North of Myanmar and Laos, Xīshuāngbǎnnà is the Chinese approximation of the original Thai name of Sip Sawng Panna (12 Rice-Growing Districts). The Xīshuāngbǎnnà region (西双版纳), better known as Bǎnnà, has become China’s mini-Thailand, attracting tourists looking for sunshine, water-splashing festivals and epic jungle treks.
How popular is this timelocked place? Lìjiāng’s (丽江) maze of cobbled streets, rickety (or rickety-looking, given gentrification) wooden buildings and gushing canals suck in over eight million people a year. So thick are the crowds in the narrow alleys that it can feel like that they've all arrived at the same time.
Dàlǐ (大理), the original backpacker hang-out in Yúnnán, was once the place to chill, with its stunning location sandwiched between mountains and Ěrhǎi Hú (Erhai Lake). Loafing here for a couple of weeks was an essential part of the Yúnnán experience. In recent years, domestic tourists have discovered Dàlǐ in a big way and the scene has changed accordingly.
Some highlights of this region are the traditional villages that are scattered between Téngchōng and Yúnfēng Shān (Cloudy Peak Mountain). The relatively plentiful public transport along this route means that you can jump on and off minibuses to go exploring as the whim takes you.
Scrunched up against Myanmar (Burma) and bisected by the wild Nù Jiāng, the Bǎoshān (保山) region is a varied landscape that includes thick forests, dormant volcanoes and hot springs. The eponymous capital is unremarkable; lovely Téngchōng (and its environs) is where it’s at.
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Gingerly stepping along a trail swept with scree to allow an old fellow with a donkey to pass; resting atop a rock, exhausted, looking up to see the fading sunlight dance between snow-shrouded peaks, then down to see the lingering rays dancing on the rippling waters a thousand metres away; feeling utterly exhilarated.
Jiànshuǐ (建水) is a charming town of old buildings, an enormous Confucian temple, a cave laden with swallows, and some of the best steampot cooking and barbecue you’ll find in Yúnnán. The architecture is constantly being ‘facelifted’, but still retains much of its distinct character, and the locals, who are a mix of Han, Hui and Yi, are extremely friendly.
The range of gorgeous peaks known as Cāng Shān (苍山) rises imposingly above Dàlǐ and offers the best legwork in the area. Most travellers head first for Zhōnghé Temple, on the side of Zhōnghé Shān. At the temple, be careful of imposter monks passing out incense and then demanding ¥200 for a blessing.
The tiny hamlet of Shāxī (沙溪), 120km northwest of Dàlǐ, is a hugely evocative throwback to the days of the Tea-Horse Roads. You can almost hear the clippety-clop of horses’ hooves and shouts of traders. Shāxī is one of only three surviving caravan oases from the old Tea-Horse Roads that stretched from Yúnnán to India.