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Thursday, 24 August 2017

Kengtung and The Golden Triangle

One of our favourite places in all Myanmar, Kengtung (or Kyaing Tong) lies in a broad, beautiful valley in remote Eastern Shan State, midway between the borders of Thailand and China. The people of this area are predominately Shan, or ‘Tai Khun’, and speak a language very similar to Thai. The surrounding hills are the abode of various hill tribes who carry on a traditional, agricultural way of life unchanged for centuries. Kengtung is an increasingly popular trekking destination and many visitors to Myanmar now make this pretty and historic town the first or last stop of their visit – the border with Thailand being only a morning’s drive away.

Historically, Kengtung was the seat of a powerful Shan (Siamese) ‘Sao Pha’; a ‘Sky Lord’ or Prince. Founded in 1243, the state was a rival to the more well-known Shan Kingdom of Chiang Mai. Its location, on the overland route from Xishuangbanna (now China) to Chiang Mai, Southern Thailand and Myanmar, made the town an important and wealthy trading centre. In recent decades, the area was closed to the outside world and achieved notoriety as the ‘Golden Triangle’, the centre of the illicit opium trade. With the opium trade now mostly a thing of the past, Kengtung and the road to Thailand have been re-opened to visitors and the area is gaining attention for its hill tribe trekking opportunities.

Kengtung is situated in a lush rice-growing valley in the heart of the Eastern Shan Hills. The town itself is set around the romantic, sunken Naung Tung Lake – hidden down quiet side lanes from the town’s major roads. Mine Yen Road, the main thoroughfare is lined with colonial-era shop buildings, bungalows and churches, and the town is studded with more than 30 pagodas, known here by the Thai word ‘Wat’. The highest hill in Kengtung is topped by the Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral, and a more recently built standing Buddha; Ya Taw Mu, which looks out over the lake, to the valley and hills beyond.

Fifteen minutes walk south of the lake is the most important site in Kengtung, the central market. Khun villagers from the valley and hill tribe villagers, some in traditional dress, walk for hours through the night to bring their produce here for sale at dawn. With the money earned, the villagers buy dry goods, mostly imported from Thailand and China. This is a good place to shop for Shan textiles and bamboo utensils, and try out some breakfast items you may not have tried before such as the delicious noodle soups. In addition to this market, a twice-weekly water-buffalo market is held on the western edge of town. The animals are very important to the local economy, used for ploughing the rice paddies and hauling carts filled with produce. It is fascinating to watch the farmers meticulously inspecting the animals before launching into a bargaining session to secure their desired acquisition.

Of the many ‘Wats’ in Kengtung, Wat Jong Kham, dating from the 13th Century Lanna period is the most impressive; its golden spire is visible from all over the town. In classic Thai-style, Wat Mahamuni fills a traffic circle at the junction of two of Kengtung’s main streets. The beautiful, wooden Wat In is well-known for its archway entrance, featuring a pair of delicately-fashioned bird people; Keinari and Keinara, which symbolise eternal fidelity. The monastery is also home to an impressive collection of ancient wooden Buddhas, covered in gold. These Buddhist sites are set amongst an impressive collection of old colonial-era churches, houses and bungalows. This is truly a town for strolling and discovering. End your day at scenic Naung Tung Lake; sip tea, buy a bowl of noodles and chat with the friendly, curious locals.

Trekking.

Trekking_small_picThe main attraction of the Kengtung area is the opportunity to take day treks in the surrounding hills and countryside, to explore remote hill tribe villages, trek to waterfalls and interact with the friendly and welcoming people. Kengtung is located in the middle of a large, fertile valley at 785 metres, which means that the trailheads for village treks are often a one – two hour drive from the town. All of our treks include transport to the trailhead as well as the services of a knowledgeable guide. Lunch is usually not included but you can make arrangements with your guide for a cooked lunch to be provided.

The hill tribe villages in this area of Eastern Shan State are mainly those of the Akha, Lisu, Eng, Wa, Loi and Silver Palaung peoples. Compared to the mass tourism experienced by hill tribe villages across the border in Northern Thailand, very few foreign visitors embark on treks here. A trek in the environs of Kengtung is a refreshing change from the commercialism of Thailand, a more personal and authentic experience.

Ho Chin Area Trek. (Akha, Lahu and Wa Hill Tribes, Khun village)

Have breakfast at your hotel, then meet your car and guide for the one hour drive to the trailhead. A 1 ½ hour trek brings us to the Akha village of Phata. After a break here continue onwards for 30 minutes to Na Phi Phank village, where Lahu and Akha people live together. In the afternoon trek onto the Khun village of Mong Zine where you can observe the blacksmiths making traditional knives. Returning to Kengtung, visit the Wa (once feared headhunters) village of Joe Phyu.

