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Boat races usher in Dai New Year By Corey Cooper

Residents of Jinghong , the largest city in Yunnan Province's Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, poured into the streets in the baking afternoon sun to welcome the start of the Dai New Year holiday, also known in greater China as the Water Splashing Festival.

In the mid-afternoon, with temperatures nearing 35 degrees C, locals and visitors from throughout the region gathered along Jinghong's scenic waterfront on the Mekong River to watch the traditional dragon boat races, a tradition popular throughout China. Families, young women dressed in the traditional Dai minority garb with matching umbrellas to shield them from the sun, and throngs of schoolchildren lined the riverbed as 24-man dragon boat teams from throughout the country raced both upstream and downstream on the Mekong.

Jinghong, also known by people in Yunnan as Xishuangbanna City, is known for its strong ties to Dai ethnic minority culture. On the city's streets, road signs depict street names in Thai Sanskrit as well as Chinese and Romanized pinyin. Dai people share a common heritage with Thailand and their dialect is intelligible with the Thai language.

 Among residents in Jinghong, the Water Splashing Festival is well known as the city's most famous tradition, and the three-day long celebration also provides a huge income boost for local businesses. Hotels fill to capacity, prompting owners to charge triple or quadruple their normal nightly rates. Special night markets spring up during the peak tourist period with swarms of vendors peddling wood carvings, imported jewelry and other souvernirs from Laos and Myanmar. Restaurants and street food vendors charge Beijing or Shanghai prices for the bites on sale.

Due to its importance as a gateway to Southeast Asia, vibrant ethnic minority culture and exotic tropical landscapes, tourism has surged in Jinghong in recent years. One visitor who had visited the city only one year ago commented that the city's once tranquil Mekong riverfront was now lined with brand new high rise apartment complexes and hotel resorts. A step up from the waterfront lies a newly built bar street, with plenty of places to throw back cold local beer and gaze at the river views. KTV parlors bellow out the classics well into the wee hours.

The bulk of festivities will occur over the coming weekend through the Dai New Year Day on Apr. 15, when the merrymaking will reach a fever pitch with its traditional water splashing customs. As often occurs during the Han Chinese New Year, Dai people will often continue celebrating throughout the following week.