Published: August 6th 2007April 15th 2007
Last Day in Kunming
Ok, I couldn’t handle it, Kunming was simply too cold for me. Despite all my efforts I had failed to acclimatise and I needed to head to a warmer place. Coincidentally, XiShuangBanNa was going to be the center of the Dai new year festival within a few days, so after virtually no decision making process I had booked a bus ticket. Of course, the bus wasn’t leaving until late the next day so I had to entertain myself, and how do you think I did that?
Well, it was Easter Monday, so I ate some chocolate cake. I also ate some muffins, a Chinese Muslim lunch and the ultimate un-vegetarian meal in the entire world. Those following my travels may remember the Chinese two minute noodles I ate at ShiLin which I thought were a fantastic university meal, however, I was very much mistaken! Before leaving Kunming I stopped into a really nice Chinese restaurant and ordered another Across the Bridge Noodles just to see what the up-market version was like. The dish was served as follows: 10 small bowls of random meat products, 5 small bowls of random other products, one dish of vegetable,
I just had to celebrate Easter as best I could.
one giant bowl of noodles and one massive bowl of soup. All in all there were 17 different dishes which I had to throw into the soup and I spent the subsequent 30 minutes trying to figure out what all the ingredients were. I do believe that I ate ten different species of animal that night, and I could only name about five of them. I felt so powerful as I sat there at the extreme top of the food chain with bits of cow, pig, chicken, duck, quail, rabbit, lamb and who knows what else in my mouth. What scares me most however is that I only ordered the cheap (25 kuai) version of the meal; a 100 kuai version was available that must surely have had at least 40 different meats in it. How many of them would have to have been endangered? Note to self: when rich I must return and try the expensive version.
Of course I didn’t eat all day, that would have been silly (I have subsequently managed to eat all day, yes I am fat), I also went sightseeing as the good tourist that I am. The main attraction of the day
was the Yunnan provincial museum which contained a couple of fantastic exhibits. One of these must be shared with the world due to its sheer bewilderment factor (caution: topics discussed here may be offensive to some readers). The main exhibit was a collection of bronze and wooden artifacts from the Dai kingdom which ruled over much of Yunnan around 400 years before Christ; amid the collection I came across a series of items labeled as “Zu’s”. Now, in case the items themselves were not descriptive enough, gigantic drawings of them were shown around the cases highlighting the detailed craftsmanship. This is not extraordinary. What was extraordinary to me was that the Zu’s were carved wooden wangs with stylised figurines on the handle. 2000 year old “sexual aids” were staring at me with carved ducks, rabbits and eagle’s feet on their handles. This is where things turn from practical to weird; one of the pieces had the head of a scary, frightening and hideously ugly man attached to one end. Who would want to use that? Next to this was the only bronze Zu, where the wang was actually the handle of a shovel. A shovel? Is this the first documented
This was out the front of the museum and I wasn't sure what it meant. The lion eats the buffalo's tail but it's ok because the buffalo has a baby? I later found out that this sculpture was a common theme among the 2000 year old brass statues in the museum.
case of combining work with pleasure? Ok, away from such topics.
Before the Festival
Arriving in JingHong, the capital of the XiShuangBanNa district, I was greeted with beautifully warm weather. The district lies just north of the Myanmar and Laos borders so it enjoys the same tropical weather as places like Vientianne and Luang Prabang. This came as an immense pleasure compared to the cold of KunMing, even at 6:00am when I was searching for a hotel. JingHong itself is situated on the Mekong river making it the fifth section of that great river that I have seen and is a quaint little city; unassuming and spacious with a sprinkling of western facilities and a casual vibe like that of Laos. This is where we set the scene for the next six days.
