” translates to mean “cook’s village” so, if you’re looking for some tasty Dai dishes, this is the place to go! In ancient times, the tribal leader of the region would set aside a special village that was only to be inhabited by cooks. These chefs would train for years to prepare suitably delicious meals for the tribal leader. If you think having your own chef is indulgent, imagine having a whole village of them! Nowadays the villagers welcome visitors to try their local cuisine, which has been honed to perfection over hundreds of years. The 200-year-old Manzha Temple in the village is also worth noting, as it is one of the only Buddhist temples in existence that contains images and statues of monks but none of Buddha himself.

manting templeManting

Although the name “manting” means “court garden”, the village was once commonly known by its nickname, Peacock Village, thanks to the many tame peacocks that once populated Manting. Nowadays the village has become particularly famous for its White Pagodas and Buddhist Temple, which date all the way back to 669 AD. The statue of Buddha in the temple is said to be the largest in the Ganlan Basin.


mangaIn the Dai language, the name “manga” inexplicably means “going to the fair”; a name that seems completely unconnected to the village’s history. It is believed that Li Daorong, a man of the Han ethnic group, married a Dai woman and established the village. Thereafter, many Han people came from Guangdong and Guangxi to settle in Manga. Gradually members of the Han and Dai ethnic group mingled and so now many of the villagers are a mixture of these two ethnic groups.

The Manga Temple, hidden in the forest behind the village, looks almost like a pavilion. Regardless of what time of day it is, the interior of the temple is always drenched in darkness and must be lit by candles or lighted lamps. Two door-gods flank the entrance and, deep within the temple, there lies an offering stand where locals can worship Li Daorong. On March 6th or July 7th every year, the Dai and Han people from Manga will bring a pig’s head, a cockerel, joss sticks, and paper money as sacrifices to Li Daorong.

Ganlan Basin xishuangbannaThe Peacock’s Tomb

According to local legend, in the 1960s a golden peacock inhabited the Ganlan Basin and, when it died, it brought great wealth to the local people. As a symbol of their appreciation, the people buried the peacock together with the treasured sword that once stood at the centre of the five villages. On the 14th day of July according to the Dai calendar, male villagers carry a pig’s head and wrapped rice to the tomb as offerings to the peacock. A large banquet will then be held and a memorial service for the peacock will take place.


Architecture of Dai Ethnic Minority

While wood, brick, concrete and even tile have been used to build houses for decades, the Dai ethnic minority are one of the few communities in China that have taken advantage of another novel and abundant resource. From the bases to the rafters, traditional Dai households are made almost entirely of bamboo! These two storey houses are normally square or rectangular in shape and their unique style dates back over 1,400 years. Large, load-bearing bamboo shafts are used to make the main framework of the house, whilst narrower ones are used to make the walls. In fact, the Dai have become so industrious with this versatile material that they even use bamboo twigs to bind together the bundles of dry grass used to thatch their roofs!

The upper floors of these houses are perched on thick stilts while the area under the stilts, or the ground floor, is either open or partially walled. This ground floor area is used to shelter livestock and store food, while the upper levels are used as a living space. Each household will have separate rooms for eating, working, and receiving guests, along with several bedrooms and a balcony used for drying laundry and storing the water tank. They are designed to be well-ventilated, as the Dai live in a very humid climate, and the living area is far off the ground to avoid flooding, poisonous snakes and insects such as mosquitoes. With a design this comprehensive, the only thing the Dai people have to worry about are hungry pandas!

According to local legend, the idea behind these houses came long ago, when a man named Zhu Geilang was travelling through Xishuangbanna. There he met a Dai youth named Yanken, who asked for his advice on how to build a better house. Zhu thought for a moment, then crouched down and pushed a few chopsticks into the earth. He took the hat from his head and placed it over the chopsticks, then turned to Yanken and said, “Just build it like this”. I dread to imagine what our houses would look like if we based them on our fashion choices!

dai architecture 01The Dai people have an enduring reverence for water, so it should come as no surprise that every village has a water-well that is loved and respected by the community. However, these are no ordinary wells! They look like tiny towers, resplendent with metre-high archways, painted decorations, golden roofs, and even elaborate sculptures of animals. A fence surrounds the well itself, outside of which people must use a long-handled bamboo ladle to scoop water into their buckets. It is forbidden for children to play near the well, for women to wash clothes in the well, and for men to water their cattle at the well. Basically, play it safe and don’t do anything near the well!

