In China’s far southern reaches – where Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture meets Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam – the country feels less like China and more like Southeast Asia. And with 13 of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups (many of which have more in common with the Lao and Thai people) making up the bulk of the region’s inhabitants, it’s no wonder that walking the streets of Jinghong feels like you’ve been magically transported to Luang Prabang or Chiang Mai.
Luckily, for travelers embarking on one of our newest expert-led adventures, South by Southeast: Yunnan & Laos with Georgia Freedman, they won’t just feel like they’ve been transported into the villages, rice fields, and temples of Laos – they’ll actually get to discover them for themselves (after exploring the markets of Xishuangbanna first, of course). Leading you on a cultural and culinary voyage through verdant Yunnan into tropical Laos, this trip, led by our expert Georgia, brings you all the vibrant hues, rich traditions, breathtaking vistas, and redolent flavors of this relatively untouched corner of Asia.
Introducing Our Expert: Georgia Freedman
Georgia Freedman has channeled her fused passions for cuisine, culture, and far-flung places into a thriving career as a recipe developer and food & travel writer. Her musings on everything from the best breakfast in Asia to where to go to get a taste of old-world China have been featured in the likes of Afar, the Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic Traveller. She first became enamored with Yunnan’s diverse minority groups and their unique culinary cultures while traveling the region in 2000 and returned often to explore more of the province. Then, after five years as the managing editor of Saveur magazine, Georgia followed her long-burning desire to fully envelop herself in the customs and flavors of the region and decided to call Yunnan home for a year and a half, while also traveling extensively through China’s bordering countries at every opportunity. The fruit of that experience is Cooking South of the Clouds: Recipes and Stories from China’s Yunnan Province, called one of the best new cookbooks of 2018 by The New York Times, Food & Wine, and The Washington Post. An expert on all things foodie when it comes to this fascinating corner of the world, and lover of China’s and Southeast Asia’s myriad cultures, Georgia is the perfect guide for your immersive, epicurean adventure into the homes, fields, and forests of Xishuangbanna and Laos.
What You’ll Discover: Journey Rundown
This trip has been carefully curated to provide an exciting journey that traverses not just borders and impressive landscapes, but a dazzling array of rich flavors and distinct cultural traditions as well. Starting in Jinghong in Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, you’ll soak up the vivid sights and aromatic smells as you walk the streets, sinking in the slower way of life in China’s tropical south. As any traveler worth their salt knows, there’s no better place to watch life unfold than at a local market. Whet your appetite for what’s to come – and try not to get sensory overload – as you marvel at the day’s offerings at a wet market, where fresh ingredients (and likely a shock or two) abound. Then, you’ll leave the hustle of the city for a day spent wandering through neighboring ethnic minority villages, people-watching to your heart’s content and drinking in the daily customs and traditions of the locals.
Chilis, herbs, and citrus – the flavors of Laos and Southern Yunnan
The next day, you’ll set out for Laos, journeying across the border in the direction Muang La, a quaint, riverside village awash with palm trees in the untouched hills of Northern Laos. Along the way, you’ll stop in the village of Namdeng Nua, where Lanten minority people make paper from bamboo, before you tuck into a local lunch in the town of Oudomxay and then continuing on to Muang La. During your days in the charming Nam Pak River town, you’ll slip even further into Laos’s leisurely pace. From gaping at a 400-year-old Buddhist statue said to have mysterious powers and whiling away the time in a hot spring, to chatting with local farmers as they work in their rice fields and hiking through luxuriant rainforest before savoring a fresh lunch in a hilltop Khamu village, you’ll take life at the speed of the Lao.
Continuing on in your Laos adventures, you’ll hop on a private boat for a lazy float down the Nam Ou River to the rustic river town of Nong Khiaw, cruising past towering limestone mountains, verdant jungle, and minority villages. Stopping to explore Ban Sop Jam, a remote village that can only be reached by boat, you’ll watch daily life in the Khmu and Hmong community unfold, with women weaving silk scarves and men harvesting rice. After arriving in Nong Khiaw, you’ll have the rest of the day to wander or relax as you please. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, we highly recommend jumping on a bike at the resort (just ask your guide) and taking a short ride to explore one of the area’s picturesque limestone caves.
Pak Ou Caves | Image by Franck Zecchin via Flickr
Leaving the quiet villages behind, you’ll rise with the sun and head south towards Luang Prabang, driving through the rolling countryside along the Nam Ou River and past lush rice paddies. Where the mighty Mekong River meets the Nam Ou, you’ll jump on a local ferry in search of the mysterious Pak Ou Caves. Stuffed with thousands of Buddha statues in every size and shape gazing out over the Mekong, the caves have called to the faithful for generations, providing a calming oasis for them to bathe and pray for good fortune for the coming year. Gather up your courage and arm yourself with a flashlight (or the light on your phone) and head to the upper cave for a quieter, more untouched experience.
By lunchtime, you’ll arrive in Luang Prabang, where you’ll be remaining for the rest of your journey. Straddling the sacred confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, this city offers a romantic blend of French villas set against dense jungle, a riot of colors and smells, and all topped off with the gong of the monk’s call to prayer. And there’s no better way to kick off your time in the sleepy city than by partaking in a traditional Baci ceremony. Traveling to a nearby village, strings will be tied around your wrist to lock in good spirits, with a centerpiece of golden marigolds, rice, and chicken as an offering. With an event this festive (the rice gets tossed like confetti and the chicken gets devoured), the luck is sure to see you all the way back home at the end of your trip.
Traditional Baci welcome ceremony | Image by Cluster Munition Coalition via Flickr
Your last few days are filled with all the wonder and excitement this city and its surrounding areas have to offer, from exploring sacred temples to taking in Laotian history at one of the city’s museums. You’ll rise with the sun and join the locals in the daily ritual of tak bat, respectfully giving alms (gifts of food) to the monks as they slowly, silently file by. Afterward, you’ll visit a living crafts center dedicated to preserving traditional Lao textile weaving and dyeing techniques and empowering the female artisans. Wandering past the looms and finished works, you’ll see the masters hard at work carrying on their heritage and craft.
Finally, there’s no better way to cap off your trip than with a day spent getting hands-on with Lao culture. First, you’ll roll up your sleeves and learn how to miraculously turn sticky rice into the perfect bowl of typical Lao noodles, or kapoen, from a local farmer in his family’s kitchen. While enjoying the fruits of your labor, you’ll hear all about the different meals they can star in from Georgia (cue the daydreams about all the dishes you can make once you return home). Then, you’ll jump into a boat bound upstream towards the village of Ban Chan. Here, pottery has been the way of life for many of the village families for centuries. Sitting down with Mr. Thieng, a master potter, you’ll learn the tricks of the trade and how he is working to preserve this way of life before sitting down to try the ancient techniques for yourself. At the end of your day, you’ll toast to the rich cultural traditions of this beautiful corner of the world and your adventures with newfound friends with glass of Prosecco and take in the breathtaking view for one final night as the sun sets behind the hills.
Daily tak bat ritual | Image by Jim via Flickr
Join Georgia and us on this once-in-a-lifetime journey that takes you South by Southeast. As is WildChina style, we want to keep this group tour intimate and personal. So, we’re capping the size of the group at 10 people. Get in touch with us today to secure your spot, and we’ll send you all the details you need on getting your visa, packing for the trip, and preparing your mind and body for all that is to come.
Download the brochure to share with your friends here.