In JingHong I stayed at a great guesthouse along with a number of other travelers, we explored together, partied together, ate together and just generally enjoyed JingHong as a group. To be fair to you all, I feel that I should introduce my friends before getting into the stories of what we all got up to, otherwise you would get very lost. First
This is the river crossing that Lonely Planet claims to be the Mekong. Yeah right!
off I met Bianca, an Australian girl, on the bus. She can speak Mandarin extremely well and I tried my best to learn as much from her as I could. Bianca’s friend Erin, an amazingly funny girl from New York who couldn’t decide if I should be called the Dread Pirate Matty or just Westley (as a side note, I need to tell you that I have caught a contagious version of the English accent. I heard myself speaking on one of Erin’s videos and even I thought I sounded like some posh English aristocrat. Is this new?). Next door to the three of us were two English girls, Sophie and Katie, a quiet Israeli named Nimrod, and a disastrously beautiful Danish girl called Mette (I actually met her in KunMing and subsequently convinced her to come to JingHong for the warm weather). The next room contained four more Isralis, two of whom - Ory and Omer - were totally mad, and two who were mature and normal. Omer constantly walked around the guesthouse in nothing more than his underwear which got him into trouble when he sat down with a group of Italians who he had mistaken for us;
At SanChaHe nature park.
they were quite shocked by his casual attire.
On my first day I set off alone on a mountain bike in search of some minority villages. The XiShuangBanNa region is mostly populated by minority tribes such as the Dai and Hmong and there are literally hundreds of small villages and temples dotting the landscape around JingHong. The Dai practice the same kind of Buddhism as Thailand and Laos (hence the new year festival in April) and thus have very similar architecture and customs. However, I was following directions from my Lonely Planet guidebook so I managed to find precisely zero interesting villages. What I did find was enough mud to clog my bike’s wheels to the point where they would not move except when they decided to catch my pant’s leg and rip a giant hole in it. I rode around for a few hours in lush farmlands where tomatoes and eggplants dominated searching for a river crossing over the Mekong. Eventually I found the river crossing but the boatman was not working that day, but strangely it was not the Mekong that was to be crossed, just some small tributary. I’m not sure what kind of daft writers
LP employs nowadays because the Mekong looks decidedly different from a 5m wide slow moving stream, but oh well, perhaps I was asking a bit too much of the book. I returned to JingHong to find that the others had been similarly unlucky in their searches so we decided that dinner was in order.
JingHong has a great variety of food, if you know where to find it. While I was there I ate so many different dishes that I can barely remember half of them. Pancakes (thin and thick ones) were a daily necessity, particularly at breakfast time, as much as rice and noodles. Local Chinese restaurants, western style cafes, and even vegetarian restaurants just appeared everywhere when we needed them. I must admit that for the first time in my life I actually enjoyed a tofu dish! Not a dish with tofu in it, but a fully fledged vego tofu monstrosity actually tasted fantastic. This doesn’t mean I’m turning vegetarian (although hippy is slowly creeping into my lifestyle. Shudder), just that I can now enjoy such food. What topped things off though was the street food. Nowhere else have I found such a variety of delicious food
just sitting around on the streets: all sorts of fruits, drinks, Thai-style pancakes, sweets, Chinese sausage rolls, nuts, berries, fairy-floss, dumplings, breads, pineapples filled with sticky rice, and last but by no means least, barbecued everything. Most nights found us all sitting in our favourite BBQ joint eating all sorts of random meat on sticks which tasted so tender and juicy that I could have eaten all day long, and I tried to.
On the second day, two days before the festival began, Erin and I ventured out of town to the SanChaHe nature park. After riding on a school bus to get there we found the park to be a classic example of Chinese tourism: fake minority tour guides, a small assortment of animals in enclosures (including Cockatoos) out of place grass and gardens, souvenir shops and a local entertainment stage featuring modern dance. We thought this to be the pitts so we walked down a path into the jungle in search of wildlife before heading home to JingHong. Now, as lucky occurrences go we did pretty well that day, and this was even before the festival where you are supposed to accrue luck by getting splashed with
water. To get home we got a ride in a mini-van thanks to a friendly Chinese couple at the bus station, and we chatted with the couple all the way back to the city. Erin was getting on fantastically with the girl (we found out later that the couple were married and the husband, Lee, was a rich advertising executive) thanks to their mobile phone which could translate Chinese into English, and I was making a good attempt of talking in Mandarin to the guys in the back. Before we even reached JingHong they had offered to pay for the ride and also to take us out to dinner!
