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The Mekong river

hilltribes from Yunnan, Laos, Vietnam, Yuanyang

And a bit of Bangkok, KL and Angkor Wat


route Click to enlarge the map of our travelplan

The photos we made.



This trip is actually plan B…A would have been a month in the jungle of Burma (It ain’t half hot mum) but there were no affordable flights to Bangkok, let alone to Rangoon. Slowly I began map surfing across SE Asia for an alternative route. I found it strange that the flights to Beijing were dirt-cheap and when I saw I could fly for the same price to south China I knew this was the starting point of our trip.

I had been in Kunming before (1989) but beside a visit to the stone forest I could not remember anythng about the city. Carving out an overland route from here to Laos and Vietnam to make a loop was fun and I could find very little information so I knew we were in for an adventure.

Also, I had always wanted to visit Angkor Wat. Now how could I cram all these places in a single month? Again, the answer came out of pure financial reasons. No time and no money, but Air Asia came through !!! O my God, I do love that company. It is a kind of sympathetic version of Ryanair. For a song we could fly around SE Asia, as long as we used Kuala Lumpur as the central hub. Well, why not add another country to the list!!! To top off the growing list of countries we added three day in Bangkok. After all, when is Asia you gotta see the oriental city with the ultimate swing!!

So instead of 1 country, we now had a plan to visit 6 countries in 1 month. And me laughing with the yanks for doing Europe in 10 days.


Anyway, to get some consistency in our trip the Leitmotiv will be:

The Mekong River, the Hill tribes of the South China, Vietnam, Laos and a bit of Bangkok, KL and Angkor Wat

A mouthful I know, so I shortened it to Indochine 2009. This reminds me of the thinnest book in the world, the French book of victories. From Waterloo to Dien Bien Phu, it makes my Flemish roots smile, as we also have our 1302 battle victory over the Froggies to celebrate.


Thursday, 22 October: We leave Brussels airport at two in the afternoon and prepare ourselves for the grueling travel time that lies in front of us. Hainan airlines is a superb company and we soon forget the uncomfortable travel by watching the new Star Trek movie, occasionally interrupted by a nice meal and a cold drink. 7955 km or nine and a half hours later we arrive in Beijing. However in Beijing it is already 6 am. And we are just getting started with the travel.
We get scanned by masked health workers for our body temperature and have to sign a document stating we have no illness. When we pass through customs I see a little box to give a score for the performance of the customs officers. One can give points from very good to very bad.

We then walk to the domestic airport a couple of kilometers away to continue our travel. On to Kunming, a.k.a. spring city. I was foolish enough to open our sealed duty free bag to munch some of the chocolate cookies, alas, an open bag is not allowed at the check in and I have to say bye bye to a full bottle of Scottish malt. Well, experience is the result of a stupidity…


Yunan, China


Yunnan is one of the most exotic provinces of China. When you look at the map you can see why: in the west it borders with Burma, in the south with Vietnam and Laos and in the north with Tibet. It is a mountainous area with several ethnic groups, or minorities as the Chinese government calls them. They each have their own dialect or language.

Yunnan was not always part of China. It was divided into little kingdoms like the Kingdom of Nanzhao of the Yi-people. Dali was the centre, but the influence stretched as far as Burma, Vietnam and parts of the current Chinese province Sichuan. In 937 AD a Bai King conquered the region and established the Dali-kingdom. Because the area was on the ancient silk-road to India, the Chinese emperor’s have always tried to get it within their sphere of influence. Officially the kings of Yunnan were obliged to give tribute to the emperor, but as the saying goes “ Beijing is far and the mountains are high”

In the past centuries, more and more Han-chinese migrated to Yunnan. It is estimated that at this moment twothirds of the 40 million inhabitants of Yunnan are Han-chinese. According to the official numbers there are 55 minorities living in the Republic of China. About 25 of these life in Yunnan.

