The past few days, we’ve been (to use the parlance of backpackers up this way from SE Asia) “village-hopping through ‘Banna,” a tri-border area of Dai, Bulang, Hani and other minority group settlements. This was a much-anticipated stage of the trip, supposedly a rather remarkable part of China, and a bit of a tourist haven for Westerners who like relaxed homestays and the occasional coconut milkshake sipped from a hammock (okay, after this many weeks on the road, that would be us).
In reality, the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture is a remarkable part of China, but not for the much-hyped indigenous Dai (closely related to Thai) culture—although the sight of ornately-spindly golden pagodas in small towns throughout the area is certainly different from your typical staid Mahayana-Buddhism fare. Rather, what’s unique about the place, and also completely boring, is that the whole darn prefecture (full disclosure: okay, we didn’t go west of Menghai) is actually just one gigantic rubber tree and banana super-plantation. That is, apart from inside the depopulated nature reserve or a few remaining rice paddies, if it grows in Banna, it’s either a banana or a rubber tree. Funny coincidence that both are called nearly-homophonous names in Chinese (which makes for the bad pun in this post’s title). According to some locals, the hillsides have been a rubber factory since the 1960s, while the valleys—get this—were transformed into China’s banana basket only in the last decade. Even more remarkable, one man said the region’s new cash crop was actually thanks to climate change. He pointed out villages that he said once relied on crossing illegally into Myanmar for “work,” now surrounded by nothing but banana leaves. However, the local benefits of the banana boom are questionable, too. According to a number of people we talked to, the fields are actually owned now by companies from Guangdong and Zhejiang, and the pickers are brought in from even poorer places like Lvchun and the Wenshan area (both elsewhere in Yunnan). So the locals mostly work on growing and collecting the rubber in the hills, while outsiders grow and pick the bananas in the valleys.
And the rubber industry is expanding, too. I was surprised, thinking that we all just used synthetic rubbers now, and the sappy stuff had gone the way of British Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. But here were newly-stripped hillsides, their rainforests replaced with terraced rows sprouting new saplings. And in the Bulangshan area, one of our drivers pointed out a new village under construction: the members of another “hill tribe,” he said, being relocated off the mountain.
Now I’m no expert on this kind of thing, but I can’t help but start wondering (and, let’s be honest, prejudicially concluding) that this wholesale destruction of so many thousands of square miles of tropical rainforest vegetation, and the fact that Yunnan’s now been in a drought for the last five years, are somehow linked. Of course, as the locals say, bananas weren’t possible here until the temperatures started going up, so perhaps the warmer weather would have brought droughts anyway. Perhaps most likely is that some of these processes are mutually-reinforcing. In any case, it appears that the ecology may be changing here just as rapidly as the economy.
And even more importantly, with all this work going on, it’s hard to imagine where those burned-out hippie expats are finding hammocks under traditional Dai stilt houses to loll about in. Certainly not anywhere we went. Not in Menghun, where the guidebooks erroneously direct travellers to a Sunday market that’s actually always been held on Saturday. Not in the Menglong area, where the aforementioned agribusiness dominates. And not even in Menghan, where foreigners seemed to avoid the theme-park setting like it was a leper colony, not simply a rather low-key domestic tourism venue. Back in Jinghong, perhaps? Other travellers we met in Menghun and Menglong, sharing our perplexity, were already set on high-tailing it back there. And we almost wished we could have joined them.
But instead, we’re continuing south. On toward Laos, where we are sure there will be hammocks for us, coconut milkshakes optional.
We’ll take three, please.