The Dai are devout Buddhists and so each of their villages will have its own temple. These temples tend to conform to the traditional Buddhist style of architecture but have an ethnic flair and follow the Chinese tradition of being placed in isolated and auspicious locations on mountainsides or deep within forests. The average temple complex consists of a temple gate, a main hall, rooms for the resident monks to live in, and a special room for housing the drum.

Large temple complexes will have a number of pagodas that are used as repositories for Buddhist relics. The interior and exterior of the temple buildings are often painted with panoramic murals depicting scenes from both Dai folklore and Buddhist history. They typically feature images of Buddha, various princes and princesses, and animals such as white elephants, horses, and deer, all stunning in their multi-coloured glory.

The main hall is situated on the east-west axis and is the primary place of worship. Monks gather here to light incense, chant sutras, and conduct a number of other religious activities in reverence to Buddha. The hall is punctuated by a dividing wall, which is at the central point where the roof slopes down on either side. The side of the hall facing eastward is home to a large statue of Buddha, which is arguably the most vital feature of any Buddhist temple.

The Dai people traditionally depict Buddha in a sitting position with “snail-shaped”, “flame-shaped” or “lotus-flower-shaped” hair and an exposed right shoulder. In order to draw attention to both his intelligence and his fabulous hairdo, his head makes up one-third of the height of the statue, although smaller figures are usually more naturally proportioned. While the Han Chinese traditionally depict Buddha as plump and smiling, the Dai’s representation is usually much slimmer and has an elongated face transfixed in a subdued expression.

Other Customs of the Dai Ethnic Minority

Much of the Dai ethnic minority’s culture has been inherited from the ancient Bai Yue culture, with a few elements from both Han Chinese culture and Indian Buddhism. This is reflected not only in their historical texts but also in their rich literary heritage, which spans poetry, legends, fables, and even children’s stories. The etching of scripture onto leaves of the pattra palm tree, known in the Dai language as “tanlan”, and the copying of scripture onto cotton paper, known as “bogalesha”, are just a couple of traditions passed down among the Dai over generations. Even the “chanting” books used in Dai religious activities can be traced back to these other ancient cultures.

And, if you thought the Chinese lunar calendar was confusing, you’ll want to look away now because the Dai have their own painfully complex calendar! Their calendar began in the year 638 AD and is particularly complicated because it incorporates features of both the lunar and solar calendar. In the Chinese religion of Taoism, it is believed that time moves in a sexagenary cycle, or a cycle of 60 combinations, which are made up of two more basic cycles known as the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 Earthly Branches. The Dai record days and years in a similar way and even use the Chinese terms “the Heavenly Stems” and “the Earthly Branches”.

The easiest way to explain their calendar is to simply say that the Dai follow the months of the Chinese lunar calendar but adhere to the years of our Gregorian calendar. Any discrepancies between the two systems are resolved using leap years, of which there are 7 for every 19 years. The year also features only three seasons, known as the Cold Season from January to April; the Hot Season from May to August; and the Rainy Season from September to December. However, considering the average temperature during the Cold Season is about 16°C (60.8°F), I think the term “cold” might be something of an exaggeration!

Like many of China’s ethnic minorities, the Dai adhere to numerous taboos that one should be aware of before entering their villages. For example, the Dai will only ever prepare enough rice for one day as they believe it is unlucky to eat rice that was cooked on the previous day. If you notice a village is stockaded, you must not enter as the villagers are currently worshipping the Stockade God. You must take off your shoes when entering any Dai household or Buddhist temple and, if you happen to pass by a Buddhist monk, it is forbidden to step on his shadow or touch his head. Etiquette dictates that all passers-by, regardless of faith or nationality, must show respect to a monk by placing their palms together in the universal gesture of prayer and nodding slightly.

Medicinal care will be handled by a shamanistic medicine man known as a “moya”. Strangers must not enter the house of a pregnant woman or a sick person, nor are they permitted entry to the home of a family whose relative has recently passed away. The Dai funeral is a close knit affair, so you must not attend the ceremony without express permission from the family. When a person is near death, two pieces of yellow cloth and a small bamboo tablet from the local temple are placed on their body, as it is believed these articles will aid their admission into paradise.

