A Journey West--In search of the Dai

Trip Start Aug 30, 2006
Trip End Feb 03, 2008

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"I don't think this is a restaurant," I whisper through a smile to David, sitting on my right.

Dan, sitting beside David, is holding a nonsensical conversation with an old woman while her middle-aged daughters prepare us lunch. We are all bobbing our heads and smiling, and the old lady laughs as often as her daughters offer us dishes to try: every minute.

"No," David says as we nod assent to the latest offering, a bowl of cabbages.

We're inside a family's house, a few miles from Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna, unofficially Chinese Thailand. One of the ethnic groups native to this area are the Dai, which sounds like "Thai" becuase it's the same basic group of people.

This morning, we have cycled on rented bikes for a few hours over a main bridge, through a small Dai  village, up a hill, through a farmed forest and down through a different village.
We were out of water and getting hungry by the time we reached the second village, so tried out our hopeful Mandarin on a lady who was closing down a small food stand. She waved helpfully in the direction of Jinghong, down a long, thirsty road.

We went next door to buy bottles of water. When asked for a restaurant they waved us the opposite way, thorugh the village.

We found two men sitting on a porch in a traditional Dai house. They offered Dan baijiu (hard liquor) and waved us back down the road.

I asked a pretty girl walking under a tree. She directed us up the road.

We found more houses, these ones bearing the international sign (we thought) for a Chinese restaurant: big, red lanterns. Forgetting that this is Chinese New Year, when even construction equipment and brothels bear these lanterns, we rode confidently to the door and asked the ladies sitting outside for food, expecting they were waitresses at a local fandian.

And without laughing, without sending us away, they simply shout inside to see if there's enough food left for three more people and kick their husbands out of the small, front-room kitchen where they had been playing cards and drinking tea.

They take us inside and line up three stools by the door, under a 2005 poster-calendar with a picture of Chairman Mao. We are each given a bannana and told to sit. Grandma takes a stool and sits in front of Dan, where she inspects us and asks us questions, sometimes through one of her granddaughters, who has a little English.

They tell us to throw the bannana peels behind the door and drink up some local tea while daughter number one fires up the cookstove and daughter number two washes some vegetables and fetches fish.

They heat up a pot of rice left over from their own meal, then start showing us other leftovers for our approval.

We say  yes to everything, and end up crowded at the small round table with too many dishes to choose from. There's duck (we know the Mandarin for duck, but they still flap their arms like wings to help us understand), cabbages (grown locally, we think they say), some kind of smoked ham, famous Yunnan bacon in cilantro and vegetables, another meat from an animal they tell us lives in the mountains but we couldn't identify by taste, and fish from the pond in back of their house.

It's wonderful, and we eat as much as we can while keeping in mind that what we don't eat, they will, later. Grandma sits at the table with us and watches us while other members of the family come by once in a while to check us out.

We're all full already, but daughter number one, whose house this must be since she did all of the cooking, reminds us that the qincai cabbage is from their own land. We must eat more of it.

That done, we try to leave gracefully but can't: Daughter number two is standing at my elbow peeling a fruit I've never seen before and Grandma hands Dan a sack of bannanas. A plastic bag full of peanuts is in the middle. They are all really pleased when I tell them that in America we don't have this mystery fruit, which resembles a cucumber in texture and seeds, an apple in peel and shape, and a honeydew melon in taste. They ask if I know what peanuts are, as well.

At last we think we're done with eating, and I'm wondering how I'm going to pedal the bicycle after eating so much. The day before, without overindulgence, I managed to run into a parked car, so I had cause to worry.
We stand up and I try to offer money to these kind women whose house we mistook for a restaurant. Daughter number one refuses. Daughter number two avoids us. The English-speaking granddaughter translates their distress. Grandma tells us that if we're happy, she's happy. I try again, and again. Grandma gives Dan some of the mystery fruit to add to the sack of bananas he's already holding.

Dan takes the money, a tiny amount compared to what a much smaller meal would cost us in town later that day, and tries again. No luck.

We thank them effusively, and they look almost as embarassed as I feel. We go outside, thinking we should get back to Jinghong before the sun starts to set. First, though, we must pass the displaced husbands who are at another table outside playing cards.

Grandma won't settle till we're all sitting with the neighbors and husbands, watching them play cards. Dan tries a hand, but we can't figure out the logic of the game and nobody's language skills are up to par to explain strategy or rules.

Finally we take off, a little unsteadily on my part, headed back to Jinghong along a very, very dusty highway made beautiful by new experiences.


Before landing in scenic, wonderful Xishuangbanna, we took a 25-hour train ride through spectacular, mountainous scenery to Kunming, then a sleepless "sleeper" bus ride down to Jinghong. We plan to be here a week or so, exploring villages and markets.So far we've seen a monkey zoo, many villages and villagers and have ridden bikes along the maintenance roads for rice paddies. We're staying in a traditional-ish Dai house (plywood walls stuck on stilts) in the middle of town, run for backpackers. We have reservations, we hope, to stay one night in a treehouse in the middle of a nature preserve for wild elephants, and are trying to arrange for a guide to take us on a few days' hike through the jungle staying with local people.
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jeroen on

Sounds fabulous - that's the one corner of China I skipped that I'd really like to see (two actually, the far West). Have you seen/tried that bitter vegetable that looks like a cucumber with measles? I loved it - had lots of it in the Kunming area.
Hugs from Jeroen + Marta and happy Chinese new year!

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