Travel across the border to the hidden gem of Kengtung – the capital of the Golden Triangle and home to many different hill tribe groups as well as a quaint old town – has just got easier, as Keith Lyons discovers.
If you want to get ‘off-the-grid’ and slip back in time – then another realm exists not far from the air-con caffe latte comforts of Chiang Rai. Only slightly further away from the northern city’s landmark clocktower as Chiang Mai, the Myanmar town of Kengtung and its diverse hill-tribe hinterland offers something different for travellers who prefer more authentic experiences to the touristy packages on offer in Northern Thailand.
With bumpy road access, unreliable electricity, sketchy mobile coverage and limited internet, the remote area certainly ticks all the boxes for the visitor seeking the ‘travail’ in travel. Across in Myanmar there are no 7-Eleven’s, nightlife is virtually non-existent, and given the dodgy power supply, you might be hard pressed to find a cold beer – let alone a shop open and lit up – after 10pm.
However, what Kengtung lacks in modern amenities and infrastructure, it makes up in an old-fashioned beguiling charm. Think nostalgia and retro. The main commercial area has a neglected, derelict feel, with faded wooden shop signs from the 1970s. Apart from locally-grown produce, there is a limited range of poor-quality imported merchandise that has endured a rough haul in from China or Thailand. But it is Kengtung’s backwardness and unpretentiousness that makes it appealing.
Nearly a century ago, when the semi-autonomous state was at its peak, it attracted such notables as playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham, who after 26 days slogging over the Shan plateau, found the town a restful, relaxing place. Not much has changed in recent times, and although the town is the largest in the Golden Triangle, its yesteryear appearance belies its colourful and turbulent history.
The rugged area, sitting at the far east of Myanmar, between modern-day Thailand, China and Laos, has had a turbulent history, sometimes as its own princely state, but more often at the whim of greater powers. Over thousands of years, peoples from all over Asia have passed through or settled in the hills, from as far away as Tibet, Cambodia and Vietnam. Kengtung’s strategic location at the crossroads of trade routes meant it became a prosperous town, and when the Chiang Mai king founded the fortified city in the middle of the 13th century, it seemed destined for prominence. It controlled a territory larger than South Korea or Portugal. Though one of the first foreigner to visit in the 19th century described the region as inhabited by 12 or 15 thousand tigers, and probably as many primitive people. Opium was cultivated as far back as the 1750s, and in the good old days, nearly a third of the world’s opium came from the hills.
Settled by the Tai Khuen, and with strong links to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Jinghong in Yunnan, it might seem that today Kengtung is stuck in the wrong country. After all, the frontier-land is one of the most un-Burmese parts of Myanmar. Mandalay is a long 700km away. But this anomaly has unique characteristics. There are the trademark Burmese longyis worn by some men, women often use the face-whitening thanaka, and cheroots are smoked in the dusty streets. However there are some distinct aspects which led British magistrate Maurice Collis to write 80 years ago that Kengtung was quite unlike any other place in Burma or in Shan state.
Shaven-headed monks wear orange robes, not maroon as elsewhere in Myanmar, and the pagodas – which look more like those found in northern Thailand – are known by the Thai word ‘wat’. Even the main language spoken is not Burmese, but a Thai-dialect that can be understood by cross-border neighbours. As well as the curly ornate Burmese script, the Lanna script can also be seen on signs, as well as Chinese.
So why is this special area seldom visited? This far-eastern backwater has suffered from the ravages of decades of international isolation, Burmese military rule, rebel insurgency pushing for independence from Burma, and the impact of exploitative smuggler economies taking out teak, rubies, coal, people and drugs. Opium is no longer cultivated on the slopes, though there are some methamphetamine factories on the Chinese border, an area currently off-limits to visitors. Kengtung itself sits safe and secure, with a friendly welcoming smile, and none of the seediness expected in the notorious vice area.
Location also explains why fewer than 5,000 visitors last year made it across the border to the gateway town of Tachileik (across the Friendship Bridge from Mae Sai) or up to the main town Kengtung. Most the visitors are Thai day trippers who come to gamble, shop and play golf, or pilgrims seeking a charismatic Thai monk resident in Kengtung. It used to be an arduous journey on a muddy road inland, but thanks to a newly-paved road, the 160km along the Asian highway AH-3, travel time is less than 3 ½ hours, including a mid-way rest stop at a market featuring live bamboo grubs and fried crickets.
The toll road was made by a construction company with dubious connections to the drug, jade and teak trade. Interestingly, at the Thai border, traffic must crossover to the right hand side of the road. With most of Burma’s ageing fleet of vehicles hailing from Japan, visitors quickly notice that most of the vehicles have the driver sitting on the righthand side of the vehicle, unable to see ahead or to overtake. Fortunately, there are very few vehicles that make the journey along river valleys and over the hills to Kengtung, which sits at 900 metres above sea level, at the lowest part of a wide basin.
