Kengtung, Keng Tung, Kyaingtong, Kyaing Tong, Chiang Tung: same place, different spellings and pronunciations. The first is what the locals call it as many speak a Shan language (and also the Myanmar language spoken around the country). Kyaingtong, according to at least one local resident, is the official name given by the government and the first two letters make a j-like sound. Whether there should be a space between the two syllables is debatable. The Ch- spelling I saw once or twice around town but forgot to ask about. For ease in this blog post and without expressing any opinion as to which is the “right” name, I’m going to call it Kyaingtong.
In our first blog post about Myanmar, I mentioned that ‘getting off the beaten path’ in this country was highly recommended. Much to my surprise, my parents were on board with this – at least for a few days. According to our excellent guide, fewer than 2,000 “Western” tourists (mostly European but a few Americans, Canadians, Australians) visited Kyaingtong in 2013 although thousands more Thais crossed the border and made the trip. During our two and a half days there, we encountered other Westerners three times: once during our day of hill-trekking, once in a restaurant where it seemed all the Westerners go for dinner, and passingly at breakfast in our hotel. August is low season for tourists in Myanmar so the fact that we saw as many Westerners as we did actually surprised me.
Border Crossing Mae Sai – Tachileik
Flights to Kyaingtong are available from various points in Myanmar, often passing through Mandalay. But our time in the country started with crossing the border between Mae Sai, Thailand and Tachileik, Myanmar. My parents worked with a travel agency in the U.S. to set up most of their time in SE Asia so a driver picked us up in Chiang Rai and drove us to the border in Mae Sai. Once our Kyaingtong guide was spotted amidst the many offices on the Myanmar side of the bridge, we were turned over to him for the complicated process of entering Myanmar.
Leaving Thailand is easy: walk through immigration, provide your passport to the officer who checks you haven’t overstayed your visa, get your exit stamp, walk onto the bridge between the two nations. Entering Myanmar isn’t so simple. There are multiple offices and if we hadn’t been met by a guide, we would have gone from one office to the next trying to figure out which one we needed. We each had visas but some people come here for a one-day entry pass to go shopping at the border market (full of knock-off goods), gambling in a casino (not legal in Thailand), or simply a visa run. So while the initial immigration process was fairly straightforward for us, we did have to wait for the appropriate road permit. The Myanmar government has been known to forbid foreigners from overland travel in certain regions completely or unless accompanied by a licensed guide and permit. The route between Tachileik and Kyaingtong either fell or still falls into this category. Information is a bit vague but given our experience, I’d say some sort of permit is still necessary. Our guide, Freddie, took care of the permit but it took nearly an hour during which time we roamed the market.
Permit paperwork complete, we hopped in the van for a ride into Tachileik where we exchanged some USD for Myanmar Kyat and used the international ATM there.
A beautiful ride from Tachileik to Kyaingtong
Jen and I have seen some stunning vistas on this trip including plenty of SE Asian rainforest and rice fields. And while I often find myself smiling stupidly at the view outside my window from buses, trains, boats, and cars, this was a ride that reminded me how incredibly lucky we were to see it. Mountains, valleys, rivers, rainforest, rustic bamboo huts, rice fields, water buffalo, wild boars, goats, tea fields, rows of corn, and long stretches without seeing another vehicle. The day was overcast and rainy and photos taken out of a van window simply don’t do justice to the lush scenery we passed. With no billboards, no litter, no electrical wires or poles, few signs of inhabitation let alone industrialization, this was natural beauty cultivated in the most organic way. It felt as though we’d stepped back in time to a world I never knew. I’m certain this won’t last and am so grateful to my parents for organizing this journey.
Along the way, Freddie hopped out a few times, sometimes with our passports and sometimes without, to show the permit and his credentials to government officials but each time we sat in the van. We took a lunch break at a restaurant where the Myanmar buses stop but I suspect there’s another restaurant en route where the Thai tour buses disgorge their passengers. The trip took more than four hours and although some stretches of road were somewhat recently paved, others clearly hadn’t been worked on for years. A bumpy ride at times but as far as I’m concerned, that only added to the experience (yes, I know I’m nuts).