The most important etnical groups in Yunnan are:

YI, about 4 million, mostly in Lijang, Simao, Dali and Xishuangbanna
Bai, about 1,3 million, mostly  Lijang, Dali and Kunming
Hani, about 1,2 million, mostly in Simao, Lincang, Xishuangbanna
Miao, about 895,000, mostly in Zhaotong, Dali
Naxi, about 265,000, mostly in Lijiang, Deqing, Dali

Also the nature is quite diverse in Yunnan. In the east lies the plataeu Yunnan-Guizhou, in the west are several mountain ranges with altitudes up to 5000 meter. In the south, in the Xishuangbanna, is the only tropical rainforest of China.

The major source of income of the province is tabacco. Toursim is a fast growing industry. Yunnan already ranks in the top five destinations for China.



Friday, 23 October: and the voyage continues… 3 hours later, or 2.120 km further we arrive in Kunming.  It is noon by now and we are starting to get tired. The taxi drives us the 5 kilometers from the airport to the local bus station, where we want to continue our onward travel to Jinghong.  The Chinese transport system is well organized, and within an hour are sitting in a comfortable bus on our way to Jinghong.

Map of Kunming

We just spend an afternoon in Kunming, looking for a Mao Hat. Well we did not find any...

We did see a Carrefour (French supermarket), Mc Donnalds and fifty other of those fast food joints. We stick to the dumplings I have started to love so much.


Jinghong, which means city of Dawn in the Dai language, lies in the Xishuangbanna province.

In Xishuangbanna, there are approximately 100,000 hectares of virgin forest with over 5,000 species of trees and plants. Rare animals and birds thrive in the relative safety of the dense tropical jungles.
In the Dai language, Xishuang means twelve and Banna means a thousand pieces of land. So Xishuangbanna means twelve thousand pieces of land

For centuries, Xishuangbanna was a hidden country, which was almost inaccessible. In the mid-19th century, it took a month and a half on foot from Kunming to Jinghong. Now it takes us only 12 hours by bus or an hour by plane

On our stop for a meal I have the first chance to use my electronic dictionary. All my friends had laughed with my new toy when I showed my plan to communicate in China but now they are all proven wrong.

I need to go to the toilet, but there are only two Chinese characters on the door to distinguish between men and women. I type “men” in my gadget and 1 of the characters appear. Just to make sure I type in women and I can see the other character. Yes, gadget approved!

At the food stall it is much easier. I just point to what we want from the open pots and enjoy a (spicy) meal while the locals seem to laugh at our incapacity to properly eat with chopsticks.

By ten at night we arrive in Jinghong. We are definitely in SE Asia, the humidity is making us sweat from all our pores and we are completely exhausted after two continuous days of travel. We do not even consider an option when the hotel next to the bus station invites us to stay for 8 euro a night.

A few cold beers and some fried rice later we hit our bed, just across from the karaoke bar in the hotel. I do not think we heard the noise for more than 5 minutes before we are in dreamland.



A street in Jonghong

Saturday 24 October: we get up slowly, and by ten we are out of the hotel. We walk around the small town a bit and find it very strange. The buildings look Thai, the smell of the food and the markets look like Thai and the humidity is saying tropical Asia. Even the signs are bilingual in Chinese and Dai , a local script. When we look at the map again, it becomes clear that we are deep in SE Asia and this has little in common with Beijing and is very closely connected to Thailand. A speedboat connects the city with North Thailand; even T-shirts with Thailand on it are for sale. Burmese traders have set up shop to flog their precious stones. I see Rubies, emeralds and do my best to keep Rita’s attention elsewhere.

Like all newly arrived ferangi we go to a western café to have a continental breakfast. We feast on Cappuccino and toast.  It sure beats rice in the morning! It is this café, Mei Mei, that we meet John and we agree with him to take us around the area tomorrow and the day after. John has him own jeep and speaks good English.

flowerjinghongWe then walk to the Jinghong botanical garden and are not disappointed by the beauty of it. It is a lovely park that has a large collection of the local tropical plants. We love the walk and spend several hours admiring the Chinese style of gardening. The Tao of landscape gardening let’s say. On our way back to the center we spend some time admiring the local market which is full of unknown vegetables, roots and all sort of crawly creepers. The people are very friendly and seem pretty relaxed. We start to feel at home.

