The landscape and culture of southwestern Yunnan's Menglian Dai, Lahu and Va Autonomous County (孟连傣族拉祜族佤族自治县) very much resemble those of Xishuangbanna. Hills rise around alluvial plains and the major towns lie along rivers. The Dai minority nationality dominates the plains population — wet-rice cultivators who live in stilted houses and practice Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic minorities, from the Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer linguistic groups, inhabit the hills, growing dry rice, sugarcane or tea.
Menglian — the Chinese word for the original Dai Muang Lem — was never administratively part of Xishuangbanna, though. The southern part of Lancang Lahu Autonomous County (澜沧拉祜族自治县) separates Menglian from Xishuangbanna and even today travelers from the latter have to go to Lancang City first, then go southwest to Menglian.
A little history
Until the late Qing Dynasty, Menglian was an autonomous Dai (傣) state, first established in the thirteenth century. During the previous century a Dai chieftain in Xishuangbanna had already founded a kingdom, but relations between the two remained friendly. They shared a common religion and social order and their dialects were close as well.
The little Dai state of Menglian not only retained its autonomy over time, it remained aloof from the internecine power struggles that plagued Xishuangbanna throughout the nineteenth century, when Jinghong (景洪) was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt in new locations. As a result, today virtually nothing remains of old Jinghong palaces, walls, and classic buildings. Meanwhile, Menglian's old Dai riverside quarter still exists, nestled on a gentle slope beside the west bank of the river, opposite the new city.
In the past, the ruling family, state officials and nobles lived in the upper part of the slope, while the commoners lived on the flat section at the base of the hill and in hamlets across the river. Today this section has become part of Menglian's commercial quarter, but the upper part of the old town is still in place.
Most of the houses have, in the past decade or so, replaced their bricks and tiles with cement and corrugated iron. They retain the Dai style, though, with angled roofs and sculpted peacocks below the roof apex. And while a couple of new, large temple compounds have gone up in recent years at the base of the hill, the old quarter still retains two of its original temples, with wooden walls and tiled roofs, further up the hill.
The old quarter also retains the former palace of the ruling chao muang — or governor — now the city museum, just above the ceremonial center of town and about midway on the slope. Though it's obviously the biggest residential compound around, as a palace it is relatively modest. The chao and his wife slept on simple mattresses on the floor, rather like the commoners, and did not furnish the place with a lot of fancy furniture, even in the royal audience hall. The kitchen is not particularly capacious, the buildings not embellished with ornate carvings and other decorations, the heirlooms on display not evidence of a rich royal family.
So it was not a particularly wealthy state, but it didn't really need to be. It had no quarrels with its neighbors. Its people carried on with their lives in pretty much the same manner in the past as they do today. They raise their crops, perform their daily chores and attend the periodic markets. They have electricity now, modern communications devices like cell phones and computers, vehicles like motorbikes and tractor-trailers, but their lives are still ruled by the seasons.
Menglian today still has that relaxed, laid-back atmosphere that must have characterized the former chao's realm. The city is not very big. From the new bus station on the expanded eastern edge of the city it's but twenty minutes walk to the river. Traffic is not very heavy yet.
The main road crosses the river and continues to other points in the county all the way to the Myanmar border. But above this road, taking a walk up the slope through the old town to the former palace or the two old temple compounds is like strolling through a quiet rural village. The old town is beyond the hearing range of city traffic sounds.
The new city is never very noisy, anyway. Buildings are rarely more than four stories high, maximum seven, and no towering skyscrapers dominant the skyline as in Jinghong. On my first visit in September 1998, a row of attractive buildings and a gilt chedi — or Buddhist stupa — lined the river's east bank just below the bridge to the old town.
After the turn of the century, I found the city had demolished all but for the chedi, replacing buildings with a football field. But a couple years later the city established a new park further downriver from the chedi that included bronze sculptures of ethnic minority activities, a performance park, temple, newer chedi with carved pillars and a palm-lined walkway beside the river to the southern bridge.
Menglian's ethnic minorities
Menglian is officially a Dai, Lahu and Wa Autonomous County in Pu'er Prefecture. The Aini (爱你), though, are also a numerically significant presence and so the park's sculptures include them as subjects too. Depictions of ethnic life include an Aini woman carrying a pack basket that uses a shoulder board and head-strap as well as Dai farmers in the rice fields, a Wa (佤) woman making liquor, a Lahu (拉祜) woman weaving with a back-strap loom, Dai dancing girls, a Wa hunter and a Lahu fisherman.
The performance area is the venue for government holiday events, but also the programs — usually dances — associated with the Dai Water Splashing Festival and the Wa New Rice Festival. At those times villagers of all ethnic minorities are in the city to watch the show and their colorful presence enhances the events.
They will also come to Menglian, in only slightly greater numbers, for the market the city hosts every five days. Arriving in trucks, minibuses and tractor-trailers, Dai, Lahu, Wa and Aini villagers swarm into the city from early morning. Most of them are women and dress in all or part of their traditional outfits.
Among the Dai, it's generally just the older women in ethnic clothing, dominated by white, gray, blue and black with white turbans. The Lahu women dress in red and black sarongs and jackets. Wa women are distinctive both by the style of sarong, the cap laden with silver chains — perhaps with s smoking pipe tucked into the top — and the large silver earplugs and disc pendants they favor for jewelry.
