Until recently the far eastern districts of Myanmar close to the Thai, Lao and Chinese borders were considered the wild east of Myanmar, with army and drug lords fighting each other on a regular basis. In recent years the region around Kengtung (or Kyaingtong) has become a hub for adventurous travelers who want to visit hill tribes that have not yet been affected by mass tourism like in neighboring Thailand.
Eastern Myanmar has mostly the same tribes, but the experience is completely different. For 3,5 days we visited several Akha villages and villages of Akhu, Ann, Lahu Shi and Palaung (all with people wearing traditional costume) as well as Shan and Lahu villages where people don’t really wear traditional costume anymore (safe for festive occasions). Regretfully it was not allowed to spend the night in the villages, so we had to return to Kengting each night.
Flying bus service
That we were going to a less visited destination in Myanmar got clear as we boarded our Air Bagan flight form Heho Airport (Inle Lake) to Kengtung. While the airport was swarming with western (group) tourists we were the only white faces that got moving when our flight was announced through the megaphone. Once on the plane we noticed just one more white face. This made us very happy.
Airlines in Myanmar conduct some kind of a bus service, making their rounds and stopping at different airports. Our Air Bagan loop had six stops, ours being the second stop. At the first stop the pilot apparently remembered he’d left Heho Airport 15 minutes early (everybody was on board, so let’s go) and asked all passengers to leave the aircraft for a while. Still he managed to get to Kengtung too early.
A miserable start
After checking in to our hotel we decided to explore the city in the afternoon. After just an hour however, bad luck struck. Actually it was not bad luck, but sheer stupidity. I forgot the cardinal rule of walking in less developed cities: always look down to where you’re walking. Searching for a pagoda (hadn’t we already seen enough of those) while walking along the lake in the middle of the city I managed to step into a 30-40 cm deep concrete draining ditch in the ‘promenade’.
Eugénie’s first reaction – as she heard the camera hit the ground – was to look if the camera got damaged. The camera was OK, the real damage was on me: one badly scraped shin, a half torn off toenail (and some skin missing) on one big toe, two bruised knees and some minor bruises and scrapes around both ankles and feet. A bit inconvenient if you’re planning on trekking to hill tribes the next 3,5 days.
Super helpful hotel owner
We decided to call the owner of our hotel (an accomplishment in itself as he spoke no English), who then went out of his way to help us go to a local clinic to have my wounds cleaned and bandaged. He also paid the doctors’ fee including the extra bandages, a bottle of Betadine and antibiotics we were provided (total costs 5,50 USD).
After I was up and running again (I’d be wearing open sandals instead of hiking shoes the next days, however) our friendly hotel owner insisted on taking us in his van for two hours of sightseeing around town. Afterwards he vehemently refused all my efforts to compensate him for all his help. Apparently he felt a lot of responsibility for his first western guests since he’d opened his hotel a few months earlier.
The guide makes the difference
When our guide Sai Sam Tip met us the next morning he was shocked at the looks of my legs, but I assured him all was OK. My bruised and battered appearance – my right shin looking particularly gruesome thanks to generous helpings of Betadine – proved to be some kind of icebreaker with the local tribes, people wondering what had happened to the giant white foreigner.
For the rest we mostly depended on our guide Sam, who we found through recommendations on Tripadvisor. He was a bit more expensive than other guides we contacted and although we can’t comment on other guides we had the feeling that the quality of the visits with him were higher and that he really made a difference. He knows a lot of people in the villages (especially Akha, Akhu, Ann and Lahu Shi) and speaks some of the languages.
Visiting people’s homes
On the rare occasions we saw other visitors we noticed that they passed the villages without really staying for a little bit longer or lingered away from the villagers. Instead of rushing through on arduous mountain walks, Sam kept walking to a minimum, with a lot of quality time spent with the villagers, people welcoming us into their homes with tea, sunflower seeds and bananas (and even deer meat one time), while Sam chatted with them and explained about their daily lives.
Lunches were also taken at local homes with food Sam had bought during our daily morning visits to the Kengtung market, one of the more interesting markets to visit in Myanmar. Even if you don’t have the chance to venture out to the surrounding hills you have the opportunity here to see some hill tribe people in traditional dress.