We walk back to the Mei Mei café for a late lunch and decide to get our bus ticket to Menghun for the Sunday market tomorrow morning and we want to check into another hotel to avoid another Karaoke night. At the busstation we meet John again and he takes us to a lovely hotel in a backstreet. No English signs, but a quiet and peaceful place. We love it!



We then drive with John across the bridge to a lookout over Jinghong. Here we watch the sun go down over the Mekong. I make some nice night photographs of Jinghong.


In the evening John takes us to a local restaurant and orders what will be the first in a series of mouthwatering dishes. We start with grilled bamboo shoots, chicken, tofu and other grilled meats. We swallow it all down with rice wine and beer and only pay 6 euros for the lot.

Sunday 25 October: we take an early bus to the Menghun Sunday market, but are a bit disappointed by the market itself. Very few people wear their traditional clothes and the whole thing looks more like a junk yard sales with bits and bolts. Still it is worth to wander around for a few hours, and we are the only tourists around. Actually we will see very few western tourists in the whole area. A little known part of China.


The Menghun Sunday market

In the afternoon John drives us to Galanba (a.k.a. Menghan). Galanba is a strange place. The village is a sort “resort” with traditional Dai houses. There is an entrance fee and the annual water splashing festival is held twice a day.  It seems to attract a lot of Chinese tourists who seem to enjoy the show and actively participate in the water throwing. There is also a nice sing and dance show and the whole place looks more like a theme park than a minority’s village.



Still, our guesthouse is far enough away from the attractions and we are invited to join the owner to the wedding of a family member. A wedding consists of a lot of eating and even more drinking. Everybody gets his glass filled on turn and has to finish it “ad fundum”. The rice wine flows freely. I notice that it comes in jerry cans and than poured into smaller water bottles. The Dai are allowed to distil their own alcohol. A special rice grain is grown for this purpose.

Thanks to John the communication with the locals is great and we feel very much part of the whole thing. Again everybody wants to teach us how to eat properly with the chopsticks. Jokes are being told and more drinks and cigarettes are being shared. A highlight of our holiday!


When I ask them what the difference is between Wei and Nihao (both mean hello) they stare with blank faces at me. Wei is used for answering the phone and Mihao is saying hello to a person. What a daft question. "So you cannot say nihao on the phone" I ask? Is it the drinks, I do not know, but it seems that they never heard a more stupid question. Laughing with the foreigner is a good way to pass the time.

In the evening back at the guesthouse John tells a bit about how he got here. First the Mongols arrived here, then the Kuomintang and afterwards Mao’s troops. The first Han Chinese arrived very much against their own free will, as this was a place of exile. They were convinced they would not live very long in this dangerous and hostile place. If malaria didn’t kill them first, then surely some sort of bug or poisonous snake would put them in an early grave. Nowadays, the opinion started to change and one realises the potential of natural resources of the jungle. Many of the Chinese medicines consist of herbs and roots found in this area and are very much sought after by the Chinese community worldwide. Opium, a major ingredient in Xishuangbanna’s medicine is left out these days.

It is already dark when John takes us for a walk around the village. We are invited in several houses where they are playing traditional music. We drink tea and rice wine while we listen. They are rehearsing for a competition that is about to take place. In the old day’s when a tiger was spotted, the musicians would play for three days in a row in a village to keep the tiger away.

Monday, 26 October: We leave the resort in the morning, saying goodbye and thanks to the friendly owner. We stop on the market in town for my favorite breakfast “dumplings” (Jiaozi, 饺子) with chili sauce. Then we drive back to Jinghong to visit an Akha village. On the way along the Mekong I notice how much natural rubber is still tapped from the trees. People drive along with big jars of the stuff. I wonder what it is used for.


