Tristes Tropiques (pace Lévi-Strauss)

My daughter and I recently made a trip to Xishuangbanna 西双版纳, a small slice of tropical Southeast Asia that lies in the far south of China’s Yunnan province, pressed up against the border with Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

My first and only prior visit was during Chinese New Year in 1997. In all honesty I hadn’t intended to return. Not that Xushuangbanna isn’t wonderful–it undeniably is. It simply wasn’t high enough on my list to warrant a second visit. China is a very big place, I have to dole out return visits with circumspection.

In this case, however, a higher authority made the decision: my daughter. Her school textbook included an children’s poem (erge 儿歌) about the bamboo stilt-houses of the Dai people (Daizu 傣族) who are the primary inhabitants of the region. She also saw photos from my trip, during which I spent a few nights in a traditional house, and was determined to see and stay in one of these houses herself. It is one of my most deeply held dreams that she will share my love of travel, so I was more than happy to comply with her wishes. This love of travel, by the way, is one of the reasons I must placate the spirit of Claude Lévi-Strauss–whose title I am stealing–since he opened his eponymous book with the intimidating statement, “I hate travelling and explorers.”

So I found myself once again on a trip to a place steeped in the memories of my first stint living in China. I have learned to be careful about such trips. Twenty years is longer than it seems–even more so in China than elsewhere. I have grown used to the fact that everything is larger and shinier than my memories, but I still have to remind myself that you can never go back. No matter how many lanes they have, all roads are one-way roads. They only go forward.

This was also not my first trip to Yunnan with my daughter. She and I went to see the stunning rice terraces of Yuanyang 元阳 county in January. The first phase of this trip was identical to the previous one. We took an overnight train from Chengdu to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Also like the previous trip, we got off the train only to immediately hop onto a bus, but this time we only needed one bus to take us to Xushuangbanna, not the three buses and one hired van it took to reach our hostel in Yuanyang.

The train and bus rides were uneventful but pretty. One of the reasons I love train rides is the scenery. The rail line from Chengdu to Kunming passes through an endless series of green mountains, lush valleys, and dark tunnels. Here and there villages or small towns dot the landscape, and fields carpet all the valleys that aren’t too steep. As the tunnels grow more frequent, scenes flash before you and then vanish, one after another. I never can resist looking up every time the train rolls out of the darkness and into the light, eager to see what will be revealed, even if for no more than a moment. I’m seldom disappointed, although the vision is always taken away too quickly, leaving you with a wistful desire to come back and see these places on foot.

We arrived in Jinghong 景洪, provincial capital of Xishuangbanna, in the late afternoon, about thirty-six hours after setting out from Chengdu. We rested in our hotel room for a bit before heading out for dinner.

Twenty years ago, Jinghong was a dusty town with one tourist street alternately thronged by tour groups and left deserted in their wake. Even that street was so uncrowded that many of the restaurants were housed in buildings built like traditional Dai houses and at the cheaper hotels you got your own bungalow for about thirty yuan a bed.

The city has grown–a lot. New roads run in all directions with multi-floor buildings occupying every available lot. There are even a few skyscrapers. Fortunately, even though the city has changed a great deal, the food hasn’t. Dai cuisine is like a fusion of Chinese and Thai, and the results are wonderful. On our first night I enjoyed a cold beef salad with cucumbers, lime juice, and Chinese mint–which is shockingly peppery when eaten raw. It was heavenly! My daughter was equally thrilled to find that the cafe we were eating in made excellent pizza and french fries, certainly not something we were expecting when we started this journey!

The next day we set out with two main objectives: figuring out where we were going to go the following day and seeing a bit of Jinghong. The first goal proved both very easy and very difficult to accomplish. We ended up taking the advice we were given at our hotel first thing that morning, but we spent most of the day vaguely and vainly looking for second opinions. In the course of doing so, however, we got to see a good bit of Jinghong. In particular we spent a while down on the banks of the Lancang River 澜沧江–the upper reaches of he Mekong. The water was low, and we walked on gravelly shingle that was part of the river bed when we left the following morning after heavy rains. The sky was a mosaic of blue and white, and the calm waters of the river reflected it perfectly.

Jinghong is self-consciously playing up its Southeast Asian vibe. Statues of elephants and peacocks are everywhere and the newer buildings are built with a Thai style. In spite of this touristification, the city retains the slow, tropical feeling it had twenty years ago. Between the relaxed feeling, the good weather (it was cooler there than Chengdu!), and the amazing food, I could easily have frittered away a week doing nothing but strolling and eating.

We had a purpose, however: to find and stay in a Dai-style house. To be honest, we didn’t completely succeed.

