Ah, notorious Ruìlì. At one time, the town’s reputation for wild nights, seedy casinos and bawdy karaoke bars drew everyone from the wild and adventurous to the shady and the crooked. Ruìlì was considered one of the ‘it’ places in Yúnnán, and young people with money would head here in droves, lured by the ‘anything-goes’ reputation and implicit promise that ‘what-happens-in-Ruìlì-stays-in-Ruìlì’ that the town’s fringe location afforded.
Trade with Myanmar fuelled the boom. The border only opened for business in the 1990s but no sooner had it opened than Ruìlì became a hotbed of trade handling everything from raw goods to gems and arms. In return for the latter, China received huge quantities of heroin, which saw drug-taking and trafficking become part of everyday life.
The local government, with help from Běijīng, retaliated and drug dealers were hauled before sentencing panels and then executed.
These days Ruìlì can seem (dare we say it?) almost sterile. The dance halls and gambling dens are gone and shiny shopping malls and modern hotels stand in their place.
About the raciest thing the average traveller will encounter these days is the odd Burmese trader a little over-enthusiastically adjusting his sarong.
But despite the clean-up, Ruìlì has a great mix of Han Chinese, minorities and Burmese traders hawking jade, lively local markets and a laid-back Southeast Asian feel.
The minority villages nearby are also reason to come; the stupas are in much better condition than those in Xīshuāngbǎnnà, and it’s worth getting a bicycle and heading out to explore.
Another draw for travellers is Myanmar, which lies only a few kilometres away from Ruìlì. Border-crossing restrictions are beginning to relax and although individual tourists are still not allowed to cross, organising permits to take you through the sensitive border area is becoming easier. New highways laid to facilitate border trade stretch all the way from the border to Mandalay, making what had been a horrible five-day journey much more sane. Foreign travellers may one day be able to recreate the ‘Southern Silk Route’, of which Ruìlì and Mandalay were a part.