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.
Perhaps, 20 years ago, I would most probably have been offered heroin or marijuana from the tout who accosted me at the border as soon as I stepped across. But while some opium is still being cultivated in remote areas, those days are over - and this time I was offered Viagra in a faded little box. The vendor tried to sell four 20mg tablets for 500 baht (S$19); there was no way I could tell if they were real or fake.
A cup of sweet tea and an hour later, I was on a bus to Kengtung - and a different world from well-oiled Thailand. This is the Golden Triangle, once the notorious centre of the world's heroin supply. A road trip through this countryside explains why it has always been so difficult to enforce anything here: Shan is the largest state in Myanmar - about twice the size of Sri Lanka - and the land here is range upon range of rolling green hills and vast valleys, with only a few paved roads.
The bus had once been air-conditioned, but now passengers have to make do with open windows and a table fan. It moved at a stately trundle, which was a good thing; on those hill roads you do not need an impatient driver in an old bus. During the 114km and five-hour-long journey, a TV screen played a Chinese kungfu film - three times over.
It was pleasant though. Unlike the quick shifts of air travel, a train or bus journey allows the traveller to sink slowly into the new experience. The winding road north is designated Asian Highway 2, but there is little traffic except for the odd car and motorbikes and the few trucks and buses carefully groaning uphill or trundling downhill on the brakes. Kengtung is at the eastern corner of Shan state, so far from central Myanmar that most essential supplies come from China or Thailand.
Morning in Kengtung begins with the cries of occasional street vendors, and the best place to have breakfast is a sidewalk tea or noodle stall - or the sprawling central market which is open every day except on full-moon days from about 7am to noon. Try the sweet Burmese-Indian tea and the Shan noodle soup, which is a staple in Kengtung.
The market is a dense hive of activity, offering a welter of freshly cooked and raw food, vegetables, grains, meat, fish, fruit, dry spices, pots and pans, hardware, sewing and tailoring services and money changers. None of it is set up for tourists; unlike in some parts of northern Thailand, where tribal people dress up in their traditional costumes for tourists, here they dress as they do normally.
The market offers a diversity of faces and costumes of the Akha, Aeng, Lahu, Akhu and Palaung people, to name just a few.
Most still live subsistence lives, but their cultures offer lessons in sustainable living that are lost when they move to cities. I visited one Aeng village an hour's drive and then an hour's trek into the hills outside Kengtung, in the Pin Tauk area. Here, the older women customarily have blackened teeth and chew betel and tobacco virtually all day; their teeth have become part of their identity. An old woman giggled when I took her photograph, exposing almost bare gums. "See? I am so young I don't even have teeth yet," she joked in her tribal language, translated by my guide.
The village has an elaborate split-bamboo waterchannelling system that runs downhill and distributes water neatly to every house around the clock. Huts are made of bamboo, palm and thatch, and there is no electricity.
The tribe members have only recently become used to seeing foreigners; a handwritten note on a piece of paper outside the shaman's hut admonishes tourists not to bang the huge drum hanging inside. Their culture is animist, unlike others tribes, in which many have converted to Christianity. The women have started selling a few handicrafts - mostly hand-woven skirts, beaten metal bangles made out of pots and pans, and decorative bracelets.
They were happy to allow me to sit with them for an hour and also explore the village; in return, I bought a few bracelets for about a dollar each - though at no point did I feel obliged to buy.
Historically, the city of Kengtung has been a crossroads on the trade route from Chiang Mai in Thailand to southern China. Political control changed hands several times; China invaded in 1765 only to be pushed back by the Myanmar people. Thailand, then called Siam, first invaded the area in 1804.
In the colonial period, Kengtung was one of the furthest eastern outposts of the British empire in India and Myanmar; about a century ago, the British had a garrison there comprising Gurkhas, Sikhs and Punjabi Mussalmans.
I found a 100-year-old Sikh temple or Gurdwara there, in a dilapidated wooden house with a sagging ceiling and walls cracked from earthquakes, occupied by the last Sikh family in Kengtung. There stands the Kanyin Phyu tree as well, a truly gigantic dipterocarp over 65m tall, apparently planted by Myanmar king Alaungpya in the 18th century high on a hill in the city where it still stands today.