Population estimates in Myanmar are notoriously rough and although the country just conducted its first census in over 30 years, finding the preliminary results is proving beyond my internet skills at the moment and even if I could, it’s not clear to me how reliable the results are. I’ve seen population estimates for this area ranging from 20,000 to 200,000 and with the many hill tribes surrounding town, the confusion is no surprise. Regardless the number, the city is small and for the most part, easy to walk around.
Only a handful of hotels are licensed to accommodate foreign travelers and booking in advance from outside of the country is challenging. We were all booked into the New Kyaing Tong Hotel a/k/a the Kyaing Tong New Hotel. Allegedly the best in town, it’s perfectly functional but that’s about all I can say. That and the staff is really friendly and very helpful.
The highlight of Kyaingtong – the town itself, that is – is the market. Similar to other markets in SE Asia, there are vendors selling fruit, vegetables, meat, clothing, bags, baskets, shoes, scarves, etc. But in Kyaingtong, there are also vendors selling the parts necessary to make a rifle. Apparently, it’s illegal to buy, sell, or own firearms in Myanmar with one exception: a homemade single-shot hunting rifle is permissible. Blacksmiths make the barrels and at markets, locals can buy varying size and length barrels, different sizes of shot, components of gunpowder (saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur), and some of the other parts necessary for producing a working rifle. Certainly not something one sees every day! This is a local market that doesn’t get many tourists and with Freddie to answer our questions and locals being friendly but not pushy, it was one of my favorites thus far.
The main reason to visit Kyaingtong is the hill tribes. Over two days, we visited Lahu, Akha, Eng (Ann), and Palaung peoples, each willing to talk with us and let us into their homes. Freddie, amazing guide that he is, can speak multiple languages and is constantly learning more. He could converse with each of the tribes we visited and has a true passion for understanding the different cultures.
I could write an entire blog post about the tribes but I’d still be short-changing them. Instead I’ll say this: visiting hill tribes with a guide like Freddie is well worth the schlep to Kyaingtong. Seeing the way people live – as they have for generations – and hearing stories about how they handle conflict, polygamy, the birth of twins, Catholic missionaries, why they wear certain attire, how teenagers are provided with sex ed, and so much more is enlightening, to say the least.
Rice Whisky & Shan Paper
Jen and I have tried rice whisky all over SE Asia and seen the making in Vietnam and now, Myanmar. Freddie took us to one maker just outside of Kyaingtong set up on the banks of a small river with ample shady areas for allowing rice to ferment in plastic bags. The process was simple and the product strong. As is typical here, the finished product is sold in markets by allowing customers to fill pre-used plastic water and soda bottles. Readers who know my father can imagine how much he enjoyed our visit here.
And for those who know my mother, you can just as easily imagine how much she liked our visit to a traditional Shan paper-maker in the village of Wan Lang. This incredible woman beats the pulp of boiled mulberry tree lightened by chestnut wood ash, then uses a traditional process to convert a little ball of pulp to a sheet of fine paper. When the sun is strong, a sheet is further bleached, commanding a higher price. Few women in the area still make the paper but it’s used for various Buddhist texts, lanterns, wrapping paper (often with leaves and flower petals pressed into the pulp), decorative book covers, and so on. On a good day with strong sunlight, the woman we met can make 70-100 sheets of paper working out to $14-20/day. As with rice paper in Cambodia, this is hard work, poorly rewarded.
August is rainy season in Myanmar and our time in Kyaingtong was wet but wonderful. If you’re planning a trip there – and if you’re going to Myanmar, you should try to get there – we highly recommend contacting Freddie at email@example.com or by phone +95-9-49031934, 09-254171953.
Any questions, ask away in the comments!