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Kyaing Tong

Kyaing Tong in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State is nestled in a sprawling valley surrounded by undulating hills and mountains carpeted in paddy fields and tea plantations. It is situated at the heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ where the borders of Myanmar, China, Laos and Thailand conjugate, leading to it being awash with the fare and cultural influences of Myanmar’s eastern neighbours. Distant from the Bamar heartland, Kyaing Tong feels culturally separate. For instance, travellers through the country will notice here the lack of longyi and thanaka bark paste, ubiqutious throughout much of the rest of Myanmar. 

The mountains surrounding Kyaing Tong (also known Kengtung) are home to a variety of ethnic groups such as the Wa, Eng, Akha, Akhu, Palaung and Lahu. One will be able to hear the dialect and view the ware of these ethnicities at the vibrant central market, and day-long hikes into the mountains offer the chance to visit the ethnic villages and interact with the inhabitants there. Knowledgeable guides can inform you of the history and mythology (often irrevocably entwined) of each ethnic group and if in a small group you may be invited into some of the houses for a beaker of rice whiskey, or in a Lahu village, a cup of their famous green tea.

Though in each village you will walk past wallowing buffalo and pigs rutting in the earth, and in each you will find wrinkled and smoking grandparents keeping just half an eye open over errant children, whether it be the painted black teeth of the Eng or the crooked pipes of the Akhu, each ethnicity is marked by their own idiosyncratic traits and customs, rendering Kyaing Tong trekking some of the most culturally rich to be made anywhere in Myanmar. Or, as the man credited to bringing the Shan principalities around to British rule George Scott wrote: ‘There is in this particular region a collection of races so diverse in feature, language and customs, as cannot, perhaps, be paralleled in any other part of the world.’

Photo: Brennan O'Connor


The Town Itself

Kyaing Tong was once the capital of a Tai Khun Kingdom, an ethnicity of Shan distinct from the Tai Lu and Tai Nuea Shan people who make up the majority of Myanmar's Shan State. Today a sleepy town, Kyaing Tong makes for a recuperative location to return to after a day in the mountains. The Naung Ton Lake at the centre of the town is looked down upon by a Standing Buddha on one hilltop, the 66 metre Lone Tree at another, and the pagoda of Wat Zom Khum on a third. It is a serene place for an evening amble and is circled by myriad beer stations, tea houses and restaurants. However, despite the scores of motorbikes racing young couples off into the darkness, for the visiting night owl there is little by the way of entertainment once the sun goes down.

During the day however there is plenty to occupy oneself with. The ‘Stadium’ in the centre of the town (perhaps a rather grandiose term for what is really just a football pitch with square stone stands on either side) is a hub of activity and excitement in the early evening. If back from a hike early, we would recommend picking up a bag of deep fried snacks from one of the side streets behind the pitch and settling down to take part in what appears to be Kyaing Tong’s favourite evening amusement. On most days around 4pm, football matches between local schools commence, attracting an assortment of fanatics ranging from fellow pupils, saffron-clad novices, families and the usual likely lads. When the final whistle is blown, before the teams have had a chance to line up either side of the ref and bow to an empty stage of delegates and match officials, scores of local urchins sporting all the colours of the English Premier League storm the pitch with their own balls, quickly setting down make-shift goal posts so to make the most of the fading light.

For more traditional culture vultures, we recommend a visit to both the Maha Myatmumi Pagoda in the style of the wat in Northern Thailand, and also the Shan Wat Zom Khum Monastery. Further afield, visitors can travel to the town of Tachilek on the Thai border, and on the Chinese border Myanmar’s very own Sin City, Mong La.

Read more about the varied people and culture of Myanmar here. If in the process of planning a trip to the country you can browse our selection of Suggested Journeys.