Kengtung remains relatively underdeveloped. A handful of small hotels offer reasonable value as well as Wi-Fi - though the Internet in Myanmar is still notoriously sporadic. Also, there are often long power cuts in the town, so it is advisable to have a torch with you if you go out for dinner; the streets are usually pitch black.
The ashes of some members of the Shan kings, or Sawbwa, are interred in a small cemetery a short walk from a stone gate, the last of 12 that once encircled the Walled City of Tung, as the name of the city implies. I was lucky to meet an old retainer there, complete with samurai sword, who faithfully tends the grass and flowers around the site and showed me the graves.
Nearby are a couple of big old mansions which were once owned by descendants of the Shan royals but are now in a state of disrepair. The Shan royal family's palace was destroyed by Myanmar's army in 1991; on the site sits the Kyaing Tong new hotel, a sprawling mid-1996 era property. The manager led me on a tour, but I could not shake off thoughts of the old palace that stood there until recently. The Shan people saw its destruction as a cultural atrocity, committed to demonstrate the power of the people of Yangon. I had a local guide - absolutely essential to find one's way around, and not least also because one needs to know the ropes in terms of reporting to the authorities on arrival and departure. I also hired a car; there is no public transport in Kengtung barring a few motorbike taxis.
One morning, we drove up to the Ko Yin Lay monastery, where I arrived just as the novice monks were arranging lunch. A small novice, perhaps around age seven or eight, could barely lift the large mallet to strike the enormous, heavy bell-shaped gong to announce the meal.
I sat in the temple with the Sayadaw, or Abbot, who is in his late 40s. A smiling, open man, whom thousands - including the Crown Princess of Thailand - have come to see and continue to every year, offered me tea. As we spoke, I searched for some profound insight from him.
And when it came, it was simple.
"Everybody is welcome here," he said with a smile. "It doesn't matter what religion or belief. All are welcome."
Trip to Kengtung
Fly to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand (several flights a day from Bangkok) and take a taxi costing 800 baht ($30) to the Thai border town of Mae Sai.
You have to walk across the border through the immigration checkpoint, where you must show your passport and visa, if you need one, into the town of Tachileik.
There, you can take a pickup truck, pre-arranged through a travel agent at the border itself, or a tuk tuk for a couple of hundred baht to the pickup point of the bus company you have chosen to use. This is best booked through an agent.
The bus journey to Kengtung takes five hours and will cost you 10,000 kyat (S$13).
If you hire a car, it will take you about three hours and cost you from US$100 to US$150 (S$125 S$185), depending on the deal you make.
If you want to go by bus and do everything by yourself, the one I used was the Shwe Myo Taw Express (tel: +95-84-2315 or +95-84-23149).
Another way is to fly to Kengtung from Yangon. There are daily flights, but just one or two each day, and by different airlines.
The return airfare ranges from about US$160 to US$200. Some flights are direct, while some involve hopping routes with a total flight time of just more than two hours.
It is best to book through an agent who will know the latest schedules because the schedules can change without warning.
Where to stay
I stayed at the Sam Ywet Hotel, in the downtown branch, which is recommended for its location - not the branch near the airport (21 Kyaing Lan, near Central Market, tel: +95 84 21235). The name is pronounced "Saam Yot".
Room rates vary according to season, but during the monsoon, which is the low season, my room cost US$40 a night with breakfast, which was not much more than a cup of instant coffee and a fried egg (see main story about eating breakfast at the Central Market, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel).
Rooms are basic but spotlessly clean, with an air-conditioner, cable TV (showing mostly Thai, Myanmar and Chinese channels) and hot water. Like most hotels, Sam Ywet has a generator to handle the long hours of power cuts. There is Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, but the signal is strongest in the ground floor lobby.
The Princess Hotel (21 Zaydankalay Road, tel: +95-84-21319 or +95-84-22159), a short walk away, also well-located just five minutes from the Central Market, offers a more oldfashioned, homely feel with cosier air-conditioned rooms. A deluxe superior room with a TV, small fridge and Wi-Fi goes for US$60 with breakfast.
The New Kyaing Tong Hotel (tel: +95-84-21620 or +95-84-21621) is the biggest in the city, with 108 rooms. It is so big it does not need a street address.
