Don't be strangers!
Xishuangbanna's first woman governor has set her sights on enticing more Thai tourists to visit her charming domain
In terms of language, culture and history, the people of Xishuangbanna are close relatives of the Thais, who have traditionally referred to this region in southern China as Sipsongpanna - literally, the land of the "12,000 rice fields".
Despite the existence of this shared heritage, But Dao Lin Yin, the first female governor of this autonomous prefecture in southern Yunnan province, feels that the two peoples are still relative strangers and don't visit each other enough.
"I want to try to bring the two [of us] closer together. That's what I want to achieve [as governor]," said the 52-year-old, former schoolteacher who is based in the capital, Jinghong (Chiang Rung), a town that straddles the Lancang (Mekong) River.
Home to 26 ethnic-Tai/Dai and other minority groups, the prefecture only began to open up to tourism a few years back after the authorities in Yunnan decided to let the rest of the world in on what had up to then been one of China's best-kept secrets.
Since she was born in Xishuangbanna and has Dai blood, Dao Lin Yin would seem to have been a natural choice for the governor's post. But she said her elevation surprised her since the Chinese government rarely appoints women to senior executive positions.
"As a woman, the difficult part is that I have to work harder than men to gain recognition," she revealed. "But a woman's strength lies in the attention she gives to detail. This quality should enable me to better respond to the needs of people in this prefecture which is so rich in culture."
One of the initial jobs she has set herself is to promote the attractions of Xishuangbanna among the Asean member states and, given their close racial links to the Tai/Dai, the people of Thailand will be her first target.
The governor went on to list four goals which she wants to achieve during her five-year tenure.
First, she plans to organise a Songkran celebration for Tai Lue residents of the prefecture on a scale comparable to the festivals held in Thailand. She wants to promote more cross-border commerce and boost trade links with foreign countries in general.
Her last mission is to develop land routes connecting Jinghong to neighbouring countries, particularly the Bangkok-Kunming route, which will open up Xishuangbanna to Asean countries and the world. The Thai side of the route is now finished. Construction of the Chinese leg is expected to be completed by early 2008.
Dao Yin Lin said the government in Beijing is supporting her attempts to restore the practice of Buddhism in Jinghong and has set up an institute to research the culture of several Tai/Dai groups. It recently published a study on the age-old tradition of writing religious texts on "books" made of palm leaves; the study has been translated into standard Thai, Chinese, English and a local Tai language.
The prefecture was officially introduced to the world in early November when the Yunnan provincial authorities spent millions of baht sponsoring trips by members of the media from both Asean and non-Asean countries to cover stories in Kunming and Xishuangbanna.
The highlight of the visit was the chance to attend a ceremony to "open the eyes" of a Buddha image at Wat Luang Muang Lue, a temple designated as a centre for Buddhist study and the dissemination of Buddhist teachings in the southern part of China.
According to Jang Ping, a tourist-agency executive, the temple and Buddha image cost more than 350 million yuan (1.43 billion baht at current exchange rate) to erect. A Buddhist college has also been built in the compound.
The Chinese government is also promotes the cultivation of tea bushes on an upland area covering 1,500 rai adjacent to the city. At 20,000 yuan (81,436 baht) for a 300g to 400g pack, tea grown in Xishuangbanna commands the highest price in the People's Republic.
In Jinghong, locals usually travel by bicycle or motorcycle. Taxis charge a flat rate of only 5 yuan (20 baht) for a ride around town. And some of the local food seasoned with fried Yunnan chillies reminded us of fiery dishes from Thailand.
Dao Yin Lin pointed out that Jinghong needs to forge firm links with Thailand before proceeding to promote itself as a destination for visitors from other Asean countries.
"I want Thai people to know that they have more than 300,000 brothers and sisters here in Xishuangbanna," she said. "Fostering people-to-people relationships is the key."