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Comparing southern Yunnan (China) with Chiang Mai (Thailand)

August 31, 2010

During a trip to China I ended up in the southern district Xishuangbanna of the Yunnan province. This district, and its capital ‘Jing Hong’ is launched as ‘little Thailand’, aiming at attracting Chinese tourists to experience tropical climate and Thai culture. ‘Xishuang’ is supposed to mean ‘12’, and ‘ban na’ in northern Thai would mean ‘rice houses’. Yes, indeed the local minority speaks a Thai language related to northern Thai, a language spoken in Chiang Mai! When I tried to speak with a lady at a ‘Thai’ restaurant south of  the Mekong river, I realised they use words in common with central Thai like ‘mai’ (wood),  ‘nam’ (liquid) and ‘phak’ (vegetable), but their words for greetings were totally different from central Thai (‘sawasdee krap’), and so was the their word for rice (‘kao’ in central Thai). The touristic concrete architecture is Thai-inspired, but there are old houses with Thai style too, and there are buddhist monks.

If the current hypotheses are true, the Thai population of Thailand emanate from the Shan states in Burma which emanate from southern Yunnan. It is therefore most interesting to explore the Xishuangbanna culture and language, although I am a mere amateur.

For a gardener, the biggest attractions are the downtown ‘Xishuangbanna Tropical Flowers and Plants Garden’ (run by the ‘Yunnan Intitute of Tropical Crops’) and the ‘Xishuanbanna Tropical Botanical Garden’ (run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences), situated ca 50 km NE of the district capital. The downtown tropical garden is very neatly managed, and there are plenty of labels with scientific names and descriptions in Chinese. A conspicuous character is the meadow of the South American Arachis pintoi, a very successful feature. I had colleagues from the institute helping me with translations and explanations, but I guess a western tourist would be pretty lost without a Chinese-speaking guide. During my four days here I have only seen one more westerner.

The downtown garden is a great attraction, with plenty of fruit trees, ornamentals and clever design. The hotel within the garden has a villa which is really very nice for Chinese standards, three stars I guess. The hotel belonging to the other botanical garden outside town is pretty mouldy and worn, and therefore expensive (ca 580 Yuan or 3000 Baht a room), but if you just need a bed, wireless internet and beer, well then this is a good place! I am sure one could spend a week here and still keep learning new plant species. The garden is VAST, and there is a ‘rain forest’ section where some plants have been labeled with scientific names. To my great surprise, most Chiang Mai species can be found here. One can admire teak (Tectona grandis), Butea monosperma, Trevesia palmata, Tetrameles nudiflora, pick fresh rambutan (Nephelium lappaceum) and eat pomelo (Citrus maxima), delicious mango (Mangifera indica) and Piper sarmentosum. The surrounding forests have been forced to yield to rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis from South America), which is why the tropical Chinese forest trees are rare. I have the impression that the climate here is wetter than in Chiang Mai, more resembling Bangkok. This conclusion is based on the locals’ assurance they have only ‘two seasons’, a dry and a wet which begins with heavy rains in March. The prolific rubber trees and the poor-looking pomegranates confirm this conclusion.

Unfortunately the red shirts’ riots in Bangkok in 2009 and 2010 scared off so many tourists that the flight between Chiang Mai and Kunming is temporarily cancelled, but one can still fly via Bangkok. The trip between the Yunnanese capital Kunming and ‘Jing Hong’ in the tropical south takes about ten hours by car. Chinese driving (fast, honking, reckless, right side) is very different from Thai driving (slow, quiet, careless, left side), which is why a local driver is recommended. An appealing option would be to take the car from Chiang Mai via Burma to Xishuangbanna. I guess it would take the same amount of time as driving from Kunming.

The local food is most interesting, and I can suggest the ‘Chop Chang Dieu’ restaurant opposite to the downtown garden. At one dinner they served Laminaria-like sea algae, eggplant with haricots verts, pig’s feet, noodles and tender beef, taro stalks and chili, omelette, Lactarius volemus mushrooms, chicken chopped into pieces, little deep-fried Mekong fish tasting like potato chips, chicken feet and red onion, lotus root in oil, ‘wild vegetable’ (most Asian scientists do not know the scientific names, and in this case I failed to identify it), Phlebopus portentosus boletes with sweet peppers, Schizophyllum commune mushrooms and spiny, fresh Polyscias (Araliaceae) which taste like ginseng. China has many different beers, and I can strongly recommend ‘Kingstar’ with the green text (not red), which tastes like the delicious Finnish rye dessert ‘Memma’ and ‘Bancong River’ which is a local beer with water from the Mekong. China is so much more than Shanghai, Beijing and Hong-Kong. Strangers line up with you to have pictures taken with a real ‘farang’, making you feel like a monkey with clothes, but it is fun to satisfy giggling teenagers.  China is a shooting star where culture, science and business flourish. Behold this: 5% overhead costs at university (42% in Sweden), legal home-made spirits (illegal in Sweden), taxfree property (Sweden taxes everything) and a rapidly growing economy.

Eric Danell

The ‘Dai Villa’ in the ‘Xishuanbanna Tropical Flower and Plants Garden’ is comfortable and enables instant access to the beautiful garden.

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