Once the person has passed away, monks will perform the funeral rites at the deceased’s home and the community will come to a standstill, as the Dai believe that spirits dislike the sound of work. When the coffin is carried from the house, the spouse of the deceased will cut a candle in half to symbolise their separation from the dead.

Before the funeral, the family will hang a bamboo keg near their front door, which is filled with water and a few sour leaves. After the funeral rites have been completed, all participants must sprinkle a small amount of this water over their heads and expose their skin to the smoke of a burned nut, which the Dai believe will ward off evil spirits. Common people will traditionally be buried, while monks and aristocrats are cremated. Anyone who died in accidents or as a result of violence will be buried far away from the community as it is believed that, over time, they will become evil spirits. So if you happen to be walking through the forests near a Dai village, keep a few smoking nuts handy or you might just come face-to-face with a ghost!

Marriage Customs of the Dai Ethnic Minority

Long ago there was a young princess, who spent lazy afternoons wondering what type of man she would eventually marry. One day, the princess turned to her male servant and asked him, “Who do you think I will marry?”. Without missing a beat and with great confidence, the boy replied: “You are going to marry me”. The princess was deeply offended by the servant’s gross impertinence and, in a fit of rage, grasped a knife from a nearby table and threw it at him. The knife grazed the boy’s forehead, leaving a deep gash that would never fully heal. The princess had him banished from the country and assumed she would never to see him again.

As the boy grew, he worked tirelessly to become successful and eventually became king of a neighbouring nation. Rulers would often use intermarriage to show solidarity between their countries, as was the custom back then, and so a marriage was arranged between the young king and the princess that he had once served. On their wedding day, the princess looked up at her husband-to-be and noticed the deep scar on his forehead. She immediately recognised him as the servant boy she had banished all those years ago and was overwhelmed with remorse. Placing her right hand between his, she twined their hands together as a symbol of her eternal devotion to him.

This simple yet poignant gesture, known as “shu huan” or “the twining of souls”, has become an integral part of Dai marriage ever since. Sometime between the Door Opening Festival and the Door Closing Festival, this thread twining ceremony will take place as part of an engagement ritual before the official wedding. It begins with the host first praying for the couple and then taking a long white thread, which he winds around the couple’s hands. Thereafter other family members will approach the couple and perform the same gesture, followed by other guests such as friends. This act symbolises that the two have intertwined their destinies and will have a long, healthy and happy life together.

On the wedding day, members of the extended family and friends will gather in the bride’s home, where a long bamboo table has been set up. On this table, the bride’s family will have laid out two cooked chickens, a cup of wine with a betel leaf next to it, a bowl of sticky rice, salt, and a white thread. The host is offered the most honoured position at the table, while other relatives and friends arrange themselves around it accordingly. The wedding begins with the bride and groom kneeling before the host as he gives a congratulatory speech. Other guests listen with their right hands firmly on the table to show politeness.

Once the speech is finished, the bride and groom must run for the betel leaf near the cup, as the first person to get to it will supposedly have the final say in future family life! If the same were the case with our tradition of catching the bouquet, I’m sure we’d see a lot more men with flowers in hand! The couple then each pick up a dollop of sticky rice and dip it in the cup of wine as a sacrifice. In much the same manner as before, the thread twining ceremony takes place again.

dai wedding 02After this second thread twining, the first cooked chicken is given to the host and the other is divided amongst the unmarried men in the hopes that they’ll find love that year. I suppose it’s the Dai way of saying don’t chicken out when it comes to girls! The eldest guest is then asked to knead the sticky rice into a triangle, sprinkle salt on it, and place it on a tripod above a charcoal fire. The rice is allowed to burn and fall off the tripod unhindered, which foretells the stable and unobstructed progress of the couple’s love.

Later on, when the bride becomes pregnant, strangers are forbidden to enter her house at any time. If you happen to notice a special object made of bamboo hanging near the main door of a Dai household, this means that a member of the family is pregnant and nearing childbirth. All visitors will be refused at this time, including family members.

The Spirituality of the Dai Ethnic Minority

For over 1,000 years, the people of the Dai ethnic minority have been devout Buddhists and subscribe to a sect of the religion known as Hinayana. They adopted the Indian religion sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries and it has had a profound influence on their culture, virtually shaping many of their customs and practices. From the temples that rest like jewels at the heart of every Dai village to the many murals depicting the history of Buddha, the love and admiration that the Dai have for their faith is palpable everywhere.

