Yunnan’s most iconic pagodas – the Three-Pagoda Temple (三塔寺) – are situated near Dali. They were built during the Nanzhao Kingdom (737 – 937).
At that time, Yunnan was not a part of China and Nanzhao (南诏) was a powerful kingdom based around the Erhai Lake (洱海) region. Its territory reached into Southeast Asia. The king of Nanzhao maintained close diplomatic ties with the Tubo Empire of the Tibetan, the Tang dynasty in nearby China and the style of the Three-Pagoda Temple (also called the Chongsheng Temple 崇圣寺) near Dali is a witness of the influence of Chinese culture on Nanzhao.
At the crossroad between Burma, Vietnam, Tibet and China, Yunnan is a place of transition where cultures have mixed. West of Dali ancient town, just a couple hour drive from the Three-Pagoda Temple, witnesses of Southeastern Asian influence dot the landscape.
The shape of the pagodas presented in this article are very different from the iconic Dali’s Three-Pagoda Temple and highlights the presence of Theravada Buddhism, a form a of Buddhism that prevails in Southeast Asia and which is different than the Chinese Chan -i.e. Zen – Buddhism or Tibetan Buddhism.
From Dali, we head west to Ruili (瑞丽) towards Burma. We follow the road across the prefectures of Baoshan (保山) and Dehong (德宏), an area mainly populated by the Dai ethnic minority. We stop near the city of Baoshan, continue to Mangshi (芒市) and the border town of Ruili (瑞丽), before heading back north towards Tengchong (腾冲) via Longchuan (陇川) and Yingjiang (盈江).
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1. Nongmu Pagoda 弄幕白塔 – Lujiangba
After crossing the Salween, in the plain of Lujiangba (潞江坝) west of Baoshan city (保山市), the Nongmu Pagoda (弄幕白塔) is the first visible sign of Southeast Asian influence in this part of China.
The Nongmu Pagoda consists of one main pagoda built on round lotus seat and surrounded by 24 smaller pagoda that rest on a square pedestal in which we find statues of Buddhas, as well as offering of food and incense.
2. Shubao Ta 树抱塔 – Mangshi
Located in the heart of the city of Mangshi (芒市), its name literally ‘the Tree that embraces the Pagosa’. Built between 1740 and 1788 during the reign Qing dynasty emperor Kangxi, to celebrate the victory of a local war, a tree has grown in and around the pagoda and both are united in an eternal embrace.
The square base of the pagoda seats on a three-level octagonal sumeru pedestal and is surrounded by 4 smaller stone pagodas all guarded by kirin-like statues. Protected at the local level since 1985, it’s become a tourist attraction and a must-see in this part of western Yunnan.
3. Menghuan Pagoda 勐环大金塔 – Mangshi
The Menghuan Golden Pagoda seats atop a hill which dominates the city of Mangshi and offers unobstructed views of the plains.
Its date of construction is uncertain. Seriously damaged during WWII and totally destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the re-construction of the pagoda started in 2014. Craftsmen and artists from nearby Burma were hired to work on this project.
Today, it is an impressive overturned bell pagoda which seats on octagonal building inside of which we find a giant statue of Buddha.
4. Jiele Pagoda 姐勒塔 – Ruili
Located just 5 km northeast of Ruili 瑞丽, one of Yunnan’s most famous border town, the Jiele Pagoda was built some time during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) and is claimed to be Ruili region’s oldest pagoda. According to a legend, a long time ago, the moonlight hit what is now the base of the pagoda. Like a river, rays of light were emanating from the spot, scaring some of the villagers. After the investigation, relics of Buddha Sakyamuni were found and the pagoda was built.
The main pagoda seats in the center and is surrounded by 16 smaller pagodas of uneven heights and set according to an x-shape layout. The pagoda, located in the village of Jiele, has been and is still the focus of intense and continuous religious activity.
5. Nong’an Pagoda 弄安塔 – Ruili
Built during the Qing dynasty and located in a small village a few kilometers southwest of Ruili 瑞丽, the Nong’an Pagoda is a vajra style pagoda, similar to the Menghuan Golden pagoda of Mangshi. Indeed, it consists of an overturned bell pagoda that seats on a high and hollow hexagonal concrete platform pierced with gates.
The main pagoda seats in the center and is surrounded by 8 smaller pagoda that seats on a square base.
6. Jinghan Pagoda 景罕塔 – Longchuan
Built in 1623 during the Ming dynasty, the Jinghan Pagoda is one of the oldest in Dehong. The main pagoda seats on a multi-leveled square based and is flanked by 8 smaller pagodas. Located near Longchuan (陇川), roughly half way between Ruili and Yingjiang, the Jinghan pagoda holds Buddhist relics and is the center of a yearly festival that attract believers not only from Yunnan, but also from nearby Burma.
7. Yunyan Pagoda 允燕塔 – Yingjiang
Located on a hill above the town of Yingjiang 盈江, roughly two or three hours west of Tengchong (腾冲), the construction of the Yunyan Pagoda started in 1947. It was believed that once finished, it could stop disasters like floods, wars and epidemics.
Completed in 1955 and renovated in 1982, it is an impressive structure that consists of one main pagoda surrounded by 24 small others on a square platform.
These are just but a few of the Burmese-style pagodas found in this part of Yunnan, squeezed between Burma and home to the Dai people.
If I was very impressed by the Yunyan pagoda of Yingjiang, the Shubao pagoda of Mangshi was definitely my most favorite.