Sam’s constant asking for donations and hints to buy things for/from villagers was at times a little annoying though. On the other hand, presents brought and small souvenirs bought from villagers generated so much gratitude (while for us it’s just not that much money), that you tend to forget about it. Some villages were truly poor.
Impromptu lottery with the Lahu Shi
Especially a visit to a very poor Lahu Shi village on full moon day, when Sam donated cloth to make clothes from, was memorable. An impromptu lottery was organized with care products and cookies we’d bought at Kengtung market and some toys we brought from Holland. It was a lot of fun for both the villagers and us, especially as the men kept winning the toys, what everybody thought was hilarious.
The village was located high up on a 1.600 meter high mountain and would have made for a long and hard 2,5-3 hour trek if Sam had not arranged for village youths to pick us up with motorbikes so we didn’t have to walk. His excuse was that we had large amounts of cloth with us, but we’d already noticed he didn’t like long hikes too much. Going up and down the steep hills along well-used, bumpy narrow mountain paths and deep drops on the back of a motorcycle proved to be an adventure in itself.
Black teeth beauties and pipe smoking grannies
What struck us were the big differences in prosperity (if you can call it that) between the tribes, even when their villages were located next to each other. Like the Lahu Shi, the Ann and the Akhu were markedly poorer than the other tribes we visited. For the striking Ann the ideal of female beauty is black teeth. Women therefore blacken their teeth by rubbing charcoal on them every two weeks. This also has a practical benefit: It protects the teeth from decaying.
At the Akhu village we visited we got ‘raided’ by eight very persistent, but also very sweet pipe smoking necklace selling grandmas. The necklaces didn’t amount to much, but we made a deal with them that we would buy a necklace for 1 USD from each of them if they would let us take some pictures. It was considered a great deal. Afterwards one after the other came over to thank us with one murmured ‘thank you’. So sweet!
The real deal
Looking back, visiting the hill tribes probably was our highlight of Myanmar (but there were many). We didn’t spot many other tourists. In fact, visiting the Akhu and Lahu Shi villages we saw no other tourists at all. It’s one of the big plusses of visiting the hill tribes around Kengtung. Unlike neighboring Thailand, where hill tribe villages sometimes feel like living history museums, hill tribe villages here are not much visited yet and more authentic and therefore have very limited tourist infrastructure including souvenirs stalls (oh joy).
But as almost everywhere else in the world, young people stop wearing traditional clothes here as well. So if you want to see the real – and mostly still un-touristy – deal, get here quickly if you can. Expenses can be a barrier: flights to get to Kengtung from elsewhere in Myanmar and hiring a guide and transport can add up.
We visited Kengtung in December 2014
Travel tips Kengtung
Stay – We spent 4 nights at Hotel Khema Rattha, that had only opened its doors a few months before our stay. And this showed, with everything being brand new and clean, from bedding to bathroom (with a big bathtub!). Room was very spacious and had a flat screen TV with a wide array of channels ranging from Holland (!) to Ethiopia and Somalia(!??), the bed was huge and comfy. We cannot stress how kind the hotel owner was and how hard the staff tried to make our stay as pleasurable as possible. Most were new to the tourist industry and only one staff member spoke some English, but they were clearly proud and eager to learn.
Breakfast started simple with fried rice, but in de following days it got fancier every day with enough food to feed 4 instead of 2 people. The only drawback was the hotel’s location about a half hour’s walk from the city center. This is inconvenient in a city with not too many taxi’s around and no possibility to dine at the hotel at the time (a suitable cook hadn’t been found yet).
Eat – Options for eating out are limited but we had cheap, tasty and very filling meals at both the Golden Banyan Restaurant as well as the Lod Htin Lu Restaurant. Both serve mostly Chinese style food adapted to Myanmar taste (less spicy).
Transport – When we visited it was not possible for foreign visitors to travel overland to Kengtung from other destinations in Myanmar without special permission. Flying was the only option, several airlines offering connections to Kengtung. We flew Air Bagan from Inle Lake to get in and Air KBZ to Yangon to get out. Both were fine. Kengtung can be visited from Thailand by road through the border crossing at Mae Sai as well.
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