The hotel is somewhat confusingly called Kyaing Tong New Hotel on the signboard at the entrance. Upper floors of the hotel offer views of the lake that is the centrepiece of the city. The hotel, now closed for renovations but opening in a month or two, is sprawling, with a large restaurant area and wooded lawns. Every room has a balcony.
Deluxe rooms for US$65 have a fridge, electric kettle and a small TV. They will soon have Wi-Fi. There is a Thai spa and a swimming pool, which I was told will be open by November. The suites at US$72 are a steal compared with what you get in Yangon, where a standard business hotel room nowadays costs well over US$200 and sometimes as much as US$400.
If you are on a shoestring budget, head for Harry's Trekking House (132 Mai Yang Road, Kanaburoy Village, tel: +95-84-21418), where you can get small basic rooms with no air-con for between US$10 and US$25.
Where to eat
For starters, there is nothing approaching fine dining in Kengtung until the New Kyaing Tong Hotel reopens. This should be by October. Restaurants are all rudimentary.
The Central Market, open from about 7.30am to noon, offers the best alternative to unexciting hotel breakfasts. A bowl of steaming hot Shan noodle soup will cost you 1,000 kyat, while a cup of tea will cost you 400 kyat.
I spent a lot of time at the tea shop called Happy Cafe in Si Dan Street, right opposite the old Sikh temple and a 200m walk up the road from the Sam Ywet and Princess hotels.
Do not expect anything like a modern urban cafe; the tables are low and stained and the chairs are tiny and plastic. This is a typical Myanmar tea shop on the ground floor of an old house. A small cup of sweet milky tea costs 400 kyat and its trademark upside-down custard costs the same. Best of all, it has fast and reliable Wi-Fi. But it is not open for dinner.
On my first evening, I ate at the Golden Banyan restaurant (tel: +95-84-2142), just 50m from the last old stone gateway (Kyaing Tong used to have 12 in mediaeval times). The food was tasty but not cheap - a dish of chicken with pineapple cost 3,500 kyat and fried eggplant went for 2,000 Kyat. On the plus side, the servings were large. This restaurant is a very short walk from the Sam Ywet and Princess hotels.
Likewise a short walk from the hotels - and literally a stone's throw from the Golden Banyan, is the Lod Htin Lu restaurant (tel: +95-84-21342), where a meal of sauteed kailan and mustard leaf with chicken and a pork and green pepper dish with rice will set you back by 4,500 kyat.
For a good Burmese meal, typically served out of big pots, buffet-style, try Aung Nai restaurant.
Nobody could tell me the name of the street, but it is off Tachileik Road. Stand outside the main entrance to the Central Market, look for the Bright Time gas station and turn left into the lane after it. A meal for three consisting of rice and two to three different kinds of curries and salads cost 10,000 kyat.
Travelling in and around Kengtung
The city is a small one and you can walk to most places. There is no public transport except for some motorbike taxis that hang around the Central Market area and charge tourists rates of 4,000 to 5,000 kyat for a distance of 4 to 5km.
Your best bet is to hire a car, and you must also have a guide partly because it is mandatory to hire one. A guide is very useful not just in terms of the history of the place and knowing where to go and being able to communicate, but also in terms of the rules and regulations which you must follow.
Car hire will cost anything from US$50 to US$100 a day depending on the distance travelled.
A guide will cost you a minimum of US$40 a day and this rate goes up in winter. My guide Francis (+95-9-49032678, e-mail Sai.Francis2012@gmail.com) is already booked for most of this winter.
Trekking in the surrounding hills is the nicest part of visiting Kengtung valley. Treks can be tailored to suit anyone, lasting from casual one- to two-hour walks in the hills to two to three days of camping out. You can even trek all the way to the China border at Mong La if you have a few days and are hardy enough to camp out all the way. Most travel agencies and guides will be able to arrange treks for you.
Bearing in mind that e-mail and phone services can be patchy in Myanmar and more so in Kengtung, it helps to use the one-stop service of a proper licensed travel agency in the country.
I used Authentic Myanmar Travel and Tours (3A, No. 54 YeGyaw Road, Pazundaung Township, 11171 Yangon, Myanmar, tel : + 95-1-86-10508, www.authentiquemyanmar.com or facebook.com/authenticmyanmar) and had no complaints; in fact, it called while I was there to check how I was doing.
A small torch, mosquito repellent, sunscreen and an umbrella.
This article was first published on July 20, 2014.
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