Pin Tauk Area Trek. (Lahu, Eng, Akha Hill Tribes)

Set off early through the morning mists of the Kengtung valley on the 45 minute journey though rice-growing country, northwest to the trailhead and the Lahu village of Pindauk. After a stop here we continue onto the two friendly Akha villages of Nam Lin Mai and Nam Lin Hong. After a break during the hottest part of the day we continue over the hill to the Eng village of Wan Mai. The Eng wear mostly black clothing and are most famous for their custom of blackening their teeth. In the afternoon continue to the local beauty spot, Pindauk waterfall in an area of mixed forest and plantations. If time allows, a visit can be made on the return journey to the Silver Palaung village of Wan Pauk.

Mong La Road Area Trek. (Loi Hill Tribe, Khun village)

This trek starts with a long, but very scenic two hour drive towards the Chinese border at Mong La. The road passes along a mountain ridge offering breathtaking views and passes quiet Khun villages, their farms and fish ponds. This trek is the hardest in the Kengtung area, an uphill walk to the mountaintop Loi village of Wan Yut. First, visit the very interesting old wooden monastery which dates to 1750, then explore the village itself. With the help of your guide, learn about the centuries-old traditions of the Loi people; their hunting and farming methods, and view the longhouses where the people live – five families to a house. You will be one of only a very small number of outsiders to visit the village each year. After lunch continue to another loi village, Wan Seng. A visit to these remote villages, far off-the-beaten-track is a very special and rewarding experience.

Loimwe.

loimwe_small_picMore remote road trip than trek, Loimwe is reached by a winding road up into the misty hills; a road which deteriorates the further you go. It is a very scenic journey, fording small streams and passing Akha, Lahu and Khun villages along the way. There are fantastic views from viewpoints along the way, down into the valley to the terraced rice fields. The small town is set around an artificial lake, crossed by an earthen dam. On the hillsides above the lake are several British colonial buildings including that of the governor, as well as a century old Catholic church. In the market you can join the locals enjoying a lunchtime bowl of Shan-style noodles and sample the Strawberry wine which is homemade by the teashops here. The town is noticeably cooler than the Kengtung valley so bring a fleece if you are visiting in winter.

Half Day Treks.

As most flights from Kengtung to onward destinations depart in the afternoon, it is possible to take a short trip on your last day in the Kengtung Valley, before you depart for the airport.

Wan Sai Village is located 9 kilometres (about 30 minutes drive) along unpaved roads from Kengtung. The journey passes rubber plantations, Khun villages, wats and spirit shrines. After visiting this Akha village, set on a forested hilltop, return to Kengtung and One Tree Hill, the site of a single Kanyin-byu tree said to have planted by King Alaungpaya during his conquest of the valley. Before leaving for the airport there is time to visit a traditional Shan lacquer ware workshop, one of the last examples of its kind in the valley. Alternatively, you can visit the Silver Palaung village of Wan Pauk, passing rice-farming Khun communities en-route. The Silver Palaung are so named for their tradition of wearing silver belts.

Mr Myanmar Travel can organise your transport to Kengtung, accommodation and day treks or tours. Flights are available several days a week from Heho (For Inle Lake), Mandalay and Yangon. Should you wish to visit Kengtung in addition to the ‘Big Four’ destinations (from Yangon) we would recommend an itinerary in the following order: Yangon – Bagan – Mandalay – Kengtung – Heho (Inle Lake) – Yangon. A stay at Ngapali Beach can also be added to this itinerary after Inle Lake.

Kengtung is only a four-hour drive from Tachileik, and the border with Thailand. Mr Myanmar Travel can organise the permit needed to cross the border in conjunction with your pre-booked travel arrangements in the region. It is possible to leave Myanmar here and / or enter and continue via Kengtung and onwards to Upper Myanmar by air. Entering and / or exiting Myanmar at this border is a popular option as it avoids the need to make two visits to Yangon and pay for an international flight to or from Bangkok. It is possible to travel from Kengtung to Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai or the Thailand - Laos border in one day.

Car and minivan hire is available in Kengtung to transport you to the trailheads for trekking, and also to the border at Tachileik. Please note that, as this is a remote area that sees relatively few tourists, the vehicles here are not equipped with air-conditioning. This does not really present a problem as the elevation of the area means that temperatures are generally cooler than the lowlands of Myanmar.

 

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