Myanmar has some 135 distinct ethnic groups. We travelled to the far eastern Shan State to meet with several of the friendly hill tribes. Trekking past the green rice terraces up to the remote villages is a pleasant challenge, only to be rewarded with some of the greatest hospitality on this planet. Base yourself in the peaceful town of Kyaingtong, neatly arranged around Naung Tung Lake, and from here take day trips in all directions!
While Myanmar is not considered to be one of the most ethnic and culturally diverse countries in the world, it certainly offers some of the most approachable and friendliest people on our planet!
With no less than 135 distinct ethnic groups officially recognised by the local government, the Bamar people account for almost 70% of the total population. Second in population numbers are the Shan people, followed by the Kayin, Rakhine, Chinese, Mon, Kachin and several smaller groups such as the Wa, Lahu, and Palaung.
Shan State, located in the central far eastern part of the country, is the largest administrative region of Myanmar. Covering an area of almost 156,000 square kilometres, this state shares international borders with China to the north, Laos to the east, and Thailand to the south. With an estimated population of almost 6 million people, it is the fourth most populated region after the Yangon Region, the Ayeyarwady Region, and the Mandalay Region.
What truly sets Shan State apart from the rest, is the historic cultural influence from its neighbours, particularly China and Thailand.
The Shan people, who dominate this state culturally and economically, arrived in this area along with the Mongols when the Pagan Kingdom (the first Burmese empire: 849 to 1287) fell to the Mongols in the 13th century. The Mongol invasion was launched after the last true ruler of Pagan, King Narathihapate (who reigned 1254 to 1287) refused to pay tribute to Kublai Khan, the “Great Khagan of the Mongol Empire”. The Mongols, under Kublai, delivered a crushing defeat at the “Battle of Ngasaunggyan” (1277), followed by the Battle of Bhamo (1283) and the Battle of Pagan (1287), which then brought an end to the Pagan Kingdom and the construction of the temples at their capital, Bagan.
Along with the victorious Mongols came the Shan people who made this part of the world their new home and quickly dominated much of the eastern and northern regions of Myanmar. They claimed much of the fertile lands and became powerful landlords, dominating all other ethnic groups.
At the time when the British took over Burma, which lasted from 1824 to 1948, there were 18 major Shan states ruled by royals, and 25 lesser states ruled by other officials. When the border lines with Thailand were drawn up, the eastern states became part of Thailand, while the central and western states paid tribute to British Burma.
After independence from Britain, the Shan people engaged in a military struggle to gain more autonomy from the Burmese-Myanmar government. However, by 1996 most groups had signed a peace treaty with the Yangon government, promising more autonomy to the various ethnic groups.
The ethnic minorities, such as the Wa, Palaung (Ta’ang), Akhu (Akhe), Akha, Lisu, Lahu, La (Ka-La), Loi (Ka Wo), Ann (Eng), Pa O, and others who mostly arrived from Tibet and China, were forced to mainly inhabit the green rolling hills around Shan State, hence becoming known as the “hill tribes”.
Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State, is located about 260 km to the south-southeast of Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city after Yangon.
Just over 400 km to the far eastern part of the state, lies Kyaingtong (also referred to as Kengtung or Keng Tung). Located east of the Salween River, at the crossroads of trade routes to neighbouring Thailand, Laos and China’s Yunnan province, it is the largest town in eastern Shan State and was once known as the capital of the “Golden Triangle”.
During British rule, it was an important British administrative outpost, as the leftover colonial buildings can attest.
Decades of an ethnic insurgency, a brutal military rule, and smuggler economies, have left much of the region impoverished and under-developed. The region is known for its trafficking of resources, people, drugs and endangered species. Mong La, at the Chinese border, is a shabby border town which has grown to become a key hub of trade in endangered animals and animal products. It is known as one of Southeast Asia’s largest open wildlife markets where rare animals, many of which are protected by international treaties, are sold to Chinese buyers.
Since the region opened to foreign tourism in 1993, it has become an appealing “off-the-beaten-track” destination among intrepid travellers who crave authentic experiences unaffected by western values. However, tourism remained insignificant prior to the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in the 2015 elections and her subsequent role of State Counsellor in April 2016. Since then, Myanmar has seen an increase in foreign tourism, though the Kyaingtong region still hosts an insignificant number of tourists. Mong La near the Chinese border and its surrounding areas remain off limits to foreigners as well as Myanmar citizens who don’t have a valid reason to visit.
One reason for the limited arrivals in Kyaingtong, is the rebel activities in the wider region. Foreigners are presently not allowed to travel overland to Kyaingtong from other major tourist hubs in Myanmar such as Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, or the state capital Taunggyi. However, the road leading from northern Thailand is currently open to tourists.
It is reported that fewer than 5,000 foreigners (most are Thai day-trippers) have ventured into Shan State from across the Friendship Bridge at Thailand’s most northern town of Mae Sai. Few visitors continue north to Kyaingtong.
Travel from within Myanmar can only be undertaken by a domestic flight, mainly limited to departures from Yangon, Heho, and Mandalay. In the rainy (or green) season, the number of flights is reduced.
THE PLEASANT CITY OF KYAINGTONG (KENGTUNG OR KENG TUNG)
The city of Kyaingtong – meaning “Walled City of Tung”, was founded during the migration period of the Chiang Mai dynasty (which became known as the Lanna Kingdom) in the 13th century. Other cities founded around the same time include Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, and Yunnan’s Jinghong city. Reminiscent of Chiang Mai, Kyaingtong city was once surrounded by a moat and earthen fortified wall with twelve imposing gates. Only one of these, the Pa Leng Gate, is still standing. Find it next to the local authorities’ Mother and Childcare Department and nearby Princess Hotel.