According to the Dai’s Buddhist beliefs, the world of the senses is void and in order to reach paradise, or nirvana, one must first achieve a state of enlightenment by releasing ones grip on the material world and transcending the demands of the senses. To become enlightened, one must follow the Tripitaka, which is an umbrella term for three categories known as sutras, abhidharma and vinaya. Sutras are the sermons of Gautama Buddha, the founding father of Buddhism, that have been transcribed. Adhidharma is the philosophical and psychological discussion and interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. Vinaya are the rules and regulations that apply to Buddhist monks, such as dress code, dietary restrictions, and appropriate behaviour.

The religion plays such a focal role in the lives of the Dai people that it is common for most boys between the ages of 8 and 10 to be sent to a temple. There they will learn how to read, write, chant scripture, and learn sutras. After between one to five years, many of them will return home in pursuit of a secular lifestyle while some will stay on at the temple as monks. This practice evolved because, in the past, this was the only way that boys could receive an education and in exchange the parents would financially support the temple. So remember, even in ancient times you couldn’t get out of going to school!

Yet while the Dai officially follow Buddhism, many communities still hold on to their ancient shamanistic[1] and animistic[2] beliefs. In Xishuangbanna Prefecture, there is a Dai proverb that states: “Buddhism is for our future, but the cult of the village gods is what helps us in the present”. Their indigenous religion still plays a vital role in daily life and many villages will have sacred groves or forests where they believe the spirits of their ancestors live.

These spirits act as protective gods that watch over the village and people will only enter the forest on two occasions during the year, both times as part of a ceremony to honour the ancestors. All of the animals and plants, the water and even the soil in this forest is sacred and cannot be damaged or taken away. It is forbidden to cut the trees, hunt the animals, cultivate the earth, or gather the fruits from this forest. Anything that dies, even fruit that falls from the trees, is left to rot naturally. So if a tasty mango on the forest floor catches your eye, be sure to check with the locals before you eat it!

[1] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel its energy. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[2] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

Dai Ethnic Minority

dai ethnic

The Dai are one of the happiest and most carefree of all the ethnic minorities in China and this is reflected in their chosen name, which means “freedom” in the Dai language. Just over one million Dai people currently live in China, predominantly concentrated in Yunnan province, but the term Dai can also be applied to communities in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Myanmar and Vietnam. This is because the illustrious ancestors of the Dai people, known as the Bai Yue, Bai Yi, or Bai Ye people, are thought to be shared with the Lao people of Laos, the Shan people of Myanmar and the Thai people of Thailand. Talk about a big family! And if that wasn’t enough, the Zhuang, Dong, Shui, Bouyei, and Li ethnic minorities also identify the Bai Yue as their ancient ancestors. Although we doubt there’s a space large enough for a family reunion, these ethnic groups all share undoubtedly similar features that point towards their common heritage.

According to historical records, the first references to the Dai’s ancestors were made during the Qin (221-206 B.C.) and Han (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.) dynasties. The first Dai prefecture, known as Yizhou Prefecture, was set up in 109 BC by Emperor Wu of the Western Han Dynasty. It took up a large portion of southwestern Yi, which in turn covered parts of modern-day Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan. It appears the Dai people lucked out, as the patch of land they were designated was incredibly fertile and benefited from an excellent climate! This encouraged the Dai to become accomplished farmers and they are believed to be the first to have used elephants and oxen to plough the land. They also developed complex irrigation systems to help farm rice more effectively, so next time you’re in China and you’re enjoying a hearty bowl of rice, remember to thank the Dai. And the elephants!

Nowadays the vast majority of the Dai population can be found in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture and Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, both in Yunnan province. They can be further subdivided into the Dai Neua, which are mainly found in Dehong, and the Dai Lue, which are mainly found in Xishuangbanna. Like many ethnic minorities, their language is incredibly complex and different Dai communities will speak one of some five southwestern Tai languages, known as Tai Lü, Tai Nüa, Tai Dam, Tai Ya, and Tai Hongjin. All of these spoken languages are closely related to those of the Zhuang and Dong ethnic minorities.

In keeping with this level of complexity, they also have an alphabetic writing system that is separate from the character-based Chinese script and can be split into four branches. If you thought learning French at school was hard, imagine trying to learn five different spoken languages and four different ways of writing! Their writing system originates from the Indian alphabet and is classified as a variant of Sanskrit. They use this script to keep a record of their history and preserve their folklore.