At the Akha village we are treated with a tea ceremony and are given an explanation on the Puer tea. We learn that the older the tree is the better the tea gets. Some trees get up to a 1000 years old. Not only does the tea get better from older trees, but the tea also gets better as it matures. The owner can offer tea up to 50 years old and he tells a story of some Burmese people who have 300-year-old Puer tea. How’s that for an expiry date!

Than we get another fine example of Chinese philosophy. When we decline yet another cigarette offered saying we do not smoke, as it is bad for your health the friendly tea farmer explains that you can neutralize the bad effects of cigarettes by drinking enough green tea. He has this on good authority from Chinese doctors. Green tea as a cure for everything!

We have a lunch in an Akha restaurant and we visit the kitchen to see what we will have. Thanks to John’s knowledge it is an excellent meal again. Except for the honeycombs we saw in the kitchen, as we learn that the bees in the comb are eaten as well.

While we walk around some of the tea plantations John tells a story about the Dai and the Akha. The Dai he says live near the river and when the Akha arrived they had to move to the mountains as the land near the river was already taken. The Akha are also free top travel to Thailand and visit their relatives over there.

It is time to go back to Jinghong were we have an excellent dinner and reluctantly say goodbye to John. We will miss his friendliness but we have to take the bus to Laos tomorrow.

We have enjoyed our stay in China. The people are friendly, the food excellent and the euro buys a lot. What we noticed the most is the sheer seize of economic activity. Construction is omnipotent. They have completed their great wall and are now massively building roads and complete cities. On the downside I fear that live is not that healthy in China. Smoking and drinking is cheap and practiced by many, gambling a favorite pastime, the factories are spitting out smoke at an increasing rate. An ecological catastrophe is looming around the corner.


The Chinese border of Mohan

Tuesday 27 October: We leave Jinghong with the 10.40 am bus to Luang Nam Tha in Laos. Most of the people get of the bus leave before we reach the Laotian border. At the border we see the difference between mighty China and small Laos. The Chinese Border at Mohan is a huge building and the Laos border building is a shack. The sign no photography is bigger than the building. A stiff 38 USD a person visa allows us to enter, after our body temperature is being checked by masked men.


Continue : Laos The green oasis






















China Factsheet

1 euro = 10 RMB


Useful websites:



Yunnan, in the deep south of China





Xishuangbanna, part of Yunnan- Click on map to enlarge



  • duliguides: travel guides portal for Xishuangbanna



Hainan airlines




To avoid incidents at the toilets I decide to remember the sex sign as follows:men have a head and women have a womb


人         Mankind          John told me a nice story about this sign. It is supposed to mean two hands supporting each other to stand straight. People need each other; no one person can stand alone or he will fall down.







Jinghong city map - click to enlarge







The Mekong, which is the 12th longest river and 10th largest in terms of volume, originates from Qinghai-Tibetan plateau in northwest of China, winding the way across eastern Tibet into Yunnan, then through Southeast Asian Peninsula, finally it pours into the Pacific Ocean in Vietnam, with a full length of over 4500 kilometres.

Mekong in China is differently named, Lan Cang, a word from Dai language, meaning River of Millions of Elephants. This is the most important river in Southeast Asiafor the millions of people living along its banks,. In Thai, Mekong means Mother River.



John mobile: 0086/13988124572


Highly recommended guide from Jinghong







Jinghong Botanical garden leaflet



Hotel address in Jinghong: Nakungkangxiaqu 21 – happy hotel. 5 euro for a double room per night. Highly recommended.




Boys and girls. You are not supposed to run your hands through a boy’s hair, but you can place your hand on a girls head. The explanation is that a boy could be the rebirth of Buddha and by placing your hand between the boy and its Divine beam you could cause a short circuit.





Xishuangbanna, deeply rooted in SE Asia












Galanba monastery