Two travelers could not turn that offer down, so we agreed and soon after we went out to a little barge on the banks of the Mekong for a barbeque dinner. The GanBei’s (cheers’s) started happening and the food started arriving, tons of it. Chinese culture is such that a host wants to throw on so much food and drink that it’s physically impossible to finish it all: after our first beers Lee did not just order two more, no, he ordered a whole crate of them! On the table
we had perhaps 10 dishes of barbequed meat and vegetables along with an assortment of other foods. My favourite was small river snails cooked in tomato and chilli sauce that had to be eaten with toothpicks. To say that the feast was fantastic would not be sufficient as I don’t think that I have ever had such a varied and enjoyable meal in my life. Sated and chocked full of everything that I could fit in, I was ready for sleep when Lee decided, somewhat drunkenly, that we all needed massages and watermelon. So, of course we all went to a massage parlor/hotel with two large watermelons for a relaxing late night of sitting around being pampered. Wow, what a night we had, Erin and I, and we didn’t pay a cent! How can the Chinese be so accommodating to two backpackers that they have only just met?
Thursday morning arrived as the last day before the festival and as a group we decided to head to the small town of GanLanBa by bicycle. Erin, Biance, Ory, Omer and I set off on our mountain bikes for the supposedly casual three hour ride south along the Mekong with high
hopes for a sunny day. The previous days had been a trifle rainy in the late afternoon and we hoped to be able to get through the day in relative dryness. GanLanBa lies about 40km south of JingHong and is thus a better place to see Dai villages while also being within range of an easy day trip. The ride to GanLanBa was amazing in itself as the road wound around the mountains following the course of the Mekong, with every corner presenting yet another view of the mighty river as it forges its way through the valley landscape. In GanLanBa we found one of the most authentic markets that I have seen along with some of the best local Chinese food that I have yet tasted, but that was not the reason for our journey, the other side of the river awaited us. We caught a ferry over the Mekong and headed out into the wilderness with the instructions “just get lost” guiding us towards local villages. Unfortunately the sky had turned grey and rain appeared imminent as we headed off the main road, but we charged on unperturbed. I was expecting to find small local villages, and we
saw some old buildings beside the road but no full scale local villages were to be found. Instead we found a forest of rubber trees which looked for all intents and purposes to be out of an English fairy-tale. We rode for perhaps 15 minutes through a European forest before eventually emerging into an agrarian world of small huts, local families and tilled fields. No village, but local Dai people doing what local Dai people do. We had finally managed to find something close to what we had been searching for over the previous three days.
Festival Day 1: Dragon Boat Racing
Friday marked the beginning of the festival, the first of three days. As soon as I looked out the front door the town looked different, people had just appeared from nowhere. Everywhere in JingHong there were people from the surrounding villages who had journeyed to town for the festival, a lot of them dressed in traditional Dai costume. The population must have literally doubled or even tripled overnight, and for the following days every hotel, restaurant and store was jam-packed with Chinese people in party mode. Even our westernised guesthouse was full of people at
Erin in the Jungle
In the hills at SanChaHe.
dinner time as the flood of people overflowed from the Chinese restaurants.
The first day of festivities was marked by dragon boat races in the Mekong, so party central was the road running parallel to the river and the bank of the river itself. As we walked along the road it was as though we were at a carnival. Food and snack stalls cluttered every patch of available space, rigged games of hoop throwing and the like were being run by Chinese carnies, all kinds of stores were about selling any random items that they could (my favourites include the guy doing an infomercial for a special cleaver on the side of the street and the watches you could buy which came with a set of six AA batteries) and even a freak show was to be found. The four of us - Erin, Bianca, Mette and I - wandered up and down eating just about everything on the street and looking around at the festivities. As far as markets go the scene was astounding, the scale of the event was well and truly above anything I had seen as the road was packed for more than a kilometer,
and that wasn’t even down on the riverbank! Unfortunately the weather closed in just before the boat races began so a mass exodus occurred where many thousand people tried to queue Chinese style (very pushy like) at each of the exits. In the end we had to climb up a steep embankment just to get out of it all.
