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.
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)
Pin Tauk Area Trek. (Lahu, Eng, Akha Hill Tribes)
Mong La Road Area Trek. (Loi Hill Tribe, Khun village)
Half Day Treks.
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.
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.