The newish road isn’t the only development to make it easier to explore the area. Most days there is a short flight from the border town to Kengtung, though the vagaries of Myanmar’s dozen airlines means there might not be any flights going the other way. The other game-changer for Kengtung is the visa situation. In times past paranoid Burma only issued 7-day visas, but since democratic elections in 2015, the country has opened up to tourism, allowing 28-day tourist visas, including quick e-visas. Just a few months ago Myanmar allowed entry and exit overland from Mae Sai. Tourists coming from other parts of Myanmar, or wanting to continue to Mandalay, Yangon or Inle lake, still need fly from Kengtung or Tachileik, as travel on the road west is currently restricted.
For foreigners travelling or living in Thailand, there’s another easy option, though it does come with a couple of conditions. At the Tachileik border, an entry permit is issued in return for surrendering your passport and paying US$10 (or 500 baht). This gives 14 days, but travel is limited to the two towns, and must be undertaken with a licensed guide – around US$40 a day. While there are warning signs on the Thai side of the border about ‘visa-runs’, this option can be one way of getting another 30 days in Thailand, unless your passport is full of Thai entry stamps. For other long-termers in Thailand, a re-entry permit is required, obtainable in most cities. Thai nations can get the necessary paperwork in Mae Sai.
While entry on a tourist or e-visa gives freedom of movement in the area, having a guide is helpful for the red tape and checkpoints, and also necessary for any trips to hill-tribe villages. One of the area’s most experienced guides is English-speaking Francis, (email@example.com) of Lahu/Akha descent – guides need to be booked in advance. Excursions around Kengtung into the dozen or so village clusters are often the highlight, providing a glimpse into a subsistence existence that has changed little in the 21st century. Overnight stays are not possible, so most visits involve driving for an hour or two, then walking around rustic villages, or hiking up steep hillsides to basic hamlets.
Lower elevation hill-tribe villages closer to roads and with terraced fields tend to be more developed, and often Christianized, while higher up, things get a little more wild and poor. The most accessible area, around Pin Tauk, is suffering from the daily influx of foreigners, with some villagers peddling bracelets and textiles following around visitors, or enterprising village women wearing silver medallion head-ware encouraging photographers to inspect their displayed merchandise. In some villages, including those of former headhunters, the Wa, don’t expect residents to be wearing traditional costumes, and be prepared to find the focal point of some Lahu and Akha villages to Southern Baptist and Catholic churches.
The most primitive conditions are found at the Enn villages, where bamboo pipes provide a trickle of water to raised stilt houses, and barefoot residents practice a ‘hunter and gatherer’ lifestyle. Enn woman, who wear rough black hemp jackets, chew betel nut and apply charcoal to blacken their teeth. There are also Shan, Palaung, Tai Loi and Tai Khuen villages to explore, as well as hot springs, rice wine distilleries, and craft workshops.
Locals head up to the former hill station of Loi Mwe – ‘misty mountains’ – to catch some fresh air, picnic around the pretty artificial lake, hang out around the remaining colonial-era building, and buy strawberries, cherries and pomelos. A century-old Catholic church, established by Italian priests, occupies one 1,600 m high hilltop, while another is dominated by a golden pagoda.
Hill-tribe members can also be seen in the mornings at Kengtung’s Central Market, a lively place of ramshackle stalls and laneways selling toasted Shan tea, live frogs, fresh chillies, spicy local sausage and the market’s signature dish: pork ball noodle soup – made by strapping tattooed Shan men on-site. There are some handicrafts and embroidered fabrics on sale, along with crude shotgun pellets, machetes and slingshots. In the early morning as the mist is lifting, monks file past collecting alms, while Indian shopkeepers sort and dust their goods.
Kengtung is nestled at the lowest point of the basin, spread around its centrepiece lake, with landmark attractions lining the ridge skyline. The most striking is the Thai-style Wat Zoom Kham, its gilded spire said to enshrine six hairs the Buddha left when he prophesied the city’s establishment. On the opposite side of town, a more recently erected standing Buddha points across town, though locals are not so happy about the Burmese-army built figure, claiming it brings bad luck. Sharing the prime location is the Roman Catholic cathedral, its mission, orphanage and seminary serving the area’s 60,000 converts. Another ridge-line attraction visible for miles around is the tall tree at Lonely Tree Hill, where the army have painted white stones spelling out: HAVE A NICE LIFE.
The ongoing battle for hearts and minds continues at Wat Pha Jao Lung, where a replica of the Mandalay Maha Muni Buddha sits surrounded with bling. The pagoda occupies the town’s main traffic roundabout. Adjacent is the town’s most impressive and comfortable accommodation, the Amazing Keng Tong. On the same site as the former prince’s palace, the 108-room hotel is being renovated to 4-star standard, with attention to reflecting the local Shan style in its refit. Employing mainly locals from the area, the hotel is showcasing local cuisine through its Kengtung, Shan and Burmese offerings as well as giving diners the chance to try the Shan plateau’s wine produced by two vineyards further west.
The door is now open for travel from Thailand to the quirky Kengtung. Go there quick, before it changes. Bring a torch.
By Keith Lyons – firstname.lastname@example.org
Keith Lyons is a travel writer and photographer. He visited the far eastern Myanmar as part of a media trip organised by the responsible travel trade organisation, the Pacific and Asia Travel’s (PATA) Chiang Rai chapter, and hosted by the Myanmar travel company Amazing Hotels.