Considering the weather we (Mette and I) decided that a hot spring was in order, and it just so happens that one exists just west of JingHong so we rode out through the rain for a spot of warmth before dinner. This was great for us as the warm waters washed away the cold and confusion of the day, but it resulted in great headaches later in the evening. Firstly, when we returned to the guesthouse at 8pm we found that everyone else had gone out to dinner. That was ok, I had Erin’s phone number, well, I though I did. It actually turned out to be someone else’s number, someone Chinese and very angry. Secondly, the power was out which meant that there was no light and no hot shower; two things that I like to have when I’m
in need of a shower. The power outage also meant that when Mette and I finally found the others and went to get ourselves some dinner we found that most restaurants couldn’t cook any food for us. I guess that the rain and the influx of people had really messed with the public services.
Nevertheless, the night progressed and we all went out to a Chinese disco (sorry, that is a terrible segue, but I’m too lazy to think of anything better). Now, I don’t want to bore you with details, but let me say this: none of us paid for a single drink, we were all constantly being given drinks by friendly locals who just wanted to be seen with us, dozens of Chinese girls wanted to hug and kiss all of the western guys (especially one girl who shunned her boyfriend for about 5 minutes just to dance with me, much to his disgust), and thus by the end of the night Omer and I were dancing without shirts on top of a speaker stack while surrounded by Chinese girls. Oh what a night.
Festival Day 2: Market Day
The market on day one
Bianca, Erin and Ory on the road to GanLanBa.
was huge, but day two was slated as the official market day. What was it going to be? How much bigger could it possibly get? Was it going to be utter madness on the streets?
The second day was actually more about temple-going than markets, and the market turned out to be smaller than the first day’s. However, the day felt much nicer due to a brilliantly bright sun and no sign of rain. The main Dai temples in JingHong were packed full of people milling around which left the market street relatively open for us to wander around and look at things. Once again everyone had turned out in their finery and it was enjoyable enough just to sit down with some dumplings and watermelon juice while watching the flow of people. Considering the magnitude of the previous night it was also a good day for sleeping in, eating good food and sitting around with coffees, so that is precisely what we did.
Food was easily provided by the market and again we ate like kings, pig like kings, but by early afternoon it was too hot to be around the market so we headed to the
Now This is the Mekong
A real river crossing at GanLanBa.
park. Of course, all of the people that had traveled to JingHong were about town making merry and having a relaxing day so the park was well and truly alive with activity. Small children were moving around the lake in giant plastic bubbles, couples were sitting on the grass enjoying a cool drink, families were paddling giant swans about, it was a very relaxing atmosphere. Being westerners we caused quite a stir and people were continually taking pictures of Mette and I, some more overtly than others. One couple gave their baby to Mette and then took photos of the two of them; it really was a wonderfully friendly and peaceful place. Of course, being China something had to go wrong so when I tried to order two coffees, one black and one white, I ended up with one coffee and a tall glass of milk, but that wasn’t anything to get my knickers in a twist about. For a festival day it was unbelievably relaxed, perhaps even dull, but given the circumstances it was ideal. Perhaps we should do this sort of thing more often at home. Also, the third day of the festival was to be the highlight,
Ory and Omer
On the ferry.
the climax, and we needed all the rest we could get.
Festival Day 3: Water Splashing
They don’t call it a water splashing festival for nothing, the third day is something out of a young child’s dream. The concept is that the more often you get splashed the more luck you will receive, a fair idea, and most definitely a fun one. When I walked out to the guesthouse balcony nothing seemed different, nothing extraordinary was afoot except for the off person walking the streets with a water pistol. However, by 9:30 the streets were alive!
Mette and I needed to get bus tickets so we prepared ourselves and left the guesthouse with the idea that we would make a quick dash to the travel agent next door. They were closed, and on the way back I was ambushed by two young boys. “LAO WAI!” My entire front was wet.
Back at the guesthouse now we had a team meeting and decided to walk to the bus station to get our tickets. We steeled ourselves for the onslaught, collected a bucket each and set forth on the attack. Almost instantly I heard it again, this
As the rain began to fall.
time from behind. “LAO WAI!” I was soaked through now and I had only been on the street for a minute. At every store, house, building, intersection, or wherever else they cared we ran into groups of locals armed to the teeth. High-powered water-guns, buckets, ice-cold water, water-bombs from the roofs above us. It was literally impossible to stay dry as we jogged/ran through the town. Every time we passed a local their eyes would alight with that festival glee, they were so happy to induct the westerners into their culture (or more likely they liked the way we squealed when they wet us).