The Kyaingtong Palace was built by Sao Kawng Kiao Intaleng (the 40th Prince of Kyaingtong) between 1905 and 1906 after being inspired to build an imperial Indian-style palace during his trip to India. Built from huge teakwood logs, featuring minarets and intricately carved lacquered teak interiors, the palace was home of the Saophas (meaning “lord of the heavens” or “lord of the sky” hereditary rulers) of Kyaingtong, until they were driven out, exiled or arrested during a military coup in 1962.
Sadly, this beautiful historical palace was demolished by the Burmese army in 1991 and made way for the construction of the “Amazing Kengtong Resort” in 1996, owned by the Myanmar Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. The Yangon-based group, Amazing Holidays Hotels & Resorts, acquired a 70-year lease on the property in 2015. If the palace had not been demolished, this beautiful building would probably have been restored by now and could have been a major tourist attraction.
While Kyaingtong is a peaceful place nowadays, and hopefully for the foreseeable future, during its most recent history it was a volatile region affected by the now rather peaceful United Wa State Army (UWSA) to the northeast and the less peaceful Shan State Army (SSA) who are still active to the north and northwest of Kyaingtong. Clashes between the Tatmadaw (armed forces of Myanmar) and the SSA in late 2015 displaced thousands of Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Lahu people causing a new humanitarian crisis.
Kyaingtong is rather remote within Myanmar and not as Burmese as you may think. In fact, it is more Chinese and Thai and it is not what you may have seen or experienced in places like Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. Few local Shan women or even women of any of the hill tribes wear the usual de rigueur thanakha paste on their faces. You won’t see many men in their longyis anymore, and neither will you find the popular Burmese food restaurants which you may have grown to enjoy in the big cities.
If you can detect the differences in spoken language, you will also realise that very few people speak Bamar, the Burmese language. The urban population and the villages are spread out across the fertile valleys. They mainly speak the eastern Shan dialect, which is quite similar to Thai. Kyaingtong is still an important administrative town for the Myanmar government so you will come across some Bamar-speaking people employed by the government, such as the police, military, and their families.
Situated in the centre of a wide valley, the picturesque town with some 170,000 inhabitants is surrounded by three main hills with a rectangular teardrop-shaped Naung Tung Lake at the centre. A beautiful location indeed. It is a pleasant town to walk through and to mix with the friendly locals at the many eateries around town, particularly those around the lake’s shore.
There is little sign of new construction around town even though it is increasingly benefiting from cross-trades with China and Thailand.
A few colonial houses can be seen around the lake and old teak houses line the winding streets around the stupas at the top of the hill. Still standing outside the northern corner walls of the hotel is a beautiful, albeit dilapidated, colonial house. During the administration of the Kyaingtong princes or “Saohpas”, this house was called “Haw Hong” (Northern Palace). Apparently, the owner left this house for his caretaker to maintain, and here the story ends… According to a local guide, they are not allowed to say anything about this house.
Near the Amazing Kengtong Resort, look out for the Maha Myat Muni pagoda, known in Shan and Thai as Wat Phra Jao Lung, which is home to a replica of the revered Mandalay statue.
Constructed during the 13th century, the intrinsic Wat Jom Kham (or Zom Kham) and its adjacent Watin Monastery, are believed to enshrine six hairs of the Buddha, left behind after he prophesied the city’s establishment.
High on a hill overlooking the city, stands the 20-metre high military-built Buddha statue pointing across the town. The statue is lit up at night and can be seen from afar.
Also towering over the city at One Tree Hill is a solitary 264-year old tree (named Thit Ta Bin Taung in Burmese or Kanyin Phyu in Shan) which reaches 66 metres high, with an upper girth of 11m and lower girth of 12m.
At dusk, a popular retreat for the locals is one of the many restaurants and small eateries and drinking spots dotted around the centrally located Lake Naung Tong. The BBQ joints serving Myanmar Beer with ice cubes are particularly popular, complete with their short-legged tables and baby chairs. You will feel as if you are sitting in a doll-house!
In the mornings before heading out to the hill tribes, drop by the bustling Central Market which is the commercial centre of town. Here you can find dried frogs and several types of dried worms, as well as live larvae of the vespa auraria hornet, still encased in their paper nest compartments and seemingly moving in tandem with the rhythm of the market. Stop by at one of the many small eateries inside the market to taste the famous spicy Shan noodle soup as well as the pork ball noodle soup.
The Central Market sells anything you can imagine. Pick up a new hat, raincoat, shoes, and other clothing at bargain low prices. Stock up on fruits, dried fish, and other snacks. Don’t forget some medicines (such a pain relievers and “tiger balm” cream) for the tribes and healthy snacks for the kids. They certainly will highly appreciate every bit you will bring their way. Avoid any over-packaged goods to limit the amount of garbage created in the villages. Bring back all packaging materials you take into the village and dispose of it in the town’s garbage bins.
At the market look out for the colourful hill-tribe women who come here to trade their produce. Money chargers sit around at the small tables and happily accept Thai baht, Chinese Yuan, and US dollars. Other major currencies may be accepted too.
RELATED LINKS: READ ABOUT THE HILL TRIBES
Globerovers Magazine acknowledges with great appreciation the sponsorship of our visit to Myanmar’s Shan State by Pro Niti Travel, based in Yangon, Myanmar. Trust these professionals to create unforgettable travel memories for you! Contact them at email@example.com.