Gem in the Golden Triangle

Gem in the Golden Triangle
Rice fields in Kengtung, where the land is range upon range of rolling green hills and vast valleys, with only a few paved roads.

KENGTUNG - In this frontier land in Myanmar, blue-green mountains surround you, wreathed in tendrils of mist and capped with shifting clouds.

Water in the fields reflects the sky as young, green rice stalks push their way up from the fertile reddish soil. Big-eyed water buffalos trundle home. Old stone wells dot the valley; and up in the hills, old monasteries and churches stand amid forests of pine. In the tea shops, the sweet Indian-style tea is the same colour as the earth.

Deep in the hills are tribal villages where people still live off the land which gives them everything they need. I met a shaman, of the animist Aeng tribe, who doubles as a blacksmith. He sat patiently twirling an ancient air pump, heating a fire in which he was fashioning the blade of a shovel. It would take him all day; time here means little in a place long isolated and only recently opened up for visitors.

Even with the opening, visitors must go through several checks. I began my journey to Kengtung - spelt Kyaing Tong in the Myanmar language and pronounced Cheng Tung or Chaing Tong - at the Thai-Myanmar border, crossing from Mae Sai in Thailand to Tachileik on the Myanmar side.

Locals cross the border frequently, but not many foreigners go through here, judging from the fact that the immigration officer was asleep, stretched out on plastic chairs behind his desk. He hurriedly swung his feet down to the floor and straightened up. There was some discussion over my passport and then the reassuring sound of the rubber chop being stamped.

Then I had to report to a police unit. A female police officer, with her legs elegantly tucked under her, sat on a sofa in a little room reading aloud from a book of Buddhist prayers. She did not look up when I entered. The male officer wrote down my details and then returned my passport and waved me on; at the end of the trip I had to report to the police station in Kengtung for permission to leave. Two things change as you step across the border. You have to cross the road to the other side because in Myanmar they drive on the right side, American-style, and you have to turn your watch back 30 minutes from Thailand time.

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