Bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos, Yunnan China is a vast array of different cultures, splintered throughout the province's borders in haphazard fashion. Though it is not (yet) developed like the sprawling areas to the North, cities in the Yunnan province are just as distinctive, and they are surrounded by the most biologically complex ecosystems found in all of China. Thousands and thousands of species of plant life are on full display here, which is reflected by the region's nickname: The Garden of Heavenly Marvelous Flowers.
Yunnan China tours often start in the province's capital city of Kunming. The weather (mostly mild year-round) and food (the famous across-the-bridge noodles, one of the finest meals in all of China) here are exquisite, while there are more than a few sights to fill your days with. The city is full of pagodas, parks, mosques, temples and museums. They're located relatively close together, so it is possible to navigate on your own, but if you'd like some help or want to learn more about the local history, you can see the best of the bunch by taking one of the many Yunnan China tours offered all over the city. The only downside is that the locally organized tours are rarely in English, but there are tour companies such as China Odyssey Tours that offer English-language options and multi-day itineraries as well.
For those wanting to go it alone, Yuangtong Si brings Buddhists from all over the world to its flower-lined halls. Xisi Ta is one of the Tang pagodas, adjacent to a busy market and plenty of shops and cafes to people-watch from. The Nancheng mosque is a strange display. Trying to evoke majesty, it looks more like a poorly designed New York hotel. But the area is home to a large portion of the Chinese Muslim population, and their influence on the city is palpable here.
Many head to Kunming, hoping its proximity to a handful of sights just outside the city limits will make the capital a good base of operations. But these people are wrong—transit in this area ranges from inefficient to overwhelming—routes can take you to your destination and back, but there are few if any connections as you move away from the city. You have little chance of hitting everything you want, so it's best to pick out only a couple attractions before continuing on your Yunnan China tours.
Qiongzhu Si dates back to the days of the Tang dynasty (around the eighth century), known for its wild and numerous sculptures, placed on the grounds in the late nineteenth century. If you ever wondered what Buddha would like surfing a wave on the back of a turtle, this is the place for you. You'd prefer to see Buddha on a giant unicorn instead? You're in luck there, too. These surreal depictions, along with another 500 or so, can be seen at Qiongzhu Si.
Lake Dian has some great views and hikes, and is only a 30-minute bus ride from Kunming. Grand View Park takes up the northern tip of the lake, while small fishing settlements make up long stretches of shoreline as you venture south. The real draw of this area is the hiking around the Xi Shan (western hills). Also known as the Sleeping Beauty Hills, a few of the hikes are broken up by aging temples and their beautiful courtyards.
The northern region of Yunnan is notable mostly for the dramatic cliffs and waterfalls found at Tiger Leaping Gorge. One of the must-sees of any trip to China, you still won't see a lot of fellow travelers around, even on the most popular hikes through the gorge.
There are plenty of other great places to go in the Yunnan province. The border towns each have their own dramatic flair imbued into them, but few have the reputation of Ruili, just a mile or two from Myanmar. With discos, bars and casinos, the town is one of the definite places to be for nightlife in China. But don't think Ruili's reputation as a sleazy, underground town is unwarranted—prostitution and a variety of other scams are commonplace here, though it's nothing to be too concerned over.