Aini women, though, are the real standouts. From the dark indigo cotton cloth they weave and dye themselves, they make an outfit that consists of a plain short skirt — pleated in the back — a colored and beaded sash hanging in front, a heavily embroidered jacket with appliquéd stripes on the sleeves, leg-wrappers similarly appliquéd, embroidered shoulder bags and elaborate headdresses.
Basically the headdress is a fitted skullcap with a plate rising behind it, straight at the bottom and rounded at the top. Rows of silver studs and beads cover the surface of the cap, while a false hair part protrudes below the front rim. The back plate is covered in black cloth and often decorated with strings of beads and rows of silver studs. From the sides of the headdress they might drape loops of beads and to the cap attach flowers, tassels, pompoms or green beetle wings.
Many Aini men also show up in traditional attire, though of course these are less spectacular than the women's. The outfit comprises plain trousers, moderately embroidered jackets and plain turbans. Lahu, Dai and Wa men dress in modern style for the most part. But men are a minority anyway in the city on market day, for women both run the stalls and do the shopping.
The big, covered central market is the main venue. But on the side streets beside it villagers set up rows of stalls. Aini women selling mountain and forest products — wild vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, bamboo grubs and bee larvae — will occupy one lane. On another lane, Dai women sell medicinal herbs and plants, vegetables, rice, farm tools and wooden items like mortars, chopping blocks, and bowls. On other streets, for market day is not confined to only one area, Wa and Lahu women set up stalls to hawk their particular products.
Besides Menglian City itself, each district in the county holds its own regular market day. The composition of the crowd will change according to the location. The Aini, who are so prominent in the Menglian market, are elsewhere only present for market day in the border town of Mengxin (孟欣), directly south of Menglian. To the north and northwest, in hilly districts, some Dai come up from the valleys, but those in the market are mainly Wa, from the higher villages, and Lahu, from lower on the slopes.
Southwest of Menglian, on the main road to Myanmar, Dai and Lahu dominate the Mengma (勐马) market. In Menga (勐啊), on the border, the venue is a pleasant shady grove at the edge of town. Besides the Dai locals, those in attendance include Wa and Lahu from both China and Myanmar. You can sort of tell them apart, even when they belong to the same sub-group. The poorer they appear to be, the more they just look around at all the goods and the less they actually purchase, the more likely they are to be from Myanmar.
Both Mengma and Menga are plains towns, so the area around them mostly consists of Dai villages, plus a handful of resettled Wa hamlets. Lush rice fields flank both sides of the highway and occasionally bamboo bridges span the stream running alongside. The best time to enjoy this scenery is early autumn, when the fields turn golden yellow and the people are out in big groups harvesting the crop together.
After they have threshed the grain they next winnow it by standing on a stilt. The grain thus has further to fall than if they were doing it standing on the ground and the wind has more time to blow away the chaff. The method may be unique to Menglian, for I've not seen it elsewhere in the province.
Farmers in the hills grow a different kind of rice, but nowadays far less than in the past. Many villages now raise tea or sugarcane as a cash crop, since these do not take so much out of the soil as rice does, and they do not need to make new fields for rice cultivation every two years. Tea factories have been set up in the hills and during the tea boom times in Xishuangbanna several years ago, Menglian County tea cultivators also got a windfall. They didn't spend it on building "modern style" concrete houses to replace their own, though, as so many newly rich Xishuangbanna people did. Traditional style still characterizes houses in the tea garden villages in the hills around Menglian.
Despite its obvious attractions, Menglian still draws few tourists. Compared to Xishuangbanna, it is less congested, less "touristy" and money–oriented, more authentic, its historical relics more intact, its ethnic minorities more colorful and traditional, yet it gets only a tiny sliver of the crowd that visits Xishuangbanna. Menglian's people don't particularly resent that.
They know their county is rather remote and not as well connected as Xishuangbanna. The few foreigners who make it there find the people quite friendly and quick to smile. Minority women in town for market day do not avoid the camera nor shy away from their rare sight of a foreigner. In fact, they may become curious, especially the Wa, and approach the visitor, not to sell some trinket or other, but to engage in a short conversation — short because of their own limited knowledge of Chinese.
This is also true in the villages far from the city. In my own excursions in the hills there, I found my unexpected presence taken not as an intrusion but as a welcome interruption. I could not be there more than five minutes before someone rushed to invite me inside the house for tea and talk. Learning that I lived in Thailand provoked questions about the differences between the life of the Wa, Lahu or Aini there and in Menglian; or even between Menglian and Xishuangbanna.
The big difference is that Menglian doesn't have a tourist industry. Villagers might feel less welcoming if busloads of camera-toting strangers descended regularly on their settlements or surrounded them in the city on market day to get selfies with the lady in the exotic costume. In the 14 years since my initial and my most recent visit to Menglian, the city has added new suburbs as well as parks, and the people are as friendly, approachable and hospitable as ever. Tourists are still rare and maybe that's why the place is so relaxed and genuine. And because it's so off the beaten track, maybe it will stay charming for a long time to come.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally posted on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). Goodman has recently released an ebook entitled "Living in Shangrila: Tibetans and Mosuo in Northwest Yunnan". It and many other works by the author can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu.
All images: Jim Goodman© Copyright 2005-2022 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.