Eventually I got the hang of things and the retribution began, being taller than everyone I could easily wreak havoc wherever I went. Running towards a group of locals who were guarding a large tank of water shouting “ZHONG GUO REN” as they tried their best to fend me off, eventually I would reach the water supply with my bucket and then whoosh with our water spray. Water flying and them running and squealing. However, this was only cause for dozens of other to join the fray as hundreds of buckets worth of water flowed
Boat Racing Day
The shore of the Mekong on the first day of the festival.
across us all! It became impossible to see through the spray as we all lost sight of who was friend or foe. The wetter we all got the luckier we would all be!
Finally we reached the bus station, wet through to the core, water dripping on the desk as I politely asked for two tickets. Of course, our money was also soaked through and the staff thought we were a hilarious sight. We triple bagged our tickets and change, tied the prize possession to our persons, and headed back to the guesthouse.
On the way we passed a fountain and I couldn’t resist. Again with the war cry and in I jumped, throwing as much water as I possibly could with swift motions of my hands. Within 30 seconds the fountain was drying up and the surrounding street was awash with hundreds of liters of wasted water. Shouting and squealing children were running about me trying to get high enough to dunk the water over my head. I chased one little boy for about twenty meters as he giddily ran to his parents, only to find that when I caught up to him and upturned my bucket
it had been completely empty all along. Mette had fallen behind as dozens of boys, girls, men and women (don’t be fooled into thinking that the adults don’t get involved as much as the kids do) were pouring bucket after bucket over her. This day was so hilariously fun and addictive that I could not stop myself from laughing as we continued on our way.
Eventually we reached the hotel and the tickets had remained dry. Mette was finished with the splashing, she was getting cold (what kind of Dane is she), but I was ready for more as I had not seen any of the Israeli guys since we had left on our ticketing mission. I headed towards the biggest fountain in the city, assuming that the Israelis would be there causing all sorts of mayhem. The fountain had four long channels of water filled with people spraying water in seemingly random directions. A target this second would be completely forgotten the next. With the two English girls (I had run into them along the way) I jumped into the middle of the fountain and immediately found myself to be the center of attention. Never before have I
I Ate This
seen so much water cascading down upon me, not even in a waterfall. It was totally impossible to see or to hide, I just had to take it. Water was flying from my bucket at an alarming rate as I tried to splash as many people as I could with each bucket-load. Then I realised that my surrounding demographic had changed and that where there had previously been children their now stood tall Chinese men in army fatigues! What was going on? Was something wrong? No! It was now the Chinese army versus the westerners, game on! The tempo increased somehow to such a level that the fountain actually ran out of water. So much water was in the air or on the surrounding pavement that the bottom of the fountain was too dry for me to load my bucket yet somehow I was still being constantly inundated with the stuff. I had to retreat, the army had one.
As we left the fountain area we noticed that trucks were driving around the city which had plastic sheeting in their trays so that they could be filled to the brim with water. Monstrously large trucks like swimming pools were
Not really, but I thought about it. (Mette is there on the side)
moving around the streets with people standing in the back throwing water with total disregard (except for the police, they were exempt). Of course we had to try this out so Sophie, Katie and I jumped into one truck and proceeded to wet everything and everyone we passed. In one of those uninsurably dangerous occurrences that happen every now and then we drove around for perhaps half and hour in the truck. Every time we passed another truck we would slow down and a miniature war would ensue, at one point we even passed a council water truck fitted with a crowd dispersing water gun! As I looked out on the streets it appeared as though a torrential rain storm had passed the town; everything was wet, water flowed down every gutter in a torrent, and the landscape had the feel of total inundation. However, the weather was perfectly warm and sunny, it had been all day.
Eventually the truck ran out of water and as we went to the Mekong to reload the three of us westerners said our goodbyes and headed home. We were completely bedraggled, soaked, wet, and cold. We needed a good hot shower and
More food stalls.
a break, not to mention lunch. We were weak, the locals continued the fight until 4pm, a good six hours of running around like headless chooks throwing water as though it was worthless. The Dai people sure know how to throw a party.
There are more photos below