Exploring Yunnan: Excursion to “Almost” Southeast Asia–Xishuang Banna

In order to save time, Sam and I got plane tickets to Jinghong, the capital of Xishuang Banna, and arrived at around 10:00am. We step out of the airport and smell humid air and then hear the gaggle of taxi drivers out front yelling at us “fee-ty! fee-ty!” They wanted us to pay 50yuan for a drive to Jinghong’s center. I asked if they could turn on the machine, but they said: “kaibuliao, it cannot be turned on.” Basically, the driver wanted to swindle us out of our money. A trip to downtown would be around $10-15yuan, but since we are foreigners and have “no way” to get to downtown, they decide to utilize this opportunity to get more money. This behavior among taxi drivers (street vendors, anywhere one can haggle) is widespread throughout China. It finally began to wear me down at this point. Month after month it’s always the same. It’s not that the money is an issue, but it’s how these people treat us that really affects me. They don’t see us as equals, as human beings, but rather as overflowing money bags. Also, it’s almost as if something is missing in their moral character…cheating, swindling, tricking are all awful things to do to your common wo/man. If this is seen as bad behavior, then why is it so widespread? Maybe it is due to poverty. One will do a lot for money.

I persuade Sam to join me find a public bus. We walk onto a large street that is lined with fruit sellers that sought shade underneath the the banyan and palm trees. We ask them for the closest bus stop. The man speaks poor mandarin, but points to the other side of the road and said to wait on the corner. We wait for 10 minutes and finally got on a bus. We paid 5yuan. We got off the bus and found ourselves in a humid, forested city. Are we really still in China?

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Jinghong

Sam and I walk down the street, found the city center where locals were practicing for a culture competition that night, and found a quaint restaurant next to it. We ate while listening to the music. At this point, Sam and I had no plans whatsoever. Our next goal was to find Meimei Cafe and figure out our next day’s agenda. After asking around, we found ourselves at the foreigner street and at the cafe. We drink the most delicious lemonade and look through packets of travel advice. The owner of the cafe approached our table and gave us some suggestions. He recommended a Bulong village near the border of Myanmar. He mentioned that it isn’t the easiest place to get to, but worth the trip. Sam and I decide to go the next morning!

From the cafe, we booked two beds at an international hostel (40yuan a night) and then walk to the Mekong River. We cross through a maze of alleyways and steps till we reach the shore. The sun came out! I actually had beads of sweat run down my forehead because it was warm outside! I can’t remember the last time I felt so warm. The Mekong was beautiful and blue:

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Hanging out on the Mekong River

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Kids Swimming in the Mekong

As the sun began to set, we returned back to the foreigner street, had Thai food (couldn’t find a Dai style restaurant in the area), and then we searched the area for delicious desserts. We come across a cafe that has a Spanish-French chef/owner who once was head chef at the Waldorf (is that the hotel name?) in New York. We ate and conversed with him. When he heard our plans about going to the Bulong border town, he was in shock and said “No, no, no, that cannot be done. Too far away and recently there has been issues around the borders of Myanmar.” He persuades us to go on one of his organized trips. Sam and I feel conflicted. The Meimei Cafe owner said “It will be no problem! You can do it.” and this guy said the opposite. Who should we listen to? We excuse ourselves to think things through and watch the performance that we saw the locals practice that afternoon.

The performance commemorated 60th anniversary of the establishment of Xishuang Banna. The performances ranged from dances, kongfu, to comedy skits. Each performance was judged (by who, I don’t know). My guess is the the judges were from the local government, most likely Han Chinese. Sam and I were the only foreigners in the crowd, besides us, the audience were locals from or outside Jinghong.

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Dai Ethnic Minority Dance (the winning routine)

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The End of the Show

It was refreshing to see a performance that was aimed for the community and not tourists. However, I wished I was able to learn a bit more of this performance. What are the power dynamics: who leads this event? Who are the judges? Who decides which parts of Dai culture can be performed? Who is the intended audience: Is this for the local community? Visiting officials? Tourists? History of the Event: Is this a local event turned into big-time performance? Is this a new event (the announcer mentioned this is the second year for this performance, but was it a much smaller scale before?) I’ll have to keep such questions in mind when I begin fieldwork in Lugu Lake. The politics within a community is complex and needs to be understood through many different frames.

Sam and I headed back to the hostel. We planned to wake up early to begin our travels to Southwest Xishuang Banna.

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