The average Dai village is usually made up of about 40 households, with larger villages consisting of nearly 100. They are normally situated close to rivers or streams, as the Dai people revere water, and feature a large banyan tree or sacred forest, where the locals believe the spirits of their ancestors live. Even the smallest of villages will have its own Buddhist temple or pagoda, as the Dai are devout Buddhists. The peacock is also greatly admired as a symbol of beauty, honesty, and peacefulness. Their Peacock Dance has garnered great fame in China for its grace and use of complex arm movements. Just imagine Swan Lake but with a lot more colour!

If you want to experience Dai culture first-hand or simply take part in their delightful Water Splashing Festival, we recommend visiting either Manting Park or the Dai Ethnic Garden in Xishuangbanna. There you can enjoy some of their delectable bamboo fried rice, take part in the water splashing festivities, or simply admire the elegant dress of the Dai women.

Yunnan Local Snacks

In most provinces the snacks are so complex and contain so many ingredients that they invariably appear to us like full sized meals, whereas in Yunnan the local snacks are characterised by their tasteful simplicity. From Dali to Lijiang, each county in Yunnan boasts its own unique snacks and usually they are the result of ethnic minorities who have adapted their cooking styles over decades. While the local Tibetan people have a preference for yak’s milk yogurt, the Bai ethnic minority love cheese, and the Naxi people have a fondness for seasoned flatbreads. This incredible variety means you’ll never be at a loss to find a tasty titbit once your stomach starts rumbling!

Xuanwei Ham (宣威腿)

Xuanwei Ham

Xuanwei Ham is one of China’s top three most famous ham dishes and, once you catch the scent of this sweet salty meat, we’re sure you’ll see why. This type of ham originates from Xuanwei County in northeastern Yunnan and has a history of over 250 years. It is normally cured during the winter and left to ferment for upwards of half a year! The ham comes from the local Wumeng hogs, which provide perfectly marbled meat that is both salty and sweet without being oily or greasy. The ham itself is incredibly adaptable and can be stir-fried, deep-fried, steamed or added to a stew. In some parts of Yunnan, even the moon cakes are stuffed with Xuanwei ham and are heartily enjoyed during Mid-Autumn Festival. It is mainly used to add flavour to other dishes or to make broth, but makes a sumptuous snack in its own right.

Rushan (乳扇)


Rushan is almost exclusively found in Dali Prefecture and originates from the Bai ethnic minority. It is made using a type of cow’s milk cheese that is flat and has a somewhat leathery texture, giving it the appearance of a folding fan. This is what earned it the name “rushan”, which literally means “milk fan”. The slivers of cheese are usually fried or grilled and then wrapped around a stick, resembling a popsicle. Sweet condiments will then be spread on the cooked cheese, such as sweetened condensed milk, rose petal infused honey, chocolate syrup, or fruit preserves. The finished product is mouth-wateringly crispy and the strong, milky flavour of the cheese is perfectly complimented by the thick sweetness of the condiments. Once you’ve felt these flaky strips of cheese melt in your mouth, we’re certain you’ll be a “milk fan” too!

Rubing (乳饼)


Like rushan, rubing also originates from the Bai people of Dali Prefecture but is made using a type of goat’s milk cheese. Its name literally means “milk cake” as blocks of this firm, white cheese greatly resemble slices of scrumptious sponge cake. Thick, juicy slices of rubing are pan-fried and then dipped in either a mixture of salt and chilli or sugar depending on your personal preference. In some restaurants, it will even be stir-fried with vegetables in a similar way to stir-fried tofu. The delightful sharpness of the goat’s cheese goes incredibly well with both salty and sweet seasonings, making it a versatile snack that is as filling as it is delicious.

Erkuai (饵块)


Erkuai is a type of rice cake that is made by taking high-quality rice, soaking it in water, steaming it in spring water, and then pounding the cooked rice down into a soft mush using a giant pestle and mortar. This rice mush is hand-kneaded on a wooden board to remove all of the air bubbles and then moulded into its characteristic pillow shape. These soft, plush, doughy cylinders look so comfortable that you’ll be tempted to rest your head on them! Erkuai is a popular staple food throughout Yunnan and is indispensible during their Spring Festival or New Year celebrations. Like Xuanwei Ham, it is an incredibly versatile food and can be boiled, roasted, or even pan-fried.