The next day we set off again on a much shorter bus trip, heading for the town called either Menghan 勐罕 or Ganlanba 橄榄坝. I stayed there twenty years ago when it was just a very small town where one family happened to be renting rooms in its traditional house. It was a wonderful experience. My friends and I slept on bamboo mats on the floor, were awakened by roosters who lived under the house, ate with the family and roamed about the countryside on bicycles. I still remember sitting around at night, listening to the family talk among themselves in the Dai language.

I knew Menghan had changed, but the degree of change was still a shock. The edge of the town now looks like a street from Chengdu–only with very few people. Everything that used to be the town is now part of a “Dai Cultural Park.” I knew this before setting out. My daughter and I had discussed different options and decided to go to Menghan. Personally, I thought that we’d still be able to find a traditional house to stay in and the touristy add-ons (like a functioning toilet) might make life a bit easier for my daughter who hasn’t roughed it too much yet.

Even within the park, we couldn’t find anyone with the traditional bamboo mat beds for rent. I suspect they still exist, but it would have taken a lot of work to find them. We settled for an attractive and clean inn in a somewhat traditional house. Its main attraction was the friendly family that ran it. We soon learned, however, that it had a second attraction. They young man who did the cooking could be a chef. Even with standard Chinese dishes, his cooking was among the best I’ve eaten, and the Dai dishes he fixed were fabulous. The real hit as far as my daughter was concerned was the pineapple sticky rice–served in a hollowed out pineapple! It is delicious, and we ate it at lunch and dinner every day we were there. Personally, however, I was more impressed by the dishes cooked in banana leaves. My favorite was a dish of steamed pork and spices wrapped in a banana leaf.

We spent our days wandering about the “park.” It’s actually not much of a park. It was built as if tourists would be pouring through it every day, but our first two days we saw hardly any other travelers. I was beginning to wonder how the families who run the inns make any money, but my question was answered when the weekend arrived. Tourists pour in on the weekends, and the park begins to look a little like an actual tourist attraction (trap?). During the week, however, it’s nearly empty except for the people that live there, and a lot of families appear to farm as well as cater to visitors.

Once I got over how much the town had changed and realized that the “park” wasn’t really a park. We had a lot of fun exploring, eating, reading, writing, drawing, and generally taking it easy. It rained a lot, which made it impossible to hold a reenactment of the traditional “water splashing festival” (basically a gigantic water fight with spiritual underpinnings)–one of the parks attractions–but my daughter and I held a splash battle of our own, stomping in puddles to get each other soaking wet. We found coconut, banana, pomelo, and pineapple trees everywhere. The fragrance of flowers seemed to drift about with the breeze–albeit occasionally accompanied by less pleasant odors. I enjoyed writing during the heavier rains, which gave me a strange sense of privacy. The noise drowned out all the other noises of daily life while the curtain of rain hid me from view.

We spent three nights in Menghan before heading back to Jinghong. On the trip down i had told my daughter about sleeper buses. She was fascinated and determined to try one out, so after one more excellent meal in Jinghong, we boarded a sleeper bus for an overnight return trip to Kunming. The train ride back to Chengdu to was as beautiful and restful as it had been going the other direction.

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I spent a good bit of time on the train talking with the woman in the bunk opposite me. Like many Chinese parents, she is deeply concerned that her child was getting an education that focuses on nothing but test-taking and results in unhealthy levels of anxiety. It was an interesting way to finish the trip, since in many ways this trip was all about letting my daughter begin to experience the joy of travel and discovery. For me, it was a trip about putting aside my old memories in order to make new ones, but for her it was a chance to make those initial memories that shape our lives so strongly. Would I even be here if my childhood memories weren’t full of camping trips, vacations in different parts of the U.S., and hearing my parents stories of their youthful travels? I’m a bit of an odd parent, and I sometimes fear I’m not giving my daughter everything she deserves in her childhood. I hope that I can at least help her discover the world and find her own love for it.

2 thoughts on “Tristes Tropiques (pace Lévi-Strauss)

  1. I remember that trip 20 years ago so well! It was probably my favorite place to visit in China, even though it felt so un-Chinese. The pineapple sticky rice was a favorite then too and I tried to recreate it (unsuccessfully) a few times after I returned to the States. But I think your rose tinted glasses are reflected on that rooster! 3 AM, 1 AM, 4 PM…its internal clock was sadistic to everyone there and it NEVER stopped! It made for some entertaining memories, but the prospect of getting rid of that thing might have made me reconsider my pescatarian life-style!!! I’m glad you both enjoyed your trip!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading this. You are giving your daughter so much more than most are able to give. Taking her on trips where you participate in the culture of the places you visit, in my opinion, is one of the best forms of education! Like the lady you talked with on the bus, I have grown weary of schools. It almost sounded as though she was describing education in the U.S. I am so over the classrooms that are filled with desks, the meaningless worksheets that are used to fill time, and the testing….-it is constant here. I hope to be able to give my kids more worldly experiences , like the traveling that you do. Great post ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

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