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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 meet, 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. Travellers will notice here the lack of longyi and thanaka bark paste, ubiquitous throughout 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 – Sir 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.’
Kyaing Tong was once the capital of a Tai Khun Kingdom, an ethnicity of Shan distinct from the Tai Lu and Tai Nuea people who make up the majority of Myanmar’s Shan population. 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 upon which young couples disappear 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, Sampan recommends 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 …
Officially referred to as “Special Region 4”, Mong La is an autonomous region of Myanmar in the Golden Triangle. The town runs on Chinese time, the principal currency is the Yuan, and when visiting you will see and hear more Mandarin than Shan or Burmese.
The centre was once a hub of casinos filled with Chinese letting off steam but in 2003 the People’s Liberation Army stormed the city and shut them down. Unabated, Mong La’s government began constructing new casinos towards the border of Myanmar proper.
Nonetheless, much of the spice of Myanmar’s Wild Wild East was extinguished. The dancing elephants perform for only a score of punters each week and the flamboyant gay disco overlooking the magnificent Nong Nain Lake, once the gyrating hub of the town’s nightlife, shut down when the influx from the East dwindled to a trickle due to the strengthened Chinese border.
Nonetheless, there is still much of interest. At the market, alongside fresh fruit and veg one finds monkeys, hawks, and plucked porcupines in cramped, miserable cages; locals sit down to heated games of Ma Jiang and the outer rings of the market is made up of brothels and massage parlors.
The Golden Triangle, where Myanmar’s border meets that of China, Thailand and Laos, is known to be a hive of illegal activities including smuggling and opium cultivation. This is more the case in Mong La, Myanmar’s Sin City, than anywhere else, however there are still non-illicit activities to take part in when in the region. Abstaining visitors to Mong La can be seen walking down to the ‘Border Stone’ and have their picture taken with one foot in Myanmar and the other in China.
On a hill overlooking the town, the Wat Dwaynagara displays reconstructions of the great holy sites in Myanmar such as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay’s Mahamuni; locations indefinitely cut off to the majority of Mong La’s population. Outside on the terrace, bare-shouldered girls in short dresses burn incense while little novices wearing snapback caps mess around with their laundry and use empty bottles of Tsingtao beer as football goal posts.
It is no longer permitted for tourists to travel to Mong La from Myanmar. If and when the border opens once more, travellers to Mong La should be aware that foreign dollars spent here can inadvertently prop up an unseemly and exploitative economy.
Myanmar’s northwest, one of the country’s least developed and least explored regions.
Where the country meets Thailand and Laos, remote tribes and Myanmar’s ‘Wild Wild East’.