As it is common for places in Myanmar, Kengtung has two different names and I don’t even know which one is the correct one – they have been used interchangeably by the locals, so I’ll stick with Kengtung for writing this post.
Hidden Gem of the Eastern Shan
Not being precisely on the tourist trail, Kengtung is easier to get to from the Thai side. The road from Taunggyi (in Myanmar) remains closed for foreigners without a special permit. I haven’t even looked how difficult it would be to get the travel permit to this former Golden Triangle area where they grew opium back in the day. I accepted that my way from Kengtung back to Yangon will be on a plane.
Where to stay and how to go around KT
From the bus station, I took a tuk tuk to the city center (3000 MMK – overpriced in my opinion), which is near the market. Not so far from there is Parami motel that offers basic but pretty nice accommodation for $10/night (non-negotiable). The tuk tuk driver had no clue where Parami Motel was, although he pretended so and was confidently headed to take me there. Thanks to Google Maps I was able to navigate him after driving in circles. From Parami, it is easy to walk to the lake and around the city. Although Kengtung itself is lovely, the beauty lies outside it and for exploring that you’d need to hire a local guide who will be your entrance ticket and connection to the various ethnic groups living in surrounding villages. Any hotel could arrange that.
For five days every month, the hill tribes come down to Kengtung to sell their produce and handicraft, after which they move to another village and keep going around. When I was trying to find out when these markets happen, no one gave me a clear answer and many didn’t know what I meant – they kept sending me to the Morning market in Kengtung (which is also a not-to-miss) or telling me about their festivals. Since it’s apparently difficult to plan around these moving markets as it seems to be no regular schedule for them, you have to be lucky.
Exploring with Somebody
In another blog post I had found a contact details of Seem Hug who lets you call him Someone. He helped to arrange my border crossing and transport from Tachileik to Kengtung as he happened to be at the Thai side when I was there too, uploading his videos. Apparently, he is pretty famous among Thai tourists coming to Kengtung and locals living near by, since he tries to organise donations for them. Someone took me around for two days and thanks to his language skills and ability to joke around with the locals we met, it was a lot of fun!
Loi people are my favourite!
After I helped to carry a bucket of (what I was told was) drinking water, a lady cordially invited me to her home and offered us bananas and tea. Loi were also the only people who did not try to sell me anything, they didn’t see me as a tourist having money but rather as someone who is curious about their life. And I liked that a lot. Although they don’t wear distinguishing clothes, they are the most hospitable and genuine people among all the hill tribes.
Akha women are good at business
I lost Someone for a short while as I had to get off the motorbike and walk because the road was just too difficult to drive. I then reached ‘a shopping mall’ in the middle of the road that Akha women set up, when they saw us and other tourists coming to the area. They only wanted to pose for a picture in exchange for buying some of their products. There, in the most unlikely places, I met a group of 10 Spanish people who were on a guided tour. Akha women are famous for their headdress, which they get when they marry and allegedly should not take off. They live in polygamy and their society is patriarchal. I was told that they are also very prudent and after the marriage, man and woman sleep in separate bedrooms. I am not sure if that’s true or not and how it fits with their romantic life.
Enn: the black-teeth tribe
Sometimes written as Ann or Eng, Enn is a truly fascinating tribe. I saw women and even girls chew betel nut and blacken their lips with a charred tree bark because they think it makes them attractive. They dye their clothes in black indigo colour, which is a long process to go through, because they believe in animism and black colour seems to be their favourite. After a woman is proposed for marriage, she receives an extraordinary silver bracelet to seal the deal.
Beautiful longgyi fabric of the Palaung tribe
Similar to all the other tribes, Palaung have their own way of dressing up. Colourful longgyi tied by a silver waist belts that I understood was also a sign of being married. The women were a bit disappointed that we didn’t buy anything, but I was relieved when they were offering the handicraft to Someone as well – he shouldn’t be spared of being involved in this ‘dramatic’ and persistent business-making.
Full moon traditions
When I visited a temple nearby Loi village, people were getting ready for the mid-Buddhist lent tradition: praying, meditating and spending the night in the monastery. I came there to see what’s up and saw a genuine joy in people who wanted to sit with me, talk to me, learn about who I was and why I was there. I received gratefulness from monks who with approving nods and smiles blessed me on my way out of the temple.
An old guy came to sit with us, offered me bananas and tea (I ate a lot of bananas that day!) and kept wanting to talk to me and thanks to Someone I connected with him when I asked about his life, meditation, children and just watched him all lit up when he saw my interest. He told me how painful sitting during meditation is, but also said that he just has to go through it and endure. Since I’ve done Vipassana meditation, I could well relate to that and admired him for his spirit. In the end, I didn’t do much for him, didn’t give him money, I just spent time with him – because time is the most precious commodity we have and when we decide to spend it people it always shows how much we value them. I kinda wanted to stay there for a night and just observe, but in the end I had to go back to Keng Tung.
The flip side of the life around Kengtung
While people in most of the villages we visited were welcoming us and were happy to pose for a picture or two (for which having a local guide helps immensely), some were hostile. Uncontrolled tourism in those areas where the visitors paid for pictures, have driven away the ingenuity of local people who were now expecting money for every photograph I took or just hid inside of their houses. Seeing me coming to their villages their immediately drove me to their houses only to show me their handicrafts and refuse to talk to me (via my guide) unless I bought something. The danger is also in bringing sweets to the kids. While the intention is nice, it’s not nutritious nor healthy for them, unless you bring toothbrushes and teach them to brush their teeth after.
Walking around the lake in Kengtung and thinking about the diversity of the hills surrounding this town, I felt at piece. I was able to see the stars and to get offline for a while and I was fed by the best Shan noodles with warm tofu in the world. I have felt incredible welcome by everyone who I got to interact with – it has become one of my favourite place in Myanmar and I hope to go back there before long. Next time, maybe by former Golden Triangle road.