Once a key strategic town on the old caravan trade routes between China’s Yunnan province and Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, the old city of Kengtung might be the capital of the Golden Triangle, but it has missed out on half a century of development seen elsewhere in the region.
The town, situated at the far east of Myanmar’s large Shan state, has more ties and links to its Mekong neighbours. Now, easier access from Thailand overland could see more intrepid visitors discover the quaint town and its hinterland hill tribe groups.
Mekong Travel Storyteller Keith Lyons recently returned from a fact-finding trip to the area, and believes easier access will enable more tourists to be charmed by the least visited part of the Golden Triangle.
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 … 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.
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.
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.
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 … 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.