Sometimes it seemed like China was disguising itself as other countries. Yuanyang reminded me of northern Vietnam, while in Xishuangbanna, it often seemed like I had already travelled into Laos. It’s border country. Jinghong, the region’s small main city, is only a few hours drive from both Laos and Burma. Thailand is not so far away either and exerts a strong cultural influence. Eating a Thai red curry and drinking a Beerlao on my second night in town, I had to remind myself what country I was in. It wasn’t the only time. Jinghong has a distinctly south-east Asian feel: the people are relaxed and friendly, the food is spicy, the temples wouldn’t be out of place in Luang Prabang, and elephant imagery is everywhere.
Jinghong is also where my Mekong journey really got started, as it’s where I joined the river, known in China as the Lancang. My friend Chris would argue that this is a pretty half-hearted Mekong trip, since I’m not travelling all the way down from the river’s source in Tibet in a canoe that I fashioned myself from bamboo and recycled plastic. But starting in Jinghong a) is easier and b) gives me the chance to spend plenty of time in the places where I stop, rather than rushing from one town to the next. I was able to spend about a week in the border country of Xishuangbanna, without feeling rushed or hurried. As I say, very south-east Asian.