There are places which seem so close, but remain hard to reach. Kengtung, the main town in the far east of Myanmar’s most eastern Shan state, is one of those places. It is less than 150 kilometers from Jinghong (景洪), the main city of Yunnan’s Xishuangbanna Prefecture, and it shares many similarities, yet there is one barrier — the border. Currently no foreigners can go across from Dalou (打洛) to Mongla, though there is talk that soon that border might allow access as part of Myanmar’s process of opening up.
The rather porous border into region still sees Yunnan residents and other Chinese ‘smuggled’ across to enjoy the vices of gambling, prostitution, and procuring endangered species in the seedy borderland around Mongla — part of what is called ‘Special Area 4’. However, things are much more interesting, more scenic and safer at the unofficial capital of the Golden Triangle, Kengtung, which sits peacefully in a valley among the hills between China, Thailand and Laos.
Once a key strategic walled city on trade routes between Thailand and China — from Tai kingdoms in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai through to modern-day Jinghong (景洪) — Kengtung today is a quaint town stuck in a time warp. Its diverse hill-tribe hinterlands offer something different for travelers who prefer more authentic experiences to the touristy packages on offer in northern Thailand.
Until the land border with China opens for foreigners, one of the only ways to get into this fascinating area is to enter from northern Thailand. It is also possible to take the overland route from Jinghong to Laos, Laos to Thailand and Thailand on into Myanmar. The view into Myanmar at the Thai border town of Mae Sai is as far as most tourists go. However, new regulations mean it is now easier to enter into Myanamar’s Kengtung State, either for excursions exclusively in the region, or as part of a larger trip throughout Myanmar.
For foreigners wanting to venture into the Burmese part of the Golden Triangle, there are a couple of ways to do this. At the Tachileik border crossing from Thailand, an entry permit is issued in return for surrendering your passport and paying US$10 (or 500 Thai baht). This gives 14 days, but travel is limited to the two towns of Tachileik and Kengtung, and must be undertaken with a licensed guide at a cost of around US$40 per day. This might seem restrictive, but up until recently Myanmar only issued seven-day visas.
Since last year another option has become available, something of a game-changer for the region. Since the democratic elections in 2015 there has been more of an opening up to the world, and in late 2016 Myanmar allowed those on 28-day tourist visas — including easy to get e-visas — to enter and exit overland through the Tachileik-Mae Sai gate. A tourist visa allowed onward travel to other parts of Myanmar, though tourists must fly from Kengtung or Tachileik into Mandalay, Inle Lake or Yangon, as the road west is out of bounds to foreigners.
There’s another bonus to obtaining a tourist visa when coming to the region as part of a Myanmar tour, or just for a shorter local excursion — no guide is required.
However 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 — who can be reached at sai[dot]francis2012[at]gmail[dot]com — of Lahu/Akha descent. But remember, guides need to be booked in advance.
From a media trip earlier this year organized by the sustainable tourism organization PATA‘s Chiang Rai chapter, and hosted by Myanmar’s Amazing Hotel group, I found out that while some paperwork is involved, the administrative hassles and travel restrictions are far outweighed by the experience of being in a unique place that is yet to feature on most international travel itineraries.
Heading into Kengtung
The former princely state’s remoteness and isolation explains why fewer than 5,000 visitors last year made it across the Friendship Bridge from Mae Sai to the gateway town of Tachileik. As a comparison, Yunnan received four times as many tourists — in 1980 — and Xishuangbanna hosted 4,000 times that number of tourists last year.
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 track. But thanks to a newly-paved road, the 160 kilometers along Asian Highway AH-3 take less than three-and-a-half hours, including a mid-way rest stop at a market featuring dishes of 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 cross over to the right hand side of the road. With most of Myanmar’s aging fleet of vehicles hailing from Japan, one quickly notices most of the vehicles have the driver sitting on the righthand side of the vehicle, unable to see ahead properly or to overtake. Fortunately, there are very few cars or trucks that make the journey through the river valleys and over the hills to Kengtung, which sits at 900 meters 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.
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 during the twenty-first 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.
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 few tiny shops, 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, there is a strong Chinese influence and presence. Dali Beer — the cheap export version with the red label — is widely available. There are families from Yunnan who have been living there for decades, in some places your Chinese SIM card might work and some shopkeepers will take payment in Chinese yuan.
However, what Kengtung lacks in modern amenities and infrastructure, it makes up for in 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.
A little history
Nearly a century ago, when the semi-autonomous state was at its peak, it attracted such notables as British 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 colorful and turbulent history.
The rugged area, sitting in the far east of Myanmar, has had fluctuating fortunes, 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 thirteenth century, it seemed destined for prominence as it controlled a territory larger than modern South Korea or Portugal. One of the first foreigners to visit in the nineteenth century described the region as inhabited by between 12- and 15,000 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, 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 700 kilometers away. But this anomaly has unique characteristics. There are the trademark Burmese longyisworn 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 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 neighbors. As well as the curly ornate Burmese script, the Thai Lanna script can also be seen on signs, as well as Chinese.
Local landmarks and villages
So why is this special area seldom visited? The far-eastern backwater has suffered from the ravages of decades of international isolation, Burmese military rule, rebel insurgencies pushing for independence, 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 near the Chinese border, an area currently off-limits to visitors.
Kengtung is spread around its centerpiece 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 from the Buddha’s head that he left behind after prophesying 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 gilded Mandalay Mahamuni Buddha sits surrounded with bling. The pagoda occupies the town’s main traffic roundabout. Adjacent is the hamlet’s most impressive and comfortable accommodation, the Amazing Keng Tong.
On the same site as the former princely palace, the 108-room hotel is being renovated to a four-star standard, with attention to reflecting the local Shan style in its refit. Employing mainly locals from the area, the hotel showcases local cuisine through its Kengtung, Shan and Burmese offerings, as well as giving diners the chance to try the Shan plateau’s locally produced wine.
The town is the base for trips to visit the dozen or so ethnic groups which inhabit the area. Lower elevation hill-tribe villages closer to roads and with terraced fields tend to be more developed, and often Christianized. 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, or enterprising 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 garb.
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/gatherer’ lifestyle. Enn woman, who wear rough black hemp jackets, also 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 — ‘the 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-meter 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. Spartan teahouses serving basic dishes and sweet milky tea provide free Shan tea to clean the palate, and make great places to people watch.
The door is now open for travel to quirky Kengtung. Go there quick, before it changes. Bring a torch.
Author Keith Lyons first visited China in the 1990s, founded the Lijiang Earthquake Relief Project following the 1996 quake, and established the professional guiding outfit Lijiang Guides in 2005, working with local minority communities and the Eastern Tibetan Training Institute. He wrote the first e-book guide for Yunnan, and his articles about southwest China and Myanmar have been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and travel books. His travel guidebook to the temples of Bagan will be published in 2017 by Insider’s Guides.
Images: Keith Lyons