Wouldn’t That be Something?
A Roadtrip through China, Laos and Thailand
By Peter Schindler
In October 2009, my wife Angie and I spent the Chinese National Day holiday travelling from Northern Thailand down the Mekong to Luang Prabang in Laos. At the start of the journey, our guide took us to a small hill from where we enjoyed a good view of the point where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos – the ‘Golden Triangle’ – come together. Near the summit we found a map of the Golden Triangle and its neighbouring regions.
“Look,” I said to Angie, “two months ago I was here,” as I pointed out to her the Xishuangbanna region that is part of southern Yunnan Province.
“So close, eh?” Angie mused.
Our guide explained that ‘Xishuangbanna’ is the sinicised version of the Thai word Sipsongpanna and means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’, while I told Angie how Xishuangbanna is the home of an ethnic minority called the Dai.
Angie ignored our explanations and instead pursued her own thoughts, “Very close… Xishuangbanna really is very close to the Golden Triangle, isn’t it?”
“Yep, I didn’t quite realise it myself,” I acknowledged, before continuing to share my knowledge with her: “The Dai’s spoken language is similar to Thai and their scripts are practically identical…”
Ignoring me, Angie pursued her own train of thoughts, “I wonder what it would take to drive from Xishuangbanna to here. I’ve read they’ve improved the roads recently. We could try it, no? Wouldn’t that be something?!” she suggested.
And with that the idea was born to explore a route from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau in northern Yunnan down through Laos to Chiang Mai, and to see China merge into South-East Asia, turn by winding turn.
Fast-forward to April 2009, and Angie and I have just arrived in Zhongdian from Hong Kong. Nowadays Zhongdian is called ‘Shangri-La’ because the town’s enterprising mayor decided that the new name would be better for business. While ‘Shangri-La’ undeniably has more cachet as a destination than ‘Zhongdian’, I can’t bring myself to use the new name because this rapidly expanding town seems to fall far short of the promise of James Hilton’s paradise.
Whatever you wish to call it, Zhongdian/Shangri-La lies at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau at an altitude of 3,300 metres, and is the perfect starting point for our journey. On our journey to Chiang Mai, the capital of the old kingdom of Lanna, we will be driving through a wonderfully diverse range of landscapes and climate zones, from high plateau to tropical lowland.
On our first morning the sky is overcast and snowfall has dusted the hilltops. While eating breakfast we meet the hotel manager and tell her about our journey. Her eyes light up, “If you enjoy driving, then you must take the back road to Lijiang – let me show you…” I finish my toast in one bite and drain my coffee cup while Angie knocks back a motion sickness pill. And then we’re on our way.
The main road from Zhongdian to Lijiang is the G214, and is shown on my map as a thick red line. The road that we will take is shown as a single pencil-thin line, snaking between the two towns. The hotel manager was right – the road is incredibly beautiful, winding over high passes before descending to the Yangtze at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze roars through a deep gorge under looming two thousand-metre high cliffs.
After arriving in Lijiang that evening, we wander the cobbled streets, bemused at the sheer number of people visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Lijiang’s picturesque old town is justifiably famous, but mass tourism in the town has now developed to the point where UNESCO has considered revoking the ‘World Heritage Site’ status. Lijiang is certainly a sharp contrast to the pristine countryside that we had driven through all day, and will continue to drive through for the remainder of our trip.
From Lijiang we drive south along excellent highways to Dali, on the shore of Lake Erhai, and then to Kunming and south to Jinghong, the largest town in Xishuangbanna, along beautiful country roads.
By the time we arrive in sleepy Jinghong, with its palm tree-lined streets and Thai-style temples, it’s clear that we are on the edge of South-East Asia. The region’s main ethnic minority, the Dai, are indeed closely related to the Thais and in the countryside we drive past groups of sarong-clad Dai women with flowers in their hair.
In Jinghong we discover a lovely boutique inn overlooking the Mekong. With traditional wooden villas, amazing flower-filled bathrooms, and hammocks hung on the verandah we can feel ourselves relaxing and easing into the gentle southern pace of life.
From Jinghong we continue our drive on another wonderful road to the China–Laos border at Mohan, where we make a bit of history: we are, according to anyone we ask at the border, the first Westerners to drive a China-registered rental car across this border. What we take for granted elsewhere means making history here…
In Laos, Route 3 connects Bogen on the Laotian side of the border to Huay Sai on the Laos-Thailand border, running south-west across Laos. The 250 kilometre-long Route 3 has been recently rebuilt, and the modern road contrasts starkly with the villages it runs through, where the way of life has remained largely unchanged for centuries.
Later the same day we arrive at Huay Sai and take a rickety looking car ferry to Chiang Khong, the border crossing into Thailand. After a long day – driving in three countries and over 400 kilometres – Angie and I treat ourselves to a stay at the lovely Anantara Resort in the heart of the Golden Triangle.
The next morning, wholly refreshed, we drive back up to the map of the Golden Triangle which gave Angie the inspiration for this journey in the first place. We stand there awhile looking at the battered map in its rusty frame, before turning and gazing out at the lush green country around us, shaking our heads and agreeing “Now, that really was something…”
Peter Schindler is the founder of www.ontheroadinchina.com one of the only companies to offer Self drive tours of China and South East Asia.