For breakfast, many locals love nothing more than to roast a few slices of erkuai over a charcoal fire and spread handmade fruit jam over them like a spongy, warm croissant. In restaurants, it is often served stir-fried with a mixture of vegetables, dried red chillies, Sichuan pepper, and salt. On the street, you’ll find it grilled and rolled around a strip of fried dough known as youtiao (油条). This snack can either be served sweet, with a sugary brown sauce and peanuts, or savoury, with a fermented kind of tofu known as lufu (滷腐) and bean sprouts. This comforting snack resembles a burrito and its luxurious layers of flavour are sure to leave you wanting more!

Xizhou Baba (喜洲粑粑)

Xizhou Baba

This style of baba is just one of many found throughout Yunnan and was adapted by the Naxi people of Xizhou town near Dali. Baba is a type of flatbread made from wheat flour dough that has been flattened into a circular shape. The lardy flatbread is then either topped with minced pork and spring onions or filled with sweet red bean paste, and baked in oil until the dough has gone a golden-brown. Its circular shape and use of meaty toppings has earned it the amusing nickname “Xizhou pizza”. The sweet baba taste like plump pastries, while the savoury baba have a pleasant saltiness that accompanies the rich dough perfectly. Though they may not taste exactly like pizza, Xizhou baba are a takeaway snack that you’ll surely miss once you leave Yunnan.



The Three Parallel Rivers

Taking up only 0.4% of the country’s area yet somehow managing to support 20% of its plant species and 25% of its animal species, the protected areas around the Three Parallel Rivers are some of the most bio-diverse in the world. Altogether 15 protected areas along the three rivers were made into a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003 because of their biodiversity and phenomenal landforms. The site represents the point where the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong (Lancang) and Salween (Nujiang) rivers run parallel for over 300 kilometres. This is rather miraculous in of itself, considering these are the 3rd, 12th and 25th longest rivers in the world respectively and, while the Yangtze eventually flows into the East China Sea at Shanghai, miles away the Mekong empties into the South China Sea at the city of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and still further the Salween flows into the Indian Ocean at Moulmein in Burma.

Some of the gorges in these areas boast a depth of over 3,000 metres (9,800 ft.), making them twice as deep as the Grand Canyon! At the bottom of the gorges the climate is sub-tropical, whilst along the top there are mountain ranges sporting over 100 snow-covered mountains that are higher than 5,000 metres (over 16, 400 ft.). With all these different temperature zones, you can see how this area has come to support so many plant and animal species. The protected areas are inhabited by a phenomenal 6,000 species of plants, 173 species of mammals, and 417 species of birds, including red pandas, snow leopards, Lady Amherst’s pheasants, Asiatic wild dogs, and the incredibly rare Gaoligong Pika. The animal species found here are a wonderful mixture of the wildly beautiful and the painfully cute!

Of the many snow-capped mountains littered through the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, the Meili Snow Mountain is considered the most famous. Its tallest peak, Kawagarbo, looms over the surrounding countryside at an elevation of over 6,500 metres (22,100 ft.) and the whole range itself is considered sacred by the local Tibetan monks. As of 2001, it is illegal to climb the mountain as its status as a religious site means it would be sacrilegious to set foot on it. So be sure not to climb it or you’ll be arrest for high treason! If you travel to the town of Shenping in Yunnan, you’ll be rewarded with a stunning view of the mountain range and may even see a few of the Tibetan pilgrims completing their circuit of it on foot.

The Meili Snow Mounta in is part of the eight geographical clusters that make up the national park and each one offers something new to its visitors. The Gaoligong Mountain Area is the most extensive and, as such, features cavernous gorges, dizzying cliffs, bubbling streams, thundering waterfalls, primeval evergreen forests, and settlements of the 25 ethnic minorities that call the area home.

The Yunling Mountain Area is home to the most diverse community of animal species, including the elusive Yunnan golden monkeys that can be found nowhere else on earth. And the Haba Snow Mountain Area boasts a modern oceanic glacier, an Indian azalea forest, alpine lakes, snow-capped mountains, and lava formations. Each of these clusters feels like an ethereal paradise and, with all of these choices on offer, you may never find your way out of the mountains!

From the luxuriant forests to the reddish sandstone Danxia landforms and the verdant alpine meadows, the protected areas of the Three Parallel Rivers represent a visual feast that should not be missed. You can access parts of the national park from the cities of Dali, Lijiang or Shangri-la in Yunnan. Most of the treks can take upwards of a week or more, so say goodbye to your creature comforts and prepare to get a little wild!

The Three Pagodas

Rising up alongside the magnificent Cangshan Mountains, the Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple are an architectural wonder that is certainly protected by the gods. In 1925, during what was considered the most severe earthquake ever to hit Dali, only one out of every hundred buildings survived. Yet the Three Pagodas came out unscathed. Over a period of more than a thousand years, these towering monuments have witnessed numerous natural and man-made disasters, and have miraculously remained undamaged to this day. Nowadays they are the must-see tourist attraction in Dali and one of the few enduring remnants of China’s ancient past.

They are located about 1.5 kilometres away from Dali Ancient Town and rest at the foot of Yinglo Peak on the Cangshan Mountains. All three pagodas are made of brick that has been covered in white mud and they are arranged on the three points of a symmetric triangle. It is believed they were built for auspicious reasons as, according to local legends, Dali was once a swamp that acted as a breeding ground for dragons! When humans came to populate the area, they did not want to anger the frisky dragons, as it was well-known that dragons could cause natural disasters, so they built the three pagodas. Why, you ask? Because dragons are terrified of pagodas, of course! The ancient people believed these three pagodas would deter the dragons from returning and, as there hasn’t been a dragon sighting in over 1,000 years, I think we can firmly say that it worked.

The main pagoda at the centre, known as Qianxun Pagoda, is both the oldest and the most magnificent. The Nanzhao Kingdom (738-902) ruled over most of Yunnan during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and King Quan Fengyou of Nanzhao built the pagoda sometime between 823 and 840 AD. At a colossal 70 metres (227 ft.) in height, it is one of the tallest pagodas in Chinese history. It is sixteen storeys high and is distinctly square-shaped, giving it a powerful elegance amongst the looming mountains.

As you marvel at this fine pagoda, it’s hard not to detect its resemblance to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an. Don’t worry; your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you! The designers of Qianxun Pagoda reputedly came from Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an) and this is why the pagoda is built in the traditional Tang-style. Tragically, the ladder that recently provided access to the upper storeys has collapsed so there is currently no way to climb Qianxun Pagoda.

In 1978, during a major restoration project, over 700 Buddhist relics, including statues made of gold, silver, wood and crystal, were found inside the pagoda. A number of ancient Buddhist documents and over 600 traditional medicinal ingredients were also excavated. These artefacts have provided historians with invaluable information about the history of the region, but have failed to answer the most pertinent question; how did so many people manage to miss spotting 700 statues? I could understand walking past a couple of statues without noticing them but not 700!

The two sibling pagodas were both built about 100 years after Qianxun and are each about 43 metres (140 ft.) tall. Unlike their big brother, their architectural style resembles that of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), as they are octagonal in shape and are ten storeys high. Behind the three pagodas, the Juying or “Reflection” Pond mirrors the image of the snow white towers jutting out amongst the mountains. For reasons unknown, one of the smaller pagodas leans slightly to the side and is reminiscent of Italy’s Tower of Pisa. If you fancy getting a fun snapshot of your trip, you can try “holding up” this pagoda in a photograph. You’ll end up with an interesting souvenir, but the other tourists might think you’ve gone a little crazy!

Chongsheng Temple, the pagodas’ mother building, was a Buddhist temple that acted as the royal temple of the Dali Kingdom (937-1253), which ruled the old Nanzhao Empire during both the Tang and Song dynasties. It was originally built around the same time as Qianxun Pagoda but was tragically destroyed during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and had to be rebuilt in 2005. It is now a massive complex that winds its way up the Cangshan Mountains. If hiking isn’t your thing, on the nearby Marble Street you’ll find stalls where you can purchase locally made craftworks, marble carvings or brick-paintings.

Nowadays, tourists can visit both the temple and pagodas at almost any time. During the day, the pagodas rise up through the mist and stand tall, protecting the region from amorous dragons. At night, they are beautifully illuminated and appear almost ethereal, like towers from long forgotten fairy tales. If you’re taking a trip to Dali, set aside a few hours to make the trip and marvel at one of the